Some things are unchanged after four months away from Iraq. British and American planes are still bombing bizarre targets in an ongoing, undeclared war. When I charged the British Ministry of Defence in June (1999) with bombing flocks of sheep and the small child shepherds who mind them – having found photographed evidence of the attacks – they replied that they ‘reserve the right to take robust action if threatened.’ Two days before my latest arrival (in October 1999) “robust action” was taken against another flock of sheep in a remote village between Basra and Amara in the Southern “no fly” zone. Apart from the sheep, three small boys and two adults with them were blown to bits. Just prior to the incident a car carrying foreign journalists was written off in an attack reportedly by three missiles that landed just three metres away injuring a Swedish correspondent. The occurrence at the town of Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, was seen more as a shot across the bows of the pope, who planned to visit in December as part of a millennium pilgrimage, than across those of Saddam Hussein.
On late night arrival in Baghdad, after a gruelling journey overland from Amman, in Jordan (no flights allowed since the imposition of the embargo on Hiroshima Day, 1990), tragedy manifested immediately. As we entered the city all the lights went out in one of the eight-hour power cuts, caused by the collapse of the electrical system after denial of spare parts by the United Nations Sanctions Committee for nearly ten years. Few cars have working headlights (car parts are also denied), and the resulting pile-up was tragically spectacular. Attempts to call up the ambulance station — finally the proud possessor of working ambulances, a consignment of which had also been blocked for several years — was futile; when the electricity fails, so do the telephones!
As we pulled into the hotel a large, tough looking man ran up to me as I alighted from the car: “My wife, my baby. . .” he repeated, over and over, making frantic gestures to his face and body. It transpired he thought I was a doctor. His wife and three-year-old son had earlier been burned in a horrific accident involving a cheap lamp – a substitute for electricity – they routinely explode and the resultant burns are part of the hidden casualties of the embargo. His wife was so badly burned that she had lost her breasts. The next evening, he turned up at the hotel, carrying a small broken doll in his arms. It was his son. His face had melted, his eyes, nose and mouth unrecognisable. His remaining ear was stuck to his shoulder, his little head twisted grotesquely, immovably. He and his mother had endured seven operations in five weeks, further were needed, but the plastic surgeon, world renowned Dr. Ali Basher, also a painter and sculptor of renown, had been stabbed by a patient who had lost his mind.
“All Iraq is losing its mind” an Iraqi friend remarked when I relayed the story. “I can only compare that child to the face of soldier, frozen against the windscreen – the image of the Gulf War which haunts us all”, observed a colleague. There was no magic wand, we helplessly pooled enough dollars for black market medication for further surgery – if another plastic surgeon could be found. Another hidden cost of the embargo is the haemorrhaging of professionals, fleeing to earn hard currency to provide for their families in a country where stratospheric inflation means the cost of a kilo of chicken or a couple of lipsticks, exceeds a professor’s monthly salary.
Ireland’s Denis Halliday, former Humanitarian co-ordinator in Iraq, who resigned in disgust at the “destruction of entire nation”, who was visiting at the same time, told me: “Throughout Baghdad there are empty homes, clothes still in the wardrobe, books still on the shelves, change on the bedside table . . .” The homes of professionals who have fled the embargo with only the clothes on their backs. “I was offered them by relatives and had to ask to see no more – I felt like an intruder.”
Then there is the selling. People sell their all to try and survive and provide. Often, when there is nothing left to sell, whole families commit suicide. I heard the story of a man of seventy, an academic, who had collected books from his travels all over the world, since childhood. He had three rooms and talked to them: “All my life I have looked after you and, lavished my money on you, loved you, now I have to ask some of you to care for me.” He gathered a few and went to the Friday market where precious personal possessions are sold, bit-by-bit. He sat there, his friend who told me the story said: week after week, tears running down his face. He now has not one volume left.
Then there are what have become known (ironically), known as the “Schindler passports.” Opportunists sell a package $10,000 to spirit people out of Iraq and get them to a European country. On the third morning, a man approached me. Could I help? He and his wife had to get to Germany to visit their children. His story was a bizarre tragedy. Imad was a Christian school teacher from Northern Iraq. Four years ago, his youngest child had died of malnutrition. Like many, he and his wife had married very young – they had a son in his twenties, married with small children. Imad and his wife decided to have a second family. When their three-year-old died her death coincided with the sons family’s flight. They sent their two little daughters with them to normality, and a proper diet, his son passing them off as his own. As their grief subsided they realised their folly. His wife joined us, crying quietly, clearly ill and in deep distress. “How long has your wife been crying like this?” I asked. “Four years,” he replied. It transpired that she had lost her sight through crying.
On the road to Basra, in the misnamed Southern “safe haven” we stopped at a rare pull-in. There was a traditional bakery where sweet, delicious flat Arabic bread is thrown by hand into a charcoal fuelled, stone oven and pulled out on a spatula moments later, a melting delicious moment to savour. The baker, beaming at our appreciation of his skills, loaded us with the fruits of his sweltering labour and refused all payment – we were a group of five, all except myself representatives of countries who had wrought such destruction on his land, yet like the “welcome, welcome, welcome” one hears throughout Iraq, the towering generosity of this extraordinary, proud people, shone through.
An hour down the road, tragedy struck. A pall of smoke and dust blanketed all – three figures lay at the side of the road, two clearly dead, one just visibly moving. The state of Iraq’s vehicles is a disaster – it was predictable that either a tire had burst in the searing heat, speeding up on a near empty road, or the steering column had sheered. We stopped, then realised the futility of our antibiotic and diarrhoea-orientated medical kits – massive, instant medical assistance was needed. We sped to the nearest checkpoint where they relayed emergency messages – but in our hearts we knew there was no hope. After ten tears of deprivation, another died alone, in the middle of nowhere with no one to comfort them in their last moments, no air ambulance (flights vetoed by the United Nations), and any aid that did arrive inadequate and far too late.
In Basra, formerly the “Venice of the Middle East”, a school from which the burning from three vast oil well fires could be seen, had no electricity, no air-conditioning, no running water or working toilets – an aid agency had just delivered pencils – and all text books were photocopied and ten years old. In the Paediatric Hospital Dr. Jenan welcomed me with a hug. Then she said: “You remember those children you wrote about in June? I am sorry, all of them have died.” Her eyes were full of tears. They included seventeen babies of premature weight who did not even have oxygen.
At the site of a “robust” bombing in January (1999) for which the United States ultimately apologised, information was wrong, it had been an “error”, a man with haunted eyes came out of a small home and hesitantly approached. The crowd that gathers at the arrival of rare strangers fell back – and fell silent. He walked hesitantly towards us and then carefully produced three battered, fingered photographs from his pocket. They were his three laughing children, all under seven, killed in the “mistake”.
In another “safe haven”, Mosul, in Northern Iraq, was another family, subject of yet another “mistake”. We found the graves of the family who’s decimated sheep I had photographed in June – the mother of the three children and the brother of their father. The memory of a small woman with immense dignity and no education, sitting on the mound of earth – her six year old son, Soulman, hunched, broken, still beyond speech, will haunt me for all time. Eventually, she stood as if barely able to drag herself away – I wondered if she too was near blind – her abaya (sleeveless outer garment) was stained and dirty, niceties were clearly peripherals – her husband and her children lay in the dust a footstep away.
I felt personally that this was no time for “journalistic impartiality” and searched for any words that would address the horror of ‘we the people of the United Nations’ blowing to bits four small children, their father and grandfather, and their livelihood – a flock of sheep. Her hand was ice cold in mine – the days temperature was around 120 degrees Fahrenheit. She looked at me through milky eyes: “I want nothing from any of you” she said quietly, then: “But I would just like to meet the pilot of that ‘plane.” I heard her courteously unsaid words. There is an expression in Iraq rooted in the mists of time. She could have added “And if I drink of his blood, it will not be enough.”
The tragedies of the embargo on Iraq are not rooted alone in food and medicine but in the myriad hidden casualties. I traveled to Iraq a day after having severely broken my arm – and gained some idea of the pain sick people travel in if they have enough money to seek medical help in Jordan. On a number of occasions over the years, I have witnessed people die on the bus.
This correspondent is convinced that the embargo on Iraq will be recorded as one of the great crimes of the 20th Century, with the Holocaust, the excesses of Pol Pot and the fire bombing of Dresden – but what makes it unique is that the tragedies and the deaths of 6,000 children a month according to the United Nation’s own August (1999) accounts, are being perpetrated in the name of “We the people of the United Nations.”