Signs of hope amid 'horrible' picture in Baghdad, UN local staff say

17 April 2003

Even as the United Nations pressed ahead today with its first relief lifeline into Baghdad along what could become its most important aid corridor into Iraq, UN local staff today painted a “horrible” picture on the ground, yet with highlights of hope and humanitarian heroism.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said a convoy of 50 trucks loaded with 1,400 tons of urgently needed wheat flour crossed the Jordanian-Iraqi border early this morning and was expected to reach Baghdad later today or tomorrow.

The convoy established WFP's second and, potentially, most important humanitarian corridor into Iraq, spokesman Khaled Mansour told the daily briefing in Amman, Jordan, on UN humanitarian activities. Food aid has been flowing into northern Iraq through Turkey for nearly two weeks, but Aqaba in Jordan is expected to become a key port of entry for food for central and southern Iraq, he added.

"WFP's efforts to get aid into Iraq are picking up momentum just in time. Most of the population could start running out of food in a couple of weeks," James T. Morris, the agency's Executive Director, said in a statement. To date, WFP has received no reports of extreme food shortages, but it expects the majority of Iraq's 27.1 million population to exhaust their reserves by early May.

"Our goal is to make sure that the Iraqi population, 60 per cent of whom are entirely dependent on monthly food handouts, will get their regular rations as of May," Mr. Morris said of what he has already called potentially the largest humanitarian operation in history.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) spoke today with the local head of its Baghdad office, Hatim George, and quoted him as calling the situation "horrible."

All civic services had essentially ceased to exist. There was no garbage collection, with refuse adding to the risks of disease. Stacks of bio-waste were piling up outside hospitals, including bloody bandages and limbs from amputations. In the Saddam Paediatric Hospital there had been so many deaths that staff had to bury the dead in the hospital's garden since they had no way of getting all the bodies to a graveyard.

UNICEF is now looking into ways to contract trucks and drivers to collect refuse in the worst hit areas, spokesman Geoffrey Keele said. The greatest need of hospitals right now, besides power and clean water, is liquid oxygen, without which, operations could not be conducted, he added. Two hospitals, Shaheed Adnan and Al-Mansour children’s hospital, currently had only a one-day supply left.

Hospitals were also in dire need of ventilators for intensive care units, intravenous fluids, injectable antibiotics, and anaesthetics. UNICEF will be sending a supply of anaesthetics from Jordan in a refrigerated truck within days, Mr. Keele said. In some children's hospitals, 70 per cent of patients are suffering from diarrhoea.

"As I am sure you can tell from this report, the situation in Baghdad right now is indeed 'horrible'," he added. "However, our staff were also able to provide some information to give us hope."

He said that before the war, UNICEF had contracted teams of mobile units to ensure that generators at water treatment plants were repaired and maintained, and three of these teams worked throughout the bombing, fighting, looting and chaos.

"They travelled across the city repairing and maintaining generators, and even assisted some hospitals with their generators to make sure that at least a limited amount of power was available for the city's vital infrastructure," he said. "We applaud their courage and dedication."

He added that UNICEF staff was able to go back to many children's institutions to which it had provided emergency supplies. One centre had been so scared for their safety during the looting that the children and their carers strung a white sheet out in front saying, "We are an orphanage. Please do not kill us."

"I am happy to report that all the children in the centres we visited today are safe and healthy," Mr. Keele said. "The only thing they requested was fresh vegetables. UNICEF staff will bring them vegetables tomorrow."

He said in the south, a German television crew had delivered UNICEF drugs against black fever to the town of Nasiriya and doctors were now using megaphones to call people in for treatment for the potentially fatal disease.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that security was still a major problem in Baghdad following the looting of the main warehouse of the ministry of health, which housed many of the millions of dollars worth of medicines and supplies currently needed across the country.

 

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