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Let There Be Life

An American in Baghdad watches the UN pullout and wonders who will protect the Iraqi children.
 
 
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BAGHDAD, March 12, 2003 -- Late in the evening on March 10, we learned from a UN worker that remaining support staff for UN organizations other than UNMOVIC inspectors would be shuttling out of Baghdad on March 12, in accordance with involuntary departure orders. Many of the UN staff had already left in a slow attrition accomplished through applications for vacation leave or re-assignments. We lined the departure road in early morning hours on March 12 holding enlarged photos, on vinyl banners, of Iraqi people, many of them children, who've befriended us during seven years of regular visits to Iraq. Our banner, strung in front of a tent encampment across from the UN Compound, read:

Farewell UN Please Advise: Who will protect Iraqi children?

Rumors proliferate around us. Who knows if any of them are true? But we do know is that time is very short. Within days, the U.S. government may start the saturation bombing of Iraq.

I spent this morning coloring with eight year old Sohab, a patient in the cancer ward at the Al Mansour hospital. She is too weak to uncap the markers, but delights in choosing colors and carefully making bright colored pictures in a children's coloring book. War seemed light years away from warfare during the calm quiet morning with this radiantly beautiful child. I remember the broken glass and shattered windows that lined the roadway in front of this same hospital, in December 1998, when Desert Fox bombing destroyed a decrepit "old ministry of defense building" across from the hospital. I hope we can help comfort Sohab, if she's still hospitalized when bombing comes.

It's too much to hope for protection of the vast majority of people here from anticipated consequences of an attack and invasion on Iraq. According to a UN document for the planning of humanitarian relief, the expected outcomes of a US campaign of bombing and invasion includes:

  • 500,000 civilian casualties
  • 2,000,000 people homeless
  • 10,000,000 people without enough to eat
  • 18,000,000 without access to clean water
  • More than 1,000,000 children under the age of 5, at risk of death from malnutrition.

War plans released by the US military state that more than 3,000 bombs and missiles will fall on Iraq, more than used in the entire Gulf War, in the first 48 hours of the campaign. The New York Times quoted Pentagon officials as saying, "There will be no place in Baghdad that will be safe." Baghdad is a city of 4,500,000 people.

Three days ago, reports were released about US testing, in Florida, of the new Massive Ordinance Air Bomb (MOAB)-an improved version of the daisy cutter bomb. This 21,000 pounds fuel air explosive must be dropped via parachute so that the plane which fires it has time to fly beyond the field of explosion, the "kill radius," lest the bomb destroy the plane. The MOAB has the explosive capacity of a small tactical nuclear weapon.

Small wonder, then, that on March 11 eight mothers in a maternity hospital run by Dominican sisters, opted to have their babies by Caesarean section. They didn't want to bear babies during the bombing. Six women spontaneously aborted on the same day.

I asked Dr. Hameesh, at the Al Mansour Hospital, if he ever anticipated, when he was a young student, that he would have to learn so much about electrical engineering, sewage and sanitation, and economics.

First, he laughingly insisted that he is still young. We swiftly agreed. "We never imagined," he said, "that we would be face to face in a war with the United States. It is so far away. We are separated by oceans. Never did we dream that we would be face to face with the United States in such a war,"

Mohammed, our driver, knows all too well what it means to be face to face with enemy soldiers in battle. He is the sort of person who anticipates needs before they are even voiced. When I eyed a vacant lot, feeling perplexed about how to string up a banner, Mohammed was already tying a knot and within minutes had climbed a palm tree with the banner under his arm. This morning I was rummaging through lists trying to figure out if today was a day when some of our members needed to check in at a health clinic for certification of having received an AIDS test. Mohammed was already sitting in the lobby, waiting to catch my eye. He quietly nodded, stubbing out his cigarette. "Yes, Madame Kathy," he said, smiling. "Today, AIDS test."

He's the jefe of a friendly cabal of cab drivers who assemble outside the Al Fanar hotel, every morning. I can barely remember a day in the past five months when Mohammed's small and dilapidated red car wasn't parked outside at 7:30 a.m. So it came as a surprise that he wanted to fly to Basra with us and accompany us on our four day vigil at the Iraq-Kuwait border. When I said "Sure, why not?" he dashed off to the Iraqi Airways office to purchase the last available ticket.

In Basra, as we made arrangements to head further south toward Safwan, Mohammed seemed strangely subdued. He stared silently out the window while we drove toward the border. "Mohammed," I asked, "is this your first time visiting Basra?" "No," he said, "I was here in 1982." Then I remembered. Mohammed was a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war. During our four day visit, he began to disclose more details. He had been left for dead, in a field, after a battle between Iranian and Iraqi soldiers. During the attack, several bullets grazed his head. Another bullet cut off one finger. One bullet pierced his backpack, and tore right through his chest. Several bullets were embedded in his upper arm and leg. Mohammed somehow survived and spent a full year recovering in a hospital. "In my day," said Mike Ferner, a US Medical Corp man from the Viet Nam War era, "We'd say you were well-ventilated." He and Mohammed laughed gently.

I can anticipate Mohammed's main need just now. He makes a little profit from vigilantly accompanying us, but I know that more than anything he desperately wants us to succeed in preventing a new war. Mohammed knows what it means to be torn apart by war. "Madame Kathy," he said, leaving Basra, "We don't want this for our children."

During our time in Safwan, on the Iraq-Kuwait border, a dozen of us sat in a semicircle, in white plastic chairs, comfortably bundled up in warm clothes and blankets, at the border between Iraq and Kuwait. We were within shouting distance of soldiers on the other side. When Charlie Litkey clambered atop a large piece of debris to call out a message to uniformed men across the border, he began by shouting Al Salaam Alaykum. (Peace be upon you). "Alaykum wa salaam," they shouted back. Reflections offered by my companions touched me "in the deep heart's core."

Credible and admirable relief/humanitarian organizations have recorded numerous strategies and mandates regarding what to do in the event of war. But perhaps our "brief" has best been captured by Neville Watson's 10-year-old granddaughter. This is her response to a primary school writing assignment:

GRANDPA
My Grandpa is the minister of Wembley Downs Uniting Church.

He has gone on many protests in his life including sitting in a small box overnight outside parliament to protest about the jail cells.

He sat in the middle of the gulf and takes in refugees.

But this time he is going to sit in Baghdad and comfort the Iraqi people while the Americans bomb them.

You may think he is nutty but I am proud of him. He does what is right and he does it for other people not himself.

On the day he left he had every TV station apart from Channel 7 interviewing him, even the New Idea.

When he left we were all supset. Poor Grandma will have to live on her own for six weeks and maybe forever.

I love Grandpa very much and I hope he will return.

-- Jessie (age 10)

"And so do I, Jessie," said Neville, softly. "And so do I."

Kathy Kelly is co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness and the Iraq Peace Team, a group of international peaceworkers pledging to remain in Iraq through a US bombing and invasion, in order to be a voice for the Iraqi people in the West. The Iraq Peace Team can be reached at info@vitw.org.