Witness to Iraq
"do you know how long it takes
any voice to reach another?
knowing that while birds and warmer weather are
forever moving north,
the cries of those who vanish
might take years to get here."
Carolyn Forche, in "the Country Between Us."
As I prepared this report, I heard that the USA/UK have bombed the outskirts of Baghdad -for the first time in three years -although they have bombed the countryside continually, several times a week for 10 years. The USA is desperate. International support for sanctions against Iraq is fading, the USA economy is slowing down, the stock market is slumping, the military industry is getting restless and wants support for BMD. So the new president has to show off and send a bully's warning: Do not forget who is the world's only superpower! But it was no accident that he announced the latest aggression from San Cristobal de las Casas -where the Zapatistas started their revolution on January 1, 1994.
This was a clear message to Mexicans and other Latin Americans - see what the USA can do to Iraq, we can do to you! Since the end of the "Cold War", the USA government has been able to pursue its goal of global economic and military domination without any fear of major reprisal. But new enemies must be conjured up, and as the Pentagon blueprint stated, no nation may challenge USA's leadership of the new world order, that includes Yugoslavia and Iraq. I sadly remember my time in Iraq. I wonder about the latest victims and think......was it one of the smiling schoolchildren, our dancing bus driver, the vivacious sociology professor or the university women who shyly practiced their English on me? These kind and hospitable people have faces and I fear for them as more bombing is announced. It was not always easy to meet these people, particularly in the hospitals. We saw children suffering from easily treatable diseases as well as children dying from leukemia and cancers. Although the government orders medicines and supplies under the "Food for Oil" program, the UN often delays and freezes the orders. When we were there, they were out of blood bags and catheters - both long on order.
Our INTERNATIONAL ACTION CENTER ( based in New York, lead by former USA Attorney-General Ramsey Clark) delegation of USA, Canadian, Japanese, UK, Lebanese, Turkish citizens had a full and informative schedule in Iraq. There was much to see and do. We went to schools, hospitals, food distribution centres, water treatment plants, sewage treatment plant, drug manufacturing plants as well as meetings with cabinet ministers and experts on Depleted Uranium. We had a wonderful evening at the Museum of Baghdad with music and dancing -the displays are in a beautiful 800 year old brick building, once an inn on a major Asian trade route. We were taken to Babylon which is a peaceful and impressive archeological site -though most of its treasures are in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin!
The delegation carried nearly $2M CDN of medicine from the USA without incident to Jordan, then to Baghdad on a new commercial flight. Taking the medicine was an illegal act against UN sanctions; it was a symbolic gift to the Iraqi people. But our small group was carrying more than the $1M that the Canadian government donated as "humanitarian aid" in 2000, just after sending the HMS Calgary to enforce sanctions in the Gulf -at a cost of $35 M! Before the sanctions, Iraq imported 60% of its food. Suddenly it had only 40% of the usual total to feed its population. ( All food silos and warehouses, a powdered milk plant, were bombed). As a result of the sanctions, food rationing has been in effect for 10 years. The almost free monthly basket of rice, flour, sugar, salt, milk for children, oil, salt, tea and soap provides the basics, up this year to 1600cal/day/person. Other years it was as low as 1000cal/day. The UN has said that Iraq has the most efficient and corruption free food distribution of any nation.
People have to supplement as best they can. With rampant inflation it takes 20% of an average monthly salary to buy a dozen eggs. A dinar was once worth 50c now it is worth .01c.( Canadian). Salaries are 20% of those in 1989.In Baghdad, drinking water comes straight from the Tigris river, the water purification plant does not work because Iraq is denied chlorine. State medical factories were bombed, machinery has broken, now Iraq can produce only 20% of its medicine needs. The UN Sanctions committee freezes orders for medical equipment. Twenty- one bombed bridges over the Tigris have been replaced, roads rebuilt, and some electrical equipment repaired. But Iraq cannot produce and sell very much oil, not only because of UN restrictions on production, but because the UN refuses to process orders for new equipment. I wandered freely in old Baghdad, in the market area as well as at the demonstration at 2 am of the 10th anniversary of the beginning of USA bombing. I was always treated with respect and friendliness. It is amazing how many Iraqis have relatives in Canada! Our solidarity and presence were appreciated. I was asked again and again, "Please end the sanctions, we are suffering. Why does the UN and your government want to punish us?" I could not answer the sick children, the tired, frustrated doctors and nurses, and the weary parents.
Women suffer particularly under the effects of the war and sanctions. 70% of women of child bearing age are anemic. Children are born with low birth weight. Many children suffer from infectious diseases -measles, diphtheria, respiratory infections, that were rare ten years ago. Iraq cannot have a children immunization program now, because the UN Sanctions committee denies them medical equipment and refrigerated trucks. Polluted water causes gastrointestinal disease at a much higher rate than before. Medicine is not always available. X-rays and other diagnostic equipment do not work. And there is a 4-10 fold increase in childhood cancers and birth defects due to the high levels of radiation and other toxins in the soil, air and water. Ovarian cancer has increased 16x in southern Iraq.
Life is particularly hard for women. Women have to go hospitals to help care for their children. Women leave jobs to care for sick children and elderly at home. Scrounging food, repairing basic clothing and household equipment, that cannot be replaced, all take time and energy.
One thing I noticed, that reminded me of the underlying reason for the war, was the absence of corporate advertisements and billboards. Iraq is an unglobalized country with a source of globalized wealth. We live unaware, in a cult of consumerism. In Iraq, instead of cola, cigarettes and sneakers ads we saw many portraits of Saddam Hussein. He is the hated symbol for the USA government of a nation's refusal to be crushed by global imperialism. In spite of their weariness, Iraqis are proud and determined in their resistance to sanctions and continued hardship. Sanctions are crumbling. Neighbouring countries trade openly with Iraq. France, China and Russia say they will ignore sanctions. In fact, 70 countries now defy the sanctions.
There are consumer goods in the market for those with money. But until Iraq is allowed to produce and sell oil as freely as we do, as well as its other products- dates, oranges,medicines etc. it can not feed, educate and care for its people as it did 10 years ago with free healthcare, free education to post-graduate level and a decent standard of living Now is the time for Canada to assert a humanitarian and independent foreign policy! We must call on our government to end sanctions against Iraq!
When I came home two library books awaited for me. 'The German Trauma' by Gitta Sereny and 'Atomic Fragments: A Daughter's Questions' by Mary Palevsky,. Both these books reflect, in a profound and personal way, on the responsibility for evil. My trip to Iraq was deeply troubling, for that very reason. What responsibility do we bear for the suffering caused by war and sanctions? Canadians, as do many other people, think the UN is a great institution, We pay our fees and support it enthusiastically. In the name of the UN Security Council, devastating war was wrought on other humans across the world. How can we believe the UN mandate "to eliminate the scourge of war", and continue to support such evil hypocrisy in this, the UN Decade of the Culture of Peace? Canadians must work to return the UN to its original purpose.
In Iraq, we had a briefing from Dr. Souad, a professor of environmental engineering, about Depleted Uranium. With the limited facilities available ( textbooks, journals, laboratory equipment are on UN prohibited list) her team is measuring and correlating the increase in radiation in Iraq. One million rounds of ammunition, projectiles and missiles coated with and containing DU were dropped on Iraq. Where is our response to the terrible and longer lasting horror of depleted uranium (and even more toxic elements) used in bombs and bullets in Iraq, Palestine, Yugoslavia and indeed, even in Canada? Canada is one the world's leading producers and exporters of uranium. 17 countries have weapons with DU. From Hiroshima to Basra we spread a silent, killer of countless generations to come.
Canadians must call for a public enquiry with full government disclosure into the production, use and export of uranium. As global citizens we bear an awesome responsibility that calls out for acknowledgement, action and change.