Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Inside an Iraqi hospital after the 2003 invasion
Gazman with baby using industrial oxygen

Behind The Lines

Life inside Iraq following the invasion

More bombs have been dropped on Iraq since the Gulf War than during it. And still the US and UK government say the next stop in the so called ''war on terrorism'' is to increase military assaults on the gulf state. Jo Wilding broke the sanction ban and travelled to Iraq to witness a devastated nation still painted as a ''threat to world peace''.

November 2001

It seems a little ironic that the number of people killed in the World Trade Towers should be almost as many as the number of children under five who die every month in Iraq as a result of the sanctions.

I went to Iraq in August 2001 to break the sanctions, make a short film and learn more about the situation. Much has been said about the erosion of the UN sanctions against Iraq. It is clear that worldwide support for the policy has been dwindling in the face of UN figures revealing one and a half million people have died as a result of the blockade, 41% of them children under five. 33 countries attended a trade fair in Iraq last year. Alongside this is the rising value of goods 'on hold': contracts blocked by the Sanctions Committee for having potential dual civilian and military use. According to the May 2001 report of the UN Secretary General to the Security Council, holds reached $3.7 billion, an increase of more than half a billion dollars in just two months. So were things actually improving for ordinary Iraqi people?

On arrival in Baghdad the impression is of a relatively prosperous city. Statues and monuments like the Ali Baba fountain evoke the country's rich history amongst elaborate blue mosaic tiled mosques. The shops are filled with goods of all sorts. Lush green date palms laden with ripening fruit flank the river Tigris in spite of the unbelievable heat: at sixty degrees celsius it feels like the fluid in your eyeballs is boiling.

But the streets are lined with closed down airline booking offices and travel agencies, their doorsteps inhabited by shoeshine boys and children hawking sweets or biscuits from cardboard trays. Hazim, a computer shop owner, said that, before the sanctions, children never worked on the streets. The few shoeshines that existed were unemployed adult men. School was free and compulsory and, although there were poor people, there was a comprehensive welfare state.


We got to know two fourteen year old shoeshine boys, Ahmed and Saif, who inhabited the wall outside our hotel. It was alien to me to pay foreign children to clean my shoes but people in Iraq don't like to accept charity. The boys come from Saddam City, the poorest area of Baghdad, and it is no exaggeration to say that what they earned cleaning our shoes could mean the difference between life and death for members of their family if one of the children became sick. Both are plainly malnourished, desperately thin, Ahmed suffering from stunted growth and Saif from facial melanomas for which his family cannot pay for treatment.

When we went to catch the bus back to Jordan, Ahmed accompanied us to the bus station. The jumbled Arabic - English - mime communication was by then well developed and we joked that we were going to kidnap him and take him to England with us. "Yay," he cheered. "Go to school."

The combined deprivation wrought on children by malnutrition and the lack of educational materials is creating a mental stunting whose effects will be felt for generations. The UN Secretary General reported in March 2001 that 90 per cent of primary and 75 per cent of secondary schools are unsafe, not to mention lacking in classroom furniture, pencils, books and even basic sanitation. Once they were well equipped with computers and modern facilities. We met Gazwan, a medical engineer who told us that even those who go to school are often unable to concentrate for hunger. Before the sanctions, education was free up to university level and the government paid for many students to study for higher degrees abroad.

This is reflected in the Friday book market, where people sell their entire book collections to raise money for essentials: engineering and medical textbooks, the Abba songbook, great works of English literature, books of art, architecture, history, fiction, politics and an array of interests in languages from Polish to Swahili. By contrast the Ministry of Education is now unable to import pencils for schoolkids to learn to write with, blocked by the Sanctions Committee lest the items should be peeled of their wood and used to form the core of a nuclear reactor.


"One day," Gazwan said, "your children will have to explain all this to ours." The hospitals were full of children suffering the effects of the complete destruction of the economy and the civilian infrastructure. The hospitals are not the whole story and neither are the children, but paediatric hospitals show the situation at its most desperate and I think it is here that it is hardest to argue that the Iraqi people are our enemy, that sanctions can ever be justified or that the Oil For Food programme can legitimately be described as 'humanitarian'.

We cuddled a mother as her eleven year old son slipped into a coma which the doctor told us he wouldn't recover from. He had leukaemia and there weren't enough platelet bags to treat him. The doctor showed us damaged transfusion bags which were supplied through the Oil For Food deal. The programme has created a system so cumbersome that quality control has gone out of the window and suppliers are able to offload their substandard goods to Iraq (UN Secretary General's Report, May 2001).

The programme's co-ordinator, Tun Myat, reports that the distribution system is "second to none" (UNOHCI, October 2000) and UN observers who we met on an informal basis told us they're able to track everything entering the country under Oil for Food, so they know that "99.9 per cent of it is going to the people who need it." But, as the Security Council's own expert panel concluded in 1999, no improvements in the distribution system could enable the programme to meet the basic needs of the people. There are still an estimated 5000 sanctions-related deaths a month in children under five.

Since the Gulf War, there has been an enormous rise in cancer incidence, mainly leukaemias, but Gazwan, the medical engineer, told us that bladder cancer has been diagnosed in patients as young as fifteen - unheard of before the war. There was a 70 per cent cure rate for leukaemia before 1990. Now it is zero in the absence of facilities and sterile environments for bone marrow transplants and with the poor nutritional and immunological state of the population.

While many drugs can be imported, technical equipment is still a major problem. Cables are embargoed so power from generators cannot be supplied to all parts of hospitals during power cuts. The intensive care unit of Al Mansoor paediatric hospital contained just two life support machines, donated by a British charity and both occupied by desperately ill children. What happens when there are more than two children needing the units? "We make hard choices," said the doctor.


Alia stands out in my memory, a girl of seventeen whose leukaemia had gone into remission. She went home, but suffered an early relapse and was back in hospital. She wanted to finish school and go to teaching college and was crying with the frustration.

Besides preventing treatment, sanctions actively create illness. The power plants were bombed in 1991 and cannot be repaired under the sanctions. Even those households whose air conditioning is not broken face periods of up to twenty hours without it in some parts of the country. The children sweat profusely and many suffer respiratory problems as a result, ending up in the overcrowded hospitals where infection spreads.

The water purification and sewage plants were also bombed and are operating well below need. Hazim, the shopkeeper, told us about when the sewage backed up and flooded streets and cellars, creating ponds of toxic waste. The water pipes are damaged and cannot be repaired. They run alongside damaged sewage pipes and, when the power cuts out, water flows back along the pipes, becoming contaminated with sewage and reaching families unsafe to drink. A team of WHO doctors described Baghdad as sitting "on a lake of pus".

The doctor in Mosul Paediatric told us that gastroenteritis is now the biggest killer of children in Iraq, a country whose main childhood health problem pre-sanctions was childhood obesity. The children are treated, time and again, but with each attack their immune systems get weaker. Many simply stop coming back because there is no more money for transport or medicine.

In the mental hospital outside Baghdad the chief resident told us there has been a huge rise in mental illness since the sanctions began, mainly post traumatic stress, schizophrenia, manic depressiveness, depression, chronic anxiety and other neurotic diseases. There are 1200 patients altogether; we met three hundred women crowded into a courtyard surrounded by rooms. Many of them came to us, smiling, held my hands, kissed my cheeks and talked softly to me in Arabic which I couldn't understand. I wondered what they must have gone through to have brought them here.

After each of the paediatric hospitals, after the internal refugee camp, after visiting the civilian air-raid shelter which the US bombed in 1991, I felt so weighed down I couldn't imagine that I'd ever smile again, but it was easy for me - I was going home. For them this was home. It was their children, their families, their homes. It was not easy to make sense of everything that we saw in Iraq, partly because of the fear and secrecy: we were told when we arrived that the walls had ears and that we should be careful what we said even in our hotel rooms because we could cause a lot of trouble for people we'd met.

Life is utterly precarious for Iraqi people. There are no safety cushions or fallbacks. We met a woman called Muna who ran a money exchange shop. She explained that before the sanctions an Iraqi Dinar was worth ?2; now it is worth about a fiftieth of a penny, at 3650 Dinar to the pound. If people had savings in the bank they are now worthless, ?5000 having fallen to roughly the equivalent of 50 pence since 1990.


Within this climate there is massive unemployment, no social security other than the monthly food ration, no insurance and no purchasing power in many Iraqi families. The food ration is given free to all Iraqis but for many it is their main or only income and they talked about selling part of the ration to buy essential medicines, clothing, shoes or transport.

With the complete destruction of the civilian infrastructure many jobs have simply ceased to exist: administrative jobs within the civil service, public service jobs such as teaching and nursing or the operation of sewage, water and power plants, jobs in the nationally owned oil industry, as well as retail, leisure and service jobs are either gone or desperately low paid. Hazim told us that people keep their shops open because they have to do something. He rarely sells a computer because people can't afford them. He explained that business is further hindered by the failure of telecommunications. If it's possible to get a line at all, it will often be crossed or cut off. Both he and Muna said that they often make a loss rather than a profit.

Livelihoods are so easily lost. We spent August 6th holding a fast and vigil outside the UN HQ in Baghdad to mark the eleventh anniversary of the imposition of sanctions. Between us and the UN building was a busy road. When we drove into Iraq, the desert highway into Baghdad was littered with torn tyres, and in the six hours we spent outside the UN we saw three cars completely wrecked in accidents caused by bald tyres blowing out on the hot tarmac. New tyres, if available, are beyond the means of ordinary people. Two of the cars were taxis and their drivers' entire livelihoods.

It was clear, however, that some people are better off. Doctors in the north told us that their salaries have risen from about 5000 Dinar a month in 2000 to around 30,000 (?10). While the increase is significant, it must be set against prices: a packet of Aspirin, for example, costs D6100 (?2), a pair of shoes or a child's schoolbag D4-5000 in the market, where goods are cheapest, and an air conditioning unit - not a luxury in sixty degree heat - around D700,000.

The increase is attributable to sanction-breaking border trade. While the official sales of oil through the UN allow Iraq only to issue credit notes in exchange for goods, the illegal trade enables them to pay public sector workers and to repair water plants, improving output and purity. The improvements are mainly visible in the north, where border controls are looser - a situation the UK and US planned to terminate with the proposed 'smart sanctions', which its proponents admitted was in fact a tightening of sanctions, albeit with a humanitarian veneer.

We were unable to visit Kurdistan but reports show that there - where 10 per cent of income is in currency, rather than goods, and where a much greater amount of illicit cross border trade is possible - child mortality is beginning to fall, despite continuing malnutrition.

It seems clear evidence that the only way to address the humanitarian disaster being imposed on Iraq is to drop sanctions and allow the civilian infrastructure to be rebuilt. UNICEF and UNOCHI (UN Office of the Co-ordinator of the Iraq Programme) workers we spoke with held the same belief and referred to reports by Scott Ritter, the former head of UNSCOM, asserting that even in 1997 Iraq no longer possessed nuclear, ballistic, chemical or biological weapons on any meaningful scale.

Yet the bombings continue: there was a bombing in Mosul, in the north, the day before we arrived, a raid in Basra, in the south, while we were in the north and another in Mosul on the day we left Baghdad for Jordan. We heard air raid sirens in Mosul. No-one around us seemed to hear them. "So what?" people said. "They bomb all the time."


We met a man in the southern marshlands whose thirteen year old son Omran was killed by a US bomb in May 2000 while he was herding goats in a field at the beginning of his school holidays. In a mudbrick courtyard, the white haired Abu-Omran leant on a stick and said, "We are ready to fight the American soldiers." But the American soldiers are not there. They drop their bombs from high above and retreat, waging war on innocent civilians from a safe distance.

Western leaders talk about cowardly attacks on innocent people in America; the same leaders - or their predecessors - bombed a civilian air raid shelter on the outskirts of Baghdad on Valentines day 1991, killing 408 women, children and elderly people. The first missile ripped a hole through the roof, taking out the electricity supply so the electronically operated doors could not be opened and bursting the boiler pipes so the lower level flooded. The second was a thermobaric weapon, a fireball which sucks out all the oxygen, dropped through the hole made by the first. The intense heat melted bodies together, swelled the steel doors so they couldn't be opened manually and boiled the water in the lower level, along with the people trapped in there. There's still a four foot high scum of flayed skin stuck to the walls.

I have been asked why the US and UK continue to bomb; it's not a question I'm able to answer. Why does anyone bomb a boy herding goats in a field, surrounded by mudbrick houses in the marshlands (Washington Post, May 2000)? There were 144 civilian deaths and 446 injuries from bombing in 1999 according to a supressed report by former UN co-ordinator Hans von Sponeck to the Security Council. The US has long been threatening to increase military action, a prospect which no-one in Iraq doubted, even before September 11, and the subsequent couching of America's pre-existing military aims in the language of anti-terrorism.

There can be little question that sanctions are strengthening the one man in whose name the other 22 million Iraqi people have been demonised. People told us that they have become completely dependent on the government for food and medicines and so desperately poor that their only focus is survival. Yet we were made incredibly welcome. At times I found myself saying, "I can't believe you're being so nice to us when our government is killing your children." Without fail the reply was, "We know that people are not the same as governments." If only my 'civilised' government did.

After 30 years as a United Nation's official, Assistant Secretary General of the UN Denis Haliday, resigned over the issue of western sanctions on Iraq saying they are causing massive suffering of innocent people. Read his interview with SQUALL in Sanctioning Iraq

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