I have just returned from Iraq to my clean, “safe” and well ordered life with my five healthy sons, with clean air to breathe and drinkable water to be had with the simple turn of a tap. Yet life can never be the same. Many times a day, when I sit down for a meal, or see a healthy child or a contented well-fed baby, I have to fight back tears as memories well up from our tiny glimpse into the man made hell of a land being choked to death by my country; a land where a child dies every six minutes as a result of our sanctions.
I was one of almost two hundred people (mostly women) from more than forty nations, invited by Dr. Manal and the General Federation of Iraqi Women to their 16th General Conference. Although they themselves suffer severe deprivation they covered the food and hotel expenses for all those attending their conference, which was an unforgettable experience. And in spite of the sanctions, they provide assistance and comfort to poor and struggling mothers throughout Iraq. The indomitable spiritual strength, integrity and hospitality of the Iraqi women deeply impressed me. The suffering they have endured for the last nine years has drawn them and the Iraqi people closely together.
How can I convey the irony of feeling so much more at home in Iraq than in the superficial culture that we know in America? The heart to heart contact with so many suffering and deeply believing Muslims for whom God is a reality, not a figment of the imagination to talk about on Sunday and then forget, was deeply moving. How can one explain the fact that, when they find out we are from the very nation that is murdering their children, instead of hating us they welcome us with a warmth that defies all understanding?
Late one night, as my husband and I walked back to our hotel through deserted streets in Baghdad, we saw a very large dump truck stop at a red light. Standing in the back were about fifty quiet, tired, dusty men and older boys going home after a day of hard work. The joyful shouts of “welcomes” and “hellos” that erupted when we waved to them astonished us. As we walked past the truck many leaned down to shake our hands before the truck sped off into the darkness. This is how our “enemies” greeted us in Iraq!
Many Iraqi families live on the edge of starvation and have had to let their children take to selling small items in the streets. We saw many such children, like the little girl who offered me incense through our taxi window. Our taxi was in the lane farthest from the curb, in heavy traffic three lanes deep, when I noticed a frail little girl standing on the curb, her delicate face outlined by her head scarf. Our eyes met for just a moment before I lost sight of her. When we stopped for a red light there she was, standing at the window beaming at me and offering her little stick of incense, which I gladly accepted and paid her for. She was so pleased. When the traffic started moving again she somehow made her way back to the safety of the sidewalk. In spite of their need and poverty the trusting eyes of these children tell you that they have a family and parents that love them. They were not the lonely, unhappy eyes of children one sees so often in our country.
We visited the largest children’s hospital in Baghdad – room upon room, ward upon ward of children slowly dying, watched by grieving parents and helpless doctors and nurses; helpless because our sanctions prevent them from obtaining the medical supplies they need. And before we imposed the sanctions the best medical care was free for everyone in Iraq.
Still before my eyes is the face of a six-year-old child suffering from leukemia, with hope of life but a slim thread. She accepted our small gift of a hand knitted teddy with a radiant smile and trusting eyes, which also brought joy to her suffering mother. But the little girl’s grandmother was weeping and I could not keep back tears as I stood beside her. I will never forget the look on the child’s face as she noticed us. Tears welled up and flowed down her little face, which a moment before had been so happy. The child needed joy and hope, but all her grandmother and I could offer was our shared grief. And she is but one of thousands of Iraqi children, each dying a slow and agonizing death. Her illness is almost certainly the result of the depleted Uranium we used in Iraq during the Gulf War – a radioactive substance that is causing cancer and deformities in thousands of children throughout Iraq. And it will continue to do so for hundreds and thousands of years to come.
Beside another bed a mother wept as she watched her little girl slipping into a coma. This is the third time she has watched one of her children die, each before their third birthday. I could not even begin to imagine her agony. And this innocent child, like so many other Iraqi children, does not even know she is an Iraqi. Yet she is being put to death by our sanctions because she is an Iraqi.
We claim that any weapons of mass destruction Iraq may still have must be destroyed. Yet we refuse to end the sanctions – a weapon of mass destruction that has killed more than a million people, most of them children. Our government bombed Yugoslavia, killing many innocent women and children, because of supposed mass graves. But we have turned Iraq into a giant mass grave into which more than two hundred children are laid each day. Surely this is a crime against humanity.
Let us not forget the slaughter of the innocents that took place in Bethlehem after Christ’s birth. Today, two thousand years later, the innocents are again being slaughtered, this time in Iraq. I have come home wondering who is actually poorer, and feeling deep sorrow for our nation. The Iraqi people are rich through their faith in God and the love of their close-knit families. It is this that gives them strength to face each day with courage and hope instead of bitterness and despair. May God help them hold on to their faith. And may it be given that our nation begins to seek what we have lost through our selfishness and the empty glitter of our daily scramble for money and material things.
How much I wish that every American mother would go to Iraq and stand beside an Iraqi mother, feeling her helpless agony as she watches her child die. Their lives would be forever changed, as mine has been. And they would join me in calling for an end to the cruel and heartless sanctions.