Dr Elham Naji, 27, is making house calls. Her job as President
of the regional branch of the Iraqi Red Crescent doesn’t
require it, but here in the poorest part of the country
this woman keeps a personal eye on things.
The aftermath of the Gulf war has brought disaster to embargoed
Iraq: a lack of food and widespread malnutrition, a shortage
of drugs and unchecked disease, hyperinflation and destitution.
Elham Naji pushes open the door of a crowded house in a
Nasiriyah alley. A cry of recognition emanates from the
dingy, ground-floor room as she enters. A bedridden woman
beams up at her.
Fatma, 32, is a mother of five, paralysed and confined
to bed for the past four years by a partial spinal obstruction.
She has no income, her husband has deserted her, and somehow
she must find 5,000 dinars (just over 9 US dollars) a month
to buy the cotton, gauze and ointment for her bed sores.
In a country where a nurse’s monthly salary is 1,000
dinars, it isn’t easy.
In the good times, when Iraq swelled its coffers with revenues
from the second biggest oil reserves in the world, an operation
might have helped her. Today, surgery is limited to emergencies,
due in part to an insufficient amount of anaesthetics.
Elham Naji has witnessed many such nightmares. No region
has been harder hit by the Gulf war than her native The’kar
province. Besides hunger there is thirst, due to a shortage
of clean water. In the deep south, a litre of water costs
five times more than a litre of Iraqi petrol.
She’s a charismatic figure in this depressed environment.
Until 1991, the Red Crescent had no branch in Nasiriyah.
She was its founding President, a veterinary surgeon turned
humanitarian, the first and still the only woman to hold
a top regional position.
Her sex is irrelevant, she says. Yet she’ll talk
willingly of other Iraqi women — of their vulnerability
in the present crisis, of widows, of single mothers, of
their concern for their families, of their strength. She
speaks also of her income-generation schemes for displaced
marsh Arab women and of her mother-and-child health
In Nasiriyah, she calls on the elderly widow of a fisherman,
a frail little lady who barely survives on drastically diminished
government food rations and a monthly Red Crescent food
distribution. As for the fish her husband once caught, she
can no longer afford it. Her monthly income is less than
one US dollar. A good fish costs two.
“Resistance to disease diminishes as a result of
little food,” says Dr Naji. Gastro-enteritis is rampant
due to unclean water, typhoid fever is increasing and respiratory
diseases are taking a heavy toll. Few medicines are available
to treat these illnesses.
The The’kar region has a population of almost one
and a quarter million, and of these, says Naji, a million
are destitute. Monthly she distributes 18 kilos of rice,
six kilos of lentils and three of oil to 1,000 families.
“We simply cannot help everyone,” she says.
“People cannot understand our limitations. For us
it is heart-breaking. We see these people getting more and
more desperate. They are most worried about their children.”
“The marshes,” says Dr Naji, “are in
tremendous need, and water-borne disease is causing high
infant mortality. For every 10 children who survive in the
city, only one survives in the
marshes. Almost 25,000 marsh children under the age of five
were treated for diarrhoea in the first five months of 1994.”
The war damaged water and sewage treatment plants, and
drought following land reclamation has deprived some parts
of The’kar of all drinkable water. What they get must
be brought in by tanker. One-third of the province’s
tankers are off the road for lack of spare parts, so the
Red Crescent has stepped in with a fleet of 37 tankers.
Dr Naji stands by a noxious roadside ditch which at one
time supplied villagers with water. She’s not thinking
of the scene surrounding her; she’s thinking of ways
to provide necessities. Food and clean water, she reflects,
are powerful preventive medicines. “With another 25
tankers, I could reach 50,000 more people.”