by Kathy Kelly © Shanti RTV news agency
Just one month ago, US/ UK bombardment of Iraq seemed almost inevitable. Even though the most comprehensive economic sanctions ever inflicted in modern history have already crippled Iraq, slaughtering over 1/2 million children under age 5, the US and the UK were poised for further assault. Today, the US still threatens air attacks upon Iraq, massive strikes that would heap more agony on civilians who've endured a seven year state of siege.
On February 9, our small delegation of eight, two from the United Kingdom and six from the US, representing thousands of supporters, traveled to Iraq carrying 110,000 dollars of medicines. We were the 11th Voices in the Wilderness delegation to deliberately violate the sanctions as part of a nonviolent campaign to end the US led economic warfare against Iraq.
From previous trips, we knew exactly where to find overwhelming evidence of a weapon of mass destruction. Inspectors have only to enter the wards of any hospital in Iraq to see that the sanctions themselves are a lethal weapon, destroying the lives of Iraq's most vulnerable people. In children's wards, tiny victims writher in pain, on blood-stained mats, bereft of anesthetics and antibiotics. Thousands of children, poisoned by contaminated water, die from dysentery, cholera, and diahhreah. Others succumb to respiratory infections that become fatal full body infections. Five thousand children, under age five, perish each month. 960,000 children who are severely malnourished will bear lifelong consequences of stunted growth, brain deficiencies, disablement. At the hands of UN/US policy makers, childhood in Iraq has, for thousands, become a living hell.
Repeatedly, the US media describes Iraq's plight as "hardship." Video footage and still photographs show professors selling their valuable books. Teenage students hawking jewelry in the market are interviewed about why they aren't in school. These are sad stories, but they distract us from the major crisis in Iraq today, the story still shrouded in secrecy. This is the story of extreme cruelty, a story of medicines being withheld from dying children. It is a story of child abuse, of child sacrifice, and it merits day to day coverage.
A Reuters TV crew accompanied our delegation to Al Mansour children's hospital. On the general ward, the day before, I had met a mother crouching over an infant, named Zayna. The child was so emaciated by nutritional marasmus that, at 7 months of age, her frail body seemed comparable to that of a 7 month premature fetus. We felt awkward about returning with a TV crew, but the camera person, a kindly man, was clearly moved by all that he'd seen in the previous wards. He made eye contact with the mother. No words were spoken, yet she gestured to me to sit on a chair next to the bed, then wrapped Zayna in a worn, damp and stained covering. Gently, she raised the dying child and put her in my arms. Was the mother trying to say, as she nodded to me, that if the world could witness what had been done to tiny Zayna, she might not die in vain? Inwardly crumpling, I turned to the camera, stammering, "This child, denied food and denied medicine, is the embargo's victim."
I felt ashamed of my own health and well-being, ashamed to be so comfortably adjusted to the privileged life of a culture that, however unwittingly, practices child sacrifice. Many of us westerners can live well, continue "having it all," if we only agree to avert our gaze, to look the other way, to politely not notice that in order to maintain our overconsumptive lifestyles, our political leaders tolerate child sacrifice. "It's a difficult choice to make," said Madeleine Albright when she was asked about the fact that more children had died in Iraq than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, "but," she continued, "we think the price is worth it." Iraqi oil must be kept off the markets, at all costs, even if sanctions cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. The camera man had moved on. "I'm sorry, Zayna," I whispered helplessly to the mother and child. "I'm so sorry."
Camera crews accompanied us to hospitals in Baghdad, Basra and Fallujah. They filmed the horrid conditions inside grim wards. They filmed a cardiac surgeon near tears telling how it feels to decide which of three patients will get the one available ampule of heart medicine . "Yesterday," said Dr. Faisal, a cardiac surgeon at the Fallujah General Hospital, "I shouted at my nurse. I said, 'I told you to give that ampule to this patient. The other two will have to die.'" A camera crew followed us into the general ward of a children's hospital when a mother began to sob convulsively because her baby had just suffered a cardiac arrest. Dr. Qusay, the chief of staff, rushed to resuscitate the child, then whispered to the mother that they had no oxygen, that the baby was gasping her dying breaths. All of the mothers, cradling their desperately ill infants, began to weep. The ward was a death row for infants.
Associated Press, Reuters and other news companies' footage from hospital visits was broadcast in the Netherlands, in Britain, in Spain and in France. But people in the US never glimpsed those hospital wards.
I asked a cameraman from a major US news network why he came to the entrance of a hospital to film us, but opted not to enter the hospital. "Please," I begged, "we didn't ask you to film us as talking heads. The story is inside the hospital." He shrugged. "Both sides use the children suffering," he explained, "and we've already done hospitals." I might have added that they'd already "done" F 16's lifting off of runways, they'd "done" white UN vehicles driving off to inspect possible weapon sites, they'd "done" innumerable commercials for US weapon displays.
While political games are played, the children are dying and we have seen them die. If people across the US could see what we've seen, if they witnessed, daily, the crisis of child sacrifice and child slaughter, we believe hearts would be touched. Sanctions would not withstand the light of day.
I felt sad and shattered as we left Iraq. A peaceful resolution to the weapons inspection crisis was reached, at least temporarily, but Iraqi friends were intensely skeptical. "They are going to hit us. This is sure," said Samir, a young computer engineer. "Anyway, look what happens to us every day." Feeling helpless to notify anyone, we had left the scene of an ongoing crime.
Upon return to the US, customs agents turned my passport over to the state department, perhaps as evidence that according to US law I've committed a criminal act by traveling to Iraq. I know that our efforts to be voices in the wilderness aren't criminal. We're governed by compassion, not by laws that pitilessly murder innocent children. What's more, Iraqi children might benefit if we could bring their story into a courtroom, before a jury of our peers.
We may be tempted to feel pessimistic, but Iraq's children can ill afford our despair. They need us to build on last month's resistance to military strikes. During the Gulf War, I wasn't in the US (I was with the Gulf Peace Team, camped on the border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq and later evacuated to Baghdad). I didn't witness, firsthand, the war fever and war hysteria. But people told me, when I returned to the US, that the war had often seemed like a sporting event. Some people went to bars, raised mugs of beer and cheered when "smart bombs" exploded on their targets. "Rock Iraq! Slam Saddam! Say Hello to Allah!" they shouted.
I think of Umm Reyda when I hear those accounts, a mother who lost nine of her family members when, on February 12, 1991, two astonishingly smart bombs blasted the Ameriyah community center. Families in the Ameriyah neighborhood had gathered to commemorate the end of Ramadan. They had invited many refugees to join them and had made extra room in the overnight basement shelter so that all could huddle together for a relatively safe night's sleep. The smart bombs penetrated the "achilles heel" of the building, the spot where ventilation shafts had been installed. The first bomb exploded and forced 17 bodies out of the building. The second bomb followed immediately after the first, and when it exploded the exits were sealed off. The temperature inside rose to 500 degrees centigrade and the pipes overhead burst with boiling water which cascaded down on the innocents who slept. Hundreds of people were melted. Umm Reyda greets each of our delegations, just as she greeted me when I first met her in March, 1991. "We know that you are not your government," she says, "and that your people would never choose to do this to us." I've always felt relief that she never saw television coverage of US people in bars, cheering her children's death.
Last month, on February 18, 1998, a vastly different cry was shouted by college students. They didn't cheer the bombers, and in Columbus, Ohio they may well have prevented them from deadly missions. "One two three four, we don't want your racist war." The lines confronted Ms. Albright, crackled across Baghdad. People on the streets smiled at me, an obvious westerner, and counted, "one, two three four..."
A week later, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, at the conclusion of his remarks introducing a peaceful resolution to the weapon inspection crisis, urged young people around the world to recognize that we are all part of one another, to see the world not from the narrow perspective of their own locale but rather from a clear awareness of our fundamental interdependence. What a contrast between his vision of a new generation that wants to share this planet's resources and serve one another's best interests, globally, and the vision that Ms. Albright offers: "If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future."
Ms. Albright's reference to "use of force" is the stuff of nightmares, given the ominous comments some US military officials have made about preparedness to use even nuclear force. I doubt that other nations will accept that the US "stands tall." It's more likely that international consensus will conclude that the US lacks the moral standing to be prosecutor, judge, and jury in the dispute over Iraq's policies. Most people in the Arab world believe that the US favors Israel and is unwilling to criticize its actions, even when they violate international agreements or United Nations resolutions. People throughout the world point to the hypocrisy of the government of the US in other aspects of international relations. The US is over $1 billion in arrears in payments to the United Nations; it has ignored judgments by the World Court and overwhelming votes in the UN General Assembly whenever they conflict with its desires; and despite its rhetoric about human rights, the US record of support for ruthless regimes is shameful.
Is it outlandish to think that courage, wisdom and love could inform the formation of foreign and domestic policies? Is it overly optimistic to think that we could choose to ban the sale of weapons of mass destruction? Is it too much to ask that economic sanctions against Iraq be lifted and never again used as a form of child sacrifice? For the sake of all children, everywhere, lets continue sounding a wake up call to US officials. They must stop punishing and murdering Iraqi children. The agreement negotiated by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan offers a basis for continued weapon inspections and the earliest possible end to the deadly embargo of trade with Iraq. The deeds of one leader, or even of an entire government, cannot be used to justify an unprecedented violation of human rights. Umm Reyda, through seven years of mourning, still forgives US people. It's time that we respond with remorse and regret for the suffering we've caused and a commitment to end this racist war.
[Kathy Kelly helps co-ordinate Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end the UN/US sanctions against Iraq. The campaign, which began in January, 1996, has sent 11 delegations to Iraq and is planning two more delegations for early spring, 1998. Members have been warned that they face 12 years in prison, one million dollars in fines and a US $250,000 administrative penalty if they persist in their efforts to publicly violate the UN/US sanctions against Iraq. Members of the campaign are committed to non-violent resistance to injustice and oppose the development, storage, sale and use of all weapons of mass destruction, including economic sanctions imposed on innocent civilians. Voices in the Wildernss A Campaign to End the US/UN Economic Sanctions Against the People of Iraq].
[Parveez Syed is an investigative journalist. He has exposed many political liars and subverters. His copyrighted, unique features are developed into probing factual television documentaries. The features are archived on more than 16,000 websites worldwide. Moles and whistleblowers e-mail their leaks to Parveez Syed].
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