Thursday, May 31, 2007

BAGHDAD — Once-flourishing middle-class families in Baghdad are now eating meat only sparingly, if at all, as violence across the city prevents people from working and farmers from delivering food to the capital’s markets.

Some women are eating less in order to give their food to their children, residents say, while others try to make meals for a family of five from a portion of meat that would barely make a single hamburger.

“Even my family does not eat meat too much; maybe when we have visitors and guests,” said Jenan, a university graduate whose family once was very well off, but is now crippled by the lack of work.

“I don’t like to eat it. I prefer that my nephews and nieces have my share. You get the idea,” said the tall Iraqi woman, who has unwillingly lost some 20 pounds in the past two years.

“I eat some rice, some veggies, some salad,” she said, asking that her last name not be published.

Jenan’s family has had its land seized by Shi’ite militiamen and now faces death threats. They are leaving their home in one of Baghdad’s safer mixed neighborhoods and, like hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis, are moving to Syria.

Jenan, however, will stay behind. In a culture where the men typically are the wage-earners, her work as a translator provides the family’s only source of income.

“Now many jobs are closed because of terrorism, people are afraid of being killed or injured from the bombs,” said Hassan, a Shi’ite whose family is struggling with 120-degree temperatures and just one hour a day of electricity.

Without electricity, residents cannot store meat or any other perishable food. But the raging sectarian violence leaves people less willing to go out to the markets, which are frequent targets for suicide bombers.

Farmers are discouraged from bringing food to the city by the risks on the roads and by tedious delays and demands for bribes at a network of checkpoints. Baghdad streets are now home to small flocks of sheep that eat the trash piling up in empty lots.

According to Al Arabiya television, roughly 65 percent of Iraq’s population is now under the poverty line. Most city residents think the true number is even higher.

While the Brookings Institution in Washington puts the unemployment figure in Iraq at between 25 percent and 40 percent, there are no hard figures on hunger in Iraq.

Said Hakky, president of the Iraqi Red Crescent, said there are more than 1 million internally displaced people in Iraq, and the organization is giving out 150,000 food parcels to families every month.

“There is a humanitarian crisis in Iraq,” Mr. Hakky said in an e-mail interview, but he could not provide specific data on urban hunger. “Most of the people live below the poverty line.”

Individuals, mosques, nongovernmental organizations and the government are reaching out to Sunnis and Shi’ites displaced by sectarian violence, but there is little help for those in the middle class who are slowly and silently sliding toward hunger.

Unemployed chemistry graduate Hayat sat calmly on the floor of her living room, peeling a shallow basketful of fava beans while American soldiers interviewed her husband last month in a predominantly Shi’ite neighborhood in the capital.

“We eat maybe 200 grams [7 ounces] of meat three times a week,” she said.

She said her family of five, like many in Baghdad, uses meat now mainly as a condiment, while surviving primarily on cheap vegetables and monthly food rations handed out by the government. A typical rations basket includes flour, oil, sugar, rice and other staples.

“We can’t live without the rations,” said Ahmed Mahassan, a 37-year-old car mechanic and father of two children who lives with his parents and has been without work for a year.

“I have no money left. Life has become very difficult,” he said. “The Iraqi people are hungry.”

He said his main food was potatoes, tomatoes and soup. Once a week his family of 10 eats chicken, but they rarely eat fruit anymore.

“We don’t have jobs, so we don’t have money,” said Mr. Mahassan. “The biggest problem is the kids, then the women. The kids are not growing, they are not very strong.”

The situation is also bad in the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, where residents are frightened to venture outside.

“Most of the men are afraid to go to work because either they will be caught by the police or one of the Shi’ite militias, and they will be killed. So they are preferring to stay home,” said Abu Nour, whose brother lives in the area.

“They are eating when someone invites them over,” he said.

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