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Account of a Voices in the Wilderness mission

This article forwarded from the San Francisco Examiner. It is a
photo-journalist's account of one of the Voices in the Wilderness
expeditions to deliver medical supplies to Iraq.

ADAM KUFELD, Feb. 21 1999, 1999 San Francisco Examiner


Behind the headlines, it is the Iraqi people who are suffering, not
Saddam Hussein

Checking in at the Air Jordan ticket counter I remembered the words of
'60s folk singer Phil Ochs: "But somehow it is strange to hear the State
Department say, you are living in the free world, in the free world you
must stay," about the travel ban to Cuba. Thirty years later, those
words still rang true.

Under the U.N. Security Council embargo and current U.S. law, not only
was it illegal to travel to Iraq, it was illegal to bring in the
medicines and medical supplies that we were in the process of hoisting
onto the airport scales. Seventy-thousand dollars worth of donated
medicine. The five of us: Barbara Lubin, director of the Berkeley-based
Middle East Children's Alliance and a four-time veteran of the trip,
Jerry Berrigan, son of radical priest Philip Berrigan, Ingrid
Kepler-May, a therapist from Berkeley, Lloyd Francis of the San Jose
Mercury News
and myself.

We were part of a Voices in the Wilderness/Middle East Children's
Alliance group. We were risking up to 12 years in prison and a million
dollars in fines for "engaging in prohibited transactions relating to
the embargo against Iraq," according to the U.S. Treasury Department. We
joked that the excess baggage charge alone could send a couple of us on
one of those bargain trips to Hawaii.

But there was no turning back. As a photojournalist I questioned the
"official story." I wanted to see, firsthand, the effects of my
country's war and embargo on the civilians of Iraq. Kathy Kelly,
campaign coordinator for the Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness
writes that the group is willing to "defy US. law by breaking the siege
on Iraq imposed by the eight-year-long
sanctions." Voices also "conscientiously objects" to laws they believe
"violate international law and basic human rights," and they refuse to
"participate in the enforcement of an embargo which uses food and
medicine as a weapon," Kelly adds. On Dec. 3, 1998, Voices in the
Wilderness received a Notice of Prepenalty from the U.S. Treasury's
Office of Foreign Assets
Control, threatening to impose fines of $163,000 on their organization,
and several individuals, for their "exportation of donated goods,
including medical supplies and toys." At this time, the status of their
case is still pending. Nevertheless, on Dec. 17, in the midst of the
most recent round of U.S. bombings, Voices in the Wilderness left for
Baghdad again - with more medicines and toys.

There have been 19 such Voices delegations that have traveled to Iraq on
similar missions since January 1996. The embargo makes it impossible to
fly directly into Iraq, so after 24 hours of travel, with stops in New
York and Amsterdam, we arrived in Amman, Jordan, at 11p.m., their time.
At that point I wasn't even sure what day it was our time." We had only
one day to get our visas, bottled water, supplies and to inventory all
the medical supplies we came to deliver. We figured that would leave us
three to five hours of sleep before leaving at sunrise for our drive
across the desert to Baghdad....

At 3:30 a.m. we crawled downstairs into the still cold night air and met
Satar, our Iraqi driver. By the time we finished loading our '70s
Suburban, the roof rack was piled high and every square inch inside was
taken up, leaving us just enough room to squeeze in. Eighteen hours and
lots of sweat later we arrived in Baghdad, a place that had always
sounded so mysterious and romantic. Those notions quickly faded. Even
though Operation Desert Storm had ended more than seven years ago, ruin
was still apparent. We drove over bridges spanning the Tigris
River, below which remained massive chunks of their former structures,
bombed during the war. Some buildings were bombed in half and never
rebuilt. What looked like housing projects had huge puddles of raw
sewage surrounding them. During the war all 20 electric generating
plants had been bombed, instantly destroying Iraq's ability to pump
fresh water or process sewage, leaving more than five million people
without drinking water.

In 1991, U.S. Air Force Colonel John Warden told the Washington Post
such actions "gave us long-term leverage on the Iraqi government" -
although in real terms, it is the Iraqi people who have suffered, while
Saddam Hussein continues to rule however he wants. The destruction of
the generating plants instead created an epidemic of dysentery, cholera,
typhoid fever and malaria. One of the first medical studies, covering
eight months following the war's end, appeared in the New England
Journal of Medicine in 1992. It said that in those first eight months
47,000 children under the age of 5 had died of war-related causes. Since
the start of the embargo, 750,000 children below age 5 have died because
of the scarcity of food and medicine. And according to UNICEF, if the
blockade continues, 1.5 million more children will
eventually suffer malnutrition or a variety of unchecked illnesses
because sanctions make antibiotics and other standard medicines
impossible to get. Prior to the Gulf War, revenue generated by exporting
oil enabled Iraqis to enjoy a fairly good standard of living. Despite
the repressive rule of Saddam Hussein, in 1996** [[**HG: I think this
should be 1986]] the World Health Organization presented this picture of
the country: 93 percent of the population had health care, 90 percent
had safe drinking water, the infant mortality rate was 52 per 1,000,
life expectancy was 66 years and the female literacy rate was 85
percent. Iraq also produced about a third of the basic food requirements
of its population and spent more than two billion U.S. dollars annually
to import the balance. Since the war, most irrigation programs in Iraq
have suffered due to the bombing, and because of the embargo spare parts
for agricultural machinery are virtually nonexistent. As a result, food
production has dropped steeply,
leading to chronic and severe malnutrition among a large percentage of
the population.

This all came into distinct focus on our second day in Iraq, when we
visited Baghdad's Al-Monsour Hospital for Children. Children, more like
skeletons with skin, lay on sheetless beds, while their mothers fanned
away flies. Their families spoke of their hopelessness - without
medicines, what could be done? Others had sold everything they had to
purchase black-market medicines. The cries of children reverberated
through the halls. We tried to explain why we were there, why I was
taking photographs. Some of the children's parents wept as they told us
their stories, others berated us, saying: "We don't need photographs, we
need medicine." Little medicine or equipment were in evidence. A visit
to the pharmacy revealed very limited stock. Few incubators were working
for lack of spare parts. In between hospital visits we went to the
Amiriyah shelter, which, according to the Pentagon, was mistakenly
bombed during the war. More than 1,000 people were burned or boiled to
death as huge water tanks burst. Gruesome evidence of the bombing still
exists, in outlines of bodies thrown against the wall. The roof, of
5-foot-thick reinforced concrete, shows an 8-foot-hole and crater below.
shelter's curator never leaves, having lost nine members of her family
at the site, which has become a monument of war and a shrine to the

The next day, after discussions with the Red Crescent Society (the
Middle Eastern Red Cross) we decided to take the medicines we had
brought to Basra, where the need was even greater. (And where another
raid has taken place since filing this story.) Closer to the Kuwaiti
border, the bombing in Basra had been more intense. During the six-hour
drive we passed what seemed like miles of destroyed car lots, brick
factories and military posts of crumbling mud walls and barbed wire. We
arrived in Basra at dusk.

Stuck in traffic, a bus full of teenagers pulled alongside, playing
instruments, singing and dancing in the isles. Noticing that we were
bouncing along to the beat, they hung out the window and sang to us.
Teenagers. Our hotel looked out over the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, a brown
mixture of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, which flow into the
Persian Gulf. The next morning we hired a small launch to cruise its
many small islands. Whole families would come out to wave as we glided
past the rusting hulks of sunken freighters. Eerier still were the
groves of date palms, about half of which had been decapitated, strafed
by fighter planes, destroying the date harvest for years to come.
Finally we delivered our cargo of contraband to the Ali Baba Children's
Clinic, run by an Italian Non-Governmental Organization called Bridges
to Baghdad. It would be a drop in the bucket.

We had heard about Iraq's abnormal rise in childhood leukemia and
cancer. But again statistics didn't prepare us for the grim reality. At
the Basra Pediatric and Maternity Hospital, a mother stood in the
darkened corner of a room while her 5-year-old son, his face swollen,
blood caked at the sides of his mouth, clung to his father. He was only
one of many children in the ward who were dying of leukemia. It should
be no wonder the hospitals were full of children with various forms of
cancers and leukemia, or that spontaneous abortions and birth defects
have been rising rapidly, considering the amount of Depleted Uranium
(DU) (a by-product from the production of enriched fuel for nuclear
reactors and weapons) that was left behind as war waste in the Persian
Gulf. A secret British Atomic Energy Authority report to the London
Independent in November 1991 warned that there was enough left to
account for 500,000 potential deaths through increased cancer rates -
though it noted that such a figure was an unlikely worst-case scenario.
That figure, however, was based on an estimate that 40 tons of depleted
uranium were left behind, when the actual figure is closer to 315,
according to Pentagon reports on Gulf War Syndrome.

Depleted uranium ammunition, which was fired by U.S. tanks and aircraft,
was used for the first time in combat in the Gulf. It ignites on impact
and easily blasts holes through tanks. Prior to the Gulf War, the
Pentagon knew of depleted uranium's dangers. A July 1990 report, Kinetic
Energy Penetrates, Environment and Health Consequences, prepared for the
U.S. Army by the Science Application International Corporation,
predicted that DU shells would generate large quantities of radioactive
dust and that if that dust was ingested or inhaled, "short-term effects
of high doses can result in deaths, while long-term effects of low doses
have been implicated in cancers, kidney problems, and birth defects."
"The long-term health effects to native and
combat veterans may become issues in the acceptability of depleted
uranium weapons," the
report continued.

The use of depleted uranium, which has a half life of 4.5 billion years,
may be the most tragic and enduring legacy of the first Gulf War. It is
also the most underreported aspect. In fact, there are more than 100,000
veterans with Gulf War Syndrome so far. Ironically, the U.S.
administration has used Iraq's creation of chemical weapons to justify
its use of what could be seen as an even more toxic weapon of war. In
the aftermath of another U.S.-led attack on Iraq
it's time to ask what, if anything, was gained? It gave Baghdad just the
excuse it needed to end any cooperation with UN arms inspectors. It also
angered many in the Arab world, who will now probably go out of their
way to ignore the embargo. And, it angered many nations in Europe as
well. No UN resolution calls for, or allows, unilateral acts by any
member state in response to real or alleged Iraqi violations.

It is unclear what impact, if any, the latest rounds of bombings had on
the "weapons of mass  destruction," repeatedly cited by President
Clinton, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Defense and State Department and
British Prime Minister Tony Blair. No one seems to know - and we have no
way of evaluating the damage anymore, because our inspection capacity
has been eliminated. Moreover, the recent revelations that the UNSCOM
team secretly planted wiretapping devices inside some of the facilities
they were inspecting - against the advice of some of their own staff -
raises further questions about our credibility. Our current position
seems to be that, as the world's last remaining superpower, we can do
whatever we want - whether or not it achieves the goals we have stated.
According to an article in the Boston Globe on Jan. 7 quoting a recent
UNICEF report, "....bombs also hit a UN World Food Program warehouse,
destroying 2,600 tons of rice destined for Iraqi civilians. One of the
main water systems in Karrada, a Baghdad suburb, was hit by a cruise
missile, cutting off water to about 300,000. In Basra, UNICEF reported
that 10 schools suffered damage. And in Kirkuk, in the Kurdish north, a
secondary school sustained a direct hit. In Baghdad, UNICEF said there
were broken glass doors, and other damage at a maternity hospital, a
teaching hospital, and an outpatients' clinic."

And the U.S. strategy for the future? On Dec. 23, 1998, Defense
Secretary William Cohen, on a two-day visit to U.S. troops in the Gulf,
said Washington would keep enough troops and equipment in the region to
be able to renew military attacks on Baghdad if needed. Standing on the
4.5-acre flight deck of the USS Enterprise, Cohen thanked the troops,
saying "without you we wouldn't be the superpower we are." He added that
any setback for Iraq's military, even if temporary, was worth the cost
of the operation. One might wonder if he was referring to the one
billion dollar cost to American taxpayers or the cost to the people and
children of Iraq. Our last day in Iraq was as sad as our first. We
loaded ourselves into our now almost empty Suburban and headed out of
town. Before getting very far, however, we came across what we later
learned was a bimonthly combination funeral procession and protest
march. Below us, snaking through the streets, were 50 white and orange
taxi cabs, each one with a small casket on its roof. Taped to the casket
was a photograph of the child being carried inside, and leading the
procession were the children's mothers. It may be rhetorical to ask what
these people have done to deserve the wrath of the most powerful nation
on earth. It seems it is up to the policy makers in Washington to answer
the question.


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