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[casi] Radio New Zealand interview

Radio NZ interview with Geoff Robinson,

Geoff R. : Before I introduce my guest, I just want to give you a
little basic history, because I think sometimes we forget these
matters. So I'm quoting here, selectively admittedly, the
Statesman's Yearbook. Iraq, formerly Messopotamia, was part of
the Ottoman empire from 1534 until captured by the British in
1916. In 1932 Britain's mandate expired and Iraq became an
independent country. In 1958, it became a republic, in 1979
Saddam Hussein, then Vice President, became President in a
peaceful transfer of power.

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. A UN-arranged cease-fire took place
in 1988. On the second of August, 1990, Iraqi forces invaded, and
rapidly overran Kuwait. The UN Security Council voted to impose
total economic sasnctions on Iraq until it withdrew from Kuwait. In
1991, the UN Security Council Resolution permitted Iraq to sell oil
to pay for food and medical supplies and start a reparations fund.
It says sanctions have undoubtedly harmed Iraq, but Saddam
Hussein remains strong, while the population at large suffers
increasing deprivations.

Joining me now in the studio is Tony Maturin. He's a Quaker, he's
an activist, and he's just been to Iraq. He went to Iraq on behalf
of the Council for International Development, he joined a fact-
finding mission there. Now let's let him tell the story. Good
morning Tony, welcome.

So, how were you chosen, and why you?

Maturin: A long story. Partly because I tried to get out of it, I
tried to get government interested. I'd heard of this delegation
going from Central Europe, mainly from Belgium, a hundred and
twenty people, European MPs, Dutch MPs, Belgian MPs, doctors,
people from Medicines for the Third World, people like that, and
journalists and film crews, and I thought, well, it would be a
chance for someone from say, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and
Trade to go and have a decent look round. But they said, no, they
didn't want to do that, there's no money or something.

And Quakers had been involved in fund-raising for sending medical
supplies to Iraq through a little organisation called Bridge to
Baghdad based in Rome. And being involved in that, I heard of the
Council for International Development's travel fund, and I'd been
talking via e-mail to the organisers in Brussels, and after a while I
found they'd put my name on the end of the list and said we
expect you! And someone else picked this  up here and someone
else said we think you should go, and we got the travel fund.
Because Quakers had been fund-raising, we had decided we didn't
want to travel, the money was much better spent on medical
supplies, so we put travel out of our minds and then this travel
fund came up, so we said, there's not Quaker money going into
this, we'll go.

Geoff R. : So, here you are, never having been there before,
arriving in Baghdad with a hundred and twenty others.

Maturin: Yes.

Geoff R. : What's it like?

Maturin.: With a hundred and twenty others, or Baghdad?

Geoff R. : In Iraq, what's it like? ( there was a good deal of
chuckling in this exchange.)

Maturin: We went in through Syria, and the first impression you
get of course is of deserts. And they're wonderful. Lovely
colours, lovely soft colours and soft light and no horizon, and
misty and not very hot at all. Then gradually you come to little bus
stops and you meet a lot of friendly people. It's obviously a very
third world country. A lot of reconstruction going on. A lot of dirt,
a lot of rubble. But very good roadways, the roading has been
repaired a lot. And you saw, on parallel roads, oil tankers going
backwards and forwards to Syria. We knew about that. And then
you come to irrigated land, a bit of water makes a vast difference

Geoff R. : Is it fertile with water?

Maturin: Yes it is, yes. They grow barley, because barley stands
the salination apparently better than other grains. They grow a bit
of rice, and they grow quite a bit of alfalfa for stock feed. And
dates of course.

Geoff R. : Did you see much stock?

Maturin: Very little. Well, no, you're travelling through the middle
of the desert and here's a little mob of sheep with a shepherd
sitting down somewhere about a hundred yards away, and a donkey
standing beside him and perhaps a couple of sheep sort of nuzzling
him. And a couple of miles further on there's another little mob,
thirty or forty sheep, perhaps a hundred sheep.

Geoff R. : So it was hard to work out from what you saw what the
organisation of their farming is?

Maturin: From that yes. I never worked it out. I never worked out
their method of agriculture either. But it was obviously based on
irrigation, and probably flood irrigation at that.

Geoff R. : Were you stopping on the way, or did you drive more or
less straight into Baghdad?

Maturin: More or less straight away. We had a couple of comfort

Geoff R. : Baghdad then. The city, it was bombed, it was attacked,
there were cruise missiles flying in and out, did you see that sort
of sign of damage there?

Maturin: Very little. I sent you an account of those attacks, the
Coalition attacks, didn't I. They were terrible. They went on for
about five weeks or something, I don't know how many thousand
tons of bombs, and they literally destroyed all of the civilian
infrastructure of the whole of Iraq, not just Baghdad.

Up till 1985, I was talking with the UNICEF man, and he said there
was a really heavy investment in the social structure of the
country. And so they had potable water for, say, ninety percent of
the people, electricity the same, sewerage the same, free
education right through tertiary, with degrees that were accepted
overseas. A really good, well-organised up to date society, and the
hospitals I'm sure were as good as some of ours. And all of that
was just bombed to pieces.

The electricity supply was cut off nation wide within very few
days, and that brought almost everything to a halt. The pumping
stations were likewise destroyed, water and sewage pumping. The
whole place was just a shambles. The US boasted about having
bombed them back fifty years or more.

Geoff R. : That was then -

Maturin: That was then, but the sanctions are on top of that -

Geoff R. : But now?  What's it like now? Do they have those

Maturin: Yes, they rebuilt a lot of it. They still have power cuts - a
lot of people only have power for say, two hours in the morning
and two hours at night. And that includes hospitals. And it includes
pumping stations, and includes everything a society relies on. And in
the south of course it's horrendous because it gets very very hot
in the summer time. And the disease there from contaminated
water is just going up and up and up.

Geoff R. : Well yes, you mentioned they had potable water, they
no longer do, or do they in the cities?

Maturin: It sort of works from the centre out. In Baghdad - I
wouldn't drink the water - but I got cholera, probably through
being careless. But I was trying not to be careless. And through
the rest of the country there's not always potable water, and in
the south, round Basra in particular, which bore the brunt of those
attacks, they say the water tends to be forty percent sewage.
Because of the power cuts which allow the  water pumping stations
to stop work so the pressure in the pipes drops and the sewage
system is just old and obsolete and pumping stations there don't
work either so they can't keep it moving and so it gets sucked into
the water.

Geoff R. : Horrible.

Maturin: I know, it's horrible yes. I know, in eighty five for
example, there were no cases of cholera, and I think last year
over two thousand.

Geoff R. : You came home with cholera? What's it like? What does
it do to you? I mean it's one of those words - people think cholera!

Maturin: Yes I know! When I got the first signs of it, just
diarrhoea, I treated it as you would here. Stop eating and you
drink boiled water for a couple of days. And so I stopped eating,
and didn't eat for about ten days actually, or not very much.
Consequently you just get weak and more and more stressed. But
there's so much going on that you can't stop!

Geoff R. : When you're on a trip like this you've just got to keep
going. Yes, I know what you mean. Back home you got proper

Maturin: Yes, well, no treament required actually, it works its way

Geoff R. : Well I think we needn't go into that! Now tell me if you
would what you saw of the people in Baghdad. You talked about
friendly people. You were able to talk with anyone you wanted to?

Maturin: Almost, but not quite. Because we were there not at the
invitation of the Iraqi government exactly, but the Iraq Belgian
Friendship society, which of course is funded by the government.
And what happens is - the Society organised an itinerary for us, so
we went with a guide from them, which obviously had something to
do with representing the government, and interpreters, who didn't
necessarily have anything to do with representing the government,
and they were very very good. And it was very easy to duck out of
the programme and go to see the people you wanted to.

But first of all, I have images in my mind of the Saddam Children's
Hospital for example. Went in there, and there were sixty people
remember and it was very intrusive and very embarrassing to be in
a situation like that. It was absolutely horrible, and you go in
there, and the first ward you go into, it's - dingy - I mean it's no
worse than just dingy. But there are a line of beds and on each
bed there's a woman in the black Chador with a child, and only one
of them asked me for money, most didn't. And you sort of point at
your camera and ask if you can take a photograph and you do and
you get the name of the child and the outlook from the nearest
doctor. And you see some pretty terrible things. Because mostly
they're under ten, round about five perhaps, and they're all
malnourished and they suffer from low birth weight. Low birth
weight is one of the big problems for a start, because sixty or
seventy percent of the mothers are anaemic.

Geoff R. :  In the hospitals are the medicines getting through the

Maturin: No they're not - well, some are, but there are always
shortages. I went up to the second floor of that hospital. There's
no lift, the lifts don't work there, it's a bloody wreck, it's
terrible, and I was in a room with some incubators, and all of a
sudden the passage outside rang with a woman's screams and this
young woman was being escorted to a ward where she fainted.
She'd just lost her child who was about four months old.

And I spoke to the doctor about it, and asked him what it was. And
he said it's gastro-enteritis, it's due to malnutrition and we don't
have enough medicine to cover it. And I asked him how many cases
he would have in a week. He sort of looked at me a bit blankly and
said,  I don't know. So I said, ten? He said no more than that.
Twenty? No, more than that. Thirty? Put down any figure you like
he said, it doesn't matter, it's happening all over Iraq." And it
occurred to me a little later, that it was an inane question. It
shouldn't have been a question. It should have been a statement,
and the statement is a very simple one. This should not be

Geoff R. : Take me out of the hospital now, onto the streets. Are
people moving around?  Do they seem to be, shall I say going about
normal life? Driving around, shopping, things like that?

Maturin: In Baghdad itself? Full of taxis. There's some paint on
some of them! I had a ride in a couple and they're full of exhaust
fumes inside and they keep them going by cannibalising parts I
guess. So there's quite a lot of traffic. And it's pretty dangerous
I think. I had friends there who said we don't drive, we get a taxi.

You go into the suqs and the people are very friendly, yes, they're
a great crowd. Everybody seems to know the English word
welcome. And they're friendly in that way. That's in Baghdad
where they're fairly used to visitors. What comes across
immediately - I was talking for example to one of our
interpreters, we were standing on the banks of the Tigris, it's
very beautiful, but it's very low just now because Turkey's gone
and dammed it further up. And we were at the Museum of
Reconstruction which has models of the buildings that were hit in
the bombing. You know, there were schools and hospitals and
ministry buildings and radio stations, the whole thing, and what
happened was that the government got onto reconstruction very
quickly. The country's rich in building materials, all they had to
import was the reinforcing steel. What also happened was, that in
order to keep some kind of economy going, they printed the dinar.
Which resulted in inflation, something like 6,000 percent inflation,
But at least it kept a little bit of money circulating. And it meant
that people - engineers for example, would be getting probably
$30 a month. At the very most.

Geoff R.: So there was some money moving through?

Maturin: A little bit yes. But there's something like 60 percent
unemployment. And if people do get jobs, they're not steady jobs.
People work at three jobs during twenty-four hours as much as
possible. Including mothers.

Geoff R.: You talked about malnourishment in terms of the people
you saw in the hospitals, do the people on the street seem

Maturin: They don't seem malnourished, and I brought this up with
a newspaper editor. I said, you know, they look well fed, well
clothed, and she said, well, what do you look for? What are the
signs of the people suffering under the sanctions like these. And
the signs really are in the figures, because they get a food basket
from the oil-for-food programme. You see, the Iraqi government
gets no money from the oil at all. It all goes through the escrow
account. And they get this food basket, about which the Director
of UNICEF, who gave me a quarter of an hour's very good
interview, said the distribution is absolutely superb. It's one of
the biggest operations in the world, and one of the best caried out
in the world.

Geoff R.: But the food is getting through to the people?

Maturin: Yes, but the Iraqis used to be a meat eating people. They
used to get protein from meat. Now they get beans and rice and
cooking-oil and tea and sugar and salt and not a great deal else. A
little milk and high-protein biscuits for lactating mothers and young

Geoff R.: A rather strange diet when you're used to something

Maturin: If someone came along to you and said you have to live on
lentils and rice for the next ten years, I guess you'd feel slightly
put out about it.

Geoff R.: You were getting around the country, you weren't only
in Baghdad were you?

Maturin: No, we got down to Basra as well. Which is worse
because it bore the brunt of the Coalition bombing. And is further
away from the centre, the it's very very hot there. Power supply
there is worse, the potable water situation is worse, sewage is
worse. And the disturbing thing down there is the increase in
cancers and leukaemias.

We went into the Saddam Hussein Children's Hospital in Basra, and
I went into one small ward, and there's a child there with a brain
tumour, he was about ten I think, a lovely kid. But one eye was as
big as a golf ball, it looked gross, I took some video shots of it
actually. And the doctor lifted up his shirt and the shoulder was all
swollen and right out of proportion, and he said it was leukaemia,
and he said, "He came in about four years ago, we've known about
him for four years, and we just haven't got the chemo-therapy
drugs. They're not allowed through the sanctions." They're
blocked, ninety percent of them by the United States. You know,
the United States has a huge amount on their conscience, if they
have a conscience. Some people in the States have I know, but
others I don't think so.

Geoff R.: What about the spirit of the people?

Maturin: Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. I went there you see
with the expressed purpose of trying to discover why there were
drug shortages. Because people say, "they're getting through,
there's plenty in the warehouses, it's the fault of the
government." It's not the fault of the government, full stop. But I
found that the bigger issue was the whole issue of this culture
which is being destroyed. And how the people feel about their

You get the feeling very quickly that they're tremendously proud
about it. You know, there was the guy I told you about I was
talking to on the river bank, he said to me, "Look at those bridges.
They were destroyed by the bombing. Each end was deliberately
bombed. And we've rebuilt them." And you look around, and
they're rebuilding and rebuilding everywhere. With quite primitive
means mind you. I saw them paving the courtyard of a university
they were renovating. Two guys with a shovel and a wheelbarrow,
and another guy squatting down with a little builder's triangular
trowel, patting it down. It's been going on for centuries and will
go on for other centuries and without using up the earth's
resources. But there's this great pride in being part of an ancient,
and immensely valuable culture.

Geoff R.: Did you see any signs of the conflict between the
Shi'ites, the Kurds, the non-Kurds, the Iraqis?

Maturin: Oh no, we weren't there long enough and we weren't in
the North either where most of that's going on. The people I did
speak to - I met friends there in the form of an Iraqi man who was
married to a New Zealand woman, and I went and had a bit of time
in their house.

Geoff R.: Tell me about it. What sort of conditions were they
living in?

Maturin: They were living in very good conditions because he was a
specialist and so he was well paid. And he was working in the
private sector. And the house we went into was interesting
because - you go into the main entrance and they show you into a
room, perhaps ten yards by ten yards or something like that.
Absolutely beautiful, stunningly beautiful. A lovely marbled floor
and tyled walls, dark blue and hangings, simple but nice furniture.
And he saw I think that I'd accepted it as their living quarters.
Certainly not. Every Arab house has a guest room like this and this
is far, far better than their living quarters.

It's part of the Arab hospitality thing. And being a guest can be
embarrassing because they look after your every want. You can't
lift a finger. More than that, they take responsibility for you. If
you turn out to be a bit of a rat bag and behave badly outside,
they take responsibility for that. It's part of an ages old
hospitality of which they're tremendously proud. It's a lovely
country you know. I came away impressed with the quality of that

Geoff R.: You were in the nice room, did you get to see what the
rest of the house was like?

Maturin: No! I got to see the street of course, which was largely
rubble outside, with a couple of big houses. What's happening is
that, some people with friends outside, can bring in dollars and
make huge amounts of money on the exchange rate, and grow very
very rich, and like the rich in most places they build these huge
houses and live quite opulently. So there were two houses like
that, but the rest of the street was a shambles. Apart from this
house, which was just an ordinary looking house outside, with the
usual sort of square building, flat roof, cool.

Geoff R.: What about military presence. Were you aware of it?

Maturin: I've been in Guatemala, and there the soldiers were all
armed and carried their guns ready to use. Here, there were
soldiers around, not many armed. I spoke to one or two, asking
directions, they were friendly and helpful, all said welcome!

Geoff R.: And did the people you spoke with indicate they felt
free to tell you anything they wanted to, or did you feel that they
were -

Maturin: I didn't ask them that. I didn't ask them that because I
know very well that that government has a horrendous human
rights record. We know that. What we don't know, they're also a
very benevolent government as far as the country goes. They've
done tremendous things for that country. They've built it up from
nothing, and they're building it up from nothing again. And the
people I spoke to, taxi drivers, people in the suqs, that kind of
thing, they all say - I asked them specifically about how they feel
about the possibility of a US attack, and they all say, "Well, they
bombed us last time and we rebuilt, and if they bomb us again we'll
rebuild again. We'll fight them mind you, but we'll rebuild. And we
have a country that our government is doing their best to make a
strong country again."

And it's all part of this national pride. You know you speak to a
doctor and ask him what are the shortages, and he doesn't really
tell you. You know they're there. He tells you a little bit about not
getting the right surgical instruments, whatever, but he says, "We
improvise." He's simply saying, "We're not giving in." And that's the
spirit of those people.

Geoff R.: So what did you come away thinking about in terms of
the weapons inspections, the sanctions, the whole question I guess
of the role of the UN, the US, in all this?

Maturin: Well I have no hesitation in blaming the whole thing on the
US. I mean, there is a good case to be made for their engineering
the invasion of Kuwait in the first place. There's a very good case
been made against them by a guy called - Oh, sorry I've forgotten
his name. An international lawyer in the States. Who's saying they
deliberately chose war, they're deliberately destroying this
country. It broke every UN Resolution you could possibly think of.
It was meant to be done in the name of the United Nations which
is meant to be a humanitarian organisation looking after peace. And
it just abrogated the whole thing. I know the United Nations has
been taken over, especially the Security Council. And the
Sanctions Committee, things they think should be placed on hold
because they're "dual use" for example. Five billion now. And a lot
of them are humanitarian goods. So I put the blame fairly and
squarely on the United States.

Geoff R.: Do you think sanctions should be lifted?

Maturin: Sanctions must be lifted. There's no doubt about that.
The weapons inspection thing I think is a red herring. If people are
concerned about weapons inspectors, that's their affair. But they
must not use sanctions as a political tool as is being done now.

Geoff R.: Because they're hurting people?

Maturin: It's terrible. UNICEF will still tell you that between four
and five thousand children under five are dying each month. And
this has been going on for the last twelve years. And it's going to
continue to go on as long as there are any form of sanctions.

Geoff R.: Do you believe there should be restitution that other
nations should be paying Iraq?

Maturin: Very definitely. I think that any fair-minded person would
say that if one country goes in and destroys another country, for
no reason, then restitution should be made. And there wasn't a
reason - the reason was not to get Iraq out of Kuwait. Because
the sanctions should have been lifted as soon as Iraq withdrew and
they weren't. The United States changed the goal posts there. I
would call very strongly that the Coalition partners should pay
restitution according to their share in the destruction.

Geoff R.: We contributed!

Maturin: I know, specially the previous government. We had a
frigate in the Gulf supporting the blockade. Our present
government certainly has moved ahead, but it's not doing anything
to lift the sanctions. They're saying, modify them. But
modification, is really, when you look at them, tightening the grip
of the United States on this country.

Geoff R.: Do you believe then that the United Nations, which
supposedly represents world opinion, can do anything here?

Maturin: With its present constitution, no. Because you've got the
five permanent members, and only one of them needs to veto
something - and it happens over and over again. Until the Security
Council is reconstituted so that you don't get one country
controlling it, then we've got problems with the United Nations.
But I'm quite certain we must make every effort to return the
UN to the moral high ground where it belongs. And that's what I
want the New Zealand government to do. I want us to take an
initiative in all this. Because a lot of countries now - I've got a list
of them - are calling for the lifting of the sanctions. And even for
the restoring of sovereignty to Iraq, including the Arab league and
people like that.

Geoff R.: Tony, thank you very much for joining us today. Sharing
your story. I'm glad to hear you're recovering from cholera. And
thank you for the insights you've offered us too. It's a part of
the world we hear a lot about, but don't know much about, and
it's interesting to hear your first-hand impressions.

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