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Issue Date:  September 3, 2004

The real heroes of Iraq

The contrast between the two photos -- one just received by e-mail on my computer screen, and the other on the front page of the newspaper on my desk -- was striking. The e-mailed photo was a digital image of a couple of dozen boxes, their contents intact after having survived a long and difficult journey. There are no people in the picture, even though the safe arrival and delivery of nearly $100,000 worth of freely donated medical supplies ought to be a cause for celebration. The material is to be used to train a new generation of Iraqi physicians.

The newspaper photo was of an American soldier at Abu Ghraib prison pointing at the genitals of a hooded Iraqi prisoner. The soldier has a big smile and is gesturing with a thumbs-up sign. It’s an image that’s been viewed by millions while only five or six people have seen the photo of the boxes. The recipients of the medical training material who snapped it were too frightened to be seen with it, for fear of being labeled Coalition collaborators and killed. The American soldier in the Abu Ghraib prison has no such fear, nor embarrassment -- only pride, which, of course, is ironic: Who’s proud? Who’s frightened? Who’s doing wrong, and who’s doing right?

As a director of a medical trade organization, I am responsible for its charitable activities. After the Afghan war in 2001, we assembled donations to help outfit two medical facilities in Kabul, collecting nearly $150,000 in supplies. Securing the donations was pushing on an open door: The stories of the Taliban using machine guns to destroy anatomy books because of their depiction of the female form, and the general state of medical care, especially for women, were well-known. Everyone we talked to was keen to help.

Fast-forward one year to Iraq. This time I was approached to supply training materials for medical students and physicians in Iraq. Between the long years of sanctions and the brief but even more destructive looting following the U.S.-led invasion, this material was in extremely short supply. I was quick to say yes. Here was an opportunity to make up for the disastrous initial management of the occupation; we could refit the very facilities that had been looted. We began soliciting donations with great enthusiasm, setting a much higher goal than we had for our work in Afghanistan. This time, however, doors to potential donors were not open. Some donors were hesitant to participate in an activity that could be seen to support the war or the American occupation. No-bid contracts delivering millions to Haliburton had other potential donors openly asking, “If Haliburton can get theirs, why can’t we get ours?” We fell short of our goal.

As in Afghanistan, in Iraq we used the military APO system to get the materials in country, as it was cheap and secure. When the current uprising intensified, shipments of military supplies took priority and our campaign was pushed aside. Moreover, security around Americans in the Green Zone, where the materials were delivered, tightened, making it both difficult and dangerous for our Iraqi contacts to pick up deliveries. Our Army contacts, under the constant stress of the uprising, were less patient and less cooperative. The worst news came by e-mail from a medical student assisting with the project: Mr. N, the brave Iraqi administrator in charge of equitable distribution of the donated medical training materials, had been kidnapped.

I communicated with Mr. N by e-mail. I did have one opportunity to speak by telephone with him when he traveled out of the country several months before he was forced into a car at gunpoint, and before the initial photos from Abu Ghraib appeared in newspapers and on television screens in the United States. With his excellent English and logistical skills, Mr. N could have easily taken his family to the West, yet he was staying in Iraq. When I mentioned that many Americans initially in support of the war had changed their minds about it when no weapons of mass destruction were found, his reply was well-rehearsed but heartfelt: “Saddam Hussein was the weapon of mass destruction.”

Mr. N had once written to me about how he fled from his car in his own driveway, leaving the keys inside so it could quickly be stolen, rather than face the armed men who had followed him home from work. In our brief phone conversation, I asked Mr. N if he continued to fear for his safety. After all, he could be viewed as a collaborator, and his prominent position in the Iraqi community trying to rebuild the country made him a target. Lawlessness was, and is, rife. His answer was that while he took steps to be careful, he was not going to be stopped from doing all that he could to help restore his country.

After four days, most of it spent by Mr. N in the trunk of a car, the family of Mr. N paid a ransom and he was released. As he later wrote to me, “There was more to my kidnapping than money.”

A small network of people in Iraq is now working to deliver the training materials to the facilities that need them. Few will know who these Iraqis are, even as the names, faces and fates of the guards at Abu Ghraib are publicized all over the world. The Iraqis risking their lives will remain as anonymous as the pile of unlabeled boxes in the photo, even though they will prove to be the real heroes of the occupation.

The author of this piece has requested anonymity to protect the identity of Mr. N.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 2004

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