Earlier this week, I received a joyful phone call from Baghdad. Members of a family I’ve known since 1996 announced that one of their younger daughters was engaged. Broken Arabic and broken English crossed the lines: “We love you! We miss you!” My colleague here in Amman, who also knows this family well, shook her head smiling when I gave her the happy news. “What an amazing family,” she said. “Imagine all that they’ve survived.” A few hours later, the family sent us a text message: “now bombs destroy all the glasses in our home–no one hurt.”
No one was home when the explosion shattered every window and damaged ceilings and walls. This was exceptionally fortunate given that they are a family of nine living in a very small dwelling. The family has moved into an even smaller home where one daughter lives with her husband and newborn baby. It happens that their aunt and her three children are also with them. The aunt had traveled from Amman to secure needed documents in Baghdad. Seventeen people are crowded into an apartment the size of a small one car garage.
This family suddenly joined the ranks of over a million people in Iraq who are homeless, displaced. I watched television coverage of the gruesome carnage at the intersection of the street where they had lived. The blood-spattered streets, charred vehicles, and desperate bereavement are part of everyday footage filmed in cities throughout the region, whether in Iraq, Lebanon, the West Bank, or Israel. The humanitarian crisis that mounts as a consequence of the catastrophic explosions and attacks is more difficult to portray.
“We need everything,” said the visiting aunt when I asked what they needed. A displaced family needs food, water, clothing, blankets, fuel and housing.
Every family in Baghdad struggles with fuel and energy crises. In Baghdad, there is one hour of electricity every 12 hours. Only the more well-to-do families can afford a generator for back-up electricity. The price of fuel for transportation has risen so high that any travel has become extremely expensive. Families with no income in a society that has 50% -75% unemployment find themselves scrounging for basic necessities and not at all prepared to offer hospitality to newly displaced families.
Families that receive the dreaded knock on the door giving them 24 hours notice, – leave or you will be killed–often travel to other regions of Iraq where they no longer have access to the rations distributed in their former neighborhoods. Many families are hungry and cold. Disease sets in and they have no access to health care. Children aren’t easily accepted in overcrowded schools when families move into a new area. Sewage and sanitation systems are stressed by unexpected rises in neighborhood populations. A family might be welcomed by relatives who couldn’t bear to turn them away, but how are the host families and communities to manage continued hospitality with very little international relief or support available?
Consider, for instance, that over a third (38%) of Iraq’s people depend on the ration system for the meager allotments of lentils, rice, flour, salt and tea. If a family is displaced by an attack on their home, distance or personal safety often prohibits returning to their former home to pick up these supplies. Too often the agent who delivers the supplies can’t even approach the warehouse to collect them, because it is located in a “hot” area now controlled by a sect or militia to which he does not belong and which may kill him. In those cases, whole neighborhoods, already struggling and suffering, must go without a month’s supply of food.
There should be massive convoys traveling into Iraq on a regular basis to meet the rising humanitarian needs. There should be, but there aren’t. Families that can manage to reach the Jordanian or Syrian borders flee with the hope of being allowed to cross into the two countries that have allowed Iraqis to enter. But now, Jordan’s official policy is that they’ll only allow Iraqis with permanent residence in Jordan to enter, and the Syrians are also clamping down.
We who are vastly more comfortable and secure stand by, seemingly mesmerized by the awful consequences of a “war of choice” begun by the United States. We must liberate ourselves from the absurd presumption that the U.S. military has the power or the right to impose solutions in parts of the world where they are not welcome. We should insist that decision makers in the U.S. come to grips with the consequences of the past four years of military invasion and occupation and demand that U.S. wealth be directed toward humanitarian concerns, unhinged from U.S. military control. We should welcome and support diplomatic means to resolve crises.
Now another engagement looms. The Bush administration may try to wed U.S. people to yet another war, this time against Iran. If so, that would be joyful news for the controlling interests of large corporations that benefit from U.S. warfare and U.S. dominance over oil resources in this part of the world. We who claim the right to free speech, far beyond the imprisoning borders of Iraq, should join our strengths and wills to visit every congressional and senate office over the coming weeks, exercising nonviolent civil disobedience to cut funding for the wasteful, cruel, illegal and immoral U.S. addiction to war. (See www.vcnv.org to learn more about joining such a campaign.)