Eyewitness in Iraq | News Feature | Indy Week
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Eyewitness in Iraq 

A peace mission shares the pain of a nation at war for 12 years.

I went to Iraq in January with a nine-person delegation, including four members of the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. All four--Colleen Kelly, Terry Rockefeller, Kat Tinley, and Kristina Olsen--had lost loved ones in the Sept. 11 attacks.

These women's mission, to turn their grief into actions for peace, shaped the goal of our trip: To meet with Iraqis, particularly those who had suffered the loss of loved ones in war, and to bring back their names, faces and stories. We wanted to help our country recognize the individual lives at risk if the United States launches a new attack against Iraq.

Nearly everyone we met in Iraq had suffered loss of some kind, either through the Iran-Iraq War, the 12-year-old U.N. sanctions, the 1991 Gulf War, the 1998 bombing campaign by the United States, or subsequent U.S. attacks in the no-fly zones. And while the United States bears much of the responsibility for this loss, right down to U.S. support for Saddam Hussein during the bloody Iran-Iraq War, the people of Iraq received our delegation with compassion. They welcomed us, they offered condolences to the 9-11 families, they literally took us in their arms, and they cried with us.

They also vented. Though they made clear distinctions between the goodwill of people like us from the United States and the harsh policies of the U.S. government, they needed to let us know what the last 12 years have meant for them as a people. More than one person told me that before 1990, Iraqis had looked to the United States with appreciation and respect. They admired our freedoms and democracy and sent their people to educational institutions here and in Europe.

Now, among many Iraqis, those feelings have soured. Twelve years of sanctions coupled with innumerable bombings that have killed and terrorized civilians have left a bitterness that some say is turning into hate.

We understood this point all too clearly. The women from Peaceful Tomorrows have experienced firsthand the kind of hatred driven out of desperation.

"To prevent anything like [9-11] from happening again," Kristina Olsen told me, "we have to look at the causes."

The causes of desperation in Iraq stared us in the face. Although I felt immediately how tightly Saddam Hussein's dictatorship controls the country, the grief of the people who have suffered from U.S. foreign policy is very real. The statistics I cite come not from the Iraqi government, but from United Nations and UNICEF reports.

One of the clearest impressions I was left with at the end of the trip is that the U.S. government has strongly miscalculated the willingness of Iraqis to welcome regime change via a U.S. invasion or to accept a U.S. occupying force in their country. The people of Iraq are incredibly proud. They view the United States not as liberator, but as aggressor. They believe they can control their own destiny, if the United States would just get out of the way and let them live.

"Iraqis love their country," Amal Kudairi, a Baghdad native said to us in her home. "They love their land. Persons come and go, but the land is permanent. We've been here for thousands of years, and we're attached to it."

Tuesday, January 7--After a day in Amman, Jordan, obtaining visas from the Iraqi embassy, we fly to Baghdad in the early evening. I can hardly believe I'm in Iraq, the country demonized so heavily in American political rhetoric these past 12 years. I'm in so-called enemy territory.

The first thing I notice upon exiting the plane are the words "Down USA" stenciled in red on the ramp heading into the airport. But this angry sentiment contrasts with the warm welcome we receive from Wadah, an Iraqi public relations official who awaits us just inside. Wadah is already known to several in our delegation and is responsible for arranging our schedule while in Iraq. He constantly seems overworked and harried. I immediately get the sense from Wadah that hosting Americans in a country ruled by a dictatorship poses a delicate balancing act for people like him, who enjoy our company and sympathize with our work, but who are accountable to powers we never see.

Voices in the Wilderness is sponsoring and leading our delegation. Voices, which has brought many delegations to Iraq, warns us not to speak of Saddam Hussein by name and never to discuss him with Iraqis, who could later be subject to questioning. It takes me a while to get used to this, but I finally resort to referring to "You-Know-Who" with delegation members. I feel vaguely like I've entered a Harry Potter novel.

We arrive at the Andalus Hotel, which sits a pistachio's throw from the Tigris River. This ancient river, which flows through this city of 6 million people, now receives millions of tons of sewage a day. Public sanitation in Iraq still suffers because the necessary parts for machinery and vehicles cannot always be obtained under the sanctions. The United States exercises veto power over contracts of goods into Iraq, which can delay or deny supplies that could have miliary uses.

After dinner (Iraqi beans and rice) and orientation (drink only bottled water, avoid meat and dairy, take photos only with permission), we go to bed.

Wednesday, January 8--Seeing our itinerary at breakfast, Colleen announces, "I'm going to cry all day."

We're scheduled first for the Al Mansour Pediatric Hospital, where we meet initially with Dr. Ihab Amer. Amer speaks passionately about the effects of the sanctions on children's health, particularly the appearance of diseases absent in Iraq prior to 1991. First among these is malnutrition in newborns, which can cause irreversible effects, including underdeveloped cognition and behavioral problems.

Later I read a UNICEF report dated November 2002 that says 1 million children under age 5 in Iraq still suffer chronic malnutrition. This figure actually reflects an improvement since 1996, which UNICEF partly attributes to Iraq spending a high proportion of its income from allowed oil sales on food. Iraq currently has one of the largest food rationing programs in the world.

Amer explains how hard it has been under the sanctions to get medicine to treat the children in cancer wards. Like other supplies, medicines are subject to vetoes and holds. But such restrictions are killing children. A child with leukemia whose treatment is interrupted by the delay or absence of a drug will eventually die.

"Sanctions are the real weapons of mass destruction," the doctor tells us.

Regarding the current threat of attack by the United States, Amer is surprisingly dismissive. "We are indifferent to this," he insists. "We have been bombed daily. What will this bombing in the next few days change? It will do nothing."

But the mothers in the ward upstairs sitting with their sick children, who can't get the medicine they need because of the sanctions, are anything but indifferent.

"We don't want another war, because our children are suffering," one mother tells us. "They have suffered enough."

I move from bed to bed, asking the children's names and offering them little toys that my niece and nephew back in North Carolina have sent for the children of Iraq. I am miserable and numb. When Kristina, a talented singer, pulls out her guitar and offers the children a song, I am grateful for the diversion.

We eat lunch with Amal Kudairi and several of her friends in her Baghdad home, which was partially destroyed during the 1991 Gulf War by bombs targeting a nearby bridge. Kudairi travels all over Iraq collecting Iraqi art and crafts and has restored and opened the first floor of her house as a gallery. She and her friends, who speak excellent English, share with us their frustrations of the last 12 years and talk of the hatred for the United States that is growing in the country.

"At least there are people who understand us," Amal says tearfully, "who know that we are victims, not aggressors. ... Unfortunately a few people are ruining this world and spoiling it. ... We can be together, we can be happy. You can eat our food, we can talk your language. So what's wrong? Why should we fight each other? Why should we kill each other's children? Why?"

In the afternoon we visit Ameriya, a civilian bomb shelter hit twice in succession by U.S. smart bombs on Feb. 13, 1991. Our guide is Intesar, the new manager of the site whom we suspect is a government worker. Many family members whose loved ones died in the attack come to greet us and to meet the Peaceful Tomorrows women. Inside the shelter, we stare up at the gaping hole in the ceiling, the jagged concrete and metal ripped open and left as a testimony to those dead.

Intesar describes the attack in graphic detail, how the first bomb cut through the ceiling and the bodies directly underneath, how the second penetrated the same hole and incinerated the hundreds inside, mostly women and children.

"We wish the peace, not the war," Intesar tells us, "Because this is the war here."

A man who lost some of his family in the attack speaks passionately out of his grief, "We don't want war. We want peace. But if war is imposed on us, we will never obey the U.S. demands or orders--U.S. or any other foreigners. Never."

Many of the families present want to tell me whom they lost in the attack. Speaking through an interpreter, they show me the framed pictures of their loved ones and are eager to pose for more photos. Said Ahmed lost his wife and seven children; Ahmed Nasser, his mother, four sisters, and brother; Brahim Yassim, his wife, three daughters, and one son; Gourwda Kavel, her three daughters. The presentation of their photos reminds me of New York after 9-11, when families posted pictures of their loved ones up in the city.

Thursday, January 9--Our first visit this morning is to a school, but unfortunately the children are gone for the day, presumably studying for upcoming exams. We meet Lamia Abood Ali, a giggly and nervous English teacher. Although she says that the government has provided the school with everything it needs, the building, like all of Baghdad, is shabby. We enter a classroom full of stark wooden benches, only some of which are attached to desks. Lamia tells us they finally got computers four years ago, but most children do not have them at home. In private, Lamia shares with me that she and two other teachers at the school have breast cancer, and she asks me if I can help them get medicine. I decline apologetically.

We leave the school and accept an invitation to meet with Tariq Aziz, deputy prime minister of Iraq. Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, who is part of our delegation, begins by sharing with Aziz our mission, stating clearly, "[We] reject the idea that violence and war can solve any problems on the part of any government."

I am impressed by this man, our "enemy," who offers condolences to the Peaceful Tomorrows families. He speaks calmly and in a straightforward manner about the suffering of his people and the perceived reasons for U.S. aggression against Iraq. He admits that a new war would devastate the Iraqi people. But he says war would also harm the people of the United States financially and further tarnish our reputation in the Arab world; only those tied into the military/industrial complex will benefit. A week later, back in North Carolina, I'll watch in disbelief as Peter Jennings tells Aziz that he's "on a list," presumably some kind of hit list of the U.S. government.

After lunch we prepare for a visit to the Al Gailani Mosque, tomb of the 12th-century Muslim saint. The women in our delegation wrap our heads in scarves, receiving instructions from our group leaders, but also from Mohammed, our taxi driver, and Abdullah, the doorman at our hotel--everyone wants us to be presentable.

The mosque is beautiful, and inside the tomb is gilded in silver and gold. Overhead an intricate mosaic of mirrors covers the ceiling and reflects countless points of light.

But my favorite part is the soup kitchen, where three cooks, Ahmed, Muhammed, and Hassan, prepare 600 meals twice a day for the area's poor. The meat is slaughtered on-site according to Muslim custom. The bloody floor of the slaughter room turns my vegetarian stomach, but I've never been to a soup kitchen where the meat is fresher.

Afterward, we rush to a meeting with Dennis Halliday, former U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq in charge of the oil-for-food program, which manages Iraqi oil sales and purchases of humanitarian items. Halliday resigned from his position in 1998 in protest of the program's inadequacy to meet the needs of the Iraqi population. Today he is in Iraq on a private visit, and he's appalled at the United Nations' lack of readiness to cope with the emergency situation should the United States attack.

Friday, January 10--We rise early to catch an 8 a.m. flight to Basra, a city of 2 million people in the south. Poor before the 1991 Gulf War, Basra sank even lower economically following the devastation of the war and subsequent years of sanctions. Located in the part of Iraq poisoned by depleted uranium fired by the United States, Basra also sits squarely within the southern no-fly zone and is subject to almost daily air raids.

Accompanying us on this trip is our government minder, Said. Said is perhaps the most complicated person I meet while in Iraq--fiercely proud, assertive, and private, but also funny and occasionally vulnerable. I am never sure whether to believe anything he says. Our schedule is packed and he bears the unfortunate responsibility for getting us places on time. His incessant, "Moving! Moving!" becomes a standard joke among us. I hate being rushed.

I was unprepared for our next visit at the house of Jamil Abdul Karim Fedah, age 61, who along with seven others was killed on Dec. 1 by U.S. planes in a no-fly zone bombing. On that day, Fedah was working his job as a driver for the Petroleum South Co. within the city limits. We meet his sons and daughters and their children. I am at a loss for what to say to people whose grief is so raw.

I ask the family how the death of their father has affected them. The oldest son, Rad, answers through Said as translator, "We are suffering, yes, but we are believing in God. My father is gone, but the big father is our president Saddam Hussein, because he gives us support; they give us money, they give us support by sadness, and they take care for all the families." I am struck by his lack of emotion and dogmatic loyalty to the government.

The women of our delegation are permitted to join Ikbar Nasser Imud, Fedah's widow in another room of the house, where she is sitting in mourning with female friends and family members. The men of our group are excluded according to Imud's Islamic tradition, which says a woman in mourning cannot leave the house or see a man from outside the family for four months. We are welcomed warmly and with tears. As I move around the room kissing and hugging, the forgiveness they offer us, members of the aggressor nation, washes over me.

"We know that the American society is different from the American government," Imud tells us. She says that even if we are Christian, they love us, because under God we are all one people. As we sit in a moment of mourning together, Kristina sings a song written for her sister, Laurie, who died on American Flight 11. The song takes its inspiration from the Book of Ruth and echoes Imud's words:

Wherever you go, I shall go.

Wherever you live, so shall I live.

Your people will be my people

And your God will be my God too.

From outside, Said is trying to get word to us that we need to go. But he cannot get at us, and we linger with these women. When we finally do leave, Said shakes his head in reproach. We smile sweetly back.

We make a late afternoon excursion by boat on the Shatt al Arab, the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that heads out to the Persian Gulf. Tomorrow at another location we will see ships grounded in the river, skeletons of the 1991 Gulf War, and oil washed up on the shores that has left the water unsafe for fishing. Iraq doesn't bother anymore to dredge this once-active trade route.

Saturday, January 11--This morning we drive through the countryside past canals that wind among mud-brick homes. Palm trees and lower growth provide shade while green garden beds claim sunnier spots. Our destination is the Lambani water treatment plant that serves the rural Abu Kasib district. Destroyed twice by U.S. bombs, the plant was finally repaired by Veterans for Peace and the U.S.-based Islamic relief organization LIFE. During the 1991 Gulf War, the United States targeted water treatment plants all over Iraq, crippling sanitation efforts and ensuring the spread of waterborne diseases.

Said claims that everyone in Iraq has potable water now, but I know that is not true. The Iraqi minister of health will later tell us that 25 percent of all Iraqis do not have access to treated water. According to Oxfam, 65 percent of water piped to urban households is not treated, and UNICEF reports that 54.3 percent of rural areas don't have access to piped water. Regardless, a U.S. invasion that targets civilian infrastructure another time will immediately reinitiate the cycle of death caused by waterborne diseases and poor sanitation.

We ask Said repeatedly if he will take us to the displaced person housing units, but he arranges instead for us to walk through Old Basra, a beautiful section of town that has deteriorated like everything else. I'm a little annoyed with Said, feeling that his pride in Iraq's cultural beauty is winning out over our desire to understand the needs of the people. But we have to defer to him, and maybe these two things are more closely related than I first thought. Standing inside a handsome building with its ceiling in disrepair, open to the sky, members of our group talk with Said about the symphony in Baghdad, which has had difficulty obtaining strings, reeds and other supplies, but persists in making music.

"I used to go to the symphony all the time," Said told them. "Now I never go, because it would make me cry."

As we head back to the bus, the air raid sirens sound around us. No one does anything. No bomb shelters exist in Basra; thus, there is nowhere to go. The siren merely signals that bombs are falling from planes too high for anyone to see and that, somewhere, those bombs are going to land. Everyone knows that these bombs have killed before and that they could kill again. Such is the terror of living in Basra.

We lunch with Archbishop Kassab of the Chaldean Cathedral in Basra, who is a friend of Bishop Gumbleton. The archbishop and his staff run a free pharmacy for locals, Christians and Muslims alike. Kat and I have already unloaded on the archbishop all the donated medicines and vitamins that we lugged from the states. The church also runs a school and gives out food to supplement the government ration.

Archbishop Kassab tells us that the people in Basra fear another U.S. attack. I tell him I am Catholic and ask him what message he wants us to take back to Catholics in the United States.

"Only I ask them to pray for peace in Iraq," he says. "I want to tell them we like to have peace. We have many who work for peace. But peace is not coming never through violence."

Sunday, January 12--We are back in Baghdad and this is our last day in Iraq. We spend the morning meeting with the Minister of Health, Dr. Omeed Midhat Moubark, and at the University of Baghdad talking with the administration and chatting with students in between classes. In two days the university will host 50 academics from the United States in an effort to build understanding between our countries. "Iraqis too have the right to live in peace," reads a large banner in English posted outside. Another says, "We are all Iraq."

After lunch, some of the group opt for the market, but having been absolved by my wonderful husband from returning with souvenirs this trip, I stay behind to rest and to process some of what I've seen. In the late afternoon we visit the Ascension Chaldean Church for mass. The priest invites Bishop Gumbleton to co-preside and explains to the congregation about Peaceful Tomorrows and the purpose of our visit.

The congregation chants vigorously in Aramaic; I can practically feel their voices reverberating around and through me. I spend much of mass watching the beautiful little altar girls and boys in their little white-lace robes. They seem easily distracted but very well behaved. I marvel at the beautiful hand-carved Stations of the Cross in the walls, crafted, I'm told, by a Muslim artist.

After mass, many people approach the women of Peaceful Tomorrows to offer their condolences. And then they share the stories of their own loss. We realize how widespread grief is in this country, how nearly everyone has been touched by the violence of war and sanctions.

"Pray to us," one young woman tells me in English as we leave the church. And what she means, of course, is, "Pray for us." For what feels like the hundredth time, words feel inadequate. Of course I will pray for you--for all of us.

At midnight, we leave Baghdad and Iraq. I'm not sorry to say goodbye to the many pictures of Saddam Hussein that bedeck every street, every office. Nor am I sorry to travel alone again, without a minder, to speak freely of my experience.

But I have deep regrets about leaving the people we've met. How easy for us to fly away, back to our familiar world, back to the war hungry rhetoric of the U.S. government leaders, back to the distorted picture of reality provided us by the mainstream media that mostly ignores the very human faces of Iraqis.

Much time will pass before I can fully process all I've seen and done in Iraq. But those faces and names of the people I met are ever with me.

Daily, I wonder if they will be alive tomorrow. EndBlock

Lenore Yarger belongs to the Silk Hope Catholic Worker, an intentional community that offers hospitality to homeless women and children in Chatham County. She and her husband, Steve Woolford, also counsel soldiers through Quaker House of Fayetteville. She spends much of her time working with the anti-war movement.

  • A peace mission shares the pain of a nation at war for 12 years.


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