Clinging To Life In A Baghdad Orphanage
Lara Logan Reflects On The Bagdad Orphanage Where Boys Where Malnourished And Abused
If you find it hard to look at the photograph of the young Iraqi boy covered in flies, lying half-starved and near death on the concrete floor of a "special needs orphanage" in central Baghdad, then think about this:One of the American soldiers who came to rescue this boy told me that before they took that picture, they waved thousand of flies off his fragile, bleeding body. "It was much worse before," the soldier said to me. "When we found him he was black with flies." There were hundreds in his open mouth. They were crawling out of his nose and ears and anywhere they could feed on his flesh and bloody, open sores, in what appeared to be the last few hours of his life. The medics did not think he could be saved. But he was. Not only did the 82nd Airborne and civil affairs soldiers save his life, he was released from a hospital a few days later, well enough to continue his recovery in a different orphanage, where the care was remarkably better.What's so strange about this story is that the caretaker in charge of the orphanage where 24 handicapped boys were abused beyond belief was also a psychologist and worked at another respected orphanage for a long time. The staff there confessed to being shocked and saddened when they saw these boys in their terrible state shortly after being rescued; but they also were shocked and surprised that the man responsible was someone they thought they knew so well. Like many social workers I've encountered in other countries, they were reluctant to condemn their colleague outright without hearing from him what had led to this terrible cruelty. Perhaps it was simply too much for them to accept. Until a few months before, these boys had actually been housed in their orphanage. But "someone" — no one could tell me exactly who — had decided that boys and girls should be separated. That someone sent the boys off to the other home where there was no government oversight.
Captain Morales knew the rage they were feeling because he felt it himself. But they did the right thing, he assured me, and handed this over to the Iraqi authorities to deal with as they saw fit. He also told me about one soldier in particular that had been especially good with the children."Lieutenant Smith was amazing," he said, as we poured over photographs that showed Jason Smith brushing some of the children's teeth. He really was very good with the children.When I interviewed Lt. Smith, I found out why: he is trained as a special education teacher. His wife is a special education teacher and her brother is a special needs boy. So when faced with this terrible situation, Lt. Smith was happy to do the things for these boys that he already does at home for his brother-in-law. This quietly strong and gentle young man knew exactly what these boys needed – a human touch. And that is what struck me as I watched the soldiers interacting with the boys at the orphanage. They were desperate for that human touch, just a moment of love and attention. As I was standing there in the crowded room, soldiers and boys and Iraqi social workers all around us, one of the boys came up to me and reached out with both his arms. I leaned over and met his embrace and before I knew it he had lifted his legs off the ground and wrapped them around my waist. As suddenly as he had presented himself before me, he was wrapped in my arms, and I just surrendered. I let him snuggle into my neck, and breathe in the smell of my perfume which he really seemed to like. As I stood there holding him, watching these boys with various levels of disability, some of their wrists scarred by the marks of the roles that held them, I was overcome by how forgiving they were. I had the feeling that anyone could have beaten them with one hand, embraced them with the other, and they would have welcomed the embrace. Here we were only a week later, many with sores not yet healed – and who knew what scars that weren't visible – and they were laughing and playing and doing so much better you could hardly match them with their emaciated photographs. I don't know what trauma they suffered, what lingers. I don't know anything about special needs children. I know that I witnessed something terrible and something remarkable and something that should not be forgotten, should not be hidden. I imagine the Iraqi people will react with anger and shame. Many will blame the United States for bringing this on them, because they brought the war and these leaders and the destruction of the Iraqi society they knew. For many Americans, that will be hard to comprehend, especially since American soldiers carried these boys in their arms and saved their lives. It is one more contradiction in the chaos of Iraq today, a society seeped in blood and betrayal as its people battle for survival and power. But even in the midst of so much human tragedy, the story of these boys stands apart — from the image of a dying boy covered in flies, to a small young man crouching in his crib with a newfound strength, sores healing and skin clean, his soft dark eyes watching the soldiers who saved him as they laugh and joke with the other boys.A hand reaches out and softly, gently touches his crumpled legs. Almost without moving, he withdraws, just slightly. Not ready, it seems, not able to bear a human touch.