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Cover story

Iraq: for the children, sanctions are deadlier than the bombs

Baghdad and Basra, Iraq
Photos by Tom Roberts, Pedro Brieger and Nabil Al Jorani

The imam stood in the center of a circle of women who were kneeling, praying and studying the Quran at the mosque in the Adamia neighborhood of Baghdad. Abdul Gaforer Al-Quisi, spiritual leader of the mosque, introduced the American visitors, who had just sat through his extended tirade against the Clinton administration. He explained that every time the women studied Quran and prayed, they prayed “against the American administration.”

His voice rising, he said through an interpreter, “Each of these women has lost a husband, a son, a brother in the war or children to the sanctions. So you can see how they hate America.”

The pause that followed seemed to last forever, a deep silence begging some response, a defense, an explanation, something. Everyone, it seemed, was straining for what was to come next. Chicagoan Kathy Kelly quietly asked the imam through the translator if she could say something.

“Certainly,” he motioned her to come forward and engage in the discussion.

She moved forward and knelt, filling a small opening in the circle of women. “Like all Iraqi women,” she said softly, waiting for the translation, “you have taught us.” Then, touching the arm of the woman next to her, she said, “And we are sorry.” The gesture brought tears to those in the circle and some of the onlookers. The imam was silent. The woman leading the teaching, the servant of the Quran, walked across the circle with a cloth for Kelly to dry her eyes, and she, in turn, dried the eyes of the woman next to her.

As if on cue, the call to evening prayer sounded from the main part of the mosque. Time for the men to leave the women’s section. Kelly dared one more request of the imam as the group was leaving. “May we,” she said, motioning to include the other American women who had joined the kneeling circle, “stay and pray?”

“Of course,” he said.

The moment disarmed, the discussion had gone where Kelly always wants it to go, person to person, beneath the hardened lines of battle. It is one of the guiding motives of the group she leads, Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end the economic sanctions against the people of Iraq. Kelly, more than most, knows that the geopolitical conflict that has reached down into these women’s lives is terribly complex and that Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein bears a measure of responsibility for aggravating it. Yet she also knows those subtleties mean little to a mother who has watched a child starve to death or die of a disease that Iraqi doctors could have treated if there were no sanctions.

The women went on to pray, the Americans listening and mimicking movements. And then, through a translator, they began to share: the Iraqi women about the losses of loved ones to war; the Americans about how some had spent time in jail for protesting U.S. military policy. By the time the men returned, the women were smiling and embracing. It looked like an interfaith kiss of peace.

The scene incorporated the extravagant Arab hospitality for which this region of the world is known and Kelly’s absolute conviction that pacifism is the world’s only hope. In this case a moment was transformed. Perhaps it takes a dreamer to press on, for in the case of Iraq and the United States, there is an ocean of moments in need of transformation.

New languages, new images

Waging war in the post-Cold War era comes with a new set of language and images. Smart bombs and Stealth bombers are supposed to assure that our battles are swift and clean and limited to one-way damage. Because of computer-guided weapons and planes that can outsmart radar, our wars are conducted mostly at night. They tend to come with ready-made names -- Desert Storm, Desert Fox -- as well as TV graphics and that enduring symbol of post-Cold War coverage, the darkened skyline of some faraway city seen through the mint-jelly haze of nighttime photography.

Kathy Kelly won’t make any of the Pentagon’s P.R. materials and CNN won’t incorporate her into any of its logos, but if the wars continue, she might well become another fixture of this age’s battle zones. She’s a wisp of a figure in flowing skirts, balanced by a rich tangle of red-brown curls, worn pulled back, and thick-heeled clunky black shoes.

If there were a logo, it would show her, briefcase in hand, leading a delegation through some faraway city in daylight, insisting that humans find an alternative to bombs and sanctions. Mary Poppins does civil disobedience.

She’s a hard-nosed dreamer, the unlikely defier of the U.S.-inspired United Nations’ sanctions against Iraq. For nearly three years she has directed a kind of alternative travel agency, arranging for a steady flow of Americans to a land where they are not supposed to go, bearing medicine and school supplies forbidden under the sanctions. She is determined to make this largely unseen war visible, and that determination is continuously fueled by the plight of the children.

She is a living explanation of the fact that pacifism is not necessarily passive. “We ask soldiers to risk their lives, to lay down their lives, in war. What do we ask of pacifists?” So she keeps going to Baghdad.

Hers is a ground campaign, a tactic that apparently still evades the high-tech stuff with a very low-tech strategy. Getting to Baghdad today requires a Rube Goldberg approach to travel that begins with a 12- to 15-hour flight from the United States to Amman, Jordan. In Amman, Voices in the Wilderness delegations stay in a hotel -- two flights up off the street and then to spartan rooms accessible by one tiny, creaky elevator -- for a brief overnight before taking off around 5:30 the next morning on another 12- to 15-hour jaunt.

The final leg of the journey is through the vastness of the desert, hundreds of monotonous miles through flat, beige landscape cut by surprisingly well-maintained two-lane and four-lane highways. Travel is accomplished in a van or bus loaded with bottled water for the stay in Iraq.

Two previous delegations have landed in a roadside ditch for hours because drivers fell asleep. This time, Kelly insisted on two drivers, an extra should the first driver get sleepy.

It takes about six hours to get to the border with Iraq, where the bureaucrats in this lonely outpost are strangely welcoming as they go about scratching who-knows-what on large, antiquated ledgers and stamping who-knows-what on visas. They considerately use separate pieces of paper so the Iraqi stamps don’t show up on the passports, a matter that could complicate travel to some other countries. The passports are then checked at no fewer than four points as the bus winds through a maze of roadways that makes sense, no doubt, to someone.

In between the passport checking is a stay of several hours, spent mostly in a large reception room that looks like an outsized living room, carpeted and with comfortable furniture and a wall-sized oil portrait of Saddam Hussein. For the uninitiated, it is a foretaste of what is to come: Saddam the ubiquitous. It seems a contest is on in Iraq to see how many ways and on how many surfaces and in how many poses the leader of the country can be depicted. It is the iconography of a dictatorship in which severe punishment -- life imprisonment or death -- is constitutionally provided for criticizing or speaking ill of the president.

In all, it takes 25 to 30 hours to get to Baghdad from the United States, depending on your starting point. Kelly is almost a regular commuter. This trip in mid-April is her ninth to Iraq in three years, the 23rd for Voices in the Wilderness since it began shuttling delegations here in 1996. The April delegation is also the largest, totaling 15, and made up mostly of Catholic Workers. The senior in the group is 69-year-old Mary K. Meyer, who for the past 11 years has run a Catholic Worker house for up to 25 homeless men in Kansas City, Kans. The youngest is 24-year-old Jeff Guntsel, a former punk rock drummer who now works full-time for Voices. The group is accompanied by three journalists, two from the United States, one from Argentina. It is an unwieldy group at times that taxes the good will of Kelly’s contacts in Iraq, but also perhaps is a sign of growing momentum behind the movement.

The Catholic Workers, who live a life of voluntary poverty serving the poor and marginalized in the United States, had to raise funds for their travel. The groups, representing Catholic Worker houses or communities in Kansas City, Mo., Kansas City, Kan., Binghamton, N.Y., Ithaca, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., were surprised at the outpouring of support. Some were able to raise tens of thousands of dollars, far more than necessary, and donated the unused funds to Voices in the Wilderness and to purchase medicine.

Civil disobedience is primary

In Baghdad the medicine along with the bottled water is stashed in a room in the Al Fanar Hotel, which serves as home base for the delegation and which once must have been a fine hotel. Today it is dingy; paint is peeling from the walls; a number of young men who work here sleep on the floor at one end of the dining room at night.

The first floor reeks of the kerosene that the manager says is used to fire the generator in the basement, a hedge against the constant electrical blackouts. When driving through the city you can tell which neighborhoods are undergoing blackouts by the dead traffic lights. “No, it was not like this before the sanctions,” said the workers at the hotel and the taxi drivers. “Before sanctions, everything worked, everything was fine.”

Except for two Italian women, representatives of an Italian peace group, who maintain rooms at the hotel, and a native Jordanian, now from Holland, who pronounces, the first evening in perfect English, that “all governments are shit,” the hotel appears empty.

Three days into our stay, two busloads of Muslims from India show up for several days. They are touring holy sites on their way home from the hajj, the trip to Mecca that all devout Muslims are encouraged to take at least once in their lives. The group is gone most of the day, but as soon as it returns in late afternoon so do several young Iraqis selling black leather jackets. For some reason these Indians, in flowing pastel cotton garb, are greatly attracted to the black leather jackets. Part of the sales pitch is to hold a flaming lighter under one of the sleeves to prove the material isn’t plastic.

Soon after the Voices delegation arrives in Iraq, Kelly calls a meeting and restates the points of a briefing that all of the groups have heard before embarking on the trip. There are certain nonnegotiables about the purpose of Voices in the Wilderness. Such clarity of purpose, we would learn later from Westerners living here, has earned the organization valuable credibility. As one seasoned observer told the journalists: “The government [of Iraq] is using her to some extent, but then the government is using everyone. But she is very clear about her purpose, and people [in the United Nations, for instance, and among members of the press] have respect for her.”

Kelly emphasized that Voices, though it brings into the country a token amount of medicine, is not a relief agency, so she warns against making promises of medicines or treatment or money. Do not give false hope. People are desperate, she said, and saying no or explaining that nothing can be done will be extremely difficult.

The organization is here to deliberately defy the sanctions, to set up a nonviolent confrontation over a policy that the group believes is tantamount to full-scale war against the most vulnerable in Iraqi society.

The sanctions that were first imposed in August 1990 by Resolution 661 of the U.N. Security Council after Iraq invaded Kuwait have been in place without letup for nearly 10 years. In modern history there has been no parallel to the complete and total isolation from the rest of the world to which Iraq has been subjected. The resolution set out “a full trade embargo barring all imports from and exports to Iraq” except for medical supplies, foodstuffs and other humanitarian items “as determined by the Security Council sanctions committee,” according to a document produced by the United Nations Oil-For-Food program office in Iraq.

It was only in May 1996 that the Oil-For-Food program came into being, allowing Iraq to sell a small amount of oil each year to purchase a minimal amount of food and medicine.

Over the course of the embargo, the basic unit of currency, the Iraqi dinar, was devalued to such an extent as to be virtually worthless. Before 1990, one dinar was worth three-and-a-half U.S. dollars. Now it takes just under 2,000 dinars to make a dollar. So a 250-dinar note, the most commonly used bank note these days, once worth about $800 in U.S. currency, is now worth about 12 cents.

Iraq, which once imported nearly everything because of its oil riches, could buy almost nothing after the embargo was put in place. Even under the current system of oil for food, the country is purchasing but a fraction of what it needs to sustain itself and certainly nothing that would begin to rebuild the war’s damage to oil production facilities and water and sewage treatment plants.

Saddam Hussein notwithstanding, almost overnight, Iraq went from being one of the richest, most progressive of the Arab states to a crippled society, denied access to its principal natural resource, with a civilian infrastructure and an economy in ruins.

Sanctions once may have been viewed as a humanitarian alternative to bombing. In the case of the total freeze placed on Iraq, though, people like Kelly are convinced that sanctions have become more deadly than bombs. They are worse than bombing military targets, she argues, because they target the most vulnerable and helpless in Iraqi society.

For acting on such convictions, Voices in the Wilderness was threatened in December with a $120,000 fine by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control for engaging in prohibited transactions “relating to the embargo against Iraq.” Specifically, the group has been cited for delivering donated “medical supplies and toys” to Iraq. Four members of the campaign face an additional $43,000 in fines for traveling to Iraq.

In January, the Office of Foreign Assets Control again warned Voices against traveling to Iraq and delivering medical supplies, noting that violation of the embargo could draw criminal penalties of up to $1 million in fines and up to 12 years in prison, and civil penalties of up to $250,000 per violation. Those penalties, she advises all who travel in the delegations, could be applied to anyone who joins the effort.

The threats have not stopped the campaign. Since that December warning, the delegations have been almost constant, including one in early March made up of Nobel Peace Laureates Mairead Maguire of Ireland and Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina. They were accompanied by Jesuit Fr. John Dear, director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation USA.

That was followed by a group from Boston. Just before the group of Catholic Workers showed up, a delegation of activists from Philadelphia had been in Iraq with a group representing Physicians for Social Responsibility. And toward the end of the Catholic Workers’ stay a group of Dominican sisters from across the United States showed up. They had been moved by a letter sent out a year ago by Dominican Master General Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, who wrote, on returning from a visit to Iraq, that the Iraqi Dominican sisters had told him, “We are ground down, exhausted by years of death.”

Radcliffe continued, “It is as if the embargo had sometimes seemed to shut out even God. ... What this people hunger for more than anything else is a word of hope.”

So Kelly is once more explaining to another delegation the simple purpose of Voices in the Wilderness and the need to abide by the rules that Iraq has put in place in light of the bombings and sanctions. Taking pictures on the street is prohibited unless a “minder,” an employee of the Red Crescent Society, the equivalent of the Red Cross in Muslim countries, says it is all right to do so. Journalists with the group are advised that outside of Baghdad interviews can be conducted only with a minder present and often translating, and only those pictures allowed by the guides can be snapped.

She also warns against attempting discussions about Saddam Hussein. Because of the severity of punishment for anything construed as critical, people never mention his name. For a visitor to do so could place someone in jeopardy. The assumption is that rooms are bugged and telephone lines are tapped.

The point is hammered home as we make our way through meetings and interviews. Only the U.N. offices and the papal nuncio’s sitting room are free of pictures or portraits of Saddam Hussein. To this Westerner’s ear, it seemed that everyone had a version of an oath of loyalty to Saddam that was part of any presentation. It was easy to imagine that, in a society where conversations might quickly be reported up the line, such obeisance is a natural part of any public exchange.

Even in the private quarters of Archbishop Djibrail Kassab of Basra, a picture of Pope John Paul II was slightly off to the side above the bishop’s chair. A photo of Saddam Hussein with the bishop was directly above the chair.

In the offices of the imam mentioned earlier, pictures showed Saddam in two prayer poses, one in military uniform and one in civilian clothes.

In the southern city of Basra, the hotel we stayed in hosted a photo exhibit, including disturbing images of children killed when American bombs fell on a crowded neighborhood in the city. The exhibit was a celebration of a national day for photographers. Sure enough, as the exhibit was put in place, a large painting of Saddam Hussein, this time in a casual sport coat with an open-collar shirt and straw hat, camera in hand, was placed on a prominently positioned easel. Saddam, the universal tourist.

He was everywhere, but few mentioned his name.

The most wrenching rule of all: Don’t hand out money to the shoeshine boys in front of the hotel. Pay for shoeshines, pay generously if you like, and get your shoes shined as often as you like, but do not just hand out food or money. If the word gets out that is happening, the crowds of shoeshine boys will be unmanageable and the work of future delegations of Voices in the Wilderness will be compromised.

The shoeshine boys, about six of them outside our hotel, are wonderfully personable kids who range in age from about 10 to 14. Kelly knows some of their families. In other times, there were shoeshine boys throughout Baghdad, say those familiar with pre-sanction days. In recent years, however, their numbers have greatly increased, and many are doing it not just for extra money, but to help support their families. The shoes of this delegation were unrecognizably shiny by the time we left Baghdad.

Albright: A price worth paying

The government of Iraq’s media center is a drab building in central Baghdad. The hallways are dimly lit, only a few light bulbs are working and there’s always the chance the electricity will go out. Yet even in the dimness, just outside the Umm Al Ma’arik Research Center on the second floor, something familiar catches the eye.

Taped to the wall, blown up large, is the 1996 exchange between Lesley Stahl of the CBS program “60 Minutes” and then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright.

Stahl, speaking of the results of the U.N. sanctions against Iraq: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”

Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it.”

On the poster here, Albright’s response is shortened to: “Yes, we think the price is worth it.”

Granting that it is a hard choice, it is still difficult to read much subtlety or nuance into that response. If it was the intention of Albright, now U.S. secretary of state, to send the Iraqi government an unmistakable message about U.S. resolve, she also sent along a public relations bonanza.

Even more chilling, in this 10th year of sanctions, is the degree to which that response describes what is happening inside Iraq today. For whatever else may be true -- and truth here can be as slippery as the oil that remains underground -- the doctors we speak to, the United Nations observers and workers, the papal nuncio and the archbishop of Basra all say children are dying in inordinate numbers, of diseases that should not kill, because of the U.S.-inspired sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

Other signs of cultural stress and deterioration are everywhere. Former teachers are driving cabs and selling cigarettes on the streets. Former accountants and other professionals are serving as translators and minders for the Red Crescent. Elementary schools lack pencils and paper. College students beg for current books and periodicals. They have no access to the Internet. Doctors lack medicines and most haven’t seen a current medical journal in nearly a decade. Hospitals lack everything -- medicine, equipment and such basics as linens and alcohol.

Baghdad, once a rich and bustling city, is deteriorating at a distressing pace, according to Iraqis and non-Iraqis who have known it over time. Its international hotels are mostly empty, and one of its prime boulevards, Abu Nuwas Street, along the west bank of the broad Tigris River, has turned shabby, its once beautifully landscaped park now a series of dusty patches and weeds. The whole city seems on a march in reverse.

The ever-present little orange and cream cabs that clatter at breakneck speeds around Baghdad look like survivors of some demolition derby. No spare parts and no new autos for the common Iraqi have made it through the embargo in almost a decade. Door handles have fallen off, upholstery is in tatters, windows don’t work and doors won’t open. But the drivers keep driving, with great abandon and in vehicles that burn minimally refined fuel and spew clouds of fumes continuously. If Iraq has any advantage over the rest of the world it is in its fuel prices. A liter sells for pennies, cheaper than a liter of bottled water.

The general embargo that has virtually cut off this country from the rest of the world has so far widely missed its main target -- Saddam Hussein and his governing apparatus -- while apparently causing massive collateral damage to innocent bystanders.

Nowhere is the slow dying of Iraq more evident or grotesque than in its children. From the shoeshine boys who will follow a Westerner for blocks before giving up the chance for a few dinars, to the increasingly frequent hints of red in what should be rich, dark hair -- a sure sign, we are told, of malnutrition -- the record that is building is a jarring one. The relentless flow into the now-primitive hospitals of tiny bodies racked with waterborne diseases, pneumonia, malnutrition and what doctors say is a wildly accelerating rate of childhood cancers, is damning evidence that the children of Iraq are paying the heaviest price for the political and military struggle in which they have no say.

Inside the research center -- in name only at this point, since little data is being gathered in any conventional sense in Iraq -- Nasra Sadoon, an author and director of the center, noted the previous day’s news of the killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. “Clinton said yesterday that ‘We must teach our children to solve problems through dialogue, not violence.’ We wish he would apply the principle to Iraq.

“I think America wants to colonize Iraq. We cannot accept any foreign hegemony,” she said. “The American people should understand, they have no right to interfere in the internal affairs of another country.” Beneath the swagger and clash of geopolitical titans, a culture is unraveling, a people is being brought to its knees, and no one seems quite clear to what end. Whatever the ultimate goals of the United Nations and the United States, say those we interview, Iraq is slowly dying, quietly, largely out of sight of most Americans. We are killing it softly with sanctions.

When Saddam was our ally

How one views the current situation in Iraq may depend on the point at which one drops into modern Iraqi history. President George Bush, for instance, sold the public the Gulf War in 1991 in large part by demonizing Saddam Hussein. In Bush’s words, Saddam was a new Hitler, a threat to Kuwait and to the American way of life. And Bill Clinton insisted that the bombing of Baghdad and Basra as well as continuing bombing of “no-fly” zones in the extreme north and south of Iraq was necessary to assure that Saddam’s regime would not be able to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Taking the Gulf War as a starting point, however, ignores significant recent history, said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. “We forget that throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the government of Iraq, which was the government of the Baath party led by Saddam Hussein, was an ally of the U.S.,” said Bennis in an early April speech in Seattle.

“Maybe it wasn’t exactly a partner, but it was a junior partner, it was a military ally and it was a major recipient of military intelligence, military goods and weapons. And in the context of today’s world, perhaps most significantly, it was the recipient of massive amounts of weapons of mass destruction, most notably biological weapons stocks.”

Bennis in recent weeks was on a speaking tour with Denis Halliday, former U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq. He resigned in September, ending a 34-year career with the United Nations, in protest of the sanctions that he argues are causing “for lack of a better word, what is genocide in Iraq today.”

Those earlier shipments of biological weapons stocks were not from some rogue company or secret agency, but were made under license of the U.S. Commerce Department, said Bennis, who has analyzed Middle East and U.N. issues for the past 20 years. The shipments included “the biological material necessary for anthrax, E-coli, botulism and a host of other diseases for military purposes.”

“There was a debate about it,” said Bennis. In fact, she said, some in the Pentagon thought that even though the United States had been providing weapons and intelligence to the Iraqis “that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to send such really bad stuff off to Baghdad, given that this was an unaccountable regime.”

“And a few people in the State Department also seemed to be a little queasy at the idea. But, what a surprise, the Commerce Department wins out, markets trump disarmament and a license was granted,” she said. Saddam had showed his hand long before the United States decided to make Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait a global issue. He had already used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population in northern Iraq and against the Iranian military in that 8-year war that ended in 1988.

The United States, said Bennis, had continued making shipments of military equipment and biological and chemical weapons stocks through 1989. Six months later, when Iraq occupied Kuwait, “the U.S. suddenly announced that this was a government on a par with Hitler. This wasn’t a new government, there hadn’t been a coup in Iraq. This was the same government that we had been sending these weapons for the last 20 years.”

In the end, Bennis and others conclude, war was waged not over concern for human rights violations or the welfare of Kuwait, but because of oil -- access to and control of it.

Even some who supported the original military campaign against Iraq caution against applying any lofty motives to the war. Iraq’s importance will increase in the future “and its importance can be reduced to one word -- oil,” said Dr. Gawdat Bahgat, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Indiana University in Pennsylvania.

“If it had not been for oil it would not have been important,” he said in a telephone interview in early April. Bahgat thinks the United States was correct in the initial Gulf War since, he said, extended negotiations and the imposition of sanctions preceded the military action. With the international community increasingly dependent in the future on oil from the gulf region and with seemingly intractable ethnic, religious and political tensions creating instability, Bahgat thinks the United States will remain deeply involved in Iraq and the rest of the region “for the next two to three decades at least.”

Bahgat, author of three books and 45 articles in English and Arabic on the Middle East, said that even if the United States does not import anything from the gulf, it is still interested, given the integration of the global economy, in making sure no interruption of oil occurs from the gulf to Japan and Europe. So the United States, he said, is unlikely to feel comfortable with Saddam Hussein controlling 20 to 30 percent of the world’s oil supply. Iraq, he said, lies above about 10 percent of the world’s supply, and Kuwait holds approximately another 10 percent. Had Iraq been allowed to stay in Kuwait, he said, it would have increased the chances of a takeover of Saudi Arabia, which has the world’s largest supply of oil.

Even so, Bahgat is uneasy with the continued application of sanctions. “The wrong people are getting targeted by sanctions.” Then, voicing the same puzzlement about long-term goals repeated by so many in Iraq, he said, “Nobody knows where this should go.”

‘We are responsible’

The culpability of Saddam Hussein for the current condition of Iraq is a constant question faced by those protesting the sanctions. Halliday meets the point head-on at the start of his talk. “We are responsible” for the deaths now occurring in Iraq, Halliday said of those countries imposing the sanctions.

“If you wish, we can share the responsibility with Saddam Hussein, but we have no influence over him. But we certainly have influence over ourselves and over those we choose to represent us. As we sit here rather snug in our democracy, in our universities, in our homes, with our opportunities and our educations and our futures and our human rights intact, we are responsible for a policy in Iraq which is taking away from the people of Iraq not only their very lives, but the lives of their children, the lives of the next generation. We are seeing children suffering from chronic malnutrition in Iraq today who are going to be mentally and physically stunted for the rest of their lives. And we are responsible.”

It is not enough, he continued, to hide behind the United Nations. The United Nations “is not the fig leaf for Washington policy. And Saddam Hussein likewise. We cannot hide behind Saddam Hussein. Yes, he’s a miserable dictator and he’s done some appalling things. None of us would apologize or want to apologize for that. But the fact that we cannot communicate with him, the fact that we don’t make any progress in our dialogue with him, does not allow us, does not empower us to kill the children of Iraq.”

Halliday dismisses -- as do most other U.N. workers we spoke to in Iraq -- the claims that Saddam Hussein is diverting and hoarding cash and goods, including food and medicine.

In Baghdad, a spokesman for the U.N. Oil for Food program, would not flatly rule out hoarding but said it is not being done on any significant scale. Under the program, no cash is allowed to pass through the hands of Iraqi officials. All payments are signed off by the Bank of Paris, which holds Iraq’s oil revenues and pays the vendors.

All of those connected with the U.N. humanitarian efforts speak of detailed controls and monitoring programs to make certain the food and medicine goes to those intended. They also list the logistic problems inherent in distributing food and medicine in a country that has been unable to import spare parts for trucks and other equipment and where there is a scarcity of working refrigerated transportation.

Even with what has been judged a widely successful food distribution program, Iraqis face serious problems. The inadequate diet of eight years has been compounded by the problems accompanying contaminated water. The water problems are linked to the bombing -- in 1991 and again in December of last year -- of water treatment and distribution systems and the electrical grids that power the plants.

And always, the children suffer the most. “We have acute malnutrition in Iraq today,” said Halliday. “In the 1980s, the main problem for doctors in terms of young children in Iraq was obesity. Iraq was so prosperous, the standard of living was so high, public health was so good. The quality of education was equally outstanding, the services provided by the Baath party were so comprehensive. This was a country of great prosperity, as rich as -- if not richer than -- any of the southern European countries of that time. But we have reduced Iraq to a situation where child mortality is comparable to Sudan.”

Visiting a water treatment plant in the Basra area, some members of the Catholic Worker delegation saw parts sitting in crates, unopened. Nearby was a forklift with two flat tires. The operator of the system gave the impression that he is constantly jerryrigging machinery to keep some of it working. On this day, the plant was shut down.

Nowhere in Iraq, he said, are facilities adequate to clean water to drinking quality. At best it is of use for cleaning and washing purposes only.

Halliday’s opposition to sanctions comes with a warning. “We are in the position of pushing Iraq to the limit,” he said, and consequently opening the door to those of an even more extreme bent than Saddam Hussein. “There are young people in this country who are now the smaller politicians in the Baath Party who are coming up behind the names we recognize. They’re going to run this country in 10 years,” he said, and they find the current regime too moderate. “They’re ready to kick out the United Nations ... They’re ready for something more dramatic.” And that something may be, Halliday speculated, more rightist and fundamentalist, “something we do not need or want.”

In the meantime, the sanctions are “killing the people, destroying the society, damaging the culture, destroying a great country with a great future. But right now it is in deep, deep trouble, and we are responsible.”

Where civilization began

Anyone who has taken a basic history of civilization course has been told that the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Fertile Crescent, in what is today central and southern Iraq is one of the places where it all began. Though it still calls itself the Land of Two Rivers, Iraq today is neither the seat of civilization nor especially fertile.

When the water supply system was pounded during the Gulf War bombing, say spokespersons for the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Iraq’s ability to irrigate was seriously diminished.

The combination of high salt content in the soil, rapid evaporation due to high temperatures and a lack of irrigation, has rendered much of the soil barren.

On the highway going south from Baghdad to Basra, the condition of soil salinity is apparent. Acre after acre of land is topped with a thin white crust, the residue of salt and minerals left behind on the parched surface.

At the point where the two rivers meet to form the Shatt Al Arab waterway is a hotel with a wide veranda overlooking the rivers. It was once a popular tourist spot. A short walk away, legend has it, is the site of the Garden of Eden, complete with the tree.

The hotel is now closed, the veranda in disrepair. The Garden of Eden has gone shabby, and the tree, shown in a 1975 travel book in full leaf, appears dead.

Overwhelmingly, what one sees in Iraq is a consequence of war -- eight years of a bloody, costly war with its eastern neighbor, Iran, another 10 years of bombs and sanctions at the hands of the United States.

But often the most dangerous wounds are the most difficult to detect. That is the case of the relatively hidden costs of the war and the sanctions: the continuing destruction of Iraqi culture that draws protests from North American religious groups such as the Quakers and Mennonites, as well as Voices in the Wilderness and from Catholic leaders inside Iraq.

It is the hidden costs that brought a passionate call for an end to sanctions from Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, the papal nuncio to Iraq. “We have a sort of permanent non-declared war now,” he said during a meeting with the Catholic Worker delegation at his residence in Baghdad.

He said the undeclared war “is not less terrible or less tragic” than the fighting in Yugoslavia “because children here are dying every day. And nobody pays attention to that. They think it is just propaganda. It is not propaganda.”

Children die in Iraq of diseases that “in Europe or the United States and elsewhere” would have been cured, Lazzarotto said. “But here they die because they don’t get the assistance they need. So it is sort of a permanent war. But what is much worse than that is that people don’t have hope anymore. They have lost hope.”

Such hopelessness, he said, leads to a drain of talent and intellect from the country. Those who have the means and are given the slightest opportunity are leaving the country. “That is the tragedy and the reality of this ... Iraq won’t be any more what it was just four, five years ago.”

Though members of some professions, such as physicians, are now prohibited by law from leaving the country and the cost to simply cross a border into another country is prohibitive, people are still finding ways to emigrate.

Lazzarotto repeatedly expressed a wish that other bishops, particularly from the United States, but also from Europe, would visit. Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary of Detroit, has visited Iraq with Voices and has spoken out strongly against the sanctions.

The nuncio said he has told other bishops, in conversations in Rome, that the only way to show solidarity and concern for the people of Iraq is to visit. “Because once you come, your eyes look at it in a different way, I can assure you.” If the sanctions were imposed because Iraq is not a democratic country or because of human rights abuses, then sanctions should be imposed on almost all the countries in the world, he said. “Because there are very few countries in the world where human rights and democracy are really respected.” And some, he said, would include the United States in that group.

“This is not the problem. ... If we sit down and discuss the kind of government this country has, well, we can discuss it forever. But we have people here dying and we have sanctions imposed for many, many years. On which basis?”

In Basra, Archbishop Djibrail Kassab, a native Iraqi, was more blunt. “What has happened to Iraq with the sanctions is wrong. We don’t need help. We want to sell our oil.” Before 1990, he said, “We had a good country and a good leader.”

He ticked off the social benefits that everyone experienced before sanctions: universal health care, universal education, plenty of money and a high standard of living. Now, he said, people can’t afford basics like food and medicine. So the church has turned over buildings to the homeless, it gathers medicine from whatever sources possible, to stock and give to the sick. It feeds and clothes people.

He quoted an Arabic saying, “Everything will be finished one day.” He added, “We are living in hope.”

But people generally do not expect the sanctions to end soon, and it is difficult to imagine the situation in the hospitals becoming any more desperate.

Litany of ills

Here, hidden behind facades that suggest modern health care facilities, is the ongoing tragedy. I visited three hospitals, in Baghdad, Basra and Amirra. The litany of ills was numbing. Bed after bed of children with malnutrition and waterborne diseases. Ward after ward of young cancer patients.

Exactly how many are dying each month is not known. The figure the United Nations most consistently uses is an average of 4,500 youngsters a month dying as a result of the sanctions -- often either from malnutrition or diseases that elsewhere would be easily handled or prevented. There is no absolute scientific verification of that figure. However, even Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in a brief response to the “60 Minutes” interview in which she placed the blame for the humanitarian nightmare squarely on the shoulders of Saddam Hussein, did not dispute the figure of 500,000 children dead by 1996.

The most conservative estimates would place the number of children dead because of the sanctions in the hundreds of thousands. At times, we pressed the medical staffs to come up with verification of estimates, and they would shrug, saying the figures were kept by the ministry of health. And then, at times, they would just stare, as if to ask: “How many will it take?”

A spokesperson for UNICEF said the agency representatives in Iraq recently completed a systematic survey of conditions, and its report, with documented figures, is scheduled to be released at the end of May.

Doctors in the hospital in Basra said they have seen a fivefold to sevenfold increase in the number of juvenile cancers since the war. Again they could produce no nicely printed sheets of hard data, just another weary litany of what they don’t have -- the drugs that would be taken for granted most other places, the courses of antibiotics, the clean syringes, throwaway IV sets, easily accessible purified oxygen, simple alcohol wipes, sheets and pillow cases.

None of those items can be taken for granted. Lights in the hallways and rooms can’t be taken for granted because of electricity shortages.

In the case of the cancers, mostly juvenile leukemia, the suspect is the depleted uranium that was used by the United States during the 1991 Gulf War. Operation Desert Storm carried tons of depleted uranium into the Iraqi desert, according to U.S. weapons experts. The residue from those attacks, according to some researchers, has led to the outbreak of illness and death among Iraqi children. The highly toxic substance was used as a solid inside munitions used in the war and as a lining for armored vehicles. According to the Pentagon, the substance renders munitions extremely hard and able to easily penetrate armor plate.

Explosions result in the release of smoke that contains high concentrations of depleted uranium that, say experts, could be easily dispersed into the atmosphere and inhaled (NCR, Aug. 25, 1995).

The assumption among the medical community is that no comprehensive research into the effects of depleted uranium will be done until the sanctions are lifted.

Almost as unnerving as the conditions in the hospitals are the measured tones of the doctors, some of whom chose to remain here while many of their colleagues took earlier opportunities to leave the country.

Most have been reduced to working for the equivalent of a few dollars a month and with only the thinnest of staffs. And then only rarely does the frustration show through. Dr. Ali Faisal Jawad, director of the Pediatrics and Gynecology Hospital in Basra, after explaining that the hospital did not even have alcohol for sterilizing needles because it is on the sanctions list, said, “In England and America people use the latest things. Why not also for Iraqis?”

A hospital was also the scene of a rare outburst of anger against the sanctions. An old cleaning woman in one of them came running up to Mary K. Meyer and grabbed one of her sleeves and the lapel of her jacket and looked right in her eyes and said: “You’re old. You’ve lived a good life.” Then making the motions to show what she meant, “You can get injections when you need them. Our children can’t. They are dying.”

Later, Meyer, reflecting on the encounter, said, “I knew what she meant. She was right in my face, and I understood her the way old people understand one another. Old people understand pain differently. I guess it’s because we’ve seen so much that shouldn’t be. People should not suffer the way they do.” When old people “look into each others’ eyes, we know the frustration and the hopelessness,” she said. “When we look into each others’ eyes, we understand.”

An old man in a market in Fallujah apparently understood something, too, as he watched an exchange between Kelly and a small boy. Ahmed El Sherif, a native of Sinai and now a U.S. citizen, was translating for the group and recalls that the boy attracted Kelly’s attention because he seemed so serious and quiet in an otherwise noisy scene.

Kelly asked him through El Sherif what he was thinking. He said, “I am a scholar of the faith.” The old man was watching intently.

Kelly then asked the youngster what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I want to be a pilot and bomb the United States,” he replied. At that moment, El Sharif nudged Kelly and motioned for her to look at the old man. Tears were running down his face.

Later, Kelly said, the incident in Fallujah prompted her to recall the experience in the mosque with the women. The welcome there was not surprising because by far her experience in Iraq has been of unconditional hospitality.

“I think that man’s tears might have been because he sensed that here was a child who was going to grow up with enmity and not hospitality as the first foot forward. I think there is going to be a change,” she said, from “instant acceptance and hospitality” to a “new generation that is going to grow up angry and rebellious.”

A further worry for Iraqis is the deep penetration of hopelessness into the fabric of a culture that in recent decades has produced a significant amount of scholarship and a healthy middle class. Intellectuals and middle-class professionals have either fled, are making plans to pull up stakes or have found work outside their fields that at least allows them to survive.

Hans van Sponeck, a German national who took over for Halliday as head of the U.N.’s humanitarian effort here, shows no sign of softening the criticism of the effects of sanctions on ordinary Iraqis. “It is frightening ... what is happening to people who are well-trained and who have no chance to work with their full capacity in the area of their training,” he told a delegation representing Physicians for Social Responsibility.

In a videotape of the April 5 meeting in Baghdad with the delegation of physicians, Von Sponeck said, “You have what I call a talent depletion situation which is really quite serious.” Part of that depletion involves what he termed an “emigration without noise -- people who just quietly leave because of the circumstances here.”

He said he recently informed members of the U.N. Security Council that “right now we are setting the stage for depriving another generation of the opportunity to become responsible national and international citizens of tomorrow. And that may be the most serious aspect of it all.”

To illustrate the point, he asked the receptionist at his hotel to describe some of her friends -- what training they had and what they were now doing. Of nine examples, he said, none is working in the area for which he or she was trained. He told of a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering who works now on a weaving machine in a clothing factory. Another with the same degree is working in a sweets shop. A graduate specializing in geography is driving a taxi. Von Sponeck said that another acquaintance told him she had been served ice cream by a qualified medical doctor.

The dean of the law school faculty at Baghdad University told him what is going on under sanctions amounts to “intellectual genocide.”

The head of the pediatrics department at the University of Basra told him, “I occasionally get a paper which shows what modern medical research is doing. Then I will try to make photocopies for my students -- if I have photocopying paper. That is the circumstance.”

As a result of such encounters, Von Sponeck said he pleaded with the Security Council at the end of March “for the removal of educational materials as items of embargo. I think that’s cruel, it’s cruel for the wrong people.”

If the United Nations is internally conflicted over its role in Iraq, its humanitarian agencies still have a wide credibility. The humanitarian side of U.N. operations here is involved daily with monitoring the distribution of food and medicine. Those agencies know the moods of the country and the depths to which anxiety and even despair have begun to sink into the culture.

But part of the fallout of the war in Iraq and the ongoing sanctions is the glaring contradiction between the mandate of the U.N. Security Council imposing punitive sanctions and the United Nation’s more traditional role as an agency that alleviates suffering. That rift, though spoken about only off the record, is a real concern.

The split constitutes a serious threat to the integrity of the United Nations, some say, adding sarcastically that it is now an international agency in the full-time employ of the United States.

Other examples of Von Sponeck’s concern are easy to find. Rick McDowell, co-coordinator of Voices with Kelly, told of a recent evening spent at a celebration with a middle-class family. There was feasting and music and dancing. At one point in the evening, though, some of the revelers stopped and looked around and said, “It’s over. In two to three years, we won’t be here doing this. Our children will not have this. For Iraq, it’s over.”

One might argue that is an overly pessimistic view. But a resident of Iraq from the West told of a good friend, an Iraqi, who had just celebrated his daughter’s graduation from dental school. The man broke down. He had had to sell everything he owned to pay for school and continue living.

It is an increasingly familiar tale. Von Sponeck told of new street bazaars cropping up all over Baghdad where families are selling personal belongings. Much of the inventory, he said, consists of books from private libraries.

On the last day of our stay in Baghdad, I was introduced to a young doctor who had been at the top of his classes through medical school. The 26-year-old sat in the living room of his family’s modest flat in downtown Baghdad, the frustration written on his face and in his gestures. High on the wall were two large pictures of his father in academic attire. Education had always been a principal pursuit in this family.

Now, however, a life of high academic achievement and steady pursuit of a medical career had ground to a halt for the son. He refused to take the next step -- a residency in thoracic surgery -- in Iraq, where the latest texts and medical journals were nearly a decade old.

Across the room his sister, 24, nearing the end of a master’s program in English literature, begged for books. Her thesis on Tennyson was languishing because the most recent reference sources to be found in all of Iraq were from the mid-1980s. The Internet was a familiar word to them, but neither has ever had the experience of using the technology.

Their mother, who asked that their names not be used, had retired from a career teaching school. Earlier, the father and an older son had left Iraq and were now in Libya. The son, an engineer, was working, and the father had found a new university teaching position. So the family was able to survive with money sent in from the outside.

The son and daughter in Iraq, both of whom had earlier been educated in England, and the father and brother in Libya represent the latest line of casualties in the silent war.

The son in Iraq said he is hoping for a scholarship from a European school, a development that would make it easier to leave the country, at least temporarily. Otherwise, he will have to figure how much to pay to whom to get out of the country. “We are locked up,” he said. “We can’t get out, and nothing can get in.”

Location: Between Iran and Kuwait with small access to the Persian Gulf, and bordered also by Turkey and Syria to the north, Jordan to the east and Saudi Arabia to the south.
Population: 22.2 million
Ethinic Groups: Arab, 75-80 percent; Kurd, 15-20 percent; Turkmen, Assyrian or other, approximately 5 percent.
Religions: Muslim, 97 percent(Shi’a, more than 60-65 percent; Sunni 32-37 percent), Christian or other, 3 percent.

Mesopotamia, as the Tigris and Euphrates valley was once called, was the site of one of the earliest civilizations on earth.
According to a Library of Congress country profile, modern Iraq was shaped in large part by British domination between 1918 and 1958. It was during that period that the boundaries were drawn that severed what is now the tiny country of Kuwait from the rest of Iraq.
“Between the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 and the emergence of Saddam Hussein in the mid-1970s, Iraqi history was a chronicle of conspiracies, coups, countercoups and fierce Kurdish uprisings,” the profile states.
The Baath Arab Socialist Party has ruled by decree since 1968. Saddam Hussein became president in 1979 and with months of taking office instituted a bloody purge to quell rumors of a coup. For a few years during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Saddam Hussein brought Iraq a period of unusual stability and great prosperity. Rising oil revenues funded public service projects throughout the country, as well as significant improvements in education and health care.
The period of prosperity and development is credited with helping Iraq shape a national identity out of diverse ethnic and religious groups.
But the calm was short-lived. In 1980, Iraqui troops crossed into Iran, and the long, costly period of war was underway that would continue, with a brief respite in the late 1980s, until today. Iraq is under severe U.N./U.S. sanctions and subject to continued bombings by the United States in the extreme north and south “no-fly” zones.

Tom Roberts is NCR’s managing editor. He can be reached at troberts@natcath.org

Voices in the Wilderness web site: www.nonviolence.org/vitw/

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 1999