Ali Najem, 15, outside al-Kefah secondary school in Basra. Photograph: Issam al-Saadi/Issam al-Saadi
Children across Iraq are renowned for ageing ahead of their years; but in Basra childhood has been little more than fleeting for three generations.
Near the end of an occupation that was supposed to help - in part - to change that, the young custodians of Basra’s future are speaking positively about the years ahead.
Children were largely left alone by the rampant militias that ran Basra throughout much of the past six years, though their family lives and education were badly affected.
New playgrounds and safer streets that stemmed from the military sweep that cleared the city 13 months ago have been well received by boys in particular, who are revelling in street football. Basra’s girls, meanwhile, are taking to the extra school time.
Of the estimated 1.5 million people in Basra, almost half are thought to be children. If that estimate is borne out by a national census due this year, it would mean the city has the youngest mean age of any Iraqi province.
Meaningful social indicators are hard to come by here, in a city that has barely functioned for decades. However, piecemeal figures on health and education show these two sectors, which are likely to most affect children, have been more neglected than the rest of the service sector.
The numbers of orphans in and around the city had long been inordinately high, due largely to the Iran-Iraq war, which ravaged the city’s men for almost a decade until 1988. The front line of that campaign was a short distance northeast of the city and barely moved throughout.
Today, children are everywhere in Basra. Standing idly in ramshackle doorways wearing tattered clothes, they had become the city’s forsaken people, symbols of hunger and deprivation, seemingly with little hope of ever rising above their circumstances.
The recent increase in safety has brought with it a health downside among football-mad boys, who are shaping pitches anywhere they can find space on the rubbish-strewn landscape. Neighbourhood games are now regularly being played alongside swamps of sewage and toxic waste that have been left untended throughout the reign of the militias and for decades before. —The Guardian