- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

BAGHDAD — Night is falling and Arkan al-Sadik, 12, inhales nervously, in and out, in and out, of a plastic bag filled with glue. His friends stand in a circle, inhaling at the same cadence.

Night is falling and Ali Baba is on the loose.

In post-Saddam Hussein Baghdad, where grownups are buying guns to protect their homes from looters, Arkan; his little brother, Fady, 10; and this ragged group of children sleep outside, sheltered by nothing but cardboard and a haze of drugs and glue.

Arkan doesn’t know whether his parents are alive or dead, though he remembers being freed soon after American troops entered Baghdad, when looters invaded the Al-Rashad Teaching Mental Hospital and allowed more than half its thousand or so patients to escape.

Since then, he and the other children have been getting high and sleeping near Firdos Square, site of the toppled statue of Saddam. The children thought they could find shelter near two hotels overbooked with foreign journalists.

But they also found glue, hashish, ether and cocaine, all in the hands of older boys and men taking advantage of the new economy, and in some cases, taking advantage of the children.

Dr. Eman al-Jabouri, a pediatrician at Saddam Children’s Hospital, said, “After the looting, many of the medicines that included drugs fell into the hands of children last month.”

“They play with drugs, just as they play with grenades or cluster bombs all over this city,” Dr. al-Jaboury said. “They have absolutely nothing to lose.”

The growing addiction seems to have more to do with escaping reality. “It gives them a floating feeling,” the pediatrician said. “They forget about their pain, they forget about the heat and, to some extent, they forget they are hungry.”

Geoffrey Keele, spokesman here for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), says there are new groups of street children.

“Prior to ‘91, there was no such thing as street children or child labor” in Baghdad, he said. “Under sanctions and a tougher economy, there was not enough wealth creation. A lot of families had to take their children out of school to work.”

Today in Baghdad, the chaos after the war has driven families from their homes and left children to fend for themselves.

On a recent afternoon, a team of Army Civil Affairs soldiers came to the square in hopes of finding help and housing for the youngsters. Capt. Stacey Simms identified 14 children, including Arkan, who were on the street that day, as orphans.

By the end of the day, 11 of them were found to be young enough to qualify for housing. Eight boarded the bus the next day, and six were placed in orphanages. Arkan was nowhere to be found.

On Saturday, only one remained in an orphanage. The rest had found their way back to Firdos Square, where they resumed begging and inhaling glue in their new clothes.

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