08 Mar 2007 11:01:36 GMT
By Aseel Kami and Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD, March 8 (Reuters) - Iraqi children are haunted by dreams of bad guys wielding knives or kidnapping relatives. For some, like 13-year-old Zaman, the nightmares become reality. She was abducted, beaten and threatened with rape.
"Zaman suffers from shaking, nervousness, a stutter and sleep disorder," said Haider Abdul-Muhsin, a psychiatrist at Baghdad's Ibn Rushd hospital who treats children suffering the consequences of war, four years after the U.S. invasion.
Abdul-Muhsin said Zaman was abducted in Baghdad last month on her way home from school. Zaman was not at the hospital when Reuters visited, but Abdul-Muhsin said few children he had treated recently had affected him as much.
"An elderly woman asked her to help her carry some plastic bags across the road to find a taxi. While she was taking her bags back from Zaman, she grabbed her and forced her into the taxi. She anesthetised Zaman and tied her up," he said.
The girl was held in a room with 15 other girls for seven hours before being released by police who raided the house.
"They beat her, they told her that they would send her to insurgents as a forced 'bride'," Abdul-Muhsin said.
Four years of war and now sectarian chaos that threatens to tear Iraq apart has had an enormous impact on children.
Car bombs explode every day in Baghdad. Mortar bombs rain down on some neighbourhoods. Death squads roam the streets and kidnappings are rampant. Kicking a soccer ball around on the streets is like dicing with death.
There are no figures on the number of children killed in violence since U.S. forces invaded in March 2003 and toppled Saddam Hussein -- although the United Nations says 34,500 civilians were killed in violence last year in Iraq alone.
Big car bomb attacks at Baghdad's markets often kill children. But even if they are not physically maimed, much of their pain comes from what they see and hear.
Outside Abdul-Muhsin's office, 9-year-old Ghufran was standing waiting as her father discussed her case.
"I have a headache," she said.
Ghufran saw an explosion and while not hurt in the blast, she has suffered epileptic fits ever since.
"Whenever she sees the scene of an explosion or hears the sound of a blast or sees people dressed in black, she has an epileptic fit," Abdul-Muhsin quoted her father as saying.
In 2004, Abdul-Muhsin opened a centre to treat people suffering psychological problems, but he said it was forced to close in 2005 because foreign doctors stopped coming to Iraq and it ran out of money.
He said 70 percent of the children he sees have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Some suffer from night bed-wetting and social phobia, especially when a child sees a person being killed or being kidnapped or he himself is exposed to kidnapping," he said.
NIGHTMARES, TEARS AND SILENCE
Nearly every family with children has stories of nightmares or changed behaviour.
"My 6-year-old grandson told me the other day he dreamt that he was walking with his mother near his house when they saw me heading towards them," said Najat al-Azzawi, 55, a retired engineer. "But a masked man came and snatched me."
Nora, the 9-year-old daughter of primary school teacher Wafaa Hamed, said she is afraid of the dark.
"I dream that a thief is running after me holding a big knife. I wake up and my whole body is shivering, crying for Mummy and Daddy," she said.
Nora enjoys watching a programme called "Space Toon" on satellite television, but it makes her sad.
"I see kids playing in beautiful gardens and parks and I wish I could play and have fun like them, but I know I can't because we have bombs and bad guys hurt children," she said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched a major security crackdown in Baghdad, the epicentre of sectarian violence.
While it has reduced the death squad killings, on a typical day anywhere from a handful to dozens of explosions still echo round the city.
"My kids are always afraid," said Nora's mother, who has four children, aged between four and 11. "Even when a door slams they start trembling and shouting 'A bomb, a bomb.'"
"My children used to play outside when things were better two years ago but now they're stuck to the TV, if we're lucky enough to have electricity," she said.
As she spoke, a pair of U.S. helicopters flew low overhead, the thud of the rotors shaking the house in what has become so common that most Baghdad residents barely flinch.
Her 4-year-old son Murtadha burst into tears and put his hands up to his ears to block out the noise. "Mama, afraid, afraid," he managed to say, his voice faltering with tears.
Khalil, 14, saw a body in the street while driving in the car with his father. At first he talked about it often, his father said, but then he went through silent periods. He has also started sleep-walking.
His mother Um Khalil, a university professor, said Khalil and his friends used to talk about their hobbies or whether they wanted to go into science or study literature or come up with some great invention. Now they talk about mortars landing near a friend's house or the father of a friend killed or kidnapped.
"Their thinking has become gloomy," Um Khalil said. "They are not thinking of tomorrow because they know that tomorrow may never come."