Who is there to help the Iraqi children?
Before I left South Africa as part of the Iraq Action Committee delegation that took relief aid for the Iraqi people, my greatest personal concern was that I would return frustrated and depressed. I remembered my visit to Palestine three years ago and how depressed I had felt at the end of that trip, having witnessed Zionist brutality and a sense of hopelessness among people. I felt sure that these emotions would be much more intense while I was in Iraq and upon my return from that devastated country. It was not to be; I returned with ambiguous emotions.
The 1991 Gulf War and the sanctions instituted by the United Nations after the war have left the country with untold hardships. The morale of many Iraqis has been completely destroyed; the poverty levels have soared; incidences of various diseases like cancer have increased. The sanctions regime has been ridiculous, with simple items like pencils and water-purifying chlorine not allowed to enter the country because they could supposedly be used to build ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Before the war the Iraqi dinar could buy US$3.3; now US$1 will buy you 2 000 Iraqi dinars. The sanctions, actually illegal under international law, have devastated the economy, civil society and the morale and dignity of the Iraqi people.
The purpose of our trip – as had been widely advertised since early this year – was to deliver aid in the form of medical supplies. Five tons of supplies had been purchased through donations by the South African Muslim community. About 100 people formed part of the delegation. These included government officials, media and businesspeople. The aid was more symbolic than substantive, the symbolism indicated by the fact that the flight was the first from sub-Saharan Africa in the past 10 years. In the handover ceremony the Iraqi official present continued reminding the audience of the ‘symbolic’ nature of the aid.
For the South Africans it was a brief visit – two days. The delegation visited the only specialist paediatric hospital in Iraq – the Saddam Teaching Hospital, the Amariyah bomb shelter (see side bar) and historical sites like Karbala, Najaf and Babylon.
The scene in the hospital was heart-rending for most members of the delegation. Especially striking was the children’s intensive care unit. We saw children with birth defects – the incidence of which has increased since the war mainly because of the depleted uranium the ‘allied forces’ used and which has polluted the air and water and causes cancer; we saw children that we knew would not survive more than a few days. Most of the children were attended to by either the mother or a grandmother. Greater sadness on the faces of mothers would be difficult to find. The ICU was a pathetic excuse for a high care ward. There was no monitoring equipment, no air conditioner, a serious lack of medicines and supplies as basic as saline solution. This lack is as a result of the sanctions, the large numbers of patients that require care and the high turnover of patients. Clearly, the children of Iraq are the most serious victims of the sanctions imposed on the people of Iraq. And they will continue to be victims for years to come. (Depleted uranium, one of the causes of the bad state of children’s health, has an effective life of 490 000 years.)
Our delegation was confined to Baghdad except when we were taken to Karbala (about 150km away) and Najaf. One of the TV crews was prevented by the Iraqi Ministry of Information from visiting Basra (about 600km away) where the conditions of the people are much worse than those in the capital. Iraqi society is generally very regulated. There is no civil society and the only organisations that seem to exist are affiliated either to the government or the Ba’ath Party (which is the same thing). That regulation is seen in the people, in what they say (or don’t) and how they think (or don’t).
Perhaps a reason that the TV crew wasn’t allowed to visit Basra is that Basra, unlike Baghdad, has not been rebuilt after the war. Baghdad was completely rebuilt within 18 months after the war ended. This was quite a feat. However, one could ask why similar rebuilding has not taken place in the rural areas and the towns away from the capital.
Another issue to be considered when we talk about the rebuilding of Baghdad is that, for the extent of the repairs to the city, there must have been large amounts of construction materials and equipment brought into the country. Clearly, that would not have been possible under the sanctions. Unless Iraq was able to bring all of this in by bypassing sanctions. But, if large machinery and materials could be brought in, then why is there such a difficulty in smuggling in medicines and medical supplies? And how is it that the private clinics that operate in Baghdad do not have as much of a lack medical supplies as does the state hospital?
When we visited the ICU, the guide made a special effort to point out that there was no air conditioner. An ICU without an air conditioner is disastrous, especially in a place like Baghdad where the temperature soars to above 40 degrees by lunchtime. The strange thing was that at lunchtime we returned to our hotel, I flipped a switch and was able to relax in an air-conditioned room. Why can the hotel have an air conditioner in each room and the ICU of the state hospital not?
Baghdad is also a city of many contrasts. On the one hand, for example, there is extreme poverty – exacerbated by the war and the sanctions, of course. On the other hand, there is obvious wealth in the hands of the upper class. The suffering in Iraq is clearly not general but the lot of the poorer classes.
Many beggars and street children walk the streets. They are especially visible at the various shrines: in Karbala, Najaf, at the shrines of Abdul Qadir Jilani and Imam Abu Hanifa. Beggars exist in most countries of the world. But Iraq had become – since the end of colonialism in 1958 – a proud and dignified nation which, with its rich oil-wealth, prided itself on its wealth and economic self-sufficiency. To be reduced – in ten years – from that to a nation of poverty with its children begging for bread is a great indignity, an indignity that is a direct result of the sanctions. But the streets also play host to the shopping classes. Shopping in Baghdad goes on until the early hours of the morning with many Iraqis walking around buying everything from foodstuff to English music CDs and the latest TVs. There is money in Iraq. However, like in most other places in the world, the money does not serve the marginalised and poverty-stricken.
Clearly, the Gulf War was fought in a way that would bring the Iraqi people to their knees. The sanctions regime after the war aimed to consolidate and entrench their subjugation. The ‘Allied’ forces treated the Iraqi people in the manner that Europeans have treated ‘Third World’ people for centuries: with contempt and as less than human. That they bombed and murdered innocent civilians in 1991 in Amariyah or in 1999 in Basra is not even worth an apology as far as they are concerned. The blame for the deaths of one and half million Iraqis over the past 10 years lies directly at the doors of particularly the US and the UK.
However, it should not be forgotten that the present Iraqi regime is not blameless. If we think about the regime’s lack of concern for human life we should think about how Saddam unleashed chemical weapons against other Iraqis – the Kurds in the North – in the mid-1980s. Remember also that whatever the devastation that has been wreaked in Iraq over the past 10 years, it all started with Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait – with the tacit approval of the US. My contention is that while the imposed sanctions are devastating Iraq, the Iraqi government is complicit in that devastation.
Without personalising the ills of the Iraqi regime, it needs to be said that Saddam Hussain is a typical megalomaniac. In Baghdad, his photographs, pictures and statues are frequently seen imposing themselves over the population. The capital has a Saddam University, Saddam hospital and soon… Masjid Saddam, planned to be the largest masjid in the world.
The Iraqi people need the support of Muslims and people all over the world. Sterling work is being done to support Iraqis and fight against the sanctions by various groups in Europe and America. Some of these groups have been breaking sanctions over the past decade to take in medical and other critical supplies into Iraq at the risk of huge fines. Sadly, the Muslim response has not been comparable. Poor Iraqis live in absolute misery as a result of the sanctions. Children are the hardest hit. Even their births today and in the future are causes for concern. Some Iraqis are afraid to get married because they are afraid of what kind of children they will give birth to. Further, the sanctions, far from breaking the power of Saddam Hussain as the US would like to have us believe, actually has helped to entrench his power over the Iraqi people.
One of the greatest priorities today for people all over the world is to save the Iraqi children – this and future generations.
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