ESCONDIDO, Calif. – Fernando Suarez del Solar is a busy man. He is busy opening boxes, counting pills, counting bandages; he is busy checking everything in the boxes that come addressed to him from all over the United States.
Suarez stops for a moment. “There are other boxes,” he says, “many of them in San Francisco, in New York, in Chicago. So many boxes.”
He could be doing other things. It is holiday time, after all, and the Mexican immigrant could be out shopping for his grandchildren; he could be out enjoying the unusually balmy weather.
But he needs to be checking these boxes. Like Suarez, their contents will be heading for Iraq, on a mission that memorializes his only son, Jesus, one of the first soldiers to die in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Jesus died Mar. 27, 2003 after stepping on an unexploded U.S. cluster bomb. An advocate for the poor in his native Mexico, his father, who departed Monday, has been an outspoken advocate and tireless campaigner against the war ever since.
“This trip is a very special one for me,” Suarez tells IPS. He has been to Iraq before, last year, to visit the site where his son was killed. But this time is different.
“This year I am coming with something. I have something to give. Last time I came with my pain, my loss, and my tears. This time I have medicine for the children of Iraq.”
Suarez will be accompanied by his wife Rosa, Jesus’ mother. This is not what the couple expected to be doing when they moved their family from Tijuana, Mexico, seven years ago.
“This is her first time,” says Suarez. “I really pushed her to go.”
When I ask Rosa, a trim, sophisticated woman, about this, she says yes, she is going, but she looks rather nervous.
Suarez is part of a small band of military parents – mostly mothers – whose children have been killed since Washington led the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and who are heading for the Jordan-Iraq border to hand off donated medicine and other medical supplies to doctors in the refugee camps along the border.
Suarez will be accompanied by members of three families who lost relatives in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, as well as members of San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange and the Los Angeles-based peace group Code Pink, who are sponsoring the trip.
The half-million dollars in medical supplies and cash that they will deliver have been donated by humanitarian aid groups, doctors, and other Americans around the country, who responded to Internet appeals. The donations are for children’s hospitals, adds Suarez.
Jodie Evans of CodePink, speaking to IPS from her office in Los Angeles, called the outpouring of support from average Americans amazing. “People are grateful to be able to do something, to help,” she says. “Over a thousand people have sent us small donations or walked in off the street.”
According to Evans, many people were moved to donate after November’s U.S. military siege of Iraq’s city of Fallujah. Some aid has already been sent to the displaced residents of that city, with additional support going to refugee camps and children’s hospitals.
The delegation will travel to Jordan from Dec. 27 to Jan. 4, and it plans to hold a press conference and a candlelight vigil with Jordanian peace groups on New Year’s Eve.
Suarez sifts through the medicines in the boxes. There are pills, Band-Aids, dressings. He hopes to hand it, and more, to Iraqi doctors – but that might not be possible.
“When we get there, one of two things will happen,” he says. “We put it all in our bags like backpacks and carry it in or, two, Customs opens the bags and I have to show them my letters.”
Suarez will carry a letter from Democratic Senator Henry Waxman, an outspoken critic of the war, who represents parts of Los Angeles, close to the Suarez home in Escondido. Suarez hopes the letter, addressed to the U.S. ambassador in Amman, Jordan, will ensure needed cooperation.
A third option – that the U.S. military has sealed the border and will refuse the groups entry on orders from the Pentagon – is also a possibility.
“But I hope not,” says Suarez.
“The last time I went to Iraq,” he adds, “the Pentagon called up another California Senator, Sen. Javier Vincera, who was supporting me, to tell him to tell me that I would not be welcome in Iraq,” and if he did go, they would not assure his safety.
In response, Suarez called a press conference to question the Pentagon’s motives. “I said, ‘Whatever happens, Bush is responsible,'” he recalls. The Pentagon backed down and declared him welcome.
Last year, as part of his voyage to see where his son died, Suarez visited ordinary Iraqis and children’s hospitals. It was an experience he found profoundly moving, one that inspired him to return to help Iraqi children.
“The Iraqi people were so good to me, so beautiful.”
At the hospitals, he saw youngsters dying from the lack of medicine and learned that a number of others had been killed picking up unexploded cluster bombs or when trying to hand them in to U.S. soldiers.
The bombs look like tennis balls or beer cans, Suarez explains. And when the children try to give them to U.S. soldiers, they are shot on the spot – military orders.
Cluster bombs, munitions that scatter hundreds of small “bomblets” over a wide area, are designed to inflict high numbers of casualties. “I asked a colonel why they couldn’t clean up the cluster bombs, and I was told, confidentially, that they couldn’t, there were too many.”
And then Suarez’s voice gets hard.
“They say Saddam had illegal weapons. Jesus died because of an illegal weapon. Cluster bombs are illegal under the Geneva Conventions.”
The story of Jesus A. Suarez del Solar Novaro and the cluster bomb that killed him is not a pretty one, and despite what must be hundreds of tellings, his father’s anger and grief are still just under the surface, tightly controlled.
Jesus had moved with his family to Escondido when he was 14 to fulfill his dream of becoming a U.S. Marine and joining the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to combat narco-trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border. That dream died Mar. 27, 2003. Just 20 years old, Jesus left behind a young wife and an infant son.
“Jesus was walking like this,” says his father, imitating a crouching walk, “when he stepped on a cluster bomb.”
But Suarez found out this part of the story only much later. At first, he and his family were told Jesus had been shot in the head, an image that horrified his parents. Later, he was told his son had stepped on an Iraqi mine and there was an investigation pending.
But a reporter with the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper called Suarez to confirm elements of a story he was writing and told him his son had stepped on an unexploded ordinance, information that Bob Woodruff of ABC News later confirmed because he had been embedded with the soldier’s unit.
According to the Union Tribune, Jesus lay wounded for two hours, bleeding out. He died en route to hospital.
“I can understand the confusion at first,” says Suarez, “but why continue to lie to me?”
It took two weeks for the military to return his son’s body for burial, and they refused to let the father see it until the remains were at the mortuary.
The day of the funeral, Suarez asked to spend time alone with his son. Armed with university training in forensic medicine, he examined the corpse and found that, indeed, something had ripped through the right side, removing pieces of hand, foot, upper thigh, and groin.
“At that point,” says Suarez, “I knew.”
And now his fury is palpable.
“The Americans dropped about 20,000 cluster bombs. Only 20 percent exploded. My son didn’t die in the front lines from enemy fire; he died because of the military’s negligence.”
“You know,” Suarez del Solar says thoughtfully, enunciating every word, “there are people who say I give aid and comfort to the enemy. I never spoke with Bush, he never sent me anything, but the people of Iraq I met, THEY comforted ME for my loss! I have yet to see the enemy.”
In the shadow of the glass case that holds his son’s picture, as well as the Mexican and American flags, Suarez del Solar goes back to organizing medicines, in the hope that some Iraqi parent will not have to do what he has done – bury a child killed in the war.