BAGHDAD, Iraq—A visitor stumbled upon a small cluster of 4-year-olds just in time to hear Ahmed Yousif casually explain: "Yeah, I saw it on the Internet, but the guy with the long hair wasn't fully decapitated."
Ali Najee, all of 5 years old, was frustrated because even with the authentic three-round burst sounds he made to accompany shooting his friends with a toy AK-47 rifle, the game lacked realism. Then he hit on an answer. As he shot, he tossed water onto his friends' clothing, darkening it. "There's your blood. Now you're dead."
Three-year-old Safa played with a doll at the feet of her mother, who muttered while solving a crossword puzzle, "The name of an Iraqi prime minister?" Safa blurted out, "Jaafari." When her mother asked what she knew about prime ministers and politics, the little girl, barely able to pronounce the words, said, "Well, I've been wondering about the constitution. Is it a good thing?"
Childhood innocence may not be dead in Iraq, but teachers, parents and government officials agree that it's taken a bad hit and may not recover without immediate and intensive attention.
Khaldoon Waleed, a Baghdad child psychologist, said that a generation of children is growing up with post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD, a result of witnessing life-threatening events, is commonly associated with soldiers, and Waleed said it could cause everything from nightmares to an inability to connect with people.
"The children of Iraq have lost all sense of humanity," he said. "Killing and being killed has become daily routine to them."
He said their young lives are overloaded with the violent issues of Iraq. Parents find it impossible to hide the harsh realities from them, so children are forced into adult life. And it's a harsh adult life.
Haifa Mahmoud, the headmistress of Ibn al Khateep Primary School, has to explain to children every day what's going on in Karrada, their dangerous neighborhood.
The children who come to her sidestep gun battles, watch for low-riding cars—a sign of a car bomb—and endure sleepless nights because of the roar of explosion after explosion and the vibrations of American Black Hawk helicopters above their roofs.
Their friends frequently disappear in kidnappings, and they grow used to dead bodies and body parts in the streets.
"We're working really hard to bring about changes in their minds," Mahmoud said. "But even if we're successful, we've helped one or two children. The general wave is so much bigger than us."
Teacher Fotoon Eisa said: "We need to rehabilitate families and children. Everyone needs a good brain cleansing."
Toy-sellers say that while traditional favorites such as dolls and race cars do little more than gather dust, realistic toy guns fly off the shelves. Both boys and girls talk about wanting such toys more than anything else, except perhaps real guns and ammunition.
In school, childhood art commonly is violent these days, featuring tanks and gun battles and blood and dead bodies. Often the violent artwork isn't labeled, but children are aware of the players in the fighting here, from U.S. and Iraqi forces to the sectarian militias to the local and foreign insurgents.
Mustafa Aqueel, 6, doesn't understand why people think life in Iraq is so complicated. He said the rules are pretty simple.
"We shoot at each other," he said. "If he kills me, I shall lose. But if I kill him, I shall win."
"We had a 5-year-old boy stop a friend on the playground and ask if he was Sunni or Shiite," referring to Iraq's major Muslim religious groups, which are struggling for political control of the country, said Mama Eiser of The Mama Eiser Center for Childhood.
Mothers complain that their kids don't know what they want or like anymore, that they're too distracted to focus on anything as simple as playtime. Raia, a teacher at the Ibn al Khateep school who asked that her full name not be used to ensure her security, recounted how the children had come to her at story time to ask if they could turn on the television instead and watch the Saddam Hussein trial.
"Therapy is not going to be easy," she said.
Kareem al Wa'eli, who heads general education for the Education Ministry, said politicians and officials understood that "the premature childhood issue, as we call it" is a huge and growing problem. He said that three dozen Iraqi and 40 international researchers are planning to meet soon in Paris to address it.
Iraqi officials also are working with United Nations organizations to create a National Center for Childhood. Wa'eli acknowledged, however, that these are long-term answers.
"If we keep working, really hard, we may bring about positive results after 10 years," he said. "Changing a child's mentality, restoring innocence, is a long, hard time."
(Obeid is a Knight Ridder special correspondent.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-CHILDREN