The Home of the Magi: A Christmas Journey to Iraq

- G. Simon Harak, S. J. Fairfield University Fairfield, CT

APRIL 1998

I recently returned from an 11-day Christmas journey to Iraq - the traditional home of the Christmas Magi. I traveled with five members of a group called "Voices in the Wilderness," a Chicago-based campaign to end the seven years of sanctions on the Iraqi people. We brought medicines to children in the hospital on Christmas eve. We also observed the effects of seven years of sanctions on Iraq and her people.

And I am struck by how many dimensions the struggle of the pro-life movement parallel our struggle against the sanctions. To begin with, both abortion and the sanctions are legal - and constantly supported by the popular media. And both bring death in staggering numbers.

Whenever I talk about abortion to my classes, there are two things that seem to jar them into attention. The first thing that compels the moral attention of the previously indifferent is, of course, photos and representations. I must admit I am sparing with these, preferring to show the miracle of healthy life and development in the womb, and leaving its destruction mostly to the imagination. The second is the sheer number of abortions. Usually abortion is presented to us as "an individual decision." Extreme individual cases are discussed. The effect on most people is that the abortion issue centers around a trying to prevent a handful of people from having abortions. The reality of course is quite different. We're talking about far more than a million abortions a year. With such mind-numbing numbers, we have to speak not only of the risk to individual souls, but the corrosion of the character of an entire nation. The Catholic Bishops have referred to this national character deformation as a "culture of death."

This "culture of death," with its many clever strategies and deceptions, is also alive and operative in the regime of "sanctions" we keep on the Iraqi people. First, look at the name - "sanctions." Something like "pro-choice," concealing a crucially important reality. We hear "sanctions" and old-time Catholics may even thing of something holy, like "Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus." But the reality is something quite unholy. Under the sanctions, Iraq is forbidden to sell any of its oil, though previously well over 90% of its income came from the sale of oil. Furthermore, all its foreign accounts are "frozen." No Iraqi (including the President) can withdraw funds from any foreign bank. Food and medicine may be available, but there is no money to buy them.

So the sanctions are a near-total blockade of Iraq, and international law defines blockade as an act of war. We have kept those sanctions on for over seven years now. Seven years of war against the Iraq people. But it is a silent war, like the silent holocaust of abortion.

And what has been the effect of this silent (and silenced) seven year war? A 1995 UN-sponsored report stated that the sanctions were directly responsible for the deaths of over one million Iraqis, nearly 600,000 of them children under the age of five. And that was over two years ago. No official studies have been done since them, but a UNICEF report a few months ago, stated that some 7,000 children under the age of five had died as a result of the sanctions in a single month.

I had heard these figures before; I have been struggling against the sanctions for many years now. But when I went to Iraq, I saw for myself the reality of these mind-numbing numbers. For ten days, our "Voices in the Wilderness" group traveled unrestricted, making unannounced visits to hospitals in Baghdad and central and southern Iraq. We saw so many parents weeping over their children. They were dying from treatable forms of illness, but there are no medicines. Families have sold their possessions, even their homes for "black market" medicines - many of which, of course, are expired or impotent. We spoke with many highly trained physicians who could not heal their patients for lack of medicine and equipment. Incubators lie useless for lack of parts, operating rooms are closed for lack of anesthesia. Doctors are forced to decide who gets medicine from inadequate supplies. They report that the numbers of birth defects and "spontaneous" abortions have risen enormously. [I put the word "spontaneous" in quotes because the doctors there did not understand that we Americans could consider "chosen" abortions.]

There are other silent killers. Iraq used to import about 70 - 75% of its food. During the Gulf War, the US bombed and destroyed 80% of the farms, and 90% of the fisheries in Iraq. Then with the sanctions, Iraq could not afford to import food. It was hard to say that the result of that strategy and the subsequent sanctions was not foreseen - even planned. Malnutrition was unknown in Iraq before the sanctions. The head of UNICEF Food and Nutrition told us that now, 25% of Iraqi children are at risk of dying from chronic malnutrition. One million children. Starvation looms over much of Iraq. The "food basket" which each and every Iraqi receives monthly from the Government can only cover about 12 or 13 days of meager nutrition. Combine that with the lack of medicine and the enforced pollution, and you have what one UN doctor called a "multiple emergency situation." Other UN agencies and relief organizations report that food, sanitation and health conditions continue to deteriorate throughout the country.

The government (in the US, the sanctions are administered by the Treasury Department) states that food and medicine are not interdicted by the sanctions. And, de jure, that is true. Of course, with no money . . . Suppose you want to bring medicines in. The Treasury Department says that you have to get a permit. But then you can not get a permit unless you are a recognized, established group. So you have to get a recognized, established group to apply for you. How about Church World Services? OK, CWS did apply. But then the application was under review for three years. The same thing happened when International Relief Association (a Muslim group) applied. [And that was only to grant what they call "Phase I." Phase II would mean that they could accept contributions for Iraq from others outside their group.]

In those three years Iraqis were dying at the rate of approximately 300-400 a day, mostly children, old folks, diabetics, asthmatics - all those for whom medicine is so important.

And make no mistake. It is common to charge the Iraqi government with hoarding and diverting medicine and food. (Shouldn't the pro-life movement be at least somewhat familiar with the strategy of false charges by now?) Our group checked with the head of every hospital we met. We checked with every pharmacist. We checked with religious leaders, with Catholic and Orthodox Bishops. We checked with the International Red Crescent. We checked with human rights and relief organizations, and with UN agencies whose specific charge it is to monitor food and medicine distribution. The head of the UN World Food Program, Holdbrook Arthur, summed up what they all said: The distribution of food and medicine by the Iraqi government is the best they had ever seen anywhere in the world. So what food and medicine there is, is getting to the people. The problem is, the sanctions are cleverly arranged not to let enough in.

Now Resolution 986 allows Iraq to sell about $2 billion of oil every six months to buy "food and medicine. But that is also part of the killing deception. Of that money about $1.2 billion goes to war reparations, and to funding UN activities in Iraq. With the rest of the money, Iraq has to try to make contracts with different countries for food, medicines, spare parts for its bombed out sewage treatment plants, etc. But those contracts have to be "reviewed" by Committee 661 - a group of 15 countries, each of which has to accept the contract and each of which has the power of veto over any contract. Recently, for example, the US exercised sole veto of a contract to bring in 100 ambulances for the 24 million people of Iraq, saying it was "too many." Even more recently the US exercised sole veto over an Iraqi contract with Tunisia for powdered milk for infants, saying that it "could have laboratory use." The result, predictably, was that the already inadequate 12-13 day supply of baby formula had to be further cut by 33%. And oh yes, if the contract is not fulfilled and delivered in the six months, the Iraqis don't get the supplies, even if they have already paid for it, and have to re-apply in the next 6-month "phase."

Finally we should mention something about the "purpose" of the sanctions: to make sure that Iraq has no "weapons of mass destruction." But that argument is a little like the "threat to the life of the mother" argument. Our group spoke for nearly an hour with Yaakov Ylitalo, deputy director of the UN Special Commission [UNSCOM], the group that is responsible for weapons inspections. He said that UNSCOM and the International Atomic Energy Commission [IAEA] are satisfied that there are no nuclear weapons of any kind in Iraq. Ylitalo acknowledged that "every country" has "some kind of biological or chemical weapons." (the US itself has some 30,000 tons of it.) But that UNSCOM knew what Iraq had by way of such weapons, that they had found and destroyed 817 Scud missiles and suspected there were two more somewhere. I said, incredulously, "So . . . for the sake of two suspected missiles . . . ? "Well, also," he quickly added, "there's a `warhead gap.'" One of our group asked, "How much of a gap?" "Well," he said, "not kilograms." So yes, sometimes, rarely, there are every year pregnancies that threaten the life of the mother. But does this justify over one million abortions? And yes, there may be, somewhere, some pounds of biological or chemical weaponry in Iraq. Maybe. But does this justify the continuation of a blockade that is taking the lives of now well over one million of our brothers and sisters?

Incidentally, we asked Ylitalo about the "palaces." "Oh," he replied cheerfully, "We know there's nothing in the palaces." "So why . . . ?" I began, and he responded, "It's the principle of the thing." I began to get angry, "But can't you see that for the sake of your `principle,' four to five hundred people will die today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow?" "Well," he responded, "I just follow orders." As a professor, I would have to work this out carefully, but I do see some prima facie similarity in Ylitalo's argument on the "principle" of "access" and the "principle" of "choice" in the abortion argument. Both are good principles, but they must be closely evaluated when they are used to justify so much death.

I made it a point to visit the Catholic Bishops in my journey to Iraq. They sent me back with the following petition: We appeal to all Catholics and to all Christians in America and the world. The sanctions are killing our people, our children, the ones Christ has given us to protect. They are killing our beloved Muslim brothers and sisters. They strike at our poor and our sick most of all. In the name of God's people we ask you: tell your government to end the sanctions against the Iraqi people. End the seven years of war against Iraq.

The petition was dated on this past Christmas day, and has been signed by the Bishops of all four Catholic communities in Iraq: Chaldean, Latin, Armenian, Syriac. The Orthodox bishops have begun a similar petition.

I hope that what have written will move the readers of Defend Life to some kind of action. Most of you are familiar with the dynamics of political action, I know. Some even with civil disobedience. [Our actions were also illegal: up to 12 years in prison and one million dollars in fines.] You could contribute to "Voices in the Wilderness" or call them [address below] to invite speaker from your area to speak to your group. You could write to President Clinton, or to Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN. You could write to your bishops, and tell them that you want them to support their brother bishops in Iraq in calling for an end to the sanctions. Tell them you want them to support Bishop Thomas Gumbleton's attempt to have the sanctions declared immoral by the US Bishops. Tell them that surely we would have no problem with military sanctions: punish the companies and countries that sell weapons to Iraq, or to anyone else. But that these economic sanctions are not that. They are, in the most recent words of John Paul II, "pitiless." They are a direct attack, an insidious, silent war on the Iraqi people, most especially the weakest, the children. Seven years of war, over a million dead. As another practice of the "culture of death," the sanctions must be clearly condemned.

Voices in the Wilderness, 1460 West Carmen Avenue, Chicago, IL 60640. Kathy Kelly. 773-784-8065.

Blessings and Peace with Justice Simon, in the Company of Jesus

G. Simon Harak, S. J.

Jesuit Residence 86 Barlow Road

Fairfield University Fairfield CT 06430-5195

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Fax: 203-255-5947