Abandoned dogs or starving children?
Area activists try to remind people of the sanctions against Iraq, and inform them about their deadly, ongoing toll
While strolling through the Davis Farmers Market, two neighboring booths stand out because of their stark contrast in style, content and attendance. One is the fairly elaborate covered kiosk of the Labrador Retriever Rescue, where large photos of abandoned labs draw lots of sympathetic people.
Next door is a simple table covered with information fliers on the impacts of the decade-long sanctions against innocent Iraqis. Above the booth is a large, hand-painted sign that states in black letters, “5,000 Iraqi Children Die Every Month from Malnutrition Because of Sanctions.”
Alongside the table is a poster displaying photos of young girls and boys from this secular country. Few passersby give more than a passing glance to the booth sponsored by the Davis Coalition to End the Sanctions in Iraq.
Even fewer stop.
Cindy Litman, who has been tabling for the coalition since last year, has become used to watching people gather in support of abused, abandoned and unwanted dogs next door. But she still has a hard time swallowing the fact that many of the people “who respond with such empathy to the plight of Labrador retrievers stroll past our table without a pang.”
Lacking the basics
Litman, the coalition and a sister organization in Sacramento have been working for months to bring attention to the plight of Iraqi people who have been subject to 11 years of punitive sanctions and intermittent bombing by Americans. Since the Gulf War, many Iraqis have lived without functioning water delivery, sewage treatment or electrical systems, facts given short shrift by the mainstream press in the United States.
“You can’t have good health unless you have good water,” said Patricia Daugherty, co-founder of the Davis coalition. And she knows what she it talking about.
Daugherty, a nurse practitioner, worked in the Peten region of Guatemala for two years in the late 1990s to reduce illnesses and death caused by contaminated water. She saw the suffering caused by preventable water-related diseases, including dysentery that can devastate young children, particularly malnourished ones.
What struck Daugherty most when she began learning about conditions in Iraq was the lack of potable water supplies. When she discovered that the U.S.-led blockade prevents Iraqis from rebuilding their infrastructure she began actively campaigning against the policy. The sanctions’ “dual use” provision prohibits the sending of any material to Iraq that could be used for military purposes, which extends to parts to reconstruct vital water purification and treatment and electrical facilities destroyed during the war.
“The U.S. policy is so blatant and means that people can’t take care of their children,” Daugherty said.
The sanctions policy is based on driving Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power, and defenders of the policy blame him for the suffering of his people. And suffering they are. One Iraqi child dies every 10 minutes from malnutrition, avoidable water-borne diseases and medical care deficiencies, according to UNICEF.
The once robust Iraqi public health care system is in tatters. The middle class has been wiped out. The economy is in shambles. Everything from iodine for the purification of contaminated water to badly needed medicines is nearly non-existent.
Earlier this year, Davis activists attempted to send medicine, water-purification tablets and children’s vitamins to Davis’ sister city, Al Jamhurieh, Iraq. The U.S.-sponsored sanctions, which have come under increasing international criticism, also forbid mailing goods weighing over 12 ounces to Iraq, including humanitarian supplies and products as basic as aspirin.
The group had no illusions their care packages would be accepted by the post office but were part of a nationwide effort to bring attention to the brutal fallout of the sanctions on young and old Iraqi civilians. Besides, they knew there was not much point in sending curative medicines if measures are not taken to prevent the diseases.
The gruesome September 11 attacks left a significant mark on the local coalitions. After the tragedy, they laid low to honor the victims. But as the shock of the traumatic event began to wear off, they felt it was still their duty to provide an alternative voice and push to overturn the ongoing sanctions in Iraq.
It was with trepidation that the Davis coalition members recommenced tabling at the Farmers Market, concerned they would be labeled unpatriotic. Yet much to their surprise, several people who previously expressed only tepid interest in getting involved suddenly signed up with the group.
“They seemed happy to hear another voice,” Litman said.
The Davis and Sacramento coalitions have become magnets for peace activist organizations. They’ve helped coordinate rallies, forums and speakers. But, lifting the sanctions on Iraq continues to be the key mission.
The head of the national anti-sanction organization and a former top ranking United Nations official were sponsored by the two groups recently to help keep the war in Afghanistan from drowning out their message about the forgotten war in Iraq.
Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices in the Wilderness, called the sanctions “a weapon of mass destruction.” She has been to Iraq numerous times and part of her work involves trying to comfort distraught mothers whose children have died from malnutrition and curable diseases.
During a recent trip, Kelly managed to get a television crew from CNN to come to one of the Iraqi hospitals filled with sick and dying children. After the reporter finished interviewing her at the entrance, he and his entourage walked away. Kelly called after them and insisted they film more than a talking head. While pleading with them to go inside a ward, an Iraqi man ran past them into the hospital, cradling a tiny motionless bundle in his arms. He cried out that his baby had just died.
A few seconds later, Kelly said the reporter looked at her and said, “That could have been staged.” She said she truly hoped the man was holding nothing more than a swaddled doll. Kelly asked him again to go inside the hospital, adding, “You can’t stage a dying child before you own eyes.”
Kelly’s co-speaker, Hans von Sponeck, was the head of the U.N.’s Oil for Food Program in Iraq from 1998 to 2000. He said the sanctions have caused a “humanitarian disaster,” a view that led him to resign his post with the U.N. in February 2000, ending a 32-year career, to protest the destructive policy and accompanying massive misinformation campaign. Under the Oil for Food Program, about half of Iraq’s $44.4 billion petroleum sales from end of December 1996 to July of this year was available for humanitarian use, which equals about $120 a year per Iraqi.
“Iraqis deserve justice and human rights protections as much as you and I,” von Sponeck told packed houses in Davis and Sacramento, adding he was no fan of Saddam Hussein, who he called a “ruthless dictator and criminal.” He warned the wretched conditions created by the sanctions have increased support for Hussein among Iraqis.
All about oil
The root of the problem in Iraq is not Saddam Hussein, but the black liquid gold under his country. Von Sponeck harked back to Henry Kissinger’s infamous statement that oil was too important to be left in the hands of the Arabs.
“Without Iraq, there is no justification for U.S. presence in the Middle East,” von Sponeck noted.
Members of the Davis coalition, like Elias Rashmawi, don’t believe it’s worth the trade-off: “A barrel of oil is not worth the life of a child.”
Von Sponeck also warned that since September 11, there have been efforts to link Iraq with Osama bin Laden and terrorists. Bin Laden has never been welcome in Iraq, with its secular government, but von Sponeck fears the war effort in the devastated Afghanistan will soon expand to Iraq.
“We see these days an attempt to link Iraq to this whole network of terrorism,” von Sponeck said, including its alleged links to anthrax and the World Trade Center.
The evidence does not support the claims, he told SN&R. Rather, he is convinced there are U.S. government officials who want to seize “the opportunity to finish unfinished business.”
President George W. Bush and his cabinet members warn that all countries supporting terrorism are fair game, giving some weight to von Sponeck’s assertions. And as the bombing campaign in Afghanistan begins to wind down, the prospect that Iraq may be the next target of U.S. military force could be growing.
Kelly and von Sponeck urge Americans to learn as much as they can about the impact of the ongoing blockade and to speak out. Contacting elected officials and writing letters to the local papers about the destruction wrought by sanctions and bombing was also recommended.
Kelly urged people to let the media know “we don’t want cartoonish versions presented to us.”
The Davis and Sacramento groups continue to sponsor international experts on Iraq and Middle Eastern affairs and hold teach-ins, demonstrations and rallies. But with American flags flying everywhere and widespread support for the war, they know they face an uphill battle.
They’ve unsuccessfully tried to get the ear of Congressman Doug Ose, a Woodland Republican. Coalition members set up a meeting with him in July to talk about the severe impacts of the sanctions—from the effect on children’s health to diminished educational opportunities—and hand him more than 600 letters from constituents that object to the blockade. One hour before the scheduled meeting, they say, Ose cancelled. Since that time, numerous calls the activists have made to reschedule have not been returned.
But they’re not giving up, and still trying to be heard, now more than ever. The coalition continues its tabling at the Davis Farmers Market alongside the retriever association, to maintain a visible presence and provide resources.
“We have to be here,” Litman said, “to educate ourselves and our community and keep up our sense of hope.” Daugherty added they are also working to keep this country “from becoming the evil we deplore.”