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Iraq's horror is worst activist has seen

Special Report Writer

She has visited many of the world's hot spots in the past nine years -- Bosnia, Croatia, Haiti, Jordan, Nicaragua -- in her role as one of America's most active pacifists. But nothing she encountered in other war-torn venues prepared her for the unrelenting horror of Iraq some six years after the end of the Gulf War.

"The children are dying -- more than 4,500 a month under the age of 5," said Kathy Kelly, citing statistics released by the United Nations in late 1996. "What we are doing is waging biological warfare against a civilian population."

Since the end of the war some 600,000 Iraqi children have perished due to starvation and disease, according to the United Nations.

Indeed, the sanctions imposed on post-war Iraq are the most severe laid on any nation in modern times. And though they have failed to provoke the ousting of President Saddam Hussein or to convince a special U.N. commission that he is not still smuggling arms into his country, they have had a decided effect. Iraq, whose economy is based almost entirely on the sale of oil, is able to export only a trickle. It cannot purchase medicine, machinery, spare parts, agricultural supplies or even chlorine to purify the water. Malnutrition and water-borne diseases like cholera and typhus are rampant, with the youngest, the oldest and the poorest most vulnerable. The country's once modern infrastructure is falling apart, and the unemployment rate is estimated at 85 percent.

People sit in the streets of large cities like Basra and Baghdad offering for sale their electrical appliances, clothing, blankets, even the doors from their houses, in order to buy food. These pervasive city-wide flea markets have proven attractive to foreigners looking for bargains.

A sewage pumping station in Basra broke down more than a year ago, turning many streets into permanent rivers of raw waste.

The middle class as well as the poor have been deeply affected by the sanctions. According to a Time magazine report, the head of a government department uses his car as a taxi after work. His wife takes in laundry. A woman fluent in four languages, who formerly ran a flourishing car rental service, has been forced to sell her furniture and cooking utensils.

Yet, noted Time, the middle class is not in a revolutionary mood. It is simply trying to survive. Meanwhile, the ruling class and the very wealthy live as comfortably as ever. According to an American diplomat, "The Iraqi leadership has chosen to spend its money on itself and not on its starving population."

Kelly, 44, is a soft-spoken, gentle-appearing Chicagoan and a veteran of the Catholic Worker movement who has been arrested more than 40 times and spent a year in federal prison for her anti-war efforts. She was a part of the 72-member international Gulf Peace Team that camped on the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia in 1991 just as Operation Desert Storm was getting underway. The protesters were forcibly removed by the Iraqi military when the shooting started.

Now Kelly is a major organizer of a group called Voices in the Wilderness, which has been carrying food and medicines into Iraq for more than a year in open violation of the sanctions. Others prominent in the group include veteran anti-war activist Bradford Lyttle, Northwestern University graduate student Brad Simpson, Sacred Heart Fr. Robert Bossie and Catholic Worker organizer Chuck Quilty. In the most recent visit in late March, Kelly and a few others distributed their meager supplies at Baghdad's Al Mansur Hospital where they had previously encountered many children suffering from leukemia.

"We showed the doctor a picture taken last August of two children -- Muhammad and Noora," said Kelly. "We wondered if the medicines we brought might be used to help them." Calmly, she recalled, the doctor explained that Muhammad had died two days before their arrival and Noora two weeks before that.

The condition of hospitals all over the country is abominable, Kelly said, with the sick lying on blood-stained beds without sheets or on the floor. At the Pediatric and Gynecological Hospital in Basra, they saw a row of 14 incubators standing idle because replacement parts are unavailable. In one wing of the hospital housing scores of sick people, only one toilet was working. Since the electricity goes off five or more times a day, much of the life-sustaining electrical equipment that still works is virtually useless.

"I held dying children in my arms," said Kelly. "Some were gasping for breath, too weak to move. I asked a mother if she had any message for the United States. She said, 'I would only ask them what they would do if this was their child.' "

Amid all this tragedy, Kelly was struck by the strength and courage she encountered. "So many examples of heroism," she said. "We met doctors working around the clock for next to no income, hotel desk clerks who introduced us to the neediest families in their neighborhood, a widow managing somehow to care for eight children, a civil engineer who vented his frustration to us and immediately said, 'Now what can I do to help you.' We saw all of these people laboring to share with other needy people their resources, income, homes and even their seemingly impossible hopes."

Kelly was especially struck by Dijbraeel Kassab, the Chaldean Christian archbishop of southern Iraq. He is, she says, "the inheritor of Archbishop [Oscar] Romero's mantle, a genuine voice of the poor." Kassab, one of the few priests still active in Basra, had opened all church buildings to the homeless and was relentless in trying to secure clothing, food and supplies for the poor. "He is constantly in the streets," said Kelly, "visiting the sick, begging for help anywhere he can find it."

Last December, the U.N. passed Resolution 986, which allows Iraq to sell $1 billion in oil every six months; this has resulted in the establishment of thousands of emergency food stations throughout the country. Kelly said the help amounts to a drop in the bucket and crisis conditions still prevail everywhere. Kelly, who raises the awful specter of Iraq in numerous public appearances, asked, "Are we in this country content to just let this go on? Are we prepared to take responsibility for a whole future generation of malnourished and stunted persons?"

She is well aware that the United States places blame for the human devastation in Iraq on Saddam's shoulders, but she rejects what she calls "a consistent policy of suffering imposed on the innocent for our political gains." Last January during the Senate confirmation hearings for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Kelly and four other members of Voices in the Wilderness interrupted the proceedings to plead their cause.

Kelly, the first to rise up in the visitors' section, said, "A half million Iraqi children have died because of U.S.-U.N. sanctions. Please, Mrs. Albright, you could do so much good." Kelly was promptly ushered out of the hearing, but the others raised their voices one by one, creating a lengthy disturbance. When calm returned Albright said, "I am as concerned about the children of Iraq as any person in this room. ... Saddam Hussein is the one who has the fate of his country in his hands."

The next day Albright was praised in the press for displaying "her celebrated cool under fire." Kelly and the other protesters issued a press statement saying, "Iraqi children are totally innocent of oil power politics. All those who prevent the lifting of sanctions, including Madeleine Albright, are not. One-line disclaimers of responsibility may appear admirable, but the children are dead and we have seen them dying."

The slow genocide has aroused the concern of other individuals and organizations as well. In a letter to the chairman of the U.N. commission investigating Iraq's compliance with the weapons ban, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark wrote, "No failure to comply with the U.N. condition can possibly justify the collective punishment of the entire nation and the direct deaths of infants, children, the elder population and the handicapped. You are fully aware that no hidden arms or arms program in Iraq can possibly pose the threat to life anywhere that the sanctions inflict on Iraq every day. These sanctions kill more people each week than Iraq with all its armies and materiel ... could inflict on foreign armies ... when Iraq was under assault" in 1991.

Each time Kelly or other Voice of Wilderness members go to Iraq they advise the State Department of their intentions. And each time they receive a letter of warning: "You and members of Voice in the Wilderness are hereby warned to refrain from engaging in any unauthorized transactions related to the exportation of medical supplies and travel to Iraq."

The penalties, they are informed, range up to 12 years in prison and more than $1 million in fines. Yet federal authorities have made no attempt to arrest or charge those who flaunt the ban. Kelly hopes she and her companions will be prosecuted during one of their future trips. "What an opportunity!" she said. "To go before a jury with the evidence of starvation and malnutrition, to show the small supplies of medicine and food our government forbids us to bring the dying. I would dearly relish such an opportunity."

Another Voices in the Wilderness delegation is slated to travel to Iraq in late May. Among the visitors will be a U.S. veteran of the Gulf War.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 1997