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American Group Defies Iraq War Rhetoric - Part I

American Group Defies Iraq War Rhetoric - Part I

By Firas Al-Atraqchi

"It's a death row for infants, isn't it?"

They say bravado breeds idiocy, arrogance, and insensitivity.

That is certainly true of all the politicians who stand in the shadows, spewing their Iraq war rhetoric, systematically ignoring the humanitarian toll such a war would produce. However, it is not true of those that would put their own lives at peril to deliver humanitarian goods to the needy, a message of peace and hope to the war torn, or a simple smile to a child who is riddled with deadly poisons.

Since 1990, some 1.7 million Iraqi civilians (in U.S. numbers that translates to 19 million people), not military personnel or support, but civilians have died as a result of the United Nations sanctions regime brutally enforced on the people of Iraq. By UN estimates, nearly 500,000 of those fatalities are children below the age of five.

In the midst of the current war rhetoric and media blitz, Iraqi civilians continue to die as Iraqi hospitals find that vital medicines and equipment are barred from import into the country by a punitive UN regime. Such petty items as pencils are considered dual-purpose items by the UN (U.S. controlled) sanctions review committees. Pencils contain lead, they claim, which can be used in some scheme to develop nuclear weapons.

Although some pundits are considered Gung-Ho "let's nuke 'em" extremists, several more balanced voices have gained momentum in their protest of the sanctions and war talk in recent weeks.

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On August 3rd, Voices in the Wilderness, a humanitarian group, began a 40-day fast outside the UN's NY headquarters.

Voices in the Wilderness has long campaigned against the UN sanctions and US policies toward Iraq, but have been sidelined by mainstream North American media.

The following is part 1 of an interview with Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of the group, following one of their humanitarian missions to Iraq in March 2002.

F.A.: What first inspired you to go to Iraq?

K.K.: "You can't be a vegetarian between meals, and you can't be a pacifist between wars," said Ammon Hennacy, who helped create a generation of radical pacifists. I knew very little about the Middle East when I traveled there to join the Gulf Peace Team in January of 1991, but I was clearly persuaded that the US wasn't going to war with Iraq because it wouldn't tolerate ruthless dictators, - the US had helped create and sustain many such rulers, including Saddam Hussein. I also didn't believe the US was opposed to invasions, since the US had recently invaded Grenada and Panama, and had tolerated numerous other invasions, such as Indonesia's invasion of East Timor. It seemed that the US was going to war in order to maintain control over the flow of petrodollars in the Middle East, and I believed that pacifists should try to find the most vigorous and dramatic way possible to oppose this war.

I also felt that one of the reasons we don't always make headway in peacemaking efforts is that peacemakers aren't willing to take the same risks required by war makers. Soldiers aren't given options to decline travel or take a rain check. Given the tremendous risks at stake in the Middle East, where nuclear weapons are stored in one country (Israel), and chemical and biological weapons have been used by another (Iraq), it seemed wise and rational to take a serious risk to help promote opposition to escalated violence.

Our travels to Iraq in violation of the economic sanctions were inspired by recognition that the Gulf War never ended-rather, it changed - changed into a kind of warfare more lethal, more cruel and more devastating than the worst of the bombardments past and present. The economic warfare directly targets the most vulnerable people in Iraq's society: the elderly, the sick, the poor, and children. Recognizing that economic sanctions have contributed toward the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children, we wanted to campaign non-violently to end the sanctions. Travel to Iraq carrying medicines and medical relief supplies gave us an opportunity to educate others about what we would see and hear while in Iraq and to build support for extending the hand of friendship to Iraq rather than waging war against their children.

F.A.: How were you received by the Iraqis - government and people?

K.K.: Some may expect us to return from Iraq replete with stories about why people there would hate us so much. Each of our delegation members has instead returned wondering, "Why do they love us so much?" We do at times hear outbursts of intense anger and frustration. Imagine how helpless and grief stricken parents are when they watch their children writhe in pain or succumb to comas caused by diseases that could have been cured before the sanctions were imposed. Imagine how these parents feel when their purchasing power is so low they can't afford to buy anaesthetics, or simple antibiotics, or blood bags. The hospital personnel also feel dejected, resentful, and bitterly sad when they watch their patients die and can do nothing to ease the pain or cure the symptoms.

Yet, we are consistently treated, even in the hospitals, with dignified and sincere welcomes. Many people say, "We know that you are not your government and that your people would never do this to us." We've been welcomed to visit in homes and to stay with families as long as we like.

I think Iraqi government officials initially regarded us as an exceptionally eccentric group. Although most of our travelers are quite well educated, they don't generally earn high incomes and many are dedicated toward living amongst the poorest of the poor in our own country. Our credentials were, - well, -- odd. And yet the earnest good will of our travelers won similar good will from several Iraqi government workers who then persuaded their colleagues that our efforts might amount to something helpful in educating US people about the economic sanctions. I should mention, however, that we rarely talk with people in Iraq about their own problems as regards human rights. It simply would not be safe for Iraqi civilians to talk with foreigners about their beliefs or experiences as regards human rights conditions within Iraq. We leave the country-they remain there.

F.A.: What was your first trip like?

K.K.: The first VitW trip was brief but intense. We visited a hospital where conditions were gruesome and horrifying. We left all the more determined to build a campaign to end the economic sanctions. We also left with deep gratitude for the kindly hospitality extended by people who met us along the way. I traveled into Iraq alone, on the "poor peoples bus." Lamia, a doctor who spoke English, befriended me. She had left the country to work in Yemen because her family was desperate for money. When she learned what we wanted to accomplish in the campaign, she said she wanted to help us and took me directly to her home. There I was able to call the one phone number I was carrying, the home number for a Chaldean Catholic priest. He invited me to visit his parish, and then set me up with Chaldean sisters who offered us housing in their hospital.

One evening, walking between the hospital and nearby convent, I met two little boys and invited them to share an orange with me. They pulled me down an alley and into their home, where their mother warmly welcomed me. The family had almost no income and lived in a hovel, but they quickly offered to share tea with me and my companions who had just arrived. Experiences during that trip convinced us that simple person-to-person diplomacy could be practiced between US people and people we would meet in Iraq.

F.A.: What are the hardest aspects of your trips?

K.K.: Certainly the most difficult encounters in our trips to Iraq occur when we sit with families at the bedsides of dying children. The pain endured by patients, parents, relatives, and doctors is intense, beyond words. A friend from the UK, who was with me in the Gulf Peace Team, Martin Thomas, stood sorrowfully with me at the bedside of Zahra Ali, a seven month old child who looked more like a seven month old foetus, as she succumbed to the ravages of malnutrition and fever. "I think I understand," Martin murmured, looking around the ward at other mothers who held desperately ill children in their arms. "It's a death row for infants, isn't it?"

Less dramatic, but also difficult for me, is the experience of living with families in Basra. We spend more money in two days on bottled water for ourselves than the family with whom I stay has access to over the course of a month. While with our friends in Basra, we slow ourselves down and more or less unhook ourselves from customary linkage, through high-tech communication, with instantaneous news reports and correspondence. I find it hard, almost as though I'm a recovering addict trying to overcome the regular communication "fixes." It's then especially difficult to leave these families. I return to comforts and easy access to all the perks of life in a modern, developed society. Why should I suddenly have a right to a better life, a safer life?

F.A.: What is the one message you would like to tell the world about Iraq under sanctions?

K.K.: I'd like to the world to know that upon return from Iraq, we don't divulge stories that would help people answer the question, "Why do they hate us so much?" Rather, we come back wondering, honestly, "Why do they love us so much?"

During my last trip to Iraq (Dec 8 2002 - Jan 10 2002), we visited a primary school in Baghdad. In the entrance was an art exhibit, which included a student's drawing, in chalks and markers, of the World Trade Center being attacked by a jumbo jet. I asked to visit with the student who drew the picture. Minutes later, little 11-year old Hussein stood before me, puffed with pride that a foreigner had called attention to his artwork. I asked him what he was thinking when he made the drawing. "This shows that Allah wanted to punish the people of the United States, to make them see that when they attack other people, they hurt those people." Then he caught his teacher's eye and quickly added, "But we love the people of the United States and we want to be their friends."

I told Hussein that I'd been in NYC on 9/11. I described how I'd stood on the rooftop of a Brooklyn building, watching the smoke billow over the city, and told him I'd felt sure that the people who could best understand the agony and grief experienced by people in New York City, that day, were people in Iraq whose arms ached emptily for loved ones that would not return.

I don't know quite why, but I wanted him to know about a song that was chosen by people who planned at least 150 of the memorial services held for victims of the World Trade Center attack. It's a song that was written after World War I, when people in Norway hoped there would never again be a world war.

The lyrics, sung to a tune composed by a Finnish musician, Jean Sibelius, emphasize the common aspirations of all people. Al Hussein and his friends said they wanted to learn this song, and learn it they did, with extraordinary help in transliteration and practice from a government official who accompanied us, from their school principal, and from members of the Baghdad symphony orchestra. The children sang that song with beauty and grace. Rather than presume hatred and resentment, we should explore and try to understand this question: why do they love us so much?


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