I sat next to seventh grader Amina and ninth grader Samara on the Royal Jordanian flight from Baghdad to Amman a week ago. These two young girls are fleeing Iraq with their family, as are millions of other Iraqis, for neighboring Jordan. Syria is inundated with Iraqi refugees; the girls’ father estimated around four million.
“Iraqis right now are like this,” describes Samara. “It’s like putting mice in a jar and shaking it up and then letting the mice run loose. That is Iraq. That is how the people are.”
Disoriented. Chaotic. Dazed. Quaking.
But on the surface you’d never know. In Baghdad for an international student gathering, I had the opportunity to walk around the city to restaurants, strolling and taking stock of the fragile situation. Old men sat outside cafes playing chess, drinking Iraqi chai, or sweet tea. Young men worked to clean out and repair building facades. Boys washed cars and peddled cigarettes. Women and children walked to and from the markets, and kids went to school. Life on the surface appears normal.
But the two girls, Amina and Samara, are correct. Their metaphor accurately depicts Iraq at this moment. People are recalling the first Gulf War, thinking of all that was destroyed and the enduring catastrophic sanctions which have left their country largely unrepaired. The people of Iraq are considerably less prepared and certainly less healthy than they were twelve years ago.
Iraq’s medical infrastructure provided for preventative medicine for all members of society. Children in 1990 had all their inoculations and an infrastructure which provided them with clean water and adequate nutrition. Today, due to the sporadic functioning of electrical plants, refrigerated vaccinations ruin, and crucial medical supplies like x-ray film and bloodbags are hard to come by. A centrifuge waited on hold in Amman, banned by the Sanctions Committee 661.
UNICEF and the World Food Programme have been trying to prepare the country for a U.S.-led invasion. These agencies, along with every other United Nations agency dealing with children, agriculture, health, welfare, education and nutrition, have reported on the devastating effects of the sanctions, and now they are bracing for a humanitarian crisis resulting from a massive attack. UNICEF worries most about the people having access to clean water post-invasion. In 1991, civilian infrastructure like water and sewage treatment facilities were targeted, as were roads and bridges. UNICEF is working around the clock to distribute humanitarian goods all over the country so that in the case of damaged transportation routes, the people will have access to vital sustenance.
They are getting unprecedented cooperation from the Government of Iraq in importing and distributing necessary goods, like high protein biscuits and F100, a therapeutic food/medicine which helps to recover body weight and fluid in cases of severe dehydration and malnutrition. These two particular items had been unimportable for over two years.
While major media networks are reporting that as a tactic of war, Saddam intends to starve his people, the humanitarian agencies dealing with food distribution are reporting the exact opposite. Already, UNICEF is distributing the food rations for June and July, and they were given the authority six months ago to begin distributing rations in two months’ supply at the urgence of the Government of Iraq. In essence, the government and the United Nations agencies are working in concert to ensure that in the case of war, the people would not be unprepared.
Many U.N. agencies are also working with the local Iraqi staff to complete post-conflict assessments. UNICEF has been training teachers how to diagnose students with severe trauma and where to refer them for further in-depth care. Schools are also a crucial part of the post-conflict plan for supporting the children of Iraq whose age demographics comprise half of the country, and UNICEF believes it will be very important to have a functioning educational infrastructure so that students can resume some normalcy as quickly as possible after a major attack.
But what will that normalcy look like?
How can life be normal for a four-year-old who has experience the “shock and awe” of 800 bombs falling on his city in just two days? Even if school restarts, even if there is a commitment from the United States to rebuild Iraq, how could we ever undo the damage done to the children of Iraq who have no control over their leader, his policies or the past grievances of the Iraqi government.
The internationally supported alternative weapons inspections should be given ample time to work. The aforementioned student gathering is another means for creating spaces for peace: dialogue. Young people separated by warring governments need the space to know each other as people, not as enemy nations.
War is not liberation. Bombs do not bring peace.
*Leah C. Wells serves as the Peace Education Coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.