Leslie Stahl: "We have heard that half a million children have died [as a result of economic sanctions against Iraq]. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. Is the price worth it?" Madeleine Albright: "We think the price is worth it." ---60 Minutes
March 6, 1999. Every day this week, the United States has bombed Iraq. Last evening, several civilians were killed in the north by U.S. F-15e fighter bombers. Im on my way to Baghdad to listen, learn, and witness the suffering of the Iraqi people, victims of U.S. bombs and economic sanctions. Our Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation includes two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Mairead Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland and Argentinian Adolfo Perez Esquivel, and five others.
These days, the road to peace for many of us begins on this long desert road to Iraq. Even with the war in the Balkans, Iraq is the number one enemy of our nation. With a population of 23.5 million people, Iraq was a prosperous nation 10 years ago, with first-rate medical and educational facilities. Since the economic sanctions imposed in August 1990 and the ensuing Gulf war and bombardments, Iraqs civilian infrastructure has been systematically destroyed. Except for Bill Richardsons short trip to secure the release of a U.S. pilot, not one U.S. member of Congress or elected official has visited Iraq since 1990.
According to the World Health Organization, more than one million Iraqi civilians have died since sanctions were first imposed. Six thousand children under 5 die each month because of the economic sanctionsapproximately 200 children a dayand a million children under 5 are chronically malnourished.
After passing the border and crossing the Iraqi desert, we proceed directly to West Baghdad, to the Ameriyah shelter. On February 12, 1991, this large public shelter was filled with as many as 1,200 women, children, and elderly men who were celebrating the last day of Ramadan as well as a birthday. In the early morning, a U.S. smart bomb entered the ventilation shaft, blew open the ceiling, forced the exits closed, and trapped everyone inside. Minutes later, a second bomb entered the ceiling hole and incinerated everyone inside. One woman, Umm Greyda, had just stepped outside to do laundry. She survived the bombing and later moved into the shelter to create a permanent memorial to the victims of the massacre.
Today, Umm Greyda welcomes us, describes the horrific event, and leads us through the shelter. The concrete walls are charred black. Flowers, prayers, and hundreds of pictures of children who died that day hang on these walls. We walk through the shelter in shock. We see where children who were sleeping on the top bunks had scratched the ceiling, leaving charred hand prints, in the moments before they were burned to death.
ON ONE WALL, we see the outline of a woman who had been instantly incinerated. The whole concrete wall was charcoal black except for the white area where she was standing. Her arm is outstretched, pointing. "I have seen this before," Adolfo says quietly, "in Hiroshima." Another white shadow shows the outline of a mother holding a child.
If it is possible, the worst is yet to come. We brace ourselves as we pull up to the Al Mansour Pediatrics Hospital. Up to seven children die here each day, we are told, due to the absence of medicine, technical equipment, electricity, and clean water. "The death rate is increasing because of the sanctions, although we do our best to reverse it," the director explains. There before our eyes we see the reality of economic sanctions. We go from bed to bed, hold the hands of the dying children, embrace the weeping mothers, and listen to the pleas of the doctors.
Adolfo and I meet Sara, a 6-year-old girl who is so depressed that she has stopped eating. We listen to her, tell her about our efforts for peace, and ask her to eat for us. Finally, she agrees. Adolfo says we arent leaving until she smiles, and slowly a beautiful, heartbreaking smile emerges.
"We would like to wish you a happy visit to Iraq," a researcher at the Umm Amarik Research Center later tells us. "But we are a suffering and dying people, and if you come to Baghdad, you will suffer with us. Tell the world that Iraqis are being suffocated in silence. These sanctions are as harmful to us as nuclear weapons."
The economic sanctions on Iraq are not just a humanitarian crisis, but a moral and spiritual disaster. While I toured Baghdad, Pentagon officials toured the Middle East, stirring up fear against Iraq and forcing Iraqs neighbors to buy billions of dollars of U.S. weapons. And still this U.S. genocide of Iraqs "holy innocents" continues. So I undertake the most difficult journey of all, the trip home, the road to America. There, the real work for peace begins.
JOHN DEAR, SJ, is executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He recently edited The Vision of Peace (writings of Mairead Maguire) and The Road to Peace (writings of Henri Nouwen).