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Street battles
Iraqi children endangered by toy guns

Adel Kamal
The local government of Ninawa banned toy guns over a year ago but there are still plenty on sale. As the toy guns are gifted over the Eid holiday, the risk to Iraqi children’s physical and mental health rises.
7.11.2011  |  Mosul

Around a year ago the authorities in the state of Ninawa, in northern Iraq, banned toy guns. Ostensibly this was because of the negative psychological impact they have on local children but it is also because children playing with such toys have been mistaken for combatants with real guns in the past.

But just a few days before the three day Muslim religious holiday of Eid al-Adha, during which charity and close family relations are emphasised and presents are distributed, the stores in Ninawa’s capital city Mosul were still full of plastic guns. The stores were ready to fulfil local kids’ wishes on the first day of Eid, Oct. 5, when gifts or money are given.

According to the original ban on toy weapons, sellers had up until the end of 2010 to sell off this type of merchandise – after that, financial penalties would be imposed on anyone still selling plastic weapons. However despite the ban, trading in toy guns didn’t actually ever stop in Mosul. This was partially because of high demand for the toys and partially because of the ease with which toy guns could be brought into Iraq. Ninawa’s authorities are only really able to control one important nearby border crossing, Rabia on the border of Syria and Iraq, and other crossing points remained open for anyone who wanted to bring plastic guns into the country.

Mosul markets continue to stock a wide variety of toy weapons, including rocket launchers, various kinds of pistols and rifles, hand grenades, wireless devices, day and night binoculars, handcuffs and ammunition. And even though local adults want to forget about the years of violence and war and they’re nervous about what will happen in the area, since the withdrawal of US troops on Oct. 17, these kinds of toys are still very popular with the local youth.

Some have laid the blame for the violent toys on the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, saying they didn’t become popular until after then. However local sociologist Dr Waad Amin says this isn’t correct. “Iraq became an arsenal after the start of the Iraq-Iran war in 1980. After this year, every aspect of Iraqi life became militarized. From government institutions to sports clubs to industries and universities. Children even started to wear military uniforms to play war games on the street and inside their homes,” Amin points out.

When the United Nations Security Council imposed financial sanctions and a trade embargo on Iraq in 1990 after the country’s invasion of Kuwait, the income of the average Iraqi family decreased significantly. The number of toy guns also decreased because, as Amin explains, “under such conditions, it’s normal that the family budget would not be spent on toys. But the passion for warlike toys remained strong,” he adds, saying that Iraqi children found cheap alternatives to fuel these kinds of games.

“They would remove the sulphur from the heads of matches and wrap it up in the aluminium papers you find in cigarette carton wrapping. Then they would hit those balls with stones or hammers so that the balls gave off the same noise as guns. This was a popular game,” Amin recalls.

Today in Mosul, a city that is still one of the most violent and conflicted in Iraq due to ongoing ethnic and sectarian issues, there are still many security checkpoints, especially at the entrance of residential areas, and a lot of heavily armed Iraqi army troops manning them. Experts in childhood psychology know that children like to imitate others and have seen younger Iraqis begin to idolize the military, who appear as powerful figures in the country’s martial culture.

Another reason for the banning of toy weapons is that they can be mistaken for real ones – especially in a place like Mosul. There have been several incidents like this around Iraq, where soldiers have shot, or come close to shooting, children because the children were armed with toy guns - especially between 2006 and 2008 when violent unrest was at its peak.

Neither the regional departments of health nor the regional police were able to supply NIQASH with accurate figures on how many such incidents had taken place. However sources in both offices told NIQASH that there have been a number of these kinds of incidents and there are fears that there could be more soon. After the US withdrawal there are fears that members of the Iraqi security forces, who are less experienced and therefore more trigger happy, will not hesitate to shoot. In a city where the military don’t know where to expect the next attack from, and where terrorists appear and disappear like ghosts, this becomes more likely.

A doctor at Mosul’s general hospital, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that he had personally supervised the treatment of two children recently shot by Iraqi security forces. The children’s parents had told him their offspring had been playing with toy weapons at the time they were shot.

The doctor said that Eid was far from being a time of relaxation for hospital staff – during the holidays children would often be admitted with wounds inflicted by toy weapons like pellet guns and also with burns from the fireworks, another tradition during Eid.

In Mosul, the prayers that are said for Eid mark the beginning of the “children’s war”. The noise of fireworks and shooting continues for most of the day and is even worse in Mosul’s more populous areas.

Local police tend not to take any complaints about the noise seriously, telling the complainants that they have more serious things to worry about. NIQASH asked Fares Baqou, the state’s legal adviser, whether violations against the civil code concerning noise are ever enforced; the punishments are usually fines.

Baqou only smiled. “The law hasn’t been applied to the army and police forces who fire guns into the air to control traffic,” he replied. “It hasn’t been applied to those drivers that use loud speakers or their car horns, or to those who drive like madmen and cause fear and panic on the streets!”

The holiday of Eid started on Oct. 5. A few days beforehand, one could hear all kinds of loud noises in central Mosul: motor vehicles, aircrafts, electronic games beeping and making explosive noises and toy weapons firing.

Once the holiday begins, there will be even more noise and more children in central Mosul. None of them seem to be aware that the games they are playing today echo the battles their parents fought in the recent past. And they may even foreshadow conflicts these children may be forced to deal with in the future.