In Baghdad with Voices in the Wilderness:
Meeting Iraqi Victims—and Trying to Prevent More Victims
As it happened, on separate Veterans for Peace Iraq Water Project delegations in the spring and fall of 2000, Alan and I had both briefly met the girl, Israa Abul Amir, when we visited her village of Abu Floos outside the Iraqi port city of Basra. Abu Floos is the site of one of the water treatment plants Veterans for Peace has since repaired.
On Thursday, December 19, I joined Alan and his`wife D'Ann Johnson and three Canadian women from Vancouver to fly on Iraqi Airways through the southern no-fly-zone to Basra. (Challenging the no-fly-zone was a satisfying thing to do, and a subject for another article.) As soon as we landed, with our government host and our driver, we headed for the Abu Al Kassib valley outside of Basra, where Abu Floos, a small and isolated village of about 500 households, is located. It took a lot of asking to find the village, but once we got there, showing Israa's picture to boys at the school got us an immediate escort to her house.
Abu Floos residents used to work in the nearby fertilizer factory, but sanctions have closed it down, and the village is very poor. We tiptoed through trash and over sewage-filled ditches to Israa's house.
Alan had brought several still cameras and a video camera, as well as microphones, tripods, flash attachments—a volume of equipment which caused nervousness among airport security personnel, and quite a bit of work for Alan, as he was required to remove all the batteries before we flew.
Alan wanted to videotape Israa explaining what had happened to her and what her life has been like as a result, but she was shy and couldn't really do that. Nonetheless, between her and her family, the story became clear, and hearbreaking.
On January 25, 1999, US or British planes hit Abu Floos in a no-fly-zones bombing, killing 7 and injuring 14. Israa, nine years old at the time, was walking home from school and was hit. She lost her right arm above the elbow, and received a chest wound and shrapnel in her head, which remains there.
Israa was right-handed, so having lost her right arm makes writing difficult. Her mother Akaliily said she had been a clever student, but she has now lost interest in school, because other students, and even her brother Athir, tease her. The teachers, no doubt overwhelmed with large classes, few supplies, and low salaries, cannot offer her any special assistance. In a small village in traditional southern Iraq, girls have little choice but to anticipate marriage, but with her wounds Israa is unlikely to attract a potential husband.
The circulation of Israa's story and photo on the No More Victims website will probably elicit many offers of help. Of course, the first focus would be a prosthetic arm. Abu Floos would certainly not have the facilities to supply and maintain the hi-tech prosthetic device required for an above-the-elbow amputation; nor, perhaps, could all of Iraq under the sanctions. It will be a very delicate matter for Alan and the website designer to juggle helping one beautiful and sympathy-generating girl while remaining sensitive to her culture.
If US Immigration can be gotten around, the easiest thing would be to bring her to the US for treatment, but removing her from her culture permanently would not be right, and Immigration is not likely to allow her whole family to travel with her. It will be a touchy thing to resolve.
Another Piece of the Story
The Jumhuriya neighborhood was attacked about 45 minutes before Abu Floos in the same bombing raid. Umm Haider found her sons, 6-year-old Haider and 4-year-old Moustapha, in pools of blood covered with rubble after her neighborhood was hit. Haider was dead, but Moustapha was alive, and she ran with him to the hospital. He was hit in the head, legs, back, and hand. He lost two fingers and part of his liver, and still has shrapnel lodged near his spine. A group is trying to get him into the US for needed surgery, but so far it has not succeeded.
These two injured children are the faces of the suffering of the Iraqi people. We also saw chronic respiratory and heart patients with incomplete monitoring machines and defective oxygen cylinders. We saw leukemia patients with only palliative medicines to relieve their pain, but no chemo cocktails to cure them. We saw and heard the desperate sorrow of a mother whose child died of leukemia in the next room as we were visiting the hospital.
We also witnessed the tiredness and frustration when the dull sounds of more no-fly-zones bombs dropping outside the city resonated while we were in the hospital. The thumps were not near enough to get the Basra air-raid sirens going or really frighten the people we were with, but later, at Umm Haider's house, she said, "Our hearts pump because we have tasted the bombs."
Things Are Getting Better in Iraq
I attribute the improvements to economic relations opening up with much of the rest of the world. This process was beginning when I visited in 2000, when planes from five or six nations defied the US and Britain to bring in business delegations. The so-called Smart Sanctions have not been in place long enough, nor are they enough of a change to the sanctions program, to receive much credit for the increased economic activity in Iraq.
And idiotic sanctions restrictions continue. An article in the English-language Iraq Daily newspaper on December 14 noted that 25 spinning or weaving machines for the Iraq wool industry had been denied by US and British delegates to the UN 661 Sanctions Committee.
During a recent candlelight vigil at the Al Taji electric power plant to point out that it would be a war crime to bomb that civilian infrastructure, Peace Team members saw two huge brand-new $6 million British generators sitting idle. The generators were allowed in under the sanctions, but neither computer software with operating instructions, nor expert advisers to teach power plant operators with a 12-year deficit of knowledge, were allowed. These idle generators can be pointed to by anti-Iraq propagandists as supposed evidence that sanctions allow needed items but Iraqi leaders prefer to let the people go without.
Seeing the moderate improvements in economic activity makes it all the more painful to know that another all-out attack is pending. Just when Iraq is finally able to pull itself up a bit, Bush wants to knock it down again. The tension and worry are not immediately evident, as people scurry about their daily lives, but just scratch the surface and fear and bewilderment show up.
The larger hope for the No More Victims website, beyond maybe getting some help for Israa, is that it will help US citizens say exactly that—NO MORE VICTIMS. It is just one piece of the outpouring of resistance to Bush's plans.
Baltimore's Citizens for Peace were, I think, going to use the image of Israa, as well as other children of Basra and the area, to urge people to see the faces of those who will suffer and die if Bush has his way. Basra is a port city, like Baltimore. It is full of human beings who hope and dream and want to live, like Baltimore.
Another war would not make the US any safer or more secure—exactly the opposite. I hope the stories of regular Iraqis reported by those of us who can be here with the Iraq Peace Team will inspire more to speak out opposing war.
Ellen Barfield and her husband, Larry Egbert, M.D., are residents of the Hampden community. They were awarded the 2001 Wilton Peace Prize, a national annual award conferred by the Unitarian Universalist Association to individuals and groups in recognition of their contributions to peace and human progress.
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This story was published on January 8, 2003.