BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Amputee Hamza Hameed is a living reminder of the U.S. “shock and awe” bombardment during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, one of up to three million Iraqis disabled after years of war, sanctions and economic deprivation.
He lost his right leg, amputated just below the hip, and the index finger on his left hand when he was wounded in a marketplace during what he says was a nearby U.S. bombing run.
Left on his own to cope with a life-changing injury, and deprived of his only hobby, football, Hameed sank into a depression that left him confined to his bedroom for a year, until one day he jumped into a river to rescue his brother.
He is now a swimmer on Iraq’s national Paralympic team, but still lives with his wife and four children in a single room in his parents’ house and cannot get a useable artificial limb.
“My friends called me comedian Hamza, who nothing could affect, even his disability,” Hameed, a young-looking 40 year old, said as he sat on a sofa, holding his crutches, at al-Rafidain Association for Disabled Iraqis.
Violence in Iraq has ebbed. But the wounded are a constant reminder of fighting that the Iraq Body Count project says killed 100,000 Iraqis since the invasion. A million died on both sides during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.
Iraq’s health ministry said it has no specific figures but it estimates the number of physically and mentally disabled people at between 2 million and 3 million.
U.S.-based Mercy Corps considers 2 million conservative. It said a 1977 census put the disabled population at that time at 9 percent of Iraq’s 12 million people, or about 1 million.
The government now estimates the population at 30 million.
“If you take into account that Iraq has been at war since 1977, the Iran-Iraq war, the American bombings, sanctions, all of which have contributed to more people becoming disabled, 2.7 million or 10 percent of the population is a conservative estimate,” Mercy Corps spokeswoman Tiana Tozer said.
The government says it cannot cope. The health ministry has just 21 rehabilitation centres and 12 prosthetics workshops and cannot open more because it lacks doctors and technicians.
Only a quarter of amputees who need artificial limbs get them because the raw materials are not available, it said.
The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs gives disabled people about 50,000 Iraqi dinar ($40) a month.
“To be clear, we are not doing what is required from us ... but eventually, God willing, we will reach a high percentage of what is required,” deputy health minister Khamis al-Saad said.
“The most advanced countries have disabilities. The circumstances and the wars we passed through are extraordinary,” he said. “These are human resources we are definitely losing.”
Hameed depends mainly on crutches because the artificial limb he got from a government workshop was uncomfortable. When he sought a private manufacturer to make him a better prosthetic leg, they wanted $5,000, so he scrapped the idea.
Hameed had almost given up on life when he saw his brother, who was swimming in a river in his home town of Yusufiya, south of Baghdad, begin to struggle in the water.
Hameed, who was sitting on the bank, did not know what to do because he could not swim.
“I decided to jump in and try to save my brother even if I drowned myself, because I am already dead,” he said.
That first swim eventually led him to the Iraqi Paralympic team and he has won medals at international tournaments.
Hameed hopes the government can give him a home. He gets a stipend of 325,000 dinar ($275) monthly from the Paralympic committee. “I live in my parents’ house,” he said. “I occupy a single room with my wife and my four children.”
Faraj Hasab of the al-Rafidain Association wants the next parliament to be elected in March to pass a law instituting article 32 of the constitution, a guarantee of disabled rights.
“This is one of the most important targets of this association,” said the 43 year-old national team fencer, who lost his left leg during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.
Editing by Jim Loney and Philippa Fletcher