“President Sukarno of Indonesia once said, ‘We silence the enemies of freedom.'” Ghazwan Al-Mukhti slumps back in his chair, silently gauging the effect of that absurdly ironic statement on his listeners.
And Ghazwan is an Iraqi who lives his ironies: a denouncer of Saddam regime inequities who continues to live in Iraq; a man who worked hard to provide for his family and his retirement, only to have his assets frozen in foreign banks as a result of U.N. Resolution 687; a heart attack-age guy who’s trying to quit smoking, but liberally helps himself to my cigarettes all thru 2 separate conversations; a well spoken professional who peppers his gravel-voiced diatribes with pungent American profanities.
He’s been asked to join the Voices in the Wilderness Writers Project, a unique attempt to give Iraqis an Internet forum. VitW is the Chicago-based group that has been working since ’96 to end the economic sanctions against Iraq. I give him a call, and he agrees to meet me in the dining room of the Al-Fanar Hotel, Voices’ headquarters in Baghdad.
Ghazwan studied geophysics at Cal Berkley, and graduated with an engineering degree from Marquette in ’67. For most of his career, he sold medical supplies to hospitals. He says he has too scientific a mind to be a writer, yet he has written dozens of articles over the years, critical not only of the U.N. sanctions against his country, but also the current regime in Baghdad.
“I never wrote until I had to vent my frustration over Iraq being singled out for punishment,” he says.
Iraq, once boasted the highest standard of medical care in the Middle East outside of Israel. He bemoans the 12-year information gap that the sanctions created when they cut Iraq off from world developments in the medical field. Compounding the problem, thousands of health care professionals have been lost to death or emigration. Altogether, 2 million people have left Iraq since the sanctions were imposed.
“Are they political refugees? Are they economic refugees? If they leave Iraq, they must claim political asylum because no country will recognize economic refugees. And these are highly qualified people we’re talking about, scientists, professors. My own brother-in-law is in a camp in Sweden.
“The U.S. accepted refugees from the north (Kurdish Iraq) in ’92. They took anyone, doctors, peasants. They (the U.S.) said that Mr. Sadddam was threatening the Kurds. Then the Kurdish leaders Barzani and Talibani invite Mr. Saddam to mediate some problems between them. They ask him to do this!” This request made the American position look ridiculous. The U.S. retaliated for this affront to their credibility by bombing Baghdad itself that January. The prestigious Al Rasheed Hotel took a hit, injuring many foreign guests and killing 2 employees.
We discuss Halabja, the Kurdish town where Saddam supposedly “gassed his own people”. It is a card that the Bush administration plays often because it plays well with the American press and public. In fact, the gassing of the town occurred during a battle between Iraqis and Iranians at the end of their 8-year war. A U.S. Military College report at the time found that most of the Kurds there had died of cyanide, a gas used exclusively by the Iranian army. A Roger Trilling article in New York City’s Village Voice, 5/1/02, confirmed this.
“Why was the (true) Halabja story buried? Why, when Al Gore speaks against war with Iraq, does CNN cut his speech in half? He leans forward in his chair again..”Who gave the order to cut Gore?”..and let’s the question dangle. “When Jimmy Carter comes out against the war, it’s buried. In the U.S., who do you point at? Here, when we want to point the finger at our censor, we point at the Ministry of Information.”
(I stop the interview, concerned about printing what he’s saying. He assures me that he’s been criticizing his government for years. “If they wanted to shoot me, they would have done it by now.”)
“In 1988, your Congress passed a resolution calling for (limited) sanctions against Iraq (oil imports, weaponry) because of Halabja. President Reagan vetoed it.” That House resolution was virtually copied in 1990 to become U.N. Resolution 687 (the sanctions measure that has been in place ever since).
Yet despite the bitter fruit of those sanctions, 500,000 Iraqi children dead of malnutrition and treatable diseases since 1991, Americans seem blithely unaware of it all.
“The average American, when it comes to international politics, is illiterate. The smallest school child anywhere knows more about the world than an American. Illiteracy and democracy-that’s a contradiction.”
Taking up the oxymoron of America “imposing democracy” on other nations: “I have a headache (‘headache’ is his metaphor for the Saddam regime). I don’t complain to you about it. But you say you want to fix my headache. You will cut off my head to fix my headache!”
On the Bush administration’s current favorite to replace Saddam: “Impose an Al-Chalabi dynasty? A crook and embezzler who had to run out of the country in the trunk of a car?
“That’s our middle class now, criminals. The sanctions squeezed out the middle class, and crooks and embezzlers took their place.” His wife’s career is an object illustration in what happened-she was a gynecologist who in 1979 was being paid $300 a month by the government. In 1991 her salary shrank to $60. In 2000 she retired because she was only getting $15 a month.
Ghazwan sold and serviced medical equipment from ’74 to ’90, the year of the Gulf War. He had done very well for himself up to that point, but “I gave myself an early retirement,” meaning that suddenly he could find no work. “I’m a double victim of sanctions. I put my money in foreign banks, and then the sanctions froze the Iraqi assets. Now I have to borrow money to live.” He squints and smiles. “I fight the sanctions now so my kids don’t have to leave me some day, just when I’m too fucking old to do anything anymore!
“I think Mr. Saddam is laughing now. He’s laughing because the Americans are proving him right with their double standards. Mr. Rumsfeld was in Baghdad to re-establish relations with Iraq in ’85. He was fully aware of the Amnesty International report on this (the Saddam) regime. But today suddenly he says that he can’t deal with this regime?
“Between 1948 and 1998, there are 50 U.N. resolutions Israel has not abided by. This double standard of the Americans (ignoring the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians while demanding Iraqi compliance with tough U.N. resolutions) is making the U.N. irrelevant.”
Dennis Halliday, former U.N. Director of Iraqi Relief Programs, has said much the same thing. Blaming U.S. coercion and deal making in the Security Council, Halliday says frankly, “The U.N. is dying.” And he labels the sanctions “a genocide”.
The U.S., in its dependence on military solutions to solve its problems, is sowing the seeds of further violence against Americans. “And it’s not only the poor and disenfranchised who will be responsible” for acts such as the recent attacks on Americans in Kuwait and Jordan. America foreign policy is radicalizing what Ghazwan calls the “Pepsi Generation”, the young and affluent Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Egyptians.
He tells the story of the Baghdad professional man who came home on 9/11/01, stupefied by what had happened in New York and Washington. There, clustered around the TV were his son and a bunch of his friends-celebrating. What unnerved the man was not only that they should welcome such a tragedy, but that these kids, up to then, had never before evinced any interest in political matters.
When the brother of the man who perpetrated the Kuwait attacks was questioned, he said that his brother had seen something about the Palestinians on TV, and had acted out of a sense of helplessness and rage. No matter how corrupt their governments are, “average Arabs are in solidarity with their fellow Arabs. An Egyptian feels the same voicelessness as a Palestinian.”
We discuss the depleted uranium (DU) problem in Iraq. During the Gulf War, the U.S. and Britain fired 300 tons of DU shells and bullets, exposing Iraqis and American servicemen alike to its radiological and chemical toxicity. 110,000 Gulf War veterans have applied for disability benefits; the military refuses to recognize most of these claims, which include cancers, genetic mutations among their children, immune disorders, and memory loss. Meanwhile, cancer in parts of southern Iraq has risen by 1800%.
“Suppose a cruise missile hits a building, a hospital. Reconstruction of the building spreads the radioactive dust all over. The isotope-it’s like you’ve inhaled a nuclear generator, and now it’s trapped in you. Oxidation takes place, and the rainwater washes DU oxide into the soil, the plants. Animals eat the plants.”
On what he would do if America invades Iraq: “I can’t leave here, I’m too old. I built things, I worked on public projects here. I’m a part of this country. Last night my wife wakes up in the middle of the night, she can’t sleep. She says, ‘Ghazwan, what will we do, where will we go?” I told her, ‘we’ll stay in our house and wait for the bombs. What else can we do?’ I ask you, is that any way to live?”
He’s successfully ducked a writing assignment by instead giving me a full-length interview. I congratulate him on the ruse, and that’s his cue. “Now I must go. We are ruled by women. If I don’t go now, I won’t be allowed to go out tomorrow night.”
By the time the interview ends, various Voices members who’ve stopped into the dining room for a quick meal sit clustered around us. And as he strides out of the room, someone mutters admiringly, “What an old lion.” Afterwards, Farah Mokhtareizedeh remembers that the first time she met him he’d said, “Voices in the Wilderness? Are you sure you don’t mean ‘Voices Lost in the Wilderness of America?'”