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Life in Iraq

Two Robert Fisk articles from mid-October:


>                          Women fighting to stem disaster in Iraq
>                         By Robert Fisk in Baghdad
>                         Margaret Hassan does not shout when she speaks, but
> her indignation - uttered above the hissing air-conditioner in her office -
> comes across as a cry, angry and frustrated, from someone who is tired of
> listening to platitudes. "This is a man-made disaster," she says, banging
> her right hand into the palm of her left. "Yes, some people have benefited
> from what we have done. But we can't solve the problem of Iraq. It's got no
> economy. We can't replace this with aid."
>                         Like her assistant, Judy Morgan from Dublin,
> Margaret Hassan works for CARE International, the largest humanitarian
> relief agency in the world. And since the two women run CARE's office in
> Baghdad, they are watching, every week, every day, sometimes every hour, the
> evidence of human tragedy on a massive scale, a disaster they can do little
> or nothing to alleviate.
>                         These were the two women who distributed the
> medicines, bought by Independent readers, to the children's hospitals of
> Iraq, who had to plead with the authorities to accept the drugs and to
> persuade one of Iraq's finest medical officers to state their case to the
> office of President Saddam Hussein.
>                         They were successful; but on the day of
> distribution, the Iraqi contractors sent only two refrigerated trucks to the
> cold storage shed where Judy Morgan was waiting to dispatch the medicines to
> Basra and Mosul as well as Baghdad.
>                         "The man said he thought we needed only two barada
> (cold trucks) and I said, 'How do you think we can deliver the vincristine
> vials to two Baghdad hospitals in an ordinary lorry in this heat?'
>                         "I had to go out and look for a refrigerated truck
> in the street - and when I found one, the driver told me it had broken
> down."
>                         Three hours late, another lorry with a roaring
> refrigeration unit backed into the yard of the Saddam Hussein Paediatric
> Hospital where the director was too busy - with a delegation of Iraqi
> expatriates - to arrange reception of the drugs. Ms Morgan persuaded the
> hospital's dispatcher to accept the manifest and herself plunged into the
> filthy reception bay to drag a rubbish trolley to the truck upon which the
> Independent medicines could be rolled into the hospital.
>                         Down in the heat of Basra, Margaret Hassan - after a
> 400-mile overnight journey on a road sometimes cut by bandits - presented
> our drugs to the doctors of Iraq's southernmost city.
>                         Two tough women. So it is not surprising they talk
> as tough as they are. "The level of deprivation in this country goes down
> and down and down," Ms Morgan says. "It spirals. Whatever we do, it's not
> even like King Canute. The water is lapping round our feet before we've even
> had the chance to order the tide to turn back."
>                         Put very bluntly, the two CARE workers are convinced
> that they are providing the proverbial useless drop in the ocean, helping to
> salve consciences - Western consciences - while Iraqis die because of our
> United Nations sanctions.
>                         Ms Hassan, who was born in London, has a thick file
> of examples to prove that she is telling the truth. "What use can we be
> here?" she asks. "Now if this was a Third World country, we could bring in
> some water pumps at a cost of a few hundred pounds and they could save
> thousands of lives. But Iraq was not a Third World country before the (1991)
> war - and you can't run a developed society on aid.
>                         "What is wrong with the water system here is a
> result of breakdown and damage to complex and very expensive water
> purification plants. And this eats up hundreds of thousands of pounds in
> repairs - for just one region of the country. The doctors here are
> excellent - many were trained in Europe as well as Iraq - but because of
> sanctions, they haven't had access to a medical journal for eight years. And
> in the sciences, what does this mean?"
>                         The pages flick past Ms Hassan's face. A teacher in
> a primary school earns 3,000 Iraqi dinars a month. This is less than 2.
> What can he or she teach now? With all Iraq's faults before, there was cheap
> clothing, food was reasonably priced, public transport was available. But in
> some villages now, the parents can no longer afford to take a cancer-sick
> child on the bus to the nearest hospital.
>                         "The people are really, really suffering. Do people
> know what it's like for a mother to wake up each morning not knowing whether
> she can feed her child - in a country which can feed every child?"
>                         Both Ms Hassan and Ms Morgan are married to Iraqis.
> CARE rules forbid them to discuss politics. So there are certain subjects -
> the President, the invasion of Kuwait, human rights within Iraq - which do
> not cross their lips. But they are saying what almost every UN humanitarian
> worker also says in Iraq: that the sanctions reputedly intended to hurt the
> government are hurting only the people. Ms Hassan suspects that Westerners
> have somehow humanly divorced themselves from ordinary Iraqis.
>                         "I don't think we see them as people," she says. "If
> you see someone suffering - if you have a grain of humanity in you - you
> have to respond to that.
>                         "Sanctions are inhuman and what we are doing cannot
> redress that inhumanity. They are contrary to the UN Charter, which
> enshrines the rights of the individual. It's a contradiction, a hypocrisy -
> it's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. UN sanctions are contravening the very
> individual rights in the UN Charter. Anybody who looks at this objectively
> has got to say these things."
>                         It is difficult to contradict Ms Hassan. Only last
> month, Dennis Halliday, the Irish head of the oil-for-food programme - the
> very system supposedly designed to alleviate Iraq's civilian suffering -
> resigned in protest at the calamity that sanctions are imposing on the
> people of Iraq.
>                         "We are in the process of destroying an entire
> society," he said after his resignation. "It is as simple and terrifying as
> that. It is illegal and immoral." If the world thinks that Saddam Hussein
> and his Foreign Minister, Tarek Aziz, are extremists, Mr Halliday said in
> New York, "I don't dare to think what will come" after the suffering created
> by sanctions.
>                         Aid workers in Iraq - Margaret Hassan and Judy
> Morgan are only two among hundreds - now talk of a "lost generation", a
> whole people who do not understand computers or the Internet, modern science
> or literature, who are losing their literacy.
>                         There used to be a popular expression in Iraq: that
> books are written in Cairo, printed in Beirut but read in Baghdad. Now in
> Baghdad, Margaret Hassan says cynically, "the books are sold - for money to
> buy food".
>                         CARE International can be reached at Tower House,
> 8-14 Southampton Street, London WC2E 7HA

The Independent October 19, 1998

by Robert Fisk 
Feast that makes mockery of Iraq's famine 


Fairy lights illuminate the Babeesh Grill Restaurant in President Street.
Mock stained-glass windows discreetly protect the clientele. For this is
an up-market bistro for up-market eaters, most of them United Nations

The hungry Iraqis who are not dazzled by the fairy lights outside can just
make out the candlelit tables and the foreigners inside as they wolf their
way through beef and roast chicken, sideplates heaped with fruit and
vegetables or - the Babeesh's speciality - shrimp salad. Soft music plays
as white-jacketed waiters serve the UN's finest, the sanctions boys and
the arms inspectors and the men and women who try desperately to undo the
suffering caused by the gentlemen in the glass building on the East River
5,990 miles away.

But despite the white- liveried waiters, whatever you do, don't mention
the Titanic. Iraqi state television has shown James Cameron's film three
times (he can forget about the royalties) as a balm for hardship, the
Baghdad equivalent of bread and circuses. But unlike Titanic, the Babeesh
has no third-class diners. This is a restaurant for those who measure
money by the kilo rather than by the Iraqi dinar note.

Now that the dinar is worth 0.0006 of a US dollar (thanks to the employers
of the Babeesh's clientele), my own meal for three needed a stack of 488
100-dinar notes, a wad of cash a foot thick. No wonder some cafes have
given up counting their takings - they check the bills by stacking the
dinar notes on a weighing machine.

So you can forget the Weimar Republic in a land where an average villager
can expect to earn a mere 3,400 dinars or $2 a month. Which means that our
little snack at the Babeesh - and there was no wine because alcohol is
banned in restaurants on orders from the man whose name no one says too
loudly - cost 14 times the monthly salary of an Iraqi. So why no food
riots? Why no revolution?

Take a stroll off Rashid Street in the old part of town and you can see
why. The sewage stretches in lakes, wall-to-wall, a viscous mass of liquid
so pale green in colour that it possesses its own awful beauty. This is
what happens when the electricity cuts out and the water-treatment plants
and sewage facilities go unrepaired. Electrical appliance vendors - Rashid
Street is where you go for a lightbulb, an adaptor, a piece of wire - hug
the walls like nuns to keep the mess from their plastic shoes. "You have
done this to us," a thin, bearded man said to me as I asked for an
electric kettle. The kettle could only be obtained at a foreign goods shop
in the suburbs for just over 12 - about nine and a half times the monthly
salary of the Iraqi villager.

Grind down the people to this abject level and survival is more important
than revolution. Unless you choose highway robbery. I'm not talking of the
kind practised at the Babeesh, but on the long motorways west to Jordan or
south to Basra. "That's where they shot the Jordanian," my driver said to
me 60 miles out of Baghdad on the Amman road, a reference to the diplomat
who chose to travel after dark and paid the price.

You don't drive to Basra overnight for fear of deserting soldiers, so the
rumour goes, who have turned to banditry to keep their families alive. By
night, the gunmen lurk, by day the village women who sell themselves for
"temporary marriage" and a few more dinars.

The latter I didn't believe. Until I left Basra one hot afternoon and
drove out through the slums with their own lakes of sewage - warmer than
the Baghdad variety, for the Gulf temperatures drive up the heat of every
liquid - and saw a crazed mass of men and women, tearing at their faces
with their nails, carrying in front of them the body of a child, pushing
it into a battered orange and white taxi on the main road. And a young
man, maybe only 16, suddenly jumped into the sewage lake beside the
highway and plastered his body in the filth, screaming and raging and
smacking his hands into the green water, splattering all the mourners with

To what does poverty and hunger drive a people? I soon found out. Seventy
miles north of Basra, where the road mirages in the heat between the
endless encampments of President Saddam Hussein's legions who are
suppressing the Marsh Arabs, a group of girls could be seen, dressed in
red turbans and black dresses, their faces cowled like Tuaregs, dancing -
actually twirling themselves round and round - in the fast lane of the
motorway until we drew to a halt. One of them approached the driver's
window, her eyes soft, her voice rasping. "Come buy our fish," she
whispered. "Come see our fish and you will want to buy them."

She pronounced the Arab word for fish - "sumak" - with a hiss, and the
driver giggled in a cruel, lascivious way. She was maybe 16 and she was
selling not fish but herself. And when they realised we were not
customers, the fish girls of Iraq twirled back into the motorway lane to
offer themselves in front of a speeding Jordanian truck.

Yes, you can forget the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, let alone the
destruction of his magnificent palaces and ornamental lakes and colonnaded
halls. But I do wonder how the Iraqis in President Street can resist the
temptation of breaking through the windows of the Babeesh restaurant and
tearing its customers to pieces.

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