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
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
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
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, www.nonviolence.org/
vitw. He has led seven delegations to Iraq.
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