Where Happiness Has Gone

dahr-jamail.jpg Inter Press Service
By Ahmed Ali and Dahr Jamail*

BAQUBA, Mar 7 (IPS) – After losing sight of what they knew to be normal life, residents across Baquba seem to have fallen into a depression.

Close to the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, March 19, Iraqis today say they feel humiliated in their own country. "People have forgotten how to be happy," says resident Bashar Ameen. "Each day, we have only more suffering."

On the two main Islamic festivals through a year, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, people customarily buy new clothes and decorate their homes. It is meant to be a time of happiness and reconciliation. Now it is on these days that depression is most apparent.

"We did not prepare for the recent festival because we do not feel it is the joyous occasion it used to be," Aiman Nory, an employee at the directorate-general of education told IPS.

Children are forgetting the joy of what were the big days for them. "Before the invasion, streets were full on festival days with children playing and families walking about," Abdul-Kareem Faraj, a 44-year-old who once owned a sweets shop told IPS. "This occupation has killed the happiness of children.

"We need to be happy for the sake of our children. Families used to buy large amounts of sweets for the festivals, and we used to prepare the shop to receive a large number of customers, but now I have closed my shop because people quit buying sweets."

For a start, festivals are days people visit one another, and feast. Over the last three years, it has become close to impossible to just move.

Feasting has always been a strong Iraqi tradition. Even during the economic sanctions of the 1990s, when food was scarce, Iraqis kept up this tradition, particularly on Fridays.

"Now, such traditions have been reduced to a minimum because of the bad security situation, high living expenses, and curfews," Diya Imad, a 43-year-old resident of the city told IPS. "We used to listen to each other, laugh, plan our days together, spend good moments, and forget our grief by giving comfort to each other. But now we have lost all this. This has deepened a feeling of depression in all of us."

"Not only people, but the streets and buildings are depressed," an engineer in the local municipality told IPS. Like many others, he did not wish to give his name, in view of the difficult security environment. "Streets are full of mud and dirt, and desolate; trees have been cut and burnt, buildings are pulled down, gardens are barren. Everything is grief-stricken and low-spirited."

Baquba has never much known the idea of psychotherapy. People have always relied on family and social networks to find mental and emotional support during difficult times.

But now the stress is taking a physical toll. "The majority of diseases I am seeing have moral and psychological causes," a pathologist at a local hospital told IPS. "For over three years now we have had thousands of cases of sudden death; due often to thrombus or angina pectoris, among young and old people alike. We never saw anything like this until the Americans came."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced in January that Iraqi refuges in Syria are "suffering from extreme levels of trauma."

Its study, based on interviews with 754 refugees, and analysed by the U.S. Centre for Disease Control using the Hopkins Symptom Checklist (HSC) and the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire (HTQ), reveals that 89.5 percent refugees are suffering from depression, 81.6 percent from anxiety and 67.6 percent from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

"We are shocked by the statistics but not surprised because every hour of the day there is somebody who reports torture, there is someone who reports the devastating effects of the violence," said Sybella Wilkes, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Syria.

It is assumed that such statistics apply also to Iraqis who remain in the country. For more than two years now, Iraqi doctors have been reporting a dramatic increase in substance abuse and prescription drug addition.

(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)

©2008 Dahr Jamail