Iraq's Children

by George Capaccio

The Progressive magazine, November 1997


I went to Iraq earlier this year as part of a peace delegation. On the plane to Amman, I heard an elderly Arab man say, "When George Bush dies, I pray he goes straight to Heaven."

"Why?" I asked.

"So he will see face-to-face all the lovely Iraqi children he has caused to die," the man answered.

Organized and led by Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based campaign, our mission was to deliver medicine, medical books, clothing, and toys to individuals, families, and pediatric wards in Baghdad and Basrah.

We also intended to commit an act of civil disobedience by breaking the U.S. law forbidding American citizens to travel to Iraq without official permission. Members of the group were prepared to risk twelve years of imprisonment and fines of up to $1 million. Before I left, colleagues and friends ex pressed consternation about my plans to visit Iraq. I told them I wanted to bear witness to what the United States has done to Iraq-not just the devastating war in January 1991, but the even more devastating sanctions that the United States and the U.N. Security Council have imposed. I told them I wanted to view the country myself, without the blinders of the U.S. media.

Since the Gulf War, the media have reported on Iraq's compliance or lack of compliance with U.N. resolutions, its treatment of Kurdish and Shiite minorities living within its borders, and its sporadic violation of the no-fly zones imposed on the country. There is also the frequent reference to Iraq as a "rogue state" that must be carefully monitored and brought to heel lest it turn on its neighbors, if not the rest of the world.

But there has been little attention paid to the humanitarian crisis that the sanctions have caused. One notable exception was a 1996 interview between Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes and former U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright. Stahl asked Albright to explain the U.S. policy in light of the devastation Stahl had personally witnessed in Iraq. Albright responded: "It's a hard decision, Lesley, but we think the price . . . is worth it."

The price is an estimated half million children who have died from malnutrition and disease attributable to U.N. sanctions.

"More Iraqi children have died as a result of our sanctions than the combined toll of two atomic bombs on Japan and the recent scourge of ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia," says John Mahoney, executive director of The Link (a journal published by Americans for Middle East Understanding).

A report by Dr. Mary C. Smith Fawzi and Dr. Sarah Zaidi confirmed the toll. In 1995, under the auspices of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, they studied the fate of Iraqi children under the age of five. They noted widespread "wasting"-children "experiencing severe malnutrition that is directly visible in their ribs and limbs."

Iraq, they said, is "increasingly becoming like a concentration camp. The economic pressure exerted on the country by the United States and the international community effectively serves as the barbed wire.... Children, who are the most vulnerable and least powerful, have been hit the hardest.... As members of the international community, we are responsible for the suffering of Iraqi children. Our continued silence results in genocide."

I do not know whether what I witnessed in Iraq is genocide. But I do know that Iraqis are suffering as a result of sanctions. I do know they are in need. What they need are the basic necessities of life. They need food and medicine and safe, potable water. They need a functioning economy and health-care system. They need immediate humanitarian relief and an unconditional end to all non-military sanctions.

I met with Iraqi families from the poor and middle classes, and I visited pediatric wards in Baghdad and Basrah. The doctors I spoke with told me of their need for up-to-date medical textbooks and journals, life-saving drugs, and essential medical supplies like sutures, anesthesia, I.V. units, and blood bags.

In one hospital, many of the children suffered from respiratory illnesses. Yet, because of sanctions, more than half of the oxygen tanks lacked release valves and were useless.

At the Saddam Medical Complex in Baghdad, the chief of residence, Dr. Muhammed Fakri Hillal, pointed out a serious shortage of small needles suitable for children receiving blood transfusions or I.V. fluid. Many I.V. units on the pediatric wards, he explained, also lack the simple plastic locks that allow doctors to administer solution and anesthesia simultaneously. As a result, the children are often in great pain in the course of treatment.

Shaima, a fourteen-year-old girl, lay on a blanket from home. A collapsed blood bag hung from a pole above her. A needle punctured her thin wrist. She looked up at me but was too weak to move, much less speak.

Dr. Hillal is a young physician with a wife and two daughters. He noted that his salary is so low he can afford only one white smock. He says he fears he may not be able to prevent his children from be coming malnourished.

Outside the entrance to Al-Mansour Hospital in Baghdad, a man approached our delegation.

"Do you have insulin?" he asked.

"No," I answered. "No insulin."

We had given our last remaining vials to an elderly man who had come to our hotel that morning. The man standing before us wandered off empty-handed. Feeling frustrated and helpless, we lugged our bags into the hospital.

On the children's oncology ward at Al Mansour, our delegation met with Dr. Salma Al-Hadda. She explained that the hospital has only 10 percent of the chemotherapy agents it needs to treat the growing number of children with cancer. "So many problems," she said. "Many of these patients die of infection because our blood bank still has old machines. They were not maintained in an adequate manner because of lack of parts." She told of not having blood bags for transfusions, or tubes for draining fluid or inserting medication. "All these problems involve sanctions," she said. Before joining Dr. Al-Hadda on her rounds, Chuck Quilty, a member of our delegation, showed her photos he had taken during a previous trip to Iraq in December of 1996. The photos were of several children hospitalized with cancer at Al-Mansour. The families of these children were too poor to afford treatment. Chuck had managed to obtain a supply of potentially life-saving drugs in Amman Jordan. Now, having returned to Iraq, he said he hoped Dr. Al-Hadda would be able to track down the children and make sure they received the medicine. The doctor looked at the pictures and gave the following account of each child's status:

"Muhammed died two days ago. He had Hodgkin's disease. His family is very poor. They couldn't provide treatment for him. He was on irregular treatment. So he had a relapse, fever, infection.

"Khalid had a bone-marrow relapse. We repeated the induction course, and now he's OK, still alive.

"Noora died two weeks ago. She had a relapse. She died on the first day of re-induction because of bleeding.

"This one has neuroblastoma, and she was on irregular treatment. The family bought as much treatment as they could and finally they couldn't offer her any more. So we sent her home for palliative care. She was taken home complaining of pain in her bones.

"And this one, Dhuha, she's still alive and her bone marrow is OK. But unfortunately, treatment is not available. So we send her home and she comes back every ten days. This is a sad family."

Chuck was devastated. He felt personally responsible for the welfare of these particular children and found it difficult to believe many of them had died. He re called Muhammed's mother begging for medicine.

"But my son, he is going to die," she had pleaded with him.

On this trip, Chuck did what he could to make the children laugh, if only for a moment. He blew up balloons and passed out Tootsie Pops.

Our delegation met with officials at the U.S. Embassy in Amman. We informed them that we had broken the travel ban. While displaying large photos of malnourished Iraqi children, we described what we had witnessed. Charlie Heffernan, the Consul and First Secretary, listened attentively and somewhat sympathetically to our report. His colleague, a master of public relations, explained, "my job is not to justify but to clarify U.S. policy."

I then felt compelled to speak of my own experience.

I told him about the dimly lit hospital rooms and hallways in Iraq where the cost of a single fluorescent bulb is prohibitive.

I talked about the overcrowded pediatric wards I had just visited: the mothers watching over their children day and night; the bloodstained mattresses; the flies around nursing bottles and trays of food; the oxygen tanks that lacked proper release valves; the meager store of life saving drugs in the hospital pharmacies.

I talked about the child I had cradled in Basrah. Only eight months old, Sahra was severely malnourished. Her mother had wrapped her in a stained blue blanket and watched me as I embraced her only daughter and felt the futility of my gesture.

I remember her mother and grand mother weeping by her side and pleading with me for medicine. "She has Hodgkin's Iymphoma," Dr. Hillal informed me. "We do not have the necessary drugs to treat her. She has two, possibly three days more."


George Capaccio is a writer, storyteller, and teacher base in Arlington, Massachusetts He plans to go back to Iraq later this year.

Human Rights, Justice, Reform