The Iraqis who paid Albright’s blood price
It was May 12 1996 when I got the call. Kathy Kelly, a peace activist who constantly risked the wrath of the US government for her compassion, was phoning from Chicago, stunned.
Washington’s UN ambassador Madeleine Albright had just appeared on Sixty Minutes, Kelly told me.
Presenter Lesley Stahl had confronted her guest on the US-driven embargo on Iraq.
“We have heard that a half million children have died,” said Stahl. “I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”
And Albright had replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”
I remember a feeling of disbelief. Somehow even the meticulous Kelly must have got it wrong. Could she could fax me a transcript, I asked. She had one within the hour.
Reading it, the images of the children whom I had watched helplessly, their lives ebbing away for want of embargoed medicines and treatments or vital surgery, flooded my mind.
Now I knew that they were a “price” that was “worth it.” And with it came the realisation that total evil really exists.
Iraq imported 70 per cent of virtually everything. Then, on August 6 1990 – Hiroshima Day – rational life ended with the implementation of the embargo.
From schoolbooks to children’s toys, lipstick to sanitary items, washing up liquid to shampoo, normality died. And the health sector, once the finest in the Middle East and free to all, was uniquely devastated. After the 1991 bombing it was in ruins. Literally.
The viciousness with which the UN sanctions committee acted made a mockery of the fine-sounding words of its Charter and the convention on the rights of the child.
From incubators to paediatric syringes, cancer medications and dialysis machines, from painkillers to scalpels, antibiotics and asthma inhalers, all were vetoed.
Six months before Albright’s pronouncement Sara Zaidi and Mary Smith Fawzi of the Centre for Economic and Social Rights and the Harvard School of Public Health wrote to the Lancet pointing out that by August 1991, just one year into the embargo, “baseline mortality for the under five population rose from 43.2 to 128.5 per 1,000, reflecting a threefold increase in child mortality.”
In a further survey in 1995 under the auspices of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation they found that the under-fives mortality rate had increased fivefold.
Stunting and wasting had become commonplace in a country where food had once been cheap and plentiful.
I first went to Iraq less than a year after the 1991 bombing. Within a couple of hours I had witnessed the reality behind the statistics.
In what had been a flagship teaching hospital prior to the bombing I watched a young nurse trying frantically to clear the throat of a perfect newborn boy, his young parents standing with faces frozen in terror.
A doctor friend from Scotland was with me. She looked round and said: “In a situation like this, in nearly any hospital, you know where the vital items will be. There is nothing here.”
We watched helplessly as the baby turned white, grey then near-blue. He lost his fledgling fight for life as the sun streamed through broken, bomb-damaged windows. The baby had died for little more than a basic, plastic suction device worth a few pennies.
By 1993, mothers too malnourished to breast feed and unable to afford milk powder were feeding their babies on sugared water or sugared black tea. Their children became bloated, chronically malnourished and died. Doctors created a new diagnosis. They called them the sugar babies.
Also among those children who were “worth” the “price” were two sufferers of acute myeloid leukaemia. They were bleeding internally, covered in bruises from their leaking capillaries and in intractable pain. But there was no pain relief. The younger one, aged three, was lying rigid, his eyes full of unshed tears. He had taught himself not to cry, because it wracked his agonised little body further. I turned away, unable to take a picture or notes, just wanting to comfort him. But to touch would have brought further agony.
Near the door, I bent to stroke the head of the older child who was just five. He responded as children everywhere to affection and squeezed my hand tightly. I wrote at the time: “I walked from the ward, leant against the wall, and knew that it was actually possible to died of shame.”
Albright would no doubt have been pleased at the progress of her project in Basra.
On one visit to the paediatric and maternity hospital, dear friend Dr Jenan Hussein came running out to hug me. Then came a moment’s silence.
“Felicity, you know those children you wrote about in June? I am sorry – they have all died.”
She was talking about the 17 babies I had seen five months earlier in the premature baby unit without even oxygen, which had been vetoed.
Further down the corridor had been another newborn. He was in an incubator wrapped in blankets because the incubator did not work, its replacements vetoed. He was premature, yellow with jaundice and needed a transfusion. I thought I had the same blood type and offered mine if they checked to be sure, since wrong blood is as lethal as no blood. There were no facilities to check. Vetoed.
My own premature son had been saved by a transfusion. I looked into the eyes of the boy’s mother and resonated with her agony. We, the doctors, the baby, were all as helpless as each other.
That was the visit when I nearly lost the plot. I walked into one ward and a group of distraught women, aunts and grandmothers, were standing by the cot of another perfect newborn who had just died. The mother had rushed from the unit beside herself in grief. I asked if I could hold the tiny still-warm being. “Of course.” I put him over my shoulder, stroked his head and back, certain I could bring him back to life. He was warm, fluid, total. How long I stroked his small form, willing him back, I do not know. Finally, defeated, I laid him down, wrapped him and we wept together.
As child cancers soared, cancer treatments were vetoed. The upward spiral in cases has been linked to the weapons used by the West, especially depleted uranium.
The UK Atomic Energy Authority, in a “self-initiated” report, estimated that if 50 tonnes of the residual dust remained after the 1991 hostilities there would be half a million excess cancer deaths by 2000. Highest estimates put the amount of radioactive dust left at nearer 700 tonnes.
The 2003 blitzkrieg is thought to have deposited as much as 2,000-3,000 tonnes more of DU into the Iraqi soil.
Experts warned that the children who physically survived Albright’s price worth paying would be possibly the most traumatised young population on earth. With the austerity and ongoing illegal bombing by the US and Britain they had no way to recover from their experiences.
I have written much of child poet Jassim who, hearing I was a writer, glowed with delight. He took a notebook from beneath his pillow in the cancer ward he was lying in. Could he read me his poem? Of course.
“The name is love
The class is mindless
The school is suffering
The government is sadness
The city is sighing
The street is misery
The home number is one thousand sighs.”
Jassim, I said, finally finding my voice. If you can write this at 13, think what you will do at 20. I asked if I could use his poem and credit him. He was thrilled. But he never saw it in print, in many places and languages. He died before an aid agency could deliver the medication he needed, circumventing the embargo.
Just before the invasion, I asked the father of another terminally ill child, 10-year-old Mohammed, what he would like to ask of George W Bush and Tony Blair.
He replied: “Please ask them, do they want all our children as child sacrifices?”
Iraq’s “liberation” has resulted in an estimated five million orphans, one million widows, and nearly five million displaced, internally and externally. It has destroyed the country’s infrastructure and social fabric, and created medical tragedies which makes the embargo years seem mild by comparison.
The embargo and the invasion between them left an estimated three million dead from 1990-2011, the unborn, newborn and under-fives still paying the highest price. A “price worth it.”
Happy anniversary, Madam Albright.