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How long, O Lord? How long?

Editor’s note: This month marks the 10th anniversary of the imposition of sanctions on Iraq following that country’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait. According to a United Nations report a year ago, more than 500,000 children under the age of 5 had died as a direct result of the U.S.- backed sanctions.

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Basra, Iraq

She arrived at the children’s cemetery just before dusk. Her black abeia (robe) was billowing in the mounting wind, revealing a red dress and a pregnant form. The gusts were the leading edge of a sandstorm. She walked past hundreds of small mounds and by a trio of goats eating at the scrub around the markers, to an open-air mud brick and thatch work area. An elderly man wearing a white robe and kafia (headpiece) greeted her and accepted the shoebox she carried. Few words were spoken.

The box was handed to one of three younger men who worked at the graveyard. The young man moved to the rear of the work area and with great care removed from the box the woman’s niece. In Arabic, her binit ukhti.

The child had been born onto earth, into hell and unto eternity earlier in the day at the Basra Pediatric and Maternity hospital in southern Iraq. The wards at this hospital are full of mourning mothers and dying children. In any given room can be found children with rickets, malnutrition, kwashiorkor (protein deficiency), typhoid fever, cholera or cancer. The maternity ward has an air not of hopeful anticipation but of fearful repose: Will the expected child be whole? The day before binit ukhti was born, a hydrocephalic child and a child missing his head, neck and arms were born and died on the ward.

Basra Pediatric and Maternity is a teaching hospital. In an earlier era before massive bombardment by American forces, before widespread contamination of the soil by radioactive depleted uranium -- a toxic heavy metal used in thousands of munitions fired by Americans -- before 10 years of deprivation induced by the most comprehensive sanctions regimen in history, before this madness, young doctors learned about typhoid, polio and malnutrition from textbooks, and the congenital defects they saw were cleft palates and club feet.

One classroom in the hospital is a gallery of grotesquery with dozens of photographs of the horrendously deformed children that are born and perish daily.

Next to this classroom is the hospital morgue; it is cool at best. The actual drawers where the corpses are kept are not quite cold. The purchase of coolant fluids, needed to maintain the unit, is constrained by the sanctions. The entire room smelled like an unplugged, dirty refrigerator. The nation’s electrical grid was targeted by the United States during the Gulf War. Restrictions imposed by the sanctions have hampered repair efforts, so when the power goes out twice a day for three hours the morgue begins to warm up. Thus, when a child dies, she is sent home with the family to be buried. The day binit ukhti died, the morgue had 15 boxes with 15 babies that had been unclaimed because their families couldn’t pay to bury them. The family of binit ukhti raised the 5,000 Iraqi dinar, roughly $2.50, for burial.

Back at the cemetery, the worker placed the naked body of binit ukhti, umbilical cord still attached to her belly, on a three-foot square stone slab at the rear of the chamber as carefully as if he were placing her in a bassinet. The man filled a plastic pitcher and a teakettle with water. He measured the child and cut a length of white linen from a bolt kept in a satchel. The aunt then joined the man at the stone slab, and together they gracefully washed the body with a yellow bar of soap and a cloth. The woman rinsed the girl with the water in the kettle.

Meanwhile a gravedigger was busy digging his second grave of the hour. The hole was three feet deep, too narrow to turn around in and not long enough for the man to take a step. He would soon carve a third opening. At midnight he would be done for the day. In the hour we spent at the cemetery on Sunday, June 4, three children were carried here in tiny boxes for burial.

In the shanty the man dried the body and moved it to another stone slab in the center of the space. Beneath the child lay the length of linen. The young man opened a jar that once held powdered baby formula. The vessel now contained the white powder made from the sacred cidra tree. He dipped his fingers in the concentrate and anointed binit ukhti on her hands, feet, elbows and knees. The body was then swathed tenderly. Only the face of binit ukhti, snugly framed by the linen, was left exposed as if the burial swaddling was an ivory abeia. Another length of linen was then wrapped around the body and tied with strips of the fabric below the feet, above the head and in the mid-section. These men repeat this ritual two or three times an hour during their shifts. They move with grace and condolence. They don’t simply bundle inanimate packages. They are midwives of rebirth, forming new placentas so that the children they meet can be delivered into the expectant hands of Allah.

A prayer was uttered, and then the aunt in her crimson dress and ebony abeia picked up the body to surrender binit to the grave. She walked alone through a labyrinth of tombstones with binit resting on her swollen belly. The sky was gray; the sun was white. The graves before her, behind her and beside her were ashen. There were neither flowers nor grass.

To the left of the cemetery a group of teenage boys played soccer in a lush field of grass ringed by a dozen date trees. Everywhere in Iraq, in urban vacant lots and on the dirt roads that run between fields of wheat, children and young men gather to chase the white and black ball.

To the right of the cemetery a wedding was taking place. Dozens of children, the girls in peach and yellow dresses, played in the street outside the parlor where the ceremony was underway. Weddings in Iraq are brief outbursts of joy amid despondency.

Typically weddings happen on Thursday afternoons and evenings, though this wedding was on a Sunday. Outside the wedding chamber a crowd of revelers waited in anticipation. The couple’s car was decorated with white and pink crepe paper. Three school buses idled to take the assembly to the reception. Men with trumpets and drums prepared to announce the union of woman and man.

In between these scenes of life, the aunt carried binit ukhti. At the grave the body was placed on a leveled mound of dirt. Her shroud was opened slightly, and a handful of earth was placed with the body before the cloak was again closed. Another verse of the Quran was prayed and, as the body was interred, the newly married couple stepped outside to the excited blast of trumpets and the pulsing of drums. The union of child with God was heralded to all who bothered to notice.

When Mary, pregnant with Jesus, went to see Elizabeth, pregnant with the Baptizer, John “leaped for joy in the womb.” The Good News was soon to enter our world. When her aunt rested binit ukhti on her belly did the child awaiting birth recoil in fear of life during war? Or did she leap with joy because binit had been spared a life of suffering and instead had been returned into the womb of Allah to be born into life everlasting?

Christopher Allen-Doucot is a member of the Hartford, Conn., Catholic Worker House and has traveled to Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness, a group opposed to the sanctions, five times during the past two years.

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2000