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On horrors in Iraq, seeing is believing


No one has come to arrest us. In December, seven accomplices and I broke a very big law. I’m told that the penalty could be a dozen years in jail and a fine of $1 million.

We are not in hiding. We put our addresses and phone numbers down where the Justice Department and its allies could easily find them. But no one has even bothered to call. So we eight join a few hundred others who have taken our bodies and some token books and medicines into the pariah nation of Iraq.

I knew the numbers of dead children in Iraq and the history of superpower bullying, and certainly that should have been adequate to make anyone an opponent of our government’s policy.

But there was much I did not know until I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears.

Here is a hospital built 15 or so years ago. It has all those places like our hospitals do where you plug in various kinds of equipment that bring people through diseases and terrible accidents. But no one plugs anything in anymore. Do you own any piece of electric or electronic equipment that would be working 10 years from now if you could not replace parts?

Nothing works in the hospitals. Or many other places. Our bombers took out the power stations, and they can’t fix those either. We allow some supplies under the “Oil for Food” program, but then block the chemicals or other components that would make them work. So a hospital in Iraq is a bare place. Six to a dozen beds fill a room and, in the pediatrics section, each bed holds a child. Rather, each bed holds a mother who holds a child.

Hour after hour, day after day. Then the children die, at a rate of 5,000 a month (that many due directly to the sanctions, according to the United Nations). That is 60,000 children 5 years old and under a year in a country with the population of California.

Here is an art museum. The people who work here are wearing their coats because there is no heat and the temperature at night is in the 40s. The lights are off, and many of the sockets have no bulbs. The artists keep the museum going, but the artists (like the doctors) have been a decade without journals and books from the rest of the world.

Here is a school in Baghdad. They didn’t know we were coming, but no matter. In each bare room, its 50-plus children give us a loud welcoming chant, and they are all smiles. The teachers work with a few hand-me-down books and a little paper when they can come by it. The plumbing hasn’t worked in years, and the yard has standing sewage.

But such smiles I have not seen in my life! We asked a 6-year-old girl what we should tell children in America: “Tell them we are friends!” Once more I’m forced to ask: How come we Americans were the great Satan in Iran, but here, where we have done far worse, hardship has not turned to hatred? What is at work here? And how long can it last?

The parents of these children grew up in decades when the wealth oil brought to Iraq was being shared more than anywhere I know of: free education through university, unlimited free health care. Now they tell us that what is most deadly about these sanctions is a generation growing up without hope and work. Children drop out of elementary school to beg and shine shoes. Literacy among women has fallen from 90 percent to 62 percent. We are driving these people back into some previous century, these people who gave the world so much science, language, poetry, epic, mathematics, agriculture, this fertile crescent.

Here in this overwhelming Islamic land is a church. On the night before Christmas, in the “no-fly” zone city of Basra, we cram with hundreds of Christians into the church for a liturgy that begins quietly at 7:30 and ends in jubilation about an hour before midnight. Presiding is the bishop, a St. Nicholas-like figure who is housing the poor in the cathedral compound and caring for the sick and/or orphans in every way he and his tiny staff can.

But this man knows how to preside. I cannot understand Arabic, so I don’t know the words of his homily, but I know preaching when I hear it in any language. He invites the three Jesuits in our delegation to concelebrate with him in the Chaldean rite, and he tells this overflowing assembly who we are, and they welcome us with embraces and with “Merry Christmas.”

I have not had such a Christmas as this. The day itself we are in another children’s hospital where a doctor shows us her book: photos of beautiful children, and notation of what became of them. She is gracious to us, but for how long?

Later on Christmas Day, we climb the ziggurat at Ur in the area where God found Abraham and Sarah and where John Paul II was hoping to go this year. This magnificent architecture was built 4,000 years ago. A few months ago one of our bombs chipped away at it, warning the pope and wounding a Swedish journalist. We asked the guide why he thought the United States bombed this place. He shrugged: “They want to destroy civilization.”

Maybe we have already. It isn’t civilization anymore when a million people can be killed so quietly. A decade from now will the “good” Americans say, “We had no idea! The media never reported it. The government never told us”? We know what to call it when Pol Pot is the perpetrator or the president of Yugoslavia. But Bush and Clinton and Albright?

Sanctions/siege is an old weapon of mass destruction, but the United States and Britain have brought them to a new level of effectiveness in Iraq. This weapon kills the weak, those who have nothing to do with the oil, with Saddam Hussein, with secret weapons factories. It is, this weapon, the very essence of terrorism for it kills off the innocent hostages one at a time while making ever-changing demands of the “enemy.” We have outdone our Vietnam performance, and there is barely anyone in the streets protesting. The pope condemns the sanctions again and again, and American Catholics don’t know sanctions from cinctures.

So here we are, Ms. Reno. Undoubtedly you have our names in your computers, but what can we do to get your attention?

Gabe Huck is director of Liturgy Training Publications for the Chicago archdiocese.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000