Ahmad Hassan – Iraqi Journalist
“This is how tens of thousands of families, in Muthanna and in the neighboring governorates, live in poverty and ignorance… their children are the protectors of the Sect in crises, and they constitute the depth of the Shiite presence….and in Elections, they are the loyal reservoir of votes. In return no one cares about them.”
Her muddy face seemed to be drowning in the darkness of the room lit by an oil lamp as she looked at her children falling asleep, while she was busy repeating her prayers, before she gets up and looks at a cupboard that seemed almost empty, except for a bag of flour, some rice and a bottle of oil that was almost empty, when her neighbors knocked on her door, so they go together to what has become a center for distributing food aid to thousands of poor people in the southern Muthanna Governorate.
For more than two months, on every Friday, Umm Abbas wakes up before dawn and walks few kilometers to reach the “Wall of the Beloved of God” in the city of Rumaitha, hoping to get some food aid, leaving her four children asleep in her mud house, which does not exceed 120 square meters in size, in a slums neighborhood in the Warka district, where the two families live.
The poverty rate in Al-Muthanna Governorate, which includes dozens of historical sites that witnessed the first human civilizations in Mesopotamia, is 53%, according to official statistics of the Ministry of Planning published last February, Al-Muthanna has maintained its leadership as the poorest governorate in the country for years. But those numbers have escalated recently due to the repercussions of the “Corona” Pandemic and the loss of jobs by thousands of people.
Death is a “Mercy and Concealment”
Just before Seven in the morning, Umm Abbas stood in a long queue of hundreds of women dressed in black, coming from different parts of Rumaitha, Al-Warka and Samawah, while another queue was formed of men at the food aid distribution point.
After a verbal quarrel that arose between women as a result of the stampede in the queue, Umm Abbas said, expressing her complaint: “I have Four orphans and I do not get a salary, nor I have a provider for my children. The food basket that we get here does not last for more than three days, while there are people in the queue who have social welfare salary and they share the aid with us.”
The 28-year-old widow who lost her husband after volunteering to fight ISIS, continues while trying to hide her face with her black cloak: “We no longer have the price for food, since my son Abbas (11 years old) and Reda (9 years old) stopped working in the Warka market because of Corona. Before that, they used to get 8,000 Iraqi dinars (about 6 US dollars) a day, half of which was enough to secure our food, and the rest we keep to buy medicines for my little boy (4 years) who suffers from severe shortness of breath and needs medicines to expand his lungs and sometimes he needs Oxygen. ”
“When my son’s conditions get worse, I have to take him to the General Hospital in Samawah,” she adds, as her neighbor drags her to urge her to move forward in the queue. She stopped talking for a while, looking at the window of a nearby building from which a child was looking, before she continued, “My son may die if we do not get him Oxygen quickly.”
Faten Muhammad, a widow in her twenties, who owns a shop for sewing women’s clothes, does not differ from Umm Abbas, even though she has a profession that generates some money. She has two children who depend on her, while her work has been affected by the new conditions in the country.
Faten, who was trying to avoid the crowds of women, covered her mouth with her headscarf, among women who were busy trying to manage food for their families more than thinking about “Corona” dangers.
She added, “My shop has been closed since the beginning of the social distancing measures… I live depending on the help of my family… In the past, my work provided me with enough money for my family’s daily needs, but now the situation has changed, as I work from home and clients are far less than before as a result of business disruption and the decline in the financial capacity of the families.”
Faten pointed out that people in Muthanna have been accustomed for decades to coexist with poverty, but conditions have worsened in recent months. “I know many people who do not have enough money to buy medicine, or even a kilogram of rice or beans… Some of them see death as a mercy and concealment.”
Two Widows of one man look for aid
Middle-income people are also suffering from poverty. Umm Jaber, a woman in her thirties, came from the city of Samawah (the governorate center) to get aid for her family of six members, after her husband stopped working as a taxi driver due to the frequent curfews imposed, inside cities and between governorates.
“We have never seen days like this before… For the first time, we are facing difficulty in providing the minimum for living, so like everyone else, I am waiting for the aid distribution teams … If a week passes without receiving a food basket, I call the volunteers to inquire about the date of distribution,” she said, as she sits on the ground while wiping the sweat pouring over her forehead…. “what we get is barely enough for two or three days”.
While Faten and Umm Jabbar were waiting for their turn, Umm Abbas, after a wave of violent stampede, got half a food basket that included a bag containing (beans, rice, oil, a can of tomato paste and half a carton of eggs).
The young man who was handing her the basket asked her to sign a paper to prove that she had received her share, before he realized that she did not know how to read, so she imprinted her left thumb on the signature field, then pulled herself strongly, due to the intensity of the crowds, away from the pickup car that was carrying the aid, and quickly put everything she got in her cloak, folded and wrapped it, except for the carton of eggs that she held in her right hand, before she sat on the ground waiting for her neighbors to receive their rations.
The poverty rate in the southern governorates, except for Basra, is the highest compared to the rest of the country. In Diwaniyah it reached 48%, in Dhi Qar 44% and in Maysan 45%, while in Muthanna the highest rate of poverty was recorded at 52%. The average poverty rate in Iraq in general reached 20% before the Corona crisis
A Fighter without Rights
In July 2017, during the war against ISIS in Kirkuk governorate, Umm Abbas lost her husband, who was a fighter in the “Martyr al-Sadr” forces and did not receive a pension because her husband was not officially included in the Popular Mobilization Forces.
She says, “I learned about that after his death… During his volunteering period, he was informally given a monthly salary of 450,000 Iraqi dinars… The staff of the Popular Mobilization Department advised me to go to the Social Welfare Department to get a salary from there. About a year ago I submitted the required documents, but I did not I receive a salary from them yet.”
Umm Abbas is the second wife of her murdered husband. His first wife has five children, and she comes every Friday to the “Wall of Mercy “to receive food aid and medicine as she has a stroke and needs constant medication.
Women are not the only ones asking for aid, there is a long queue of men waiting in turn to receive food baskets.
Ali Hussain, a construction worker, only gets a job for a few days each month, standing next to his brother Abdullah, who suffers from heart problems. He says: “Construction work is very limited nowadays. Few people here build new homes, expand or repair their homes, and there are no private companies here or an industrial sector, and agriculture suffers due to water scarcity… Job opportunities are limited to the government sector, specifically with the army and security forces, but it is dominated by those who have ties to the ruling parties ”.
Ali says in a quiet voice, wiping the dust from his white dishdasha: “People here have simple wishes, they want to secure their food and the minimum living requirements… But even this has become a dream for many… families are only struggling to get their daily food.”
Ali takes a few steps away from his brother and points to me to approach him, as if he wants to reveal a secret that he wants no one to hear: “This is the case for tens of thousands of families in Muthanna and in the neighboring governorates, where ignorance and poverty exists … In crises their children are the protectors of the sect and the depth of the Shiite presence and in elections, they are the loyal reservoir of votes. In return, no one cares about them today. They are completely abandoned, and the ruling parties do not know if they are dead or alive … Even the Media does not mention them.
South is the Poorest
What Al-Muthanna faces in terms of poverty, lack of economic infrastructure and weakness in service structures, is repeated in most of the southern governorates, including oil-producing ones, which has some of the largest oil fields in the world. According to the Ministry of Planning, the poverty rate in the southern governorates, except for Basra, was the highest compared to the rest of the country. In Diwaniyah, it reached 48%, in Dhi Qar 44% and in Maysan 45%, while in Muthanna the highest poverty rate was recorded at 52%. While the average poverty rate in Iraq as general reached 20% before the “Corona” crisis.
At the second press conference of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi after the formation of his government, he said while hitting the podium with his left hand, directing his words to the politicians who tried to disrupt the measures to combat people with multi-salaries: “Have you seen the women of the Rumaitha district during Ramadan and how they lined up in a long queue with their children to get food aid. .. Aren’t they entitled for salaries?
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations in Iraq, Jeanine Hennes-Plasschaert, said during a briefing at the UN Security Council, on May 12, that “there are expectations that Iraq’s economy will shrink by 9.7% and that the poverty rate will rise to 40%.”
The Minister of Labor, Adel Al-Rikabi said, in a press statement in May, that the unemployment rate had risen to 40%, but the official spokesman for the Ministry of Planning, Abdul Zahra Al-Hindawi, denied this and expected the percentage to be 20%, after it was 14%, before the Corona crisis, indicating that the ministry cannot give an accurate number before conducting a new survey.
Despite the existence of a monthly program to distribute food supplies in Iraq for decades, the people of Muthanna, along with most of the southern governorates, complained about its poor quality and the inadequacy of some of it for human consumption, especially rice, and its distribution was sometimes delayed for about two months, in addition to its insufficiency, as it only fulfills a small part of their daily food needs. The food supplies consist of flour, sugar, edible oil and rice.
The “Wall of the Lovers of God” was established in the Rumaitha district in the summer of 2011 by young activists. The old (British) prison wall dating back to 1920 was chosen because of its national symbolism. Volunteers repaired the wall in a simple way, and they put nails on the wall for donors to hang used clothes on. The administration of the old prison building offered them a room for storing clothes and food aid.
Alaa al-Sheikh, head of the Wall Initiative, says: “I was afraid at the time that the people of Al-Rumaitha will not understand or support the initiative, but there was rapid interaction and great support, until the initiative was able to build more than 83 homes for needy families, and build (Al-Baqer Residential) complex that includes 54 homes in which families without homes can live in, and this was achieved through a campaign to collect (1,000 Iraqi dinars) for a period of three years.
“The initiative has succeeded in building a home for the elderly, another for orphans, a handicraft workshop, and a small reserve for birds to employ some of the beneficiaries, in addition to its commitment to distributing food aid on a weekly basis (Friday and Saturday) and there are other exceptional days for distribution,” he continues.
The population of the city of Rumaitha (25 km north of Samawah, the governorate center) is estimated at about 115,000 people, while the population of the district is about 330,000 people, in a governorate that includes about 900,000 people and is the second largest Iraqi governorate in area and consists of administrative units that extend to the Saudi border.
They share what they have
In light of the decline in job opportunities in the southern Iraqi cities as a result of the “Corona” pandemic, the decline in oil prices, and the disruption of some projects, humanitarian effort activists expressed their concern about the deterioration of the living situation further and their inability to secure the minimum requirements for thousands of families.
Feminist activist Rabab Al-Ziyadi, who was involved early 2020 in campaigns to distribute food aid, describes the conditions in the Karamah neighborhood, which is located on the outskirts of the city of Samawah on the highway coming from the Warka district, as catastrophe, where hundreds of poor families live in mud houses with no water or electricity services available..
She says: “We receive relief calls from the people of the region. We provide them with food aid three times, and every time we are surprised by the increasing number of families that do not have food at home. .. They are as individuals in the thousands, and the region’s needs cannot be covered by simply distributing 100 food baskets, so we have to limit the distribution to the poorest families, even though everyone needs help.
Al-Ziyadi criticizes the local government’s failure to “provide a vision to address the rise in poverty, with the work of the daily income earners halting due to the repercussions of Corona… Families there say that local officials or members of parliament are completely absent: “no one comes to us but the voluntary teams.”
The Electoral Reservoir and the Sect protection wall
Sixteen associations, organizations and official teams work in Al-Muthanna in campaigns to distribute food baskets. They do not receive actual support from the local government, which only contributes by honoring volunteers’ representatives in order to encourage voluntary work and expand charitable initiatives.
According to the statistics of the “Wall of the Beloved of God” initiative, 1,800 orphans have been registered in a database, and there are 3,000 registered beneficiaries who receive continuous support.
But the numbers of people in need are very large, in the “Al-Abs” area, which is located near Al-Rumaitha, “There are 1,400 deaths registered from the HASHD fighters, the army and the police, and most of these families have large numbers of individuals and need assistance. A percentage of those are without salaries, especially members of the Popular Mobilization volunteers, because they fought “ISIS” and were not officially registered.
Teacher A.H. says. “The electoral reservoir for the ruling Shiite forces lies in the poorer southern provinces in the country.” He added, “Here, basic services are absent. Hospitals are in poor condition, and simple treatment facilities are not available. Schools are falling apart, and some are built of mud. Poverty rates jump to more than 50%, and unemployment among young people exceeds 50%”
He continues, in a broken voice, with a small smile: “Here, too, lies the fortified wall to defend the sect… So, the poor neighborhoods are filled with martyrs of the crowd (Hashd), the army and the police who fought believing in their cause… they are forgotten. They sacrificed everything and got nothing.”
The official of the “Wall of the Beloved of God” initiative says, “The initiative’s budget last year amounted to about 160 million Iraqi dinars. One of the merchants donated 90 million Iraqi dinars, but this year the support is scarce in light of the Corona crisis, and the initiative suffers from lack of volunteers. We need about 30 volunteers daily, to work on organizing and distributing food baskets.
The volunteer member of the “Red Crescent Organization” team, Muhammad Al-Hijami, confirms that poverty rates have increased recently, which prompted the organization to divide the food basket into two portions to include a larger number of beneficiaries.
“We conduct questionnaires and surveys to find out the poorest areas and register the number of the poor people, and according to that we take action. The last distribution campaign we carried out was in Al-Busayyah sub-district in Salman district, south of Muthanna, where poverty is increasing. The population numbers there are more than 2,200 people, and this area is considered one of the largest in Iraq in terms of area, as it is estimated at more than 17,067 square kilometers. The place is predominantly Bedouin due to its location in the depths of the desert. Residents are practicing sheep and camel raising and agriculture, and some of them work in government jobs.
Saleh Hussein Nasser, a member of the health and environment team at Muthanna, who is involved in distributing humanitarian aid, warns that with the increase in the number of poor people, volunteer teams no longer distribute aid except to the large and poorest families.
He says: “The voluntary teams often exclude those who receive social welfare salary in the food rations, knowing that this salary does not meet the needs of the family of Four members for a period of 15 days. .. They concentrate on families who do not have a provider, nor a daily income or salary, and those who have Patients and families who have seven members or more.
Bread and Nabak (Buckthorn) tree
Nasser relays stories of poverty he witnessed in recent days: “One of the families that we met two days ago was eating bread with tea because the house was empty of any foodstuff, even milk for the infant was not present… Another family was eating bread and the remains of old rice with the fruits of the Nabak tree. “.
Civil activist Saleh Hussein attributes the reasons for the spread of poverty in Muthanna to the absence of job opportunities. “Here, you are either an employee or have a cart to sell vegetables and consumables. There are no other sources of income because the governorate lacks industrial and investment projects and other sources of income such as tourism and border crossings, so working in market stalls has become the only available profession, and even the latter has been affected by the Corona crisis.
Although a large number of families receive social care salaries, this did not change the reality, as the salary does not exceed 100,000 Iraqi dinars (83 US dollars), which is not enough for a typical family for more than a week, so imagine if there is a presence of a sick person in the family, for example?
Hussein criticizes the measures to confront Corona, saying: “the curfew was imposed without providing an alternative to the poor, who were left with no food rations.”
The problem of Al-Muthanna is not limited to unemployment and extreme poverty, as there is an increase in children dropping out of school, in addition to the absence of the most basic services such as water and electricity in entire neighborhoods.
Activist Rabab Al-Ziyadi says: “Many male and female children cannot go to school because it is far away, and in some areas, they need to cross the river while there are no nearby bridges.” This is another reason added to poverty that forces many families to stop enrolling their children, especially girls.
Al-Ziyadi talked about having received appeals from a group of girls in the Karama area, most of whom are female graduates, asking for financial support to help them open professional projects, “but some of them are under pressure from families because of the traditions that do not allow women to work even after they get a degree.”
Abbas, who was waiting with his younger brother near the door of their house, said that his mother would return with a food basket: “I have never gone to school in my life, I do not know anything about it. .. My mother says that I have to work in order to secure food for the family. .. But I hope that one of my brothers learns so we do not need anyone’s help to save names on my mobile phone.”
Hours later, Umm Abbas returned to her father’s house, where she lives in a small room with her four children since the death of her husband, and began putting the contents of the “half of the food basket” that she had obtained in a metal cupboard while carefully placing the half carton of eggs on the table, and turned to her children, saying, “Today we will have a Feast ”.
The report was completed with the support and supervision of the editors of the “NIRIJ” Network for Investigative Journalism.