Take us to your leader®. Then take us to your reader®.
How it works? [Click here]
Who we are
Our Agenda

Latest News
Good & Bad News

101 Palestinian History
Link & Resources
The Valley Galleria
nileMedia Reader

Join US
Contact Us

June 13, 2002
Death in the Desert

By Jane McBee


Death in the Desert
By Jane McBee

Published in Active for Justice in June 2002
Newspaper of the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission

Last year, I asked a Gulf War veteran to tell me everything he could remember about Desert Storm. His story poured out, poison from a wound that lay barely beneath the scars. He spoke of the anxiety of being locked in a warehouse in Germany for days, awaiting orders for his unit to ship out. He was given only a slice of the picture, enough information to do his particular job and no more.

Once in the desert, the heat and fear overcame one his crew who ran blindly across the sand, trying to get away. The infantryman ran after him, and dragged him back. He recounted the horror of witnessing the incineration of other human beings, the noises and the smells of modern battle. At the end of his story, he said he had always known that being a soldier, he might have to take another human being's life and had wondered if he would be able to do it. "Now, all I know," he said, "is that I don't want to be here anymore."

Recently, with George W's war cries dominating the headlines, I travelled into the axis of evil where for two weeks I met the enemy head on. I was a member of a Physicians for Social Responsibility contingency that went to Iraq in May. After a 16-hour bus ride across the desert, our fifteen person delegation arrived in Baghdad around 2am. The fabled city seemed beautiful at night with mosques, sculptures and a light mist floating up from the Tigris -- but the illusion was broken with the sunrise. Many buildings were crumbling, trash lay everywhere, and the cars with few exceptions were old and in disrepair. Outside the hotel, a young boy named Yousef shined shoes to help support his family. He appeared to be about twelve -- I would later discover that he was fifteen, his growth stunted by poor nutrition.

We first visited a teaching hospital where an exhausted resident told us that the students were using photocopies of textbooks for their classes. He took us past broken down elevators to a poorly lit, dingy ward where families sat on beds with ragged sheets and blankets, cuddling children and babies who were dehydrated from diarrhea. The resident explained that diarrhea is a common cause of death due to unclean drinking water. An engineer in our delegation had earlier given us copies of a US government document, dated before the Gulf War, clearly stating that bombing electrical, sanitation, and water treatment facilities would enhance the effects ot the sanctions on the civilian population.

I felt acute embarrassment and shame knowing that the actions of my government caused all these families to sit in the dim hospital rooms, wishing death away from their children. Over the next few days, the consistent warmth, generosity and welcoming nature of the Iraqi people would only sharpen the pain.

Before an evening meeting with doctors who had done extensive research into the effects of depleted uranium, we were given a few hours of free time to roam around on our own. A friend and I headed out in no particular direction. It was Sunday and there was very little traffic and few people out on the streets. We stopped at a tea stand where we were treated to tea. Several people wandered over, all smiling and full of questions. They asked us to take their pictures.

A group of young policemen yelled at us to come over to their building. I thought they intended to confiscate our cameras, but they only wanted us to take their pictures. This happened so frequently that I asked the head of our delegation, a bereavement counselor to explain it. She said it's simple -- no one wants to be forgotten.

As we headed back to our meeting at the hotel, a man ran down the street urging us to come with him. We followed him to a side street where he and two other friends have a woodcarving shop. He ran upstairs to the apartment where his family lives to get tea and cookies for us, while his partner proudly showed off their carvings. They begged us to stay for dinner with their families, but we had to leave. Expecting animosity and hatred for Americans, we were stunned by our first day in Baghdad.

The next day, we visited a bomb shelter in the middle-class neighborhood of Ameriya where 408 women, children and a few old men were incinerated by two smart bombs dropped during the Gulf War. The Pentagon apologized. Whew! That made me feel so much better as I photographed the tiny handprints burned into the ceiling above the bunkbeds where the children had been sleeping that night.

After a trip to the Iraq National Museum, we hit the streets again and met a whole neighborhood of people -- family and friends who work and live side-by-side. There was a tire repair man, a cobbler, a cabinet maker, a beautiful young woman who looked like a model, grandmothers and moms, school children -- all smiles and hugs, assuring us that they love Americans but not our government. We were invited to coffee and asked to take family photographs since one of the grandmothers was immigrating to Canada to get eye surgery.

The next day we ventured into a rougher area that was poorer and dirtier than any we'd seen so far. The long row of street vendors sold fruit, bread and tea. Shops offering shoe repair, on the spot tailoring, haircuts and every other possible service. Around the corner was a street of welders and everywhere gangs of children. All around the square near the welders were grim, delapidated apartments and in the center of the square, a foul-smelling garbage dump and children jumping from a wall into the mountain of trash.

In a later meeting, I asked Tun Myat, the UN Oil for Food Program Co-ordinator, about the apparent abundance of goods and services in the markets. He said that the black market exists, but few people had the money to purchase goods and services.

"Some of the people are so poor they can't afford to keep the food they get from the food basket. For some, it's the only source of income, they have to sell the food basket," he said. "This thing will not improve until there is greater employment."

He commented that if quitting his job would bring about the complete lifting of sanctions, he would quit tomorow.

Resolution 1409, the so-called "smart sanctions", had just been passed but there was little optmism that it would be much better than the same old "dumb" sanctions. One analyst thought at best, that it might reduce the number of deaths by half. Someone else asked if 2500 dead kids per month is an acceptable number.

The next day, we took a flight through the no-fly zone to Basra in southern Iraq. Once a luxurious resort town, Basra looks like the end of the world. It's hot, dirty and smells of garbage and sewage. We carried bottled water with us, but still several of us became ill. We took a boat ride on the oily polluted river. Basra sits at the end of two rivers that pick up pollution as they travel through Turkey, Syria, and the rest of Iraq on their way to the Persian Gulf. But the heavily bombed electrical, sanitation and water treatment facilities are not completely functioning, as parts are difficult to obtain in the maze of UN contracts and holds for the OIl for Food Program.

"Water and sanitation are the biggest killers of children in this country. Not all the food and medicine in the world will improve the condition or the livelihood of these people till water and sanitation are improved," says Thun Myat.

We saw evidence of this at the Diarrhea Clinic, funded by Bridges to Baghdad, an Itallian humanitarian organization. We arrived early but the courtyard was already filled with mothers and children. Many of the patients were in advanced stages of dehydration, some cried weakly. An inconvenience in other parts of the world, diarrhea can be a death sentence in Iraq.

A prime target during the Gulf War, the area around Basra is estimated to have been hit with over 1,000,000 depleted uranium "bullets". There are great numbers of congenital deformities and cancer has increased alarmingly. We visited the Pediatric Oncology ward at the Basra Maternity and Children's Hospital. Two children cried in pain, but there was no medicine for them that day.

While there, I met a young boy named Wisam who will die soon for lack of a drug to control the tumor growing in his stomach. His father, Malik, begged,"Please, please bring some medicine to save my son."

Dr. Janan, chief of the pediatric department shared with us her library of grim snapshots, a record of all the babies born with horrible deformities. Also in her books were before and after shots of children who did not receive the drugs commonly used around the world to successfully trreat cancer.

In the afternoon, while searching for marbles for Wisam, my friend and I stumbled into a backstreet labyrinth of vendors and wondered if we'd found the "black market". Even there, people were jovial and wanted their pictures taken.

Later, we took a bus to Jumeriya, a desperately poor neighborhood that was bombed both during and after the war. The bus pulled up in a narrow dirt street, down the center of which trickled waste water and garbage. We were guests of Um Haidar, whose son Haidar was killed by the 1999 "accidental" bombing of the neighborhood. Her youngest son's small body is filled with missile pieces. The Pentagon's apology has done little to ease her pain. She is warm and friendly, but cried when one of the women asks to see a photograph of her dead child. She is a third-grade English teacher and lives in three rooms with her family and 21 other people. The LIFE organization is attempting to bring 7 year-old Mustafa to Detroit to have the missile pieces removed, but there is a problem with the visas. One of our delegates promised to look into it.

We took the bus back to Baghdad to deliver our canvas bags of clothes, toys, and school supplies to the city orphanages. The sanctions breaking trip to Iraq was almost finished and we were yet to meet a single person who treated us with anything but respect and kindness. We were shown over and over again, that the Iraqi pople do not blame us for the actions of our government. I wish with all my heart that we could stop blaming the Iraqi people for the actions of their government. If we start dropping bombs on Iraq again, we're not dropping them on anonymous collateral damage. We'll be dropping them on shoemakers, tailors, fishermen, nurses, doctors, teachers, children, Christians, Muslims, priests and nuns, and shoeshine boys. They all have faces and names. They all have hearts that break and bleed.

Want to help spread quality independent journalism?
Donate to NileMedia and watch us grow.

Friend's Name: 
Friend's E-mail: 
Your Name: