Despite the reports from every United Nations organization dealing with health, agriculture and children, the United States has maintained unwavering support for continuing the economic embargo on Iraq. On my first visit to Iraq in July and August, I traveled with Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness to experience the effects on the people of Iraq who are suffering needlessly at the hands of our government. As many people know, travel to Iraq is illegal and those undertaking the trip do so at the risk of twelve years in prison and over one million dollars in fines. For me, to meet teachers, students, families, doctors, patients, mothers and ordinary people whose lives have been irreversibly altered as a result of the mean-spirited policies of my government, the risk is worth it.
Before I left I had viewed the excellent documentary by John Pilger and had participated in the cross-country educational Remembering Omran Bus Tour, named for a shepherd boy from a farming community near Najaf who was killed in May 2000 by coalition bombs. I had already taken a public stand against the sanctions through written articles as well as in my classroom where I teach high school classes on nonviolence. Having returned from Iraq after seeing for myself the squalor that children play, learn and live in, seeing for myself the pathetic conditions of health care and education, and seeing the indomitable spirit of the Iraqi people, I realize that I know nothing. I know nothing about patience, about hopefulness and hopelessness, about just getting by, and about forgiveness. I realize that we Americans have so much privilege, time, and resources and that our lives have gone on since the Gulf War. We are able to forget about the Iraqi people because our media does not present us with images from families who boil sewer water for tea, with images from inside a morgue where babies are kept in flimsy boxes until their families can come pick them up, with images from car accidents on hot asphalt roads caused by blowouts because the people can’t afford new tires.
I realize that I know nothing about life under siege. Voices in the Wilderness founder Kathy Kelly describes our world as a train: some people travel first class, riding with comfort and ease, some people travel in cramped third class conditions, and some people are under the train, and the people of Iraq are under the US foreign policy train which is rolling full speed ahead toward annihilation. To stop this runaway policy of genocide, I can figuratively lay myself down on the tracks. I can lay down the stories of the people I know from Iraq. I can lay down the stories whose raw truth can compel more Americans, more young people like me, to get involved.
Every day since I returned I have thought about a mother and her twelve-year-old son and sitting at his beside while she cried uncontrollably. He was unconscious, a victim of leukemia caused by toxic exposure to depleted uranium. I gave her some tissues and sat with her as long as I could before our delegation continued on to other sweltering rooms filled with sick kids and their helpless mothers. It was at the Saddam Teaching Hospital that I realized kids cry in the same language and that inconsolable mothers worldwide feel the burden of responsibility when their kids won’t get well. The situation in Iraq is compounded because of the crippling lack of medicine and hospital supplies, like refined oxygen. We witnessed some men unloading industrial oxygen tanks into a hospital hallway which were to be used on even the most fragile babies because refined oxygen is unavailable.
During my time in Iraq, I thought about why my country has made it illegal for me to visit the cradle of civilization. My only explanation is so that we cannot see the soul-wrenching, pervasive damage our government has perpetrated there. I wondered if people in my government feel any shame for what they have done to ravage these ancient sites in this beautiful country. The foundation for disrespecting pre-existing cultures is nothing new for my country, though, and I was struck by the similarity of how millions of Native Americans were killed by European diseases and uprooted from their native lands in the name of Western progress.
Yet as I stood at the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates where they become the Shatt al-Arab, I felt so privileged to be in a place very few Americans will ever see. I felt the timelessness of Iraq and the historical and religious significance which lies within the boundaries. Standing on the top of the ziggurat at Ur and holding seashells which still rest there from the “Great Flood”, I knew the infinite importance of Iraq. And I saw the hurt in our guide’s eyes as as I watched him pull a piece of shrapnel out of the side of the ziggurat where it stuck after a coalition bomb struck a few hundred yards from this temple.
Americans largely misunderstand the Arab culture. I encountered a country full of generous and hospitable people, welcoming me into their homes even though my country still bombs them many times each month. Yet anti-Arab attitudes promote such discrimination and racism in our country, attitudes fostered by movies and media which portray them as terrorists and suicide bombers. Iraqis especially are shown as hating Americans, burning our flag and cursing our democratic and freedom-loving nation. The Iraqis I met all said that they understand that the American people have good hearts and that we are not our government or military. Can the average American say that about the people of Iraq, or do we equate an entire nation of 23 million people with one leader? In addition to lifting the economic sanctions, we need to eliminate the institutionalized hatred of Iraqis which enables the good people of America to sit by and let our government destroy a beautiful nation.
Iraq does not need to be bombed another time, and it does not need smarter sanctions. The economic embargo needs to be lifted because it violates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, specifically Article 24 which pertains to healthcare for children, including prenatal care for expectant mothers. Each month nearly 5,000 children die as a result of sanctions, according to the World Health Organization, and 1 in 10 children will not live to see their first birthdays. Prior to sanctions, citizens of Iraq enjoyed quality comprehensive healthcare, but today over 90 percent of pregnant women are severely anemic.
Additionally, in the past eleven years under sanctions, the international community has rendered the Geneva Convention protocol protecting victims of armed conflicts ineffective because of the intentional, preconceived and flagrant human rights abuses perpetrated in Iraq by the United Nations sanctions supported by our government. This protocol exists to protect not just Westernized countries, but all humans. I live every day knowing that policies of my government dispassionately kill Iraqis, and as a U.S. citizen I bear responsibility for their enduring consequences. We as Americans are guilty of genocide in the cradle of civilization through our inaction and inattention to the needless suffering that has transpired over the last eleven years; we must hold ourselves and our government accountable and mobilize to create more just policies toward Iraq.
*Leah C. Wells is Peace Education Coordinator at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.