Shortly before sunrise this morning, a small band
of us gathered at a busy Chicago intersection and unfurled vinyl banners bearing
enlarged pictures of Iraqi children. One banner called for an end to U.S. warfare
in Iraq. On my banner was Johan, smiling wanly, a 14-year-old child who weighed
75 pounds shortly before she died of cancer in the oncology ward of a Baghdad
hospital on Sept. 21, 2003. As our banners flapped in the wind, I tried to compose
a letter in my head to her teenage brother, Laith, who recently wrote to tell
me how much he misses her.
Had Johan lived in a country that wasn't reeling from 13 years of economic
sanctions, she might have survived childhood leukemia. She is one of hundreds
of thousands of children who died while economic sanctions and war shattered
Iraq's healthcare delivery system.
Writing my mental letter, I thought of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's words
of comfort to bereaved parents of four little girls who were murdered when the
Birmingham Baptist church was bombed on Sept. 18, 1963. A former member of the
Ku Klux Klan was convicted of the crime. Addie, Carol, Cynthia, and Carole had
been praying inside the church.
"These children – unoffending, innocent, and beautiful – were the victims
of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,"
Dr. King said. But he offered comfort. "In a real sense," he continued,
"they have something to say to each of us in their death ... they did not
die in vain. ... Indeed, this tragic event may cause the white South to come
to terms with its conscience."
This morning, columnists in major U.S. papers will continue alerting U.S. people
to possible wrongs, even crimes, committed by UN officials in the course of
the "oil-for-food" program that coordinated and monitored sales of
Iraqi oil while economic sanctions ravaged the country. These economic sanctions
constituted the most comprehensive state of siege ever imposed in modern history.
It's not likely that Saddam Hussein ever missed a meal, but children, hundreds
of thousands of children, suffered gruesomely. Their suffering and death can
be likened to child sacrifice, certainly the most egregious instance of child
abuse in modern times. They had committed no crime, yet they were brutally –
and lethally – punished for the government of the country into which they were
haplessly born. You aren't likely to find this story in the current exposés
of UN wrongdoing.
In fact, many UN officials tried valiantly to put an end to the economic sanctions.
Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday resigned their posts and crisscrossed the
globe educating people about the effects of the economic sanctions that Halliday
termed "genocidal." UNICEF Executive Director Carole Bellamy held
a 1999 press conference to announce the release of a "Situation Analysis
of Women and Children in Iraq," which carefully explained that the economic
sanctions contributed to the "excess deaths" of over 500,000 Iraqi
children under age five. Not one U.S. television network aired coverage of the
press conference. Only two of 50 leading U.S. papers reported the actual shocking
number of one half million "excess deaths" of children. The Wall
Street Journal asserted that it was all Saddam's fault. The New York
Times echoed this in an 800-word story quoting Jamie Rubin of the State
Department questioning the study's methodology.
The sanctions punished children while Saddam's regime profited through smuggling:
Many Westerners who traveled to Iraq tried to communicate this to people in
their home locales. The smuggling and the rake-offs were no secret, especially
in the final years of the sanctions when there were many reports of lucrative
kickbacks and inflated prices. Many witnessed the sanctions actually strengthening
Hussein's control, as the regime became the only source of food and stability
for an increasingly desperate and disempowered population.
The children were punished. When the pictures of those little ones, writhing
in pain, wrinkled with wasting, desperate and bewildered, held by equally despairing
and tortured parents – when those pictures were held up, sometimes as we fasted,
sometimes while we were being led off in plastic handcuffs, sometimes at press
conferences in front of the UN in Baghdad, sometimes in the middle of Basra
cesspools and cemeteries – when those pictures were held up, many people looked
the other way.
When I try to understand why columnists in faraway places wouldn't take on
the story of these worthy victims, I try to remember that there are many worthy
victims and one person can't undertake care and concern for every devastating,
brutal injustice. Pick your battles. But I can't for the life of me understand
how a steady stream of columns have appeared on op-ed pages, in the NYT
and other papers, alerting us to possible crimes committed by UN officials in
the course of the "oil-for-food" program while there has been no mention
of the crime of child sacrifice in Iraq.
The concern generating reams of verbiage at this point is that UN officials
may have looked the other way as Saddam Hussein and a number of collaborators
pocketed rake-offs in underhanded dealings using profits from Iraqi oil sales.
I'm not equipped to comment on those charges. But is there no columnist who
will remind us that 500,000 children under age five died as the U.S. used the
UN to wage economic warfare against children?
Let's consider the UN workers who stood a chance of getting food and medicine
into Iraq – were they to look Iraqi families straight in the eyes and say, "Sorry,
we'll have to prevent these contracts from going through because you, in your
pitiful weakness, can't prevent the dictator that rules you from getting rake-offs
on the deal. We can't compromise our principles..."
They looked the other way. I looked the other way myself. We in our delegations
looked the other way even as we knew that normally we'd be hopping mad and demonstrating
in front of any government bastion that inflicted so much fear on its people
... but that would have been the wrap-up for our entry into neighborhoods, families,
hospitals, schools ... it was a tradeoff.
King said, "And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled
here that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must
not become bitter. ... Somehow, we must believe that the most misguided among
them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality."
But this said, what words of comfort can I offer to Johan's brother Laith? I
can tell him where we stood this morning, and whose picture I held. People looked.