Sunday, Sept. 22; Jordan-Iraq border
There are lines and lines of oil tankers. They sit motionless in the heat, idling. Their drivers cannot be seen; the windows of the cabs act as mirrors and reflect the sun and the desert.
I’m sitting in the back of a Chevrolet GMC sports utility vehicle. We finally pass the last tanker and drive under a pair of arches that come up from both sides of the road. The driver speaks little English and hasn’t tried to communicate much during the four-hour ride to the border, but now he leans back and says, “Welcome to Iraq.”
In the seat next to me is Barbara Lubin. She is Jewish-American and the director of the Middle East Children’s Alliance. Several years ago she traveled around the Gulf countries and raised $4 million to build wheelchair-accessible playgrounds in the West Bank and Gaza. Most of the playgrounds are now unusable because Israeli military has destroyed them or Palestinian children have been shot by settlers while playing on them. This is her sixth trip to Iraq.
Barbara paid for most of the medical supplies in boxes piled behind me. Some of the medicines we brought in our bags from the US, the rest was purchased yesterday in Jordan. All together there is about $25,000 worth of badly-needed supplies, everything from chemotherapy medications to children’ s vitamins, syringes to rubber gloves.
The highway is very smooth. I have to squint to look out the window at the flat, bright desert. Occasionally we pass clusters of picnic tables and umbrellas.
In the front seat, Henry Williamson is also looking out his window. “I could live out here,” he suddenly says. Henry is a paramedic from Charleston, South Carolina. He served three tours in Vietnam as a combat medic and never pointed a gun at anybody. He’s wearing a Veterans for Peace button.
In another GMC in front of us, there are four more Americans. The six of us compose the fiftieth Voices in the Wilderness delegation to Iraq. Since 1995, Voices has campaigned to end the sanctions on Iraq and illegally sent medical supplies and toys to Iraqis. Now Voices is concentrating on Iraq Peace Team, a project to put nonviolent activists in Iraq before and during an attack. IPT members will work with media, community groups and religious groups to raise awareness in the US about the effects of a possible or ongoing war on Iraqi civilians.
I fall asleep. Hours later Barbara wakes me; we are nearing Baghdad. Buildings and other cars are finally visible. A large ditch filled with garbage separates four lanes of highway. We pass a small child sitting on a mound of trash in the ditch, eating. He or she looks up as our GMC goes by. This time it’s Barbara who says it: “Welcome to Iraq.”
Monday, Sept. 23; Baghdad
It’s just after 8 a.m. and I’m in a taxi, getting my first good look around Baghdad. The traffic is heavy; double-decker public busses, vans and countless Volkswagen Passats clog the streets.
There are blue and white road signs in Arabic and English everywhere. We drive under catwalks, past palm trees and people, through clouds of exhaust.
The taxi driver offers me a cigarette. I give him a double-sided copy of the “magic letter,” which explains the mission of Voices in the Wilderness in Arabic and English. It ends with: “We pledge to do all that we can for our brothers and sisters in Iraq.”
Ramzi Kysia sits in the back seat. He is a 34-year-old Lebanese-American Muslim who has worked for Voices and lived in Iraq for about four months. Before leaving the US, Ramzi called Dell Computers to order a laptop to use while traveling. When the salesman asked him where he was going, Ramzi said “Iraq.” Dell refused to sell him a computer.
Ramzi and I get out at the art museum that is our destination. The rest of the Voices group arrives in another taxi. Inside the museum, a beautiful Iraqi woman takes us on a tour of the museum. She jokes that we should hold hands so we don’t get lost.
We go up to the third floor, which is war-themed. The paintings are from the years Iraq was at war with Iran, and also from the 1991 Gulf War. Many of the paintings are cracking, their frames scuffed. The art mostly seems to be inspired by the pain of war, not by combat or propaganda. In one painting a mother nurses a child on a battlefield. Others are abstract renditions of piles of bodies.
I wander into a room filled with paintings that stand apart from the rest. They are by Leila al-Attar, the celebrated Iraqi artist. She was once the director of the Iraqi National Art Museum and worked tirelessly to promote “the role of women, the dignity of their existence and their humanity.”
Two years after the Gulf War, on January 17, 1993, Attar was killed when a US cruise missile struck her home, collapsing the house on her family. Her daughter was blinded in one eye.
On the way out a painting by Attar I hadn’t noticed before catches my eye: a self portrait. It has a large hole in the middle.
* * *
At eleven we go to the Canal Hotel, where the United Nations Oil-for-Food program is headquartered. The hotel, located on the outskirts of Baghdad, was chosen with the likelihood of future bombings in mind.
We meet with Torben Due, an official with the World Food Program, the organization that oversees the distribution of Oil-for-Food rations in Iraq. Due’s office is highly air-conditioned. In the corner there is a UN flag. On the wall, a framed photo of Kofi Annan.
“The program is functioning very well,” Due tells us stoically. “To the extent of food available, it’s being distributed.”
Oil-for-Food began in the mid-1990s, after a series of UN reports made the effects of sanctions on Iraq impossible to deny: “4,500 children under the age of 5 are dying each month from hunger and disease” (UNICEF); “Since the onset of sanctions, the majority of the country’s population has been on a semi-starvation diet” (WHO); “Famine threatens four million people in sanctions-hit Iraq-one fifth of the population” (UN FAO); “32 percent of children under 5, some 960,000 children are chronically malnourished-a rise of 72 percent since 1991″ (UNICEF).
Oil-for-Food was designed as “a temporary measure to provide for the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people,” not a long-term recovery plan. But the program has been renewed every six months since 1997.
Assistance to Iraqis through the Oil-for-Food program is provided in the form a monthly food basket valued at US$5 on the world market. Iraqis can buy it for just over fifteen cents. ($5 is the average monthly salary for a university professor in Iraq.)
Due says that in interviews, Iraqis who receive the food basket admit selling parts to buy next month’s fifteen cent food basket. Items in the basket are also sold to buy necessities like shoes.
“We have in Iraq people who are so poor that the food ration is their main income,” Due says. “It is a substantial part of the population.”
Although it’s not enough, the success of the program is that it reaches almost everyone legally living in Iraq. In the north, local Kurdish governments distribute the food basket; in the center and south of Iraq, the Iraqi government is in charge of distribution.
“They are very efficient,” Due tells us, praising the Iraqis. “They have an incredible distribution system. The food is reaching the people.”
But what happens if there’s a war and the distribution system is disrupted? What kind of preparations are being made?
Due becomes uncomfortable and evades our questions. With virtually the entire population of Iraq dependent on a monthly ration to live, any disruption longer than a few weeks would result in famine. “We’re concerned about it because it will have an enormous impact on the humanitarian situation,” he says.
Due admits that there is no contingency plan to maintain the distribution. “We can’t do anything in the middle of a war,” he finally says. “It’s always the poor people who suffer the most.”
Tuesday, Sept. 24; Baghdad
We load the boxes and duffel bags of medical supplies into taxis. We are going to donate most of the medicine to the Al Mansour Hospital, Baghdad’s central teaching hospital.
When we get there, media is waiting. CNN, Reuters TV, Associated Press and other print and television reporters film, photograph and question us in the hospital lobby.
Things get chaotic. There are about fifty Iraqi patients, families and hospital staff mingling around. The seven Voices people are giving interviews or holding up banners that read “No War On Iraq” and “Sanctions Are A Weapon Of Mass Destruction.”
A television crew from Mexico interviews me. The reporter is surprised when I tell him that what we’re doing-donating medicines to a needy hospital-is a violation of US law. “You are saying it is illegal in the United States to give medicine to an Iraqi hospital?” he asks. I assure him it is. He’s even more surprised by the penalty: up to twelve years in prison and $1.25 million in fines. I tell him I’ve already been in trouble for this sort of thing; I spent May in an Israeli prison for bringing food and medical supplies to Palestinians trapped in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Eventually the doctors take the medicine away and the Voices group is led to Dr. Louai Kashem’s office. Dr. Louai is the director of Al Mansour. He went to college in London and speaks very good English.
Sitting at his desk, Dr. Louai tells us how the sanctions have affected his hospital. Before the Gulf War, Iraq was an affluent country with a free universal health care system comparable to Western Europe. The UN found the biggest health problem among children was childhood obesity.
But after the onset of sanctions, health services gradually deteriorated. Soon there were shortages of medicine, and communicable disease that had previously been almost nonexistent, like tuberculosis and measles, reached epidemic proportions. Most medical equipment, even medical journals, was embargoed, leaving Iraqi doctors without the tools, or even knowledge, of modern medical advances.
Henry, the paramedic, asks Dr. Louai what message he can take back to American physicians. Without hesitation, Dr. Louai answers, “Please tell them to put their help to the Iraqi doctors by sending magazines, circulars, books, and if available new technologies to train these people which are living here, the Iraqi doctors.”
I write this down. The Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane is interested in sending aid to Iraqi hospitals.
We go upstairs to the children’s cancer ward. Big, dirty industrial oxygen tanks stand next to the elevator. A doctor tells us they are intended for blacksmiths but all the hospital has. We walk down long hallways. There are women with small children everywhere, on beds, on the floor. None of the children are crying or showing signs of life, but every unconscious child has a mother with them.
The group disperses, talking with patients and doctors. I overhear Bill Quigley, a social justice lawyer from New Orleans, say his wife is a nurse in a cancer ward and takes care of four patients. The doctor says here there is one nurse for every forty patients.
Dr. Saad Mehdi Hassani leads me around. He seems tired and has a thousand-yard stare. I’m introduced to Rual Abdul Haziz Assad, a 13-year-old girl with lymphoma. Taking her chart, Dr. Hassani points out the drugs on her protocol the hospital is missing. They have “N/A” scrawled next to them.
“Even folic acid, which is a simple vitamin, one of the vitamin B complex agents, [is missing],” Dr. Hassani says. “[Because] these items are missing in the protocol, so she has got relapse and survival rate will decline.”
Henry says folic acid is among the medicines we brought. Rual looks up at us, not understanding what we’re saying.
“Can you tell her that she’s beautiful,” asks David Smith-Ferri, a writer and stay-at-home dad from California.
“Before she was beautiful,” Dr. Hassani says, “but nowadays the hair is falling because of cytotoxic effects,”
“Do you think she’s going to get better?” I ask.
“No, I don’t think [so] because she had a lot of missed items in the protocol and she had a relapse of the tumor. So she has a very poor survival rate.”
If he had the right medicines, could he treat her? Dr. Hassani shakes his head. “For this patient, no.”
We move to the bed of a 5-year-old boy named Ahmed. His chart has a lot of N/As on it. “Chance of survival is very low because there is deficiency of one third of the treatment,” Dr. Hassani says.
We go to other beds; most of the kids are missing drugs needed to treat them. Why are so many drugs unavailable, I ask. Dr. Hassani places the blame squarely on the UN Sanctions Committee 661.
Under Oil-for-Food, Iraq can sell its oil on the world market. The profits are placed in a UN-controlled escrow account in New York, and twenty-eight percent automatically goes toward reparations to corporations like Citibank and Boeing, and also to cover UN administrative costs. Iraq can then apply to spend the remaining seventy-two percent of its money on humanitarian goods and services. The sanctions committee reviews the contracts and can put any items suspected of being “dual use” on hold. The US and Britain, through the sanctions committee, are currently blocking over $5 billion worth of humanitarian contracts. In four years, Iraq has received a total of $21.6 billion in humanitarian goods and services.
“A lot of protocols in our unit have missed or dropped items,” Dr. Hassani says. “Committee 661 prohibits the reach of these items, so the prognosis will be very poor and survival rate will be very down… It’s a very, very big problem for Iraqi people. And even to us [doctors], it’s a problem emotionally.”
As Dr. Hassani speaks I look around the room at dying children and their mothers. A small, wasted boy lying on a bed is looking at me. I have a small bag of cheap plastic harmonicas in my bag, the kind that only play a few notes. I want to give him one but he doesn’t look strong enough to blow it. I also have some rubber balls. I estimate that I have enough harmonicas and balls for all the kids in the room, but many appear too weak to play with them. A lot of the children are unconscious.
I give the toys to someone else in our group to pass out and step into the hallway.
“Quite a world,” Barbara says. “Quite a world,” David repeats, sighing.
“Do you want to see more patients?” Dr. Hassani asks me, then sees the look on my face “I think that’s enough,” he says, looking away. “Most of them have the same problems and the same deficiencies in the protocol.”
* * *
That night we drive to Babylon for the 14th Annual Babylon Music Festival. Here, thousands of Iraqis cheer musicians from China, Jordan, New Zealand, Holland, Thailand, Norway and other countries.
When Henry and I start taking pictures of the performers, smiling young men crowd around us, wanting us to take their picture too. Soon there are so many people laughing, talking and trying to shake our hands that a security guard comes and makes the crowd disperse.
This helps put the hospital visit in perspective. In spite of twelve years of sanctions, in spite of a devastated economy, in spite of the threat of another war, Iraqis are able to have fun. For a while at least, Iraq seems vibrant and alive.
I’m exhausted as we drive back to Baghdad.
Thursday, Sept. 24; Baghdad and Basra
The Voices delegation is up early, on a plane to Basra, a city in Southern Iraq. As our plane takes off, I, like everyone else, worry US or British fighter planes will shoot it out of the sky.
Basra is under the southern no-fly zone, which we have to fly through to get there. The no-fly zones (there is another in the north) were set up outside of the UN, meaning they are illegal, The US and Britain justify them with previous Security Council resolutions, none of which mention no-fly zones or anything like them.
Iraqi aircraft are not allowed to fly inside the zones, which cover well over half the country. In 2000, Iraqi Airways flights began shuttling between Baghdad and Basra, and now have two flights a day. A round-trip ticket is $20.
The stated goal of the no-fly zones is to protect Iraqi civilians on the ground. But Turkish Air Force jets are allowed to fly inside the northern zone to bomb Kurdish villages, and US and British attacks have killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians. The UN did a study of the US and British bombing raids between December 28, 1998 and the end of May 1999, and Investigators confirmed that seventy-three civilians were killed and 257 injured in twenty different locations.
We get in a taxi-van at the Basra airport and Thamer, our government minder, shows us a book on American slang he’s studying with. It contains explanations of terms like clunker, badass, blah-blah, and Jesus! “What about hanky-panky?” Thamer asks innocently and we all laugh.
We drive straight to the Sinibad Diarrhea Clinic to donate medicines. >From there we go to Al-Bakel Primary School for Girls.
At the school we go from classroom to classroom introducing ourselves. One of the Voices people is a teacher, and she relays greetings from American students. All of the Iraqi students are little girls. They are silent and motionless, cowed by six strange foreigners.
Eventually the Voices delegation moves to an empty room to talk with the teachers. I start to videotape, then duck out and go back into one of the classrooms. There is no teacher now, and the students giggle and point at me.
I turn the LCD screen around on the camera, so the girls can see themselves on a monitor a few inches wide. They crowd around and start laughing. I’m quickly surrounded by twenty-five laughing eight-year-olds.
They start to wave at the camera and yell out greetings in Arabic. After a few minutes they begin jumping up and down. They climb on the desks, on the window sill, on each other. They’re laughing and screaming and I’m laughing too; the noise is deafening. Things are getting out of control and I’m worried the girls on the desks will fall off. I’m trying to tell them to get down, but everyone is excited and yelling and they don’t pay much attention. Someone starts throwing water from a water-bottle.
The scene is so amazing I turn the monitor on the digital camera around to make sure it’s still recording. Suddenly all of the noise, jumping and chaos stops. A few seconds later I turn the screen around again, facing the girls, and they start cheering and bouncing up and down again.
One of the teachers pokes her head in and students shut the door and block it with their bodies. Ten minutes later I make my way outside and am mobbed by over one hundred little girls.
Back in the van, I play the footage for the other Voices people. Barbara’s eyes get red and she’s near tears. “God bless ‘em,” she says.
“Show this to Bush,” someone later advises me.
* * *
That evening we go to see Um Heider, a close friend of many Voices workers. Her name means “Mother of Heider”; she has been called that since her son Heider died almost four years ago. Um Heider is an English teacher. Her husband does not work; he fought in the Iran-Iraq war and now suffers from psychological problems.
We sit with Um Heider’s family, neighbors and children. There are about twenty people. Everybody is laughing and talking. The children are excited and rowdy.
Before coming we were warned by Danny Muller, a full-time Voices worker leading the delegation, to “under no circumstances” talk about Heider, who died when he was 6. Voices has arranged for journalists and delegations to hear Um Heider tell the story in the past, and Danny doesn’t want to put her through telling it again. This will be a purely social visit, he says.
On January 25, 1999, a US AGM-130 satellite-guided cruise missile exploded in the street right outside the house, now called “missile street.” Heider was brought inside, where he died from his wounds. His little brother Mustafa was maimed. In all, 19 died, most of them children.
With all the handshakes, hugs and kisses, it takes a long time to say goodbye. Outside, the same neighborhood kids who were excited to see us when we arrived are still there. They say what they can to us in English: “My name is Muhammad!” “My name is Ali!” “Good morning!”
Back at the hotel, we learn that the US just bombed the Basra airport.
Friday, Sept. 27; Basra
We’re sitting in the office of Dr. Assad Essa, pediatrician and chief resident of Ibn Ghazwan Hospital in Basra. (Essa means Jesus in Arabic.) He, like every doctor I will meet in Iraq, complains about the sanctions committee denying or putting medical supplies indefinitely on hold.
“We had a very big difficulty about the blood preparation because we haven’t a bag for the blood,” he says. “You know, that is very important. In order to donate the blood you should put it in a special bag. A few months ago we had a shortage in this bag. So you have patients, you want to give them blood, there is a donor, but you haven’t a bag. How you can give them blood? This is the sanctions. This is the difficulties and obstacles which are related to the sanctions.”
Dr. Essa is especially angry about the denial of a centrifuge and blood platelet separator specifically meant for his hospital. “Is it a human behavior? Is it?” he asks us. “They refuse a medical machine, a purely medical machine.”
The conversation turns to cancer and depleted uranium (DU).
Iraq is experiencing an unexplained cancer epidemic, and the south is the hardest hit. Much of the cancer is probably a result to DU munitions used by the US against Iraqi tanks in 1991. DU is a nuclear waste that remains radioactive for 4.5 billion years, and is used to tip US anti-tank shells and cruise and Tomahawk missiles. When a DU round explodes, the DU turns into a resperable dust and disperses. Gulf War Syndrome is widely attributed to DU exposure, but most US media excludes DU issues when debating another attack on Iraq.
Large areas surrounding Basra are contaminated with DU. It’s in the water and the soil, and once it enters the food chain it does not leave. Dr. Essa tells us that his hospital has cancer rates six times pre-1991 levels.
Birth deformities have also increased. “[We] have a large number of patients with congenial abnormalities,” Dr. Essa says. “About four or five times [the amount before the Gulf War]. Cases we haven’t seen previously. Even we haven ‘t seen them in books.”
Three photo albums are passed around. They are average family photo albums; their covers have pictures of an idyllic farm, of dolphins, of the sky. Inside are pictures of the deformed babies born in Ibn Ghazwan. I have never, ever seen anything like the pictures in the books.
There are pictures of babies with claws, with heads like footballs, without faces. One newborn appears to be a pair of buttocks with arms. Another resembles a frog. Others are missing pieces of their skull, their brains visible. Some babies are lumpy and shapeless. Many were born with their organs outside their bodies; their intestines bulge out of holes in their backs or stomachs.
I ask how many are still alive. “Unfortunately, the majority of these albums ‘ pictures died immediately after birth,” Dr. Essa says.
I can’t move. Although many of the babies’ eyes are open and they appear to be looking at the camera, this is a book of the dead.
We end the meeting to go visit some of the patients. “Would it be a problem if I don’t go up to the ward?” Bill, the lawyer from New Orleans, says. “I’m full. I’m over full.”
Upstairs, we stand around the bed of Sabrin Hassan, thirty-seven days old. She is emaciated and has long, bony limbs. Dr. Essa explains Sabrin has congenital heart disease.
“That’s why she’s having a hard time breathing,” Henry says quietly, his hand on her head.
Dr. Essa says she is malnourished and unfit for operation. Eventually her heart will fail.
Sabrin’s mother tearfully asks the doctor if we’ve come to fix her daughter’ s heart.
I can’t look at little Sabrin any more. Dr. Essa is talking and I’m recording him with a minidisc recorder. I concentrate on watching the bouncing sound levels on the recorder to keep from breaking down. But I can’ t shut out Dr. Essa’s words:
“We want our condition to become better than this, and our situation, and the medical supply for the Iraqi people become better, in order to work in a good manner in order to help as much of the Iraqi people. Our aim is to save these people, especially these patients. And we hope that our situation become better by lifting the sanctions and our lives become better than this. And we want to live in peace. That’s what we want.”
* * *
That night we’re visited by Adil Rahim, who taught Voices members Arabic when a delegation lived in Basra for two months. He received his MA in literary discourse analysis and teaches at the University of Basra. “I am teaching my students not to look at American society in the eyes of Powell or Cheney, Condoleeza Rice,” he says. “But in the eyes of Walt Whitman, Hemingway, Martin Luther King.”
His voice quavering, Adil asks Barbara to place a white flower in New York City on behalf of all Iraqi people in remembrance of Sept. 11. “We have no problem with the American people,” he says, “We are in the same human family.”
Adil pleads with us to do something to stop another attack on Iraq. He worries about his eight-month-old daughter. I ask her name. “Salah, which means comforting somebody sad,” Adil says. “I would be very grateful for doing your best to avoid this little child from being bombed.”
In Basra, air raid sirens announce the daily overflights of US and British warplanes. “Yesterday we heard explosion,” Adil tells us. “This is the no-fly zone. We are the people of the no-fly zone area. We say please let us alone. Let us live peacefully, without any explosions or bombing. Daily we listen to the jets hovering over. I’m really, really afraid.”
Saturday, Sept. 28; Baghdad
Back in Baghdad, the Voices delegation attends a dinner party given in our honor. It is in the courtyard of the house of a wealthy Iraqi art gallery owner. The art dealer, Qasim Alsabti, is incredibly articulate and enjoys hosting dinner parties. Last week there was a party for the Baghdad CNN bureau here.
We meet several prominent Iraqi artists Qasim has also invited. They speak excellent English, they’re fluent in French, they have email addresses. Their drivers wait outside.
Qasim says more people were expected, but no one is going out any more because they’re worried about the war.
Fish roasts over an open spit and I drink a glass of Arak, an Iraqi alcohol made from licorice. It’s hard and clear, but when water is added it turns white. One of the artists raises a toast for world peace.
I switch to wine and fill my plate from a bowl of Iraqi dates, which are famous throughout the Middle East and the world. “If you eat Iraqi dates, you need woman,” says one of the artists. “This is Iraqi Viagra.”
The conversation shifts to the impending war. Qasim says if the US attacks he will sit with his Kalashnikov and wait in his house, “because this is my home and no one will take it away from me.”
After dinner, we go next door to Qasim’s art gallery. The paintings and sculptures are stunning. “Some people are thinking we are still making art with horses and landscapes, but you can see this is contemporary art,” Qasim says, new age music playing in the background.
He insists his driver take us back to our hotel. As we’re leaving, I pass under a stone archway with the name of the gallery, Heywar, etched in Arabic.
“It means dialogue,” Qasim says, pointing to the engraving. “We need dialogue.”
Sunday, Sept. 29; Baghdad
The Aameriyah shelter was built in the Western Baghdad neighborhood of Aameriyah 1984. The walls are two meters thick and the shelter can hold over a thousand people. An underground floor has bathrooms, a kitchen and storerooms for food and medical supplies. When Baghdad was bombed during the Gulf War, Aameriyah residents took refuge here, among televisions, bunk beds and air conditioning.
Inside, it takes my eyes a few minutes to adjust to the lack of light. An occasional bare lightbulb hangs from the ceiling, but the shelter is dark and gloomy. The ground-level floor is wide open and spacious; there are only a few areas sectioned off by walls.
>From a large hole in the ceiling, daylight also comes into the shelter. Below the hole there is rubble and a deep depression in the concrete. It took two 2,000-pound smart bombs to do this on February 13, 1991 at 4:30 a.m. They both did exactly what they were supposed to do: the first opened up a hole at the weakest point in the ceiling, the air ducts, so moments later the second could go in through the hole and kill everyone inside. Both bombs were laser guided, accurate to within six feet.
US war planners claimed senior Iraqi government leadership was hiding in the shelter. They were wrong; it was a place ordinary Iraqis took refuge in to escape the bombs. Over four hundred people were killed, “collateral damage.” For four days, the Pentagon and the first Bush Administration denied Aameriyah was bombed until photo evidence by foreign journalists proved otherwise.
The Iraqis have not cleaned up Aameriyah very much. The bodies and most of the debris have been taken away, but the bomb shelter has been preserved as a monument to the victims. It looks as if it was bombed last week.
The walls and ceiling are blackened from the heat and smoke. In some areas there is still paint, burned and peeling. Paneling, rods and wires dangle from the ceiling.
Wreaths and framed pictures of the dead are everywhere. Most of the pictures are grainy blowups of smaller black-and-white photos, so individual features are difficult to make out. They are on the walls, on easels, on the floor; the effect is haunting. Many photos are of babies or young children. A pencil sketch of six members of one family is propped up against a wall.
Along one side of the shelter there are photos of the immediate aftermath of the bombing. There are bodies and body parts lying on pieces of plastic outside the shelter. Corpses with no arms, legs or head; just rounded hunks with ribs sticking out. One photo is of women crying and collapsing on the ground. Another is of the dead body of a little girl, blood running out of her eyes, nose and ears.
The other two Voices people I’m with are ready to leave. I still want to see basement level. As I’m going down the stairs, the guide asks, “Please don’t touch anything because of the meat on the wall.”
The water lines, which were attached to two gigantic water tanks, blew open when the second bomb hit. The basement filled up with water; I can see the water line is about five feet high. The temperature in the shelter reached over one thousand degrees Fahrenheit and the water boiled with people in it. Human skin and hair are still stuck to the walls.
I’m alone down here. I have only been to two other places where I’ve felt the weight of the entire world crushing down on me; the Holocaust museum in Washington DC, and the bloody scene of a helicopter attack in Gaza City that killed a nine-year-old girl.
Outside, the guide brings us into a trailer to sign a book. There are messages written in Arabic in it, written by visitors to the shelter. I don’ t know what I can say; it’s my country that was responsible for this atrocity.
I finally write: “I came to Iraq because I refuse to accept that this will happen again.”
Monday, Sept. 30; outskirts of Baghdad
Congressman Jim McDermott, of Seattle, and David Bonier, of Michigan, give a press conference at Rostamia Water Treatment plant. The conference is held here because the two congressmen want to draw attention to the fact that in 1991 this plant, like all the other sewage treatment plants in Baghdad, was bombed by Coalition forces. According the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which the US is a signatory, it is a war crime to bomb civilian infrastructure.
“People don’t understand what war really does,” McDermott says. “In the 1991 Gulf War we destroyed the sewage treatment plants and sewage system of one of the cities that had the best system in the Middle East… The death rate for children under the age of five is a hundred percent increase. Fifty thousand children a year die prematurely because of this destruction that war brought.”
Dr. Tom Nagy is also here. He’s a George Washington University professor who is famous in the anti-sanctions movement for unearthing a declassified US Defense Intelligence Agency paper that spells out how sanctions will prevent Iraq from providing clean water to its citizens. Dated only a few days before the beginning of the 1991 bombing campaign, the document predicts what the effect of poor drinking water would be on Iraqis, “particularly children,” and how Iraq would fail to stop the disease epidemics that will follow.
When the Rostamia plant was bombed the sewage flowed directly into the Tigris River. Twelve years later, sewage from the 1.5 million people this plant serves is dumped into the river when the plant loses power. Rivers in Iraq take in about 500,000 tons of raw sewage every year.
Ibrahim Hussein, Director-General of the Baghdad Sewage Authority, has the same complaints as the doctors I met in Baghdad and Basra. Where the doctors can’t get medicines to treat patients, Hussein can’t get the parts to keep his plants running. Crucial motors constantly break down and over half of the aerators don’t work. The Sanctions Committee is blocking the parts Hussein needs for repairs and upgrades.
“There are so many items they consider dual use,” Hussein says. “They consider stainless steel dual use. But when you have a pump with an impular with stainless steel, is it dual use? They consider it dual use.”
I ask him if preparations are being made for the possibility the US will target Baghdad’s sewage treatment plants again. “We are making preparations, but what can we do?” Hussein says, shaking his head. “I mean, it’s not so easy for us to make new treatment plants. What we will do, we will throw directly into the river, without treatment. And this is a big, big problem.”
* * *
At 7 p.m. I’m by the river again, this time sitting in an outdoor cafe with Ramzi and Danny, and their Iraqi friend Dhiar.
We end up talking about the war, as in almost all conversations I have in Iraq. Dhiar advises me to stay outdoors when the bombing starts. “You don’t want the building coming down on you,” Danny says.
This kind of advice is important to me; I have no plans to leave Iraq, even if the US attacks again. I want to be here documenting and publicizing the effects on civilians.
Dhiar asks Danny what he thinks the chances of another war are. Dhiar is worried because of something Ramzi suggested. “I told him to get out of the city,” Ramzi says.
“Ramzi might be right,” Danny says.
“I am not scared for me,” Dhiar tells us. “I am scared for my family.”
Dhiar is about my age. He made it through December 1998, when the US launched over 400 Tomahawk and cruise missiles into Baghdad. There is no advice or comfort I can offer him. “We are professional here with bombings,” Dhiar says.
My heart is heavy as I walk back to the hotel. It’s cool out and there are people on the streets. In my room, I read the news and I hear all of the arguments for another war on Iraq. But it still makes no sense to me why anyone would want to bomb these people.