Iraq's Lost Generation

by Richard McDowell

Earth Island Journal, Fall, 1998


IRAQ - In July, sailing by moonlight along Basrah's Shatt Al-Arab, the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, l saw the eerie hulks of rusting ships bombed by the US and its allies in 1991. Looking at the floating graveyard, l recalled Ms. Albright's description of America's vision.

Today, the "indispensable nation" stands like a towering bully over 22 million people who have been battered and crippled by a state of siege. After several days of visits to hospitals and internal refugee camps, l was overwhelmed by the waste of an entire generation of Iraqi children and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of human lives.

Earlier this year, as the US prepared to unleash another bombardment on Iraqi people, members of a Voices in the Wilderness delegation stood beside a mother and her dying child in a pediatric unit of Baghdad's Al Monsour Hospital. We watched helplessly as Ferial breathed her last breath and the other mothers, cradling their children, joined in an anguished choir of despair.

Days earlier, at the Maternity and Pediatrics Hospital in Basrah, I saw a young man writhe in pain while waiting with his father for unavailable painkillers. I fumed away only to encounter another man collapsed on the floor, crying for his daughter who was dying for lack of medicine.

Iraq is hemorrhaging under the strain of the most comprehensive sanctions ever imposed in modem history. Denis Halliday, UN assistant secretary general and humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, says that sanctions are "undermining the moral credibility of the UN" and their continuation is "in contradiction to the human rights provisions in the UN's own Charter."

Wheat flour now costs 11,667 times more than it did in July, 1990 salaries average between $2 and $7 per month and the UN estimates that four million Iraqis - about 20 percent of the population - live in extreme poverty.

According to UNICEF, eight years of economic warfare have resulted in the deaths of more than half a million children. Some 4,500 children under the age of five are dying each month from hunger and disease. The FAO reports that even with full compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 986 (the provision that allows Iraq to export oil to purchase food) the country's nutritional needs "will progressively deteriorate with grave consequences to the health and life of the Iraqi people."

An estimated 25 percent of Iraqi babies are born with low birthweights and the World Health Organization warns that many of these children will lag in their physical or mental development, leading to long-term health problems.

Rations at Iraq's 52,000 food-distribution centers typically last only 20 days, forcing lraqis to survive by selling personal possessions, household goods and clothes to buy food. Those with nothing left to sell may be forced to beg or enter into prostitution.

Widespread shortages of antibiotics, analgesics, anesthetics and laboratory materials have lead to the reemergence of many diseases, primarily those linked to the damaged water and sanitation systems - cholera, dysentery, malaria and typhoid fever.

Although dissent was not tolerated, oil-rich Iraqis once enjoyed a good standard of living, including free access to the region's best health care education, social security and social welfare programs. Today, teachers moonlight as taxi drivers to supplement their $3-a-month salaries as they attempt to cope with a severe lack of books and pencils, deteriorating buildings and malnourished students who find it difficult to concentrate.

Iraq's Irradiated South

The most enduring legacy of the Gulf War may be the more than 315 tons of depleted uranium (DU) released by US tanks and aircraft. A dense, radioactive byproduct of uranium fuel enrichment, DU (with a half-life of 4.5 billion years), was made into armor-piercing shells that exploded and burned, releasing clouds of radioactive dust that were inhaled, ingested and absorbed through open wounds. Although the Pentagon was aware of the health risks of using DU weapons, it failed to alert US and Allied forces or Kuwaiti and Iraqi officials.

A leaked UN document has reported a 55 percent increase in cancer in Iraq between 1989 and 1994. A growing number of international scientists am convinced that these increases are the result of DU residues in the soil, air and water.

After seeing the babies of fellow soldiers born with birth deformities some former soldiers have refused to marry. In January FAO officials reported that sheep in southern Iraq have been genetically altered. Millions of Iraqis continue to live, work and play in the contaminated areas.

The Death of Hope

Earlier this year, a UN official, when asked what gave him hope, replied: "Today I have no hope." He stated that conditions in Iraq are worse than they were when he worked in Somalia. He fears that two generations of Iraqis have been lost.

What happens to Iraq's children may seem of little consequence to many Americans, but if we care about the lives of our own children, we must be concerned with the world we are creating - a world where the US remains, in the words of Martin Luther King, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

While many countries - including France, China and Russia - have urged the lifting of sanctions, the US has publicly stated that sanctions will stay in place as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power.

Congress has approved millions of dollars to destabilize the government of Iraq, while US administration and congressional leaders have called for covert and overt measures to overthrow President Hussein - all in clear violation of international laws and treaties.

The myth persists that sanctions are merely a "kinder and gentler" way to insure another government's capitulation. But the message Iraqis have asked us to carry back to our country is a simple one: "Have mercy on us."


Richard McDowell co-coordinates Voices in the Wilderness 1460 W. Carmen Ave., Chicago, L 60640, (773) 784-8065, vitw. He has led seven delegations to Iraq.

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