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May 4, 2001
Iraq's Mass Funeral Must End

by Ramzy Baroud


Ramzy Baroud's Speech at the University of Washington, May 03, 2001
Iraq's Mass Funeral Must End

(This speech is partly based on a series of articles I wrote following a trip to Iraq in 1999. These articles were all included in a book titled: The Gulf War, the Price of Victory, edited and written by Dr. Jamal Shardum and published late last year. It's also based on more recent commentaries I wrote published by various newspapers around the world.)

"From a distance, you won't think for a moment that this sleeping beauty is a city under siege. And why should you? Its giant bridges, ancient ruins and ever-flowing rivers are a sign of a well-nurtured civilization. Once you get closer to its alleyways, streets and hospitals however, you will be shocked to see a very different and disturbing reality.

It is Baghdad, the age old city, still standing on the banks of its great rivers; The Tigris and The Euphrates.

While the moon was gently kissing The Tigris face like a mother sending her baby to sleep, my car was loudly violating the quietness of the night.

The friendly faces of the Iraqi workers in the hotel greeted me. Within a few hours, Baghdad looked so familiar, even though this was my first visit.

It was a few days after the great Muslim Feast (Eid al-Adha). The spirit of the Feast was still there. But another spirit was also present; the spirit of those fighters who are determined to survive.

Strangely enough, Iraq has all the means to be ranked as a prosperous and wealthy place. Yet, the US Led UN sanctions left Iraq with very little means to even feed its own population.

And now, Iraq is one of the poorest spots on earth. Almost every day new problems and statistics pour from everywhere to tell one horrifying fact. Even with the sanctions lifted, Iraq's problems will not find an easy resolution any time soon. Some of these problems, such as "Brain Drain", crimes and homelessness could take many years to treated.

The most vulnerable targets for this war of sanctions, are those who have very little means to resist: the children.

The Iraqi Press in London recently reported that at least 30 percent of Iraqi children had to drop out of schools to work in streets jobs to provide some income for their families. Homelessness is now of one of the countries greatest challenges. Of course, it's also one that cannot be resolved without sufficient resources and without a lift of the sanctions..

These numbers and statistics come to life once you walk in the streets of Baghdad and once you wander in its impoverished markets.

Statistics regarding homelessness can never draw the same picture that the groups of begging Iraqi children can draw.

On Haifa Street, I witnessed a nearly 20-member gang of Iraqi children between the ages of 5 and 10 approach a foreign journalist. A child asked for money to buy food. He pointed at his mouth and belly as a sign of hunger. The man reached his pocket with enthusiasm and handed the boy a full dollar. Then he declared, "I have no more money, that is it". The man left behind 20 children beating each other with the hope that one of them might eat a good dinner that night".

The streets of Baghdad are filled with vendors, taxicabs and a tenacious Middle Eastern spirit.

As a result of stagnant salaries and savagely growing inflation, most of Iraq's work force has taken to the streets to invent other ways of maintaining a living.

Inflation has been on the rise since the sanctions began to suffocate the Iraqi economy.

Ali, a retired soldier and taxi driver, supports a family of 10 by driving his old cab for up to 15 hours a day.

In the middle of a conversation, Ali pointed to his head showing me the scars of two bullets he received during the Iraq-Iran war. The government has assigned 575 Iraqi Dinars a month for Ali and His family, and gave him an early retirement. In the past, such an amount covered all of Ali's needs with money to spare. "Now..", Ali said while shaking his head with anguish, "I no longer go to collect my money at the end of each month. The amount is not worth the trip and the wait".

And why should Ali claim his money, if a cup of tea in a humble Iraqi cafe costs 250 dinar, which translates to half of his government income?

Before the sanctions, the Iraqi dinar equaled over nearly 3.5 US dollars. Nowadays, one US dollars equals 1,975 Iraqi dinars.

Lucky are those Iraqis who didn't have to sell all of their possessions. The not so lucky ones, literally, sold everything they possessed.

In each stage of the sanctions, certain items were more likely to be seen for sale on the Iraqi streets.

Earlier during the sanctions, stereos and TVs were the sold commodities. Later on, furniture of all kinds was the new item. Now, the people are so desperate, they are selling their books and even their clothes.

On Al-Mutanabi street, books of all kinds are sold by the side walk vendors. Old and outdated books, magazines and other forms of literature were stacked together in the strangest mix, while sellers by far outnumbered those who bought.

George Bush, the father once vowed to bomb Iraq back to the stone age. His promise is now closer to reality than ever before.

While most university graduates in Baghdad found themselves drivers behind the wheels of taxi cabs, the thrust for knowledge is still keeping the Iraqi colleges and schools open. They continue to be filled with young faces and high hopes.

The Iraqis lack everything but faith. All eyes look up to the sky every time you ask a person, "How can you live through this?".

Once I asked Hamid, an Iraqi driver with a master's degree in Political Science, "What do you think the future holds for this city?", referring to Baghdad. While we were crossing the Tahrir bridge which embraces the two sides of Tigris river, he said, "This bridge was bombed three times during the war with America. It broke into many pieces and fell into the river. With primitive means, we rebuilt it in no time." . For a moment I failed to realize the significance of the answer right a way He added while pushing me on the shoulder, "Look at it! look, isn't better than before?"

Later during a visit to Saddam's Teaching Hospital, with a frustrated and sad voice, Dr. Jasim Mohammed lamented, "We have nothing in here..". He added, while pointing toward the hospital's crowded rooms and hallways, "It doesn't even look like a hospital. It's like an old dirty house. There is no money. Patients are sleeping on top of each other. People don't come here to be healed, they come here to die", he said.

Raed Ayash, a 7 year old boy from Al-Ramadi province, looked shy when I approached him.

The innocent look on his face made me wonder if he knew that he has an ever-growing cancerous tumor in his little chest. It made me wonder if he even knew what cancer was.

Raed, who regularly coughs up blood, has not been receiving the appropriate medication for the kind of illness he has.

"It is the matter of days and he'll go", the doctor told me in English while Raed looked at us and smiled. His statement came as a surprise to me. I pretended that I didn't understand. "Go where?", I asked him. He added in a trembling voice, "where all children go once they reach this part of the hospital, they all die."

Hajar Abdullah, looked so eager while waiting for her turn to be spoken to, yet she got shy the moment I asked for her name.

Hajar, who has been in the hospital for 4 months, suffers from "Anemia". Yet a quick look at the empty green table beside her, reflects the poor level of medical attention that the little girl has been receiving.

In Saddam's Hospital, mothers work as nurses. They bring food and if they can, medicine. For the mothers who have no resources to purchase medication, they sit beside their beloved children all day and all night. They make sure that they are well covered, they sing for them and they pray, until the children die.

That was the case with Farha Farha, a devastated mother from Baghdad.

I was informed that Farha's 4 year old daughter, Ullah, suffers from "Meningitis", and she had been in the hospital for months with little or no means to fight the disease.

When I walked toward the room to speak with Ullah's parents, a scream followed by a weeping voice froze me in my place. It was then when I learned that Ullah has just died.

In a lovely red dress and wide-open eyes, Ullah was lying in a small bed while her family helplessly surrounded her, crying.

Ullah's grandfather asked me to take pictures of the dead child. I refused to disturb her peaceful departure. He insisted and with a loud voice said, "Please tell the world what is happening to our children. Tell the world what the sanctions have done to us".

I took the only working elevator in the large hospital heading toward the gate as the visit ended.

Dr. Muhammad, who has been working at the hospital since his graduation in 1995, told me at the way out, "I used to cry every time a child died. I used to be a friend with each one of them. But I can't do that anymore or I'll mourn the loss of at least 3 or more of my friends every day".

When such a catastrophe hits the largest hospital in Baghdad with this magnitude, you have to wonder; how can the smaller and less equipped hospitals survive the sanctions?

Beside the gate, in a tiny isolated corner, a man was passionately praying while using his jacket as a prayer rug. Once I got closer to him, I recognized his face. He was the father of one of the children dying of Leukemia.

I left the hospital while his praying voice echoed for a long time in my head, "Allah Akbar", God is Greater, he said.

As the number of those ruthlessly killed by the sanctions in Iraq accumulates to new figures every day, the rest of the world stands partly apathetic and largely helpless, surrendered to the fact that the United States is the only one with a say over the future of Iraq.

The number 1,351,535 recently released by the Iraqi Health Ministry doesn't represent population growth in Iraq since August of 1990. It is the number of deaths, of all ages, since 1990 as a direct result of the sanctions, where 1,338,808 of those deaths are the children's share of this incomprehensible tragedy.

The start of the human crisis in Iraq, despite its relatively recent war with Iran, can only be dated back to mid 1990, when the United States succeeded with its UN partners in crippling the once prosperous nation. Yet, while most of those who enthusiastically supported UN sanctions against Iraq have lost interest in the idea, its purpose and efficiency, the US remains a lonely, yet capable crusader, whose faith in the sanctions policy is rapidly strengthening, despite the loss of nearly one and a half million precious Iraqi lives.

"Uncle Sam's" ceaseless attempt to obtain new non-conventional methods of war has barely stopped at the use of the sanctions as a weapon. Perhaps a lifting of the sanctions and the ceasing of constant bombing will increase the Iraqi peoples' chances of survival. But the infestation of depleted uranium in almost half of Iraq, mainly in the south, updates the status of the Iraqi disaster, making Iraq a potential killing field for its population indefinitely, as depleted uranium has a life span of 4.5 million years, and has contributed to the death of thousands of Iraqis as it causes complex forms of cancers and birth defects.

What is happening in Iraq is nothing less than genocide, and even worse. In classic cases of genocide, the methods used to kill are often associated with the short-lived and concentrated extermination of a large group of people. In Iraq, the death is slow and painful and the methods are creative, deceptive and heartless for they target the vulnerable, mainly children, denying them the chance to experience any normalcy in their lives.

Unfortunately, the plight of the Iraqis, although worsening, is hardly receiving the attention that one would expect for similar devastation elsewhere. The monthly death of now nearly 8,000 Iraqi children appears to be little more than a game of politics for America's vibrant presidents.

In a recent interview with Reuters (Thursday, January 18), George W. Bush alleged that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a big threat. "I do think he is a big threat to our friends in the Persian Gulf and he's a big threat to Israel," Bush uttered. He added, "yes, we must continue to contain Saddam Hussein and we must watch his money and we must make sure that he doesn't develop weapons of mass destruction."

For those who are unfamiliar with the US foreign policy language, Bush's remarks simply meant "we shall continue to bomb Iraqi towns, violate Iraq's sovereignty and tighten our economic sanctions".

According to American political-military logic, the recent bombing of Baghdad by the then new Bush administration had in fact managed to empower Bush's image as the country's Commander and Chief, and demonstrated to those who doubted his foreign policy expertise that he's on the top of the game.

With extreme confidence, Bush justified the bombing of Baghdad while on a trip to Mexico simply describing the raids as "a routine mission which was conducted to enforce the no-fly zone."

He said, "It's a mission of which I was informed and I authorized. But I repeat, it's a routine mission." Then exclaiming, "our intention is to make sure the world is as peaceful as possible."

What was even more mind boggling than justifying an illegal and inhumane aggression as "routine" is the explanation offered by the Pentagon hours after the raid on Baghdad and the killing and injuring of several Iraqis? It was a "self-defense measure" the Pentagon stated. Of course none of the representatives of the US so-called liberal media present at the conference inclined to challenge the fallacious statement.

Allowing the United States to continue its rampage against a country so dear to the world's civilizations, and to a nation too precious to be wasted, is itself a crime. It is shameful to witness the United Nations itself, who presumably came to guarantee security and to protect the world's weak, taking part and permitting the US to rape and brutalize a helpless nation.

If the number of those fallen under the sanctions monstrous impact stands at 1,351,535, how much will the number increase a few years from now?

Will it even matter anymore? Will the death of one child break our hearts? Will the death of millions?