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'We are in the process of destroying an entire nation'

Felicity Arbuthnot reports from Iraq on what it really means to 'degrade' a country

'We cry, because when there is a bombing, my father goes outside the house to guard it', said Noor, aged 10, at St Raphael School in Baghdad, built by the British in 1921. 'Our house moved and lots of dust fell on it', said Zara, 11. 'We are afraid because we have heard that the dust causes disease.' Even the youngest in Iraq are aware of the epidemic of cancers and birth defects since the Gulf War of 1991. Experts have linked this to the US forces' use of depleted uranium shells, which left a residue of radioactive dust throughout Iraq.

Leaving the school, I turned to express thanks for the tiny glasses of sweet Arabic tea. The lady who brought it was standing, tears streaming down her face. 'I am so tired, so tired', she sobbed. Dark circles under her eyes indicated not only weariness, but malnutrition. Nearby was an English teacher. 'My son is a doctor in Washington. Why are they doing this to us?'

In 17 visits to Iraq since the Gulf War, I have seen the nation plunge from the impossible to the apocalyptic, as a result of the economic embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council. Until the sanctions began in 1990, Iraq was an oil-rich industrialising country, quite capable of buying enough food for its people. In September 1998 Denis Halliday, former under-secretary general of the UN, said: 'We are in the process of destroying an entire nation. It is as simple and terrifying as that.' Halliday resigned as humanitarian coordinator in Iraq in disgust at the effects of the embargo.

Iraq has a population of 20 million, one third of which is under 15 years of age. Some of the items vetoed by the embargo, imposed on 6 August 1990 (Hiroshima Day), include 'medical gauze' (bandages), parts for water systems and purification, syringes, ping pong balls, children's toys, pencils, bicycles, deodorant, sanitary towels, lipstick, computers, mobile phones and fly spray. Iraq is one of the hottest countries in the world.

At Dar Al Dawla (House of Dawla), one of Iraq's many orphanages, the number of children has doubled in recent weeks, according to the director, psychologist Nidhal Majeed. 'Economic and social collapse, and stress, has led to an increase in divorce, separation and abandonment', she commented.

'The embargo is very democratic; it leaves nobody untouched', they say wryly in Iraq. The orphanage reflected this: children were Kurdish, Muslim, Christian, Sunni, Shi'a. Rusul, aged 15, was unable to smile. Her face, neck and body were terribly burned and she bore appalling scars. 'She is from Kut [on the Basra Road, south of Baghdad]', said Mrs Majeed. 'In the Gulf War, her house was bombed, the entire area burned, her brother, father and mother died, she was pulled out. Her two brothers are in the boys' orphanage.' Rusul turned from the camera, hands covering her face, only beautiful eyes showing. Perhaps she could be taken abroad for skin grafting, perhaps a fund could be set up? 'There is no unaffected skin to graft.'

Normality is further degraded by the lack of electricity. Iraq's national grid, teetering on collapse since its near decimation in 1991, finally succumbed after the latest US-British bombings began in December 1998. The lack of electricity heralds another disaster - a burns epidemic. For most, with inflation at stratospheric levels, candles or lamps exceed a monthly salary, so families improvise with home-made substitutes - a wick in a bottle of kerosene is popular. Exploding or knocked- over bottles have predictable results, and the 'democratic embargo' leaves few unscathed.

Mohammed Amin Ezzet is conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, and a gentle man to whom his family and his music are all. On winning a pan-Arab music award, he returned home to compose in his study while his wife, Jenan, prepared the next day's rice. The electricity was off and she placed it on the gas heater to cook slowly overnight. Her nightdress touched the flame. Mohammed, hearing her screams, ran and threw himself over her. Jenan was so burned that, in hospital, only her mother was allowed to see her - and prayed for her death. She died the next day. Mohammed's arms, chest and hands are damaged beyond repair - there is no treatment for burns and there is scant plastic surgery in embargoed Iraq. He is still too ill to be told of his wife's death.

Even Iraq's limited agriculture has failed. The great Tigris river, dammed by Turkey from the north for a hydroelectric project, is reduced to an astonishing, comparative trickle. 'Farmers planted seeds three times this year', commented Michel Nahal, who heads the Middle East Council of Churches. 'Each time, the birds have taken them.' The hottest year in decades has combined with lack of irrigation to cause famine.

As the blood-orange sun rose on the morning of my departure, the hamam birds swirled past my tenth-floor room, their plaintive cry filling the early light. On the 1200-kilometre journey to Amman, tracks of melted tarmac showed where an oil tanker had exploded. The tankers that plough back and forth to Jordan, delivering the cheapest energy on Earth (the little oil the UN allows Iraq to sell), are mobile bombs, spare parts vetoed for nine years. Drivers are the hidden casualties, the unsung heroes of the embargo. Hours later black, acrid smoke filled the horizon. The driver had died alone, vaporised instantly. All my driver and I could do was to say a prayer to our separate but one God, as we drove helplessly by.

Twenty hours after leaving Baghdad, the lights of Amman on the horizon, three tankers abreast drove into sight. We swerved off the road, car teetering over a 600-foot drop. Stomach and heartbeat restored, I pondered that shroud cloth and coffins have been vetoed by the UN Sanctions Committee. Had death claimed us on the other side of the border, even dignity in dying would have been denied us, Christian and Muslim alike. I pondered why so many take risks in repeatedly travelling to Iraq. Suddenly I knew: it is because only the hamam birds are free from this unique embargo.

Felicity Arbuthnot was recently nominated for the EC Lorenzo Natalie Award for Human Rights Journalism. Her book Iraqi Voices will be published later this year


  • 1993 Infant and child mortality in Iraq had increased threefold since 1990 (UNICEF).
  • 1994 The World Food Programme (WFP) stated that 'all pre-famine indicators' were in place and that a large proportion of the population had a 'lower calorific intake than Mali'.
  • 1995 The WFP warned that 'time is running out for the children of Iraq'.
  • 1996 UNICEF estimated that one third of children now suffered from stunted growth and/or impaired intelligence as a result of malnutrition.
  • 1999 A UNICEF report claims that Iraq now has the highest infant mortality rate on Earth. Figures from the Ministry of Health in Baghdad, and agreed by UNICEF Baghdad, show almost 1.25 million child deaths related to the embargo between August 1990 and August 1997.

Reproduced from LM issue 121, June 1999

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