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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 May, 2003, 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK
Glimmer of hope for Iraqi street kids
Orphan Ahmed Abdullah Sallal sniffs thinner fumes from a plastic bag
Many street children have problems with drugs
Iraqi street children are beginning to see some signs of help after 12 years of neglect on the streets of Baghdad.

Until sanctions began following the first Gulf War, the problem of street kids - homeless, hungry, often drug-addicted children roaming the streets of Baghdad - was very small.

But since 1991 a great number have been abandoned by parents too poor to feed them, and the numbers grew dramatically during the conflict earlier this year, after looters attacked orphanages following the fall of Baghdad.

"Hopefully now we'll be in a position where we'll have greater access to children in need, where we can start to initiate more developed programmes on their behalf," Geoff Keele, of the UN's children's fund Unicef, told BBC World Service's World Today programme.

So far Unicef has been involved mainly in the distribution of food, water and medical supplies for vulnerable children.

But Mr Keele added that simply getting the plight of Baghdad's street children acknowledged was a big step towards helping them.

"There was not actual problem with street children prior to the 1990s," he said.

"It has taken us over a decade for us to get government recognition that there was actually a problem with street children."

Drink and drugs

Although Baghdad has four children's institutions, there is reluctance to take in street children because of a fear of their disruptive influence.

"The information that we've got is that the children living in the streets have no families, so they're not cultured and have little education," explained Amira Hasar al-Saraf, head teacher at the al-Wasaria orphanage - a clean and cheerful place with clean beds and bright rooms.

Iraqi children on a rubbish dump in the Baghdad outskirts
Street children are forced to live wherever they can
"Most of them are thieves.

"They get drunk and take drugs - they even have sexual relations with each other."

A typical example is 12-year-old Ahmed Abdullah Sallal, who ran away from an orphanage during the war after claiming he was abused.

Two years ago he killed a man in his hometown and now fears retribution from the man's family if he returns to his mother in southern Iraq.

Ms Hasar al-Saraf, who interviews the street children brought to her and assesses their need, added while she would take some, she could not offer them anything permanent.

"It's very disruptive having them here," she said.

"But we will keep them for a week or two."

Soldiers' help

It was only after the request of two American soldiers that Ms Hasar al-Saraf agreed to accept two boys.

Some coalition troops have become involved in the problems of the street children after many began sleeping near tanks and begging for food.

One example is Captain Stacey Sims, of the US Military Civil Affairs Bureau, who has been trying to secure places for six children in orphanages around the city.

Equally though, there are criticisms that the forces failed to protect the children after the fall of Baghdad, and as a result many thousands are now at risk suffering from the effects of dirty water and inadequate medical care.

British soldier entertains Iraqi children
Coalition troops have been acting to help some children
But Captain Sims defended his troops' role.

"You're always going to have criticisers, no matter how much good you're doing," he said.

"But we're looking at the big picture, plus we're trying to help the individuals at the same time."

He added that much of the work the forces were doing to help the children was behind the scenes.

"What you're witnessing with me is one soldier - one team - making an attempt to help 15-20 people at one time."

The World Today
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