As foreign investment increases in Iraqi Kurdistan, cultural boundaries are being broken.
|Toy guns are popular with Iraqi children, who have grown up in a violent national context [EPA]|
As Hussein Ahmed tends his stall in Sulaimaniyah, northern Iraq’s second city, there is an edginess to his behaviour.
“If it’s illegal there is too much profit. You make 100 per cent profit if it’s illegal and only 15 per cent profit if it is legal,” Ahmed said, from the centre of Sulaimaniyah’s labyrinth traditional souq (market).
“Every week police are coming. If they find you’ve got stock they will take it and charge you one million dinar (US$900),” he continued as hundreds of shoppers worked their way to the densely-nit food and fabric stalls nearby.
“In other cities like Kirkuk you can sell what you want and the injuries of kids is too many,” Ahmed cautioned.
Ahmed says that the contraband killed 36 children in the capital Baghdad last Eid, amid a fear of a culture of violence.
The illegal goods he talks of are toy guns, usually imported from China and, if deemed dangerous, outlawed in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq for just over a year.
Culture of violence
Official figures for the number of children wounded or killed by toy guns in Iraq are difficult to obtain, however, anecdotal evidence says that fatalities and injuries such as blindness are still occurring in the relatively safe KRG as well as the restive centre and south of the country.
MAG, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works to eradicated the remnants of conflict, said that they had received information that about 30 children were injured in Erbil, the capital of the KRG, alone last Eid – when festivities and present-giving cause an upsurge in sales of toy guns.
Mufleh Talouzi, the country programme manager for MAG, said that from talking to his teams it is a “big problem”.
Talouzi said that the problem is much worse in the centre and south of the country than in the north.
An Iraqi non-violence group, La Onf has campaigned for parliament to ban toy guns but without success. During the last couple of years they have instead worked with governments in the provinces of Diyala, Maysan and Samawa to successfully make the toys illegal there.
The national Ministry of Health is now reportedly aiming to have toy guns banned throughout the country.
Talouzi has doubts concerning those measures already in place: “I don’t think that it has been effective yet. I think importing toy guns through official channels is being checked. But small businesses and small shops still buy toy guns even in the local market in a kind of black market. The law is not strict yet.
“We will need to wait until next Eid to see, because this is when the highest number of accidents happen, at Eid when everyone goes out and buys and sells the guns.”
The issue of toy guns is entangled with concerns over a culture of violence in Iraq. Fears are present that the country’s bloody history will be transmitted to following generations or even stoked.
‘Extremists take advantage’
Salar Ahmed, a coordinator for La Onf, said: “Toy guns are popular in Iraq because they reflect the situation there. Guns, bombs, suicide bombs, kidnapping – that’s the situation in Iraq.
“So when children are using they toy guns that is a reflection of the situation. They are thinking that they are a hero, it is very important to learn how to use it. It is the culture in Iraq now. They have used these toy guns for 30 or 40 years, so it has become the culture.”
Ahmed said that a present threat is groups attempting to take advantage of such habits to promote violence among youth, particularly teenagers in the centre and south.
“Many violence groups try to take advantage of the situation like Islamic extremists, groups supported by the neighbouring countries try to get kids to be involved in violence to keep Iraq as violent as it is now.
“They are using kids playing around the mosque, they are teaching kids how to use a gun or how to play with a gun, how to defend themselves, even if they are kids.
“And using this type of toys is the simple and easy way they can involve kids in the violence. That is the first way to put the kids in the violence. “
La Onf is undertaking programmes in schools to create awareness among children, parents and teachers about the dangers of toy guns and the risks associated with violent games.
The problem of toy guns is magnified by the high-rate of small-arms ownership in Iraq.
The Ministry of Interior estimates that there about 30 million small arms in Iraq for a population of almost the same number.
These include legal and illegal weapons, many distributed or taken from the stockpile of former dictator Sadaam Hussein, from foreign forces in the country or imported.
|Fears are present that groups are trying
to indoctrinate children into violence [EPA]
Although numbers are not available for the whole country, the resulting domestic casualties are alarming. In 2008 the Kirkuk Provincial Department of Health alone recorded 313 deaths and 975 injuries of mostly children and youth as a result of accidental gunfire.
In data from five northern governorates for September 2010 alone, MAG found that seven children under the age of 16 had been killed and another seven injured due by accidental firing of small arms in residential settings. This was due to relatives’ negligence while cleaning the gun, playing with a gun or mistaking unattended weapons for toy guns. Others were hurt by celebratory gunfire into the air at political celebrations.
The government has mooted a number of responses to the holding of small arms. The Ministry of Interior has suggested a database of registered owners to whom ID’s will be given.
A cash for guns programme is also being put forward in Baghdad. However, Talouzi said that this is unlikely to work in a conflict-ridden Iraq for two reasons.
“People do not want to give their guns over firstly because of security. They have no assurance from the government that they will have protection if they give their guns back. They don’t trust the police they don’t trust the security forces.
“Secondly, people see these guns as assets. They spent money on them and that’s why they wont give them back for a fee or just get rid of them.”
MAG conducts small arms risk education throughout the country, although Talouzi said that Iraqis will not listen to the idea that keeping guns is a bad idea. Rather behaviours are suggested, such as keeping weapons away from children and safe storage and cleaning.
After so many years of violence in Iraq, the battle is cultural as much as a security issue.
As Talouzi said: “Having a gun is a pride usually. Especially when you come from a context where there is a war or a resistance against an occupation or against a regime that you don’t think is fair. It then becomes something big. The gun becomes something that has to do with honour.
“It is the culture of especially respecting the gun and gaining respect from having guns at home, because of the circumstances the country has gone through.”
And that appears to be multi-generational.
Follow Rhodri Davies on Twitter: @rhodrirdavies