Shortly before sunrise this morning, a small band of us gathered at a busy Chicago intersection and unfurled vinyl banners bearing enlarged pictures of Iraqi children. One banner called for an end to U.S. warfare in Iraq. On my banner was Johan, smiling wanly, a 14-year-old child who weighed 75 pounds shortly before she died of cancer in the oncology ward of a Baghdad hospital on Sept. 21, 2003. As our banners flapped in the wind, I tried to compose a letter in my head to her teenage brother, Laith, who recently wrote to tell me how much he misses her.
Had Johan lived in a country that wasn’t reeling from 13 years of economic sanctions, she might have survived childhood leukemia. She is one of hundreds of thousands of children who died while economic sanctions and war shattered Iraq’s healthcare delivery system.
Writing my mental letter, I thought of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s words of comfort to bereaved parents of four little girls who were murdered when the Birmingham Baptist church was bombed on Sept. 18, 1963. A former member of the Ku Klux Klan was convicted of the crime. Addie, Carol, Cynthia, and Carole had been praying inside the church.
“These children – unoffending, innocent, and beautiful – were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” Dr. King said. But he offered comfort. “In a real sense,” he continued, “they have something to say to each of us in their death … they did not die in vain. … Indeed, this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”
This morning, columnists in major U.S. papers will continue alerting U.S. people to possible wrongs, even crimes, committed by UN officials in the course of the “oil-for-food” program that coordinated and monitored sales of Iraqi oil while economic sanctions ravaged the country. These economic sanctions constituted the most comprehensive state of siege ever imposed in modern history. It’s not likely that Saddam Hussein ever missed a meal, but children, hundreds of thousands of children, suffered gruesomely. Their suffering and death can be likened to child sacrifice, certainly the most egregious instance of child abuse in modern times. They had committed no crime, yet they were brutally – and lethally – punished for the government of the country into which they were haplessly born. You aren’t likely to find this story in the current exposés of UN wrongdoing.
In fact, many UN officials tried valiantly to put an end to the economic sanctions. Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday resigned their posts and crisscrossed the globe educating people about the effects of the economic sanctions that Halliday termed “genocidal.” UNICEF Executive Director Carole Bellamy held a 1999 press conference to announce the release of a “Situation Analysis of Women and Children in Iraq,” which carefully explained that the economic sanctions contributed to the “excess deaths” of over 500,000 Iraqi children under age five. Not one U.S. television network aired coverage of the press conference. Only two of 50 leading U.S. papers reported the actual shocking number of one half million “excess deaths” of children. The Wall Street Journal asserted that it was all Saddam’s fault. The New York Times echoed this in an 800-word story quoting Jamie Rubin of the State Department questioning the study’s methodology.
The sanctions punished children while Saddam’s regime profited through smuggling: Many Westerners who traveled to Iraq tried to communicate this to people in their home locales. The smuggling and the rake-offs were no secret, especially in the final years of the sanctions when there were many reports of lucrative kickbacks and inflated prices. Many witnessed the sanctions actually strengthening Hussein’s control, as the regime became the only source of food and stability for an increasingly desperate and disempowered population.
The children were punished. When the pictures of those little ones, writhing in pain, wrinkled with wasting, desperate and bewildered, held by equally despairing and tortured parents – when those pictures were held up, sometimes as we fasted, sometimes while we were being led off in plastic handcuffs, sometimes at press conferences in front of the UN in Baghdad, sometimes in the middle of Basra cesspools and cemeteries – when those pictures were held up, many people looked the other way.
When I try to understand why columnists in faraway places wouldn’t take on the story of these worthy victims, I try to remember that there are many worthy victims and one person can’t undertake care and concern for every devastating, brutal injustice. Pick your battles. But I can’t for the life of me understand how a steady stream of columns have appeared on op-ed pages, in the NYT and other papers, alerting us to possible crimes committed by UN officials in the course of the “oil-for-food” program while there has been no mention of the crime of child sacrifice in Iraq.
The concern generating reams of verbiage at this point is that UN officials may have looked the other way as Saddam Hussein and a number of collaborators pocketed rake-offs in underhanded dealings using profits from Iraqi oil sales. I’m not equipped to comment on those charges. But is there no columnist who will remind us that 500,000 children under age five died as the U.S. used the UN to wage economic warfare against children?
Let’s consider the UN workers who stood a chance of getting food and medicine into Iraq – were they to look Iraqi families straight in the eyes and say, “Sorry, we’ll have to prevent these contracts from going through because you, in your pitiful weakness, can’t prevent the dictator that rules you from getting rake-offs on the deal. We can’t compromise our principles…”
They looked the other way. I looked the other way myself. We in our delegations looked the other way even as we knew that normally we’d be hopping mad and demonstrating in front of any government bastion that inflicted so much fear on its people … but that would have been the wrap-up for our entry into neighborhoods, families, hospitals, schools … it was a tradeoff.
King said, “And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter. … Somehow, we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.” But this said, what words of comfort can I offer to Johan’s brother Laith? I can tell him where we stood this morning, and whose picture I held. People looked.
Read more by Kathy Kelly
- What Does War Generate? – July 5th, 2017
- Afghan Street Children Beg for Change – December 30th, 2013
- Thanking Bradley Manning, From Afghanistan – May 29th, 2013
- Tales in a Kabul Restaurant – May 21st, 2013
- Afghan Peace Activist: Drones Bury Beautiful Lives – January 13th, 2013