Rod Driver

From the Providence Journal, March 6, 2001

Meeting the Iraqis we torture

ROD DRIVER Second of two parts

Several times in recent years, Westerly has experienced polluted water. Residents were under orders to boil water as recently as December. Pawtucket and other communities have experienced similar crises, especially in the summer.

But imagine that a foreign power had bombed our sewage-treatment and water-purification plants, and then prevented us from buying the repair parts to restore the facilities or the chlorine to operate them properly. That¡¯s what Iraq and its 22 million people face.

A major sewage-treatment plant in Baghdad is operating far below capacity because needed parts to repair or maintain pumps are delayed or denied by the U.N. Sanctions Committee. (Translation: the United States uses its veto power to block delivery of the needed parts.) So some of the untreated sewage goes directly into the Tigris River. Downstream, water is pumped back out of the river into a "water-purification" plant. The bomb damage at this plant has mostly been repaired, but chlorine is denied, delayed or restricted by the Sanctions Committee.

U.S. and other foreign visitors in Iraq drink only bottled water and avoid raw vegetables and salads, even at the deluxe Al Rashid hotel in Baghdad. A 1 1/2-liter bottle of mineral water costs 30 cents to $1. For a typical Iraqi that is out of the question. Even a physician or an engineer gets only $3 or $4 per month. So tens of thousands of Iraqi infants and children are suffering or dying from dysentery, chronic diarrhea and the resulting malnutrition, or from other water-borne diseases.

In the controversy over sanctions, supporters and opponents tend to agree on two things: (1) Innocent people, especially children, are paying a terrible price, while (2) Saddam Hussein and his cronies are scarcely inconvenienced. In fact, the greater the hardships imposed on Iraqis from outside, the more Saddam looks like a hero to them.

Some of us wanted to go to Basra in southern Iraq to deliver medical supplies to a hospital there. This meant flying through one of Washington¡¯s "no-fly zones." (The "no-fly zones" are creations of the United States and Britain. They are not approved by the United Nations.) We reasoned that American forces would not shoot down another large airliner full of civilians as they did on July 3, 1988. In that incident the Vincennes downed an Iranian passenger plane, killing the 290 people on board. That tragedy occurred when we were backing Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran.

The physician who greeted us at the maternity and pediatrics hospital in Basra gets only one type of antibiotic and not much of that. If six patients need antibiotics, he must choose two who will get it; and they get it for only two days. A girl with a respiratory ailment was receiving industrial oxygen for lack of medically-pure oxygen. And, worse than that, the hospital lacked the appropriate fittings, controls and gauges for administering oxygen. So they had rigged up ordinary plastic tubing held together with tape for insertion into the patient¡¯s nasal passages. Then they had to estimate how much they were giving her.

The hospital suffers power failures two or three times per week. By the time back-up generators are started it may be too late for some patients. (Just one power outage in Rhode Island a couple of years ago cost the life of a hospital patient on life support.) Under the term "infrastructure," U.S. and British bombers and missiles have deliberately targeted power plants as well as water-treatment plants.

A tiny boy named Hassan in the hospital in Basra is about the age of my youngest grandson, Austin. Austin is an energetic three-year-old, confident he can do anything. He loves cars and planes and construction. His construction project might include pounding nails in a board or attempting to rearrange the gravel in his grandparents¡¯ driveway. Austin has been a frequent visitor to the emergency room: When his hammer missed the nail and smashed his finger, when his parents first discovered that he was dangerously allergic to peanuts, when help was needed to remove the head of a deer tick from his arm. But within hours of visiting a hospital, Austin is running around as though nothing had happened.

By contrast three-year-old Hassan lay helplessly in his hospital bed. His severely-malnourished body weighed 15 pounds, less than half of Austin¡¯s weight. Hassan¡¯s diarrhea and vomiting made food almost useless. Since the veins in his arms and legs were no-longer useable, an intravenous line protruded from his forehead for administering medicine. The boy¡¯s mother stays in the hospital day and night trying to comfort her son and keep the flies off him. The tiny boy, apparently on the brink of death, tried not to cry as his mother kissed him and offered him a drink.*

In a bed nearby, eight-year-old Ahmed was about the age of another of my grandsons. Jason enjoys soccer, computer games and sleepovers with his buddies. Ahmed is blind and suffers from a brain tumor and lymphoma. His family is from an area in southern Iraq heavily contaminated by radioactive dust from the explosion of depleted-uranium weapons used by U.S. forces in the 1991 war. Cancers and grotesque birth defects, virtually unknown before the war, have become epidemic in this area.

Ahmed was singing bravely while both his mother and father stayed at his bedside. Ahmed¡¯s cancer has reached the point where food is repugnant to him. Chemotherapy for cancer patients should be administered directly to large blood vessels using so-called "central lines." But the hospital cannot get "central lines." So Ahmed¡¯s treatments were being administered through smaller surface vessels. This had become such a painful process that Ahmed started crying when he thought someone was coming to give another dose. Ahmed¡¯s father gently wiped the tears from his son¡¯s eyes.

When Ahmed got out of bed, another problem was evident. His belly was the size of a large beach ball due to "ascites" ¨C retention of fluids because of liver damage. A few years ago, I watched my brother suffer similar agonizing symptoms in the final weeks of his battle with liver cancer. (My brother was 58, not eight.) Ahmed¡¯s childhood has been taken, and soon the rest of his life will be too.

U.N. humanitarian representatives whom we met in Baghdad have appealed repeatedly to the Sanctions Committee, especially the U.S. representative, asking that humanitarian supplies be released. And since 1998 several high U.N. officials in Iraq have resigned their posts in dismay at what sanctions are doing to the Iraqis and their society.

A spokesperson for the U.N.Office of the Iraq Program at the U.N. tells me that a few months ago the Sanctions Committee agreed to allow antibiotics, central lines and blood bags to be approved "fast track" for Iraq, and that chlorine is "slowly being released." However, valves and gauges for administering oxygen and the parts needed to restore the water-treatment facilities are still "on hold."

We are told that Saddam Hussein might be developing weapons of mass destruction and he must be overthrown. We somehow rationalize that the embargo which has killed more than a million innocent Iraqis is not a weapon of mass destruction. And we have forgotten that it was the United States that provided Saddam Hussein with weapons, including chemical and biological, in the 1980s. We have also forgotten that in 1991, at our urging, Iraqis did try to overthrow Saddam. But, when it appeared that the rebellion might succeed, the United States suddenly came to his rescue, sabotaging the rebellion, because we weren¡¯t sure his successor would be compliant with America.

I have to believe that the American people wouldn¡¯t tolerate the embargo for another week if they could see what it is doing to innocent human beings, especially children who weren¡¯t even born at the time of the Gulf War.

Rod Driver, a retired mathematics professor at the University of Rhode Island, is a former state representative and congressional candidate.

*When I submitted this column I was unaware that three-year-old Hassan had died in January, seven days after we saw him.