What About the Incubators?

It feels oddly like being at a wake in a funeral home. Our four delegation members whisper together as we wait to tour the Al Mansour Children’s wing at the Saddam City Medical Centre. The Director is away, so someone has been sent to find a senior doctor to brief us. As I flip open my diary, it dawns on me that at this time four years ago, March 1996, the first Voices in the Wilderness delegation visited Iraq. 30 delegations later not much has changed within this hospital. What must the doctors and nurses think as one delegation after another hears the litany of shortages and views the dying the children?

When a doctor finally enters the office, my grim mood lifts immediately; it’s Dr. Qusay Al Rahim, of whom I’ve spoken so often, to so many groups in the U.S. My companions meeting him for the first time will probably feel the same warmth towards him as I, and hold him in the same esteem. He draws forth a sense that we’re working, in concert, to solve intractable problems, that even little gains, in the face of ridiculous odds, are rewarding. I wonder how he maintains his quiet, indomitable strength.

Two years ago, when I first met him, he solicitously accompanied us up to his ward, apologising for the elevator that didn’t work, the hallways that were dark because they had no light bulbs. Suddenly he raced away in response to a furore down the hall. Hospital visitors were shouting for help at the bedside of Feryal, a 7-month-old baby, whose mother was sobbing frantically. Feryal had just suffered a cardiac arrest. Dr. Qusay swiftly bent over her and administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Feryal’s heart gave out in a fight against malnourishment plus septicaemia — full body infection. The hospital lacked both the nutrients and the antibiotics this little one desperately needed. I watched Dr. Qusay face the anguished mother to pronounce the verdict, “I am sorry, but your child cannot live. We have not the oxygen, we have not the tube.” How many times, since then, has Dr. Qusay felt shattered, having to speak tragic words to disbelieving parents?

Now he is explaining to us that in a very real way he thinks we are all fathers and mothers to these children, that it’s a challenge to invent new ways to help them. And when something works, “well, you see, this keeps you hopeful.” He carefully details some of the greatest problems they presently face — they’ve run out of high protein biscuits formerly supplied by UNICEF and they lack immunisations for MMR (measles, mumps and rubella). Actually, sufficient batches of the vaccine arrive, but electrical outages interfere with proper storage, damaging the vaccines. So far, his tone has been that of a kindly teacher, one who wants us to understand.

But then he lowers his head and shakes it back and forth several times. “We had a terrible tragedy recently. Our incubators are old and broken down, but some we try to repair. We placed an infant inside a patched incubator, thinking it would work, but the sealant was faulty, and the baby grew very cold. In fact, we lost that baby.”

I jot down in my notebook, “Incubators — mom!!” Shortly before the Gulf War began, I applied to join the Gulf Peace Team, a non-violent, non-aligned encampment that would position itself on the border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, between the warring parties. The organisers placed me on a waiting list. To my surprise, I learned that if I could be in Boston in two days, I could join a U.S. contingent leaving on a plane that would be the last to land in Baghdad before the bombing began. I had just enough time for a hurried visit to my parents. Of course, they tried their hardest to dissuade me from going. As I flew out their door, the last thing I heard was my mother calling out, in her thick Irish brogue, “What about the incubators?! Kathy, what about the incubators?!”

She was referring to testimony from Nayireh, a young Kuwaiti girl, who told the U.S. Congress that she had witnessed invading Iraqi soldiers barge into a Kuwaiti hospital and steal the equipment. With luminous eyes and a compelling presence, she told of her horror as she watched the menacing soldiers dump babies out of incubators. Months later, when the war was a distant memory, reporters learned that “Nayireh” was actually the daughter of a Kuwaiti emir, that doctors in Kuwait could not corroborate her testimony, that in fact the supposedly stolen incubators had been placed carefully in storage during the invasion, and that the Hill and Knowlton Public Relations firm had rehearsed with the young woman how to give apparently false testimony effectively.

The Desert Storm bombardment destroyed Iraq’s electrical grid. Refrigeration units, sewage and sanitation facilities, and all sorts of valuable equipment were ruined. Life-saving devices found in a modern hospital were rendered useless. As the Allied bombing went on and on, my mother’s question became more and more relevant, yet went largely unasked. “What about the incubators?”

Now, when our teams visit Iraq, following nine and a half years of the most comprehensive state of siege ever imposed in modern history, we see incubators, broken and irreparable, stacked up against the walls of hospital obstetrics wards. Sanctions have prevented Iraqis from importing new incubators and from getting needed spare parts to repair old ones. And this is only one vitally needed item that sanctions prohibit.

Dr. Qusay’s heroism is commendable. Earnest as ever, he tells us of other methods he wants to pursue, in the wake of the tragedy incurred by an irreparable incubator. “I have heard about, maybe you know it, the kangaroo method and this they do in Australia. I tell the mothers of tiny infants to try it. They can place the baby between their breasts and wrap themselves in a garment and this may keep the baby warm enough. Or I tell them to try to find gauze and cellophane and with this they might recreate conditions like an incubator. You see, we must invent and try to cope.”

I wonder what would happen if Dr. Qusay testified before Congress as Nayireh did 10 years ago. Would we respond with the same moral outrage now that such actions are American policy? Would we mobilise to end sanctions with the same fervour that drove us to destroy Iraq, and its incubators and its babies? Now, as then, any mother, Kuwaiti or Iraqi can tell you child sacrifice is wrong.

The writer is a the director of Voices in the Wilderness, a non-profit making group opposed to the sanctions on Iraq.