Needed: Love for a Baghdad orphanage

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Children of the War
by Richard Engel

Thirteen-year-old Marwa never cried even when I asked her to relive the night her parents were executed in their home. It surprised me. I wondered how she’d become so tough so quickly.

“Where were you when the gunmen came?” I asked Marwa as we sat together in a classroom in Baghdad’s Alwiya Orphanage where she now lives with her two younger sisters Alliya, 10, and Sora, 6.

“I was asleep upstairs when I head the shots,” Marwa said. “I ran downstairs and saw my mother. She was shot all over and was dead. My father was barely alive.”

Her father died two days later of multiple gunshot wounds.

I swallowed hard and asked what happened after that. 

“We lived with my uncle for about a year, and then came here.”

“Why? Why did you have to come here?” I asked. I hated asking the question, but it bothered me that her uncle would send the girls to live in an orphanage…

     

I wanted to know how Marwa rationalized it. She was very matter of fact.

“He couldn’t afford to keep us, so he brought us here.”

Out of chaos, routine
The orphanage was surprisingly clean and well organized. The girls all looked healthy and reasonably well cared for. Their lives were very regimented.

7:30 a.m. Wake up, followed by breakfast of bread and cheese.

8: 30 a.m. The girls go to school.

12:30 p.m. The girls return to the orphanage for lunch: chicken, rice and soda on the day we were there. (So many of the girls suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders that a caregiver at the orphanage told me they no longer serve drinks like soda at night because too many girls were wetting their beds.)

1:00 p.m. Half-hour playtime or rest.

1:30 p.m. Two hours of extra study in classrooms at the orphanage.

3:30 p.m. a break. Some girls shower others do laundry

4:00 p.m. Two more hours of study.

6:00 p.m. Free time. The girls can play or watch TV when the electricity works.

9:00 p.m. More chores, and then bedtime.

Little love
The girls we spoke to didn’t complain about all the studying, or the food or anything else I expected them to talk about. Most of all, with amazingly mature self-reflection, they said they were lonely.

They needed attention.

All day, the girls would come up and hold my hand. I would talk to one girl and suddenly find another one come up behind me and slip her hand into my palm, or take hold my elbow.

“They need attention and there is no love here in Baghdad,” a social worker told me. I hadn’t thought of it before.

Gun shots still
The experience had a profound affect on our entire crew. Our soundman Steve Lomonaco took dozens of pictures. The Nightly News foreign editor ML Flynn suggested that he post some of the pictures and write about what he felt.

I am lucky. I have a venue to talk about what I see and feel. It is a wonderful outlet, a way for me to release some of the stress.

Tonight Marwa, Alliya, Sora and the 53 other girls at Baghdad’s Alwiya Orphanage are finishing up their extra studies and trying to go to sleep.

There are still gunshots throughout Baghdad everyday. Marwa said every time she hears the bang of muzzle fire she is reminded of the night her parents were killed. The lingering violence is also playing psychological games on her. Now when Marwa hears gunshots in the streets she said she thinks people are trying to shoot at her.

The caregiver was right. Baghdad is a city where there is as little love as peace.

Covering the story
Veteran NBC News’ soundman Steve LoMonaco’s describes covering the story at Baghdad’s Alwiya Orphanage:

We walked through a dark hall out to a courtyard where the girls, all orphans, were waiting for lunch.

As soon as we walked into the yard, chaos erupted. The kids rushed over and started to grab our hands, following us everywhere.

They were all saying, “Hay Meester, what’s your name?” They crowded around us everywhere we went. They seemed starved for attention. They were all smiles, but you could see sadness in their eyes.

Our shoot went well, although a little harder then usual because of all the kids jumping around. But it was a lot more enjoyable for the same reason. They all love to pose for pictures.

Most of us carry small digital still cameras, so when we had the chance we took pictures. After you would take a picture, the girls would run up to you so they could see it in the monitor. Then the next one would say, “Hey meester take my picture.”

We ended up staying at the orphanage for over four hours and having an unexpectedly fun time.

By the time we left, this grizzled war weary crew was all smiles. Some of us even had thoughts of taking one of them home, but we all hoped that by airing this story it would inspire people to help. And maybe change some of the girls’ lives.


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