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When I first visited Iraq in the summer of 1999, I wrote that nothing could have prepared me for my trip – for the incredible hospitality of the people, or for the incredible brutality of the sanctions. Since then, I’ve seen reports that sanctions against Iraq were crumbling, and I had hoped that the lives of the Iraqi people were much improved.
I was wrong.
Chronic unemployment, underemployment, and hyperinflation are still the rule, and most Iraqis are still struggling in terrible poverty. 11 years after the Gulf War, the electricity has not yet been fully restored, and much of the country’s infrastructure remains in disrepair. The hospitals here are just as crowded, and almost as poorly stocked, as I remember from 1999. The doctors complain just as much about not having enough medicines, or the proper medicines. And the children are still dying by the thousands every month.
Walking the streets of Baghdad you do notice more shops today, with more goods in them, but then you also notice the young children, in torn and dirty clothes, searching through the garbage by the side of the road – looking for treasure, or maybe just for a meal. Street children are a new phenomenon in Iraq, a country where, before the war, childhood obesity used to be the biggest problem pediatricians complained about.
Walking the streets of Baghdad you notice the architecture – the boarded-up and shuttered buildings, the crumbling sidewalks, and other evidences of 11 years of economic ruin. But you also notice the new, box-like structures being built, with huge archways, intricate brickwork, and jutting columns, balconies, and facades. There’s a striking mix of old and new, of socialist sensibility and Babylonian splendor – Frank Lloyd Wright meets Lawrence of Arabia. These buildings are beautiful, and you have to wonder how many of them will be standing in six months if the U.S. does decide to massively bomb this country.
People here don’t seem too worried about the U.S. expanding the “war” to Iraq. Everyone agrees that after Afghanistan, America will bomb here next, but – as one man put it to me – the Iraqi people are “used to the voice of American bombs.” Iraqis are celebrating Ramadan, and going about their lives as usual. They say that the future is out of their hands, so why bother worrying about it? They point out that the U.S. has bombed Iraq repeatedly for 11 years – almost every day in the North and South – and that they’re still here.
I don’t know. This time seems different – much more serious, much more frightening.
On Sadoun Street, in one of Iraq’s main shopping districts, Mr. Moyab has a supermarket brimming with Western goods – but priced far out of reach for most Iraqis. He insists that things haven’t changed for people here, “There’s not more money – only Baghdad, only Sadoun, only Karrada, only here. We must finish this blockade.”
At the Inaa art gallery, proprietor Ala told me that, “people are people in everyplace in the world. We are people who love peace, and we don’t want war.” He wanted me to ask the American people “why they are bombing Iraq and everywhere in the world everyday and we don’t know why? There is nothing between the Iraqi people and the American people – only politics.”
But the politics has consequences. One out every four Iraqi children is severely malnourished, and thousands die from malnutrition and disease every month. Though the UN food ration has steadily improved over the last five years, it still contains no fresh fruits or vegetables, and no animal protein – a fact that Dr. Mahmoud Mehi, the director of al-Mansour Pediatric Hospital in Baghdad complains bitterly about, “In this hospital – and this is a teaching hospital, in the capitol – we have a child die every day and sometimes two. Imagine what it is outside of the capitol, in the rural areas.”
Off the record, UN officials explain that a handout will never substitute for a normal economy, and that the food ration represents not only the primary source of food for most Iraqis, but their primary source of income as well. As a result, many people sell parts of the ration to raise cash. The UN also complains about the terrible number of “holds” placed on contracts by the U.S. At this moment, there are over $4 billion in contracts on hold at the UN Sanctions Committee, representing 25% of all the supplies shipped to Iraq over the last 5 years of the program. Even though Iraq has sold almost $50 billion dollars worth of oil since the Oil-for-Food program first began in December 1996, they’ve only received a little over $16 billion in supplies. This works out to an average of $140 per person per year, which – despite its oil wealth – puts Iraq among the poorest nations in the world.
As the United States moves toward a massive, military intervention in Iraq, we would do well to look at the devastation that’s already been wrought here, and listen to people like Dr. Mehi who asks Americans to, “use wisdom, and think in a better way for other countries.”
Back on Sadoun Street, Mr. Najeb runs a new photography studio. Colorful pictures of modest adults and smiling children line the walls of the entrance. The studio itself is freshly painted with starscapes and tropical motifs. Najeb has worked as a freelance photographer for many years, but only recently was able to afford his own shop. As such he represents the first, stumbling attempts to return Iraq to something approaching a normal economy. After welcoming me and offering tea, Najeb wanted to tell me that the Iraqi people understand the difference between the American government and the American people. He said to tell Americans that, “we’re all human beings – we’re all the same.” Expressing concern over the increasing likelihood of war, Najeb related an Iraqi saying that, “The people in the top of the mountain look to the people in the valley, and they look small. But the people in the valley look to the people in the mountain as well, and they look very small to them too.”
Indeed. At this critical moment in history, Americans would do well to heed the example of forgiveness being offered by these people of the valley and ask ourselves: how small do we really feel?
Ramzi Kysia is a Muslim-American peace activist, and serves on the board of directors for the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. He is currently in Iraq as part of a Voices in the Wilderness peace delegation trying to stop the war.