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Interview re visit to Iraq
17 May 2002
Geoff R. : Before I introduce my guest, I just want to give you a little basic history, because I think sometimes we forget these matters. So I'm quoting here, selectively admittedly, the Statesman's Yearbook. Iraq, formerly Messopotamia, was part of the Ottoman empire from 1534 until captured by the British in 1916. In 1932 Britain's mandate expired and Iraq became an independent country. In 1958, it became a republic, in 1979 Saddam Hussein, then Vice President, became President in a peaceful transfer of power.
In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. A UN-arranged cease-fire took place in 1988. On the second of August, 1990, Iraqi forces invaded, and rapidly overran Kuwait. The UN Security Council voted to impose total economic sasnctions on Iraq until it withdrew from Kuwait. In 1991, the UN Security Council Resolution permitted Iraq to sell oil to pay for food and medical supplies and start a reparations fund. It says sanctions have undoubtedly harmed Iraq, but Saddam Hussein remains strong, while the population at large suffers increasing deprivations.
Joining me now in the studio is Tony Maturin. He's a Quaker, he's an activist, and he's just been to Iraq. He went to Iraq on behalf of the Council for International Development, he joined a fact- finding mission there. Now let's let him tell the story. Good morning Tony, welcome.
So, how were you chosen, and why you?
Maturin: A long story. Partly because I tried to get out of it, I tried to get government interested. I'd heard of this delegation going from Central Europe, mainly from Belgium, a hundred and twenty people, European MPs, Dutch MPs, Belgian MPs, doctors, people from Medicines for the Third World, people like that, and journalists and film crews, and I thought, well, it would be a chance for someone from say, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to go and have a decent look round. But they said, no, they didn't want to do that, there's no money or something.
And Quakers had been involved in fund-raising for sending medical supplies to Iraq through a little organisation called Bridge to Baghdad based in Rome. And being involved in that, I heard of the Council for International Development's travel fund, and I'd been talking via e-mail to the organisers in Brussels, and after a while I found they'd put my name on the end of the list and said we expect you! And someone else picked this up here and someone else said we think you should go, and we got the travel fund. Because Quakers had been fund-raising, we had decided we didn't want to travel, the money was much better spent on medical supplies, so we put travel out of our minds and then this travel fund came up, so we said, there's not Quaker money going into this, we'll go.
Geoff R. : So, here you are, never having been there before, arriving in Baghdad with a hundred and twenty others.
Geoff R. : What's it like?
Maturin.: With a hundred and twenty others, or Baghdad?
Geoff R. : In Iraq, what's it like? ( there was a good deal of chuckling in this exchange.)
Maturin: We went in through Syria, and the first impression you get of course is of deserts. And they're wonderful. Lovely colours, lovely soft colours and soft light and no horizon, and misty and not very hot at all. Then gradually you come to little bus stops and you meet a lot of friendly people. It's obviously a very third world country. A lot of reconstruction going on. A lot of dirt, a lot of rubble. But very good roadways, the roading has been repaired a lot. And you saw, on parallel roads, oil tankers going backwards to Syria. We knew about that. And then you come to irrigated land, a bit of water makes a vast difference there.
Geoff R. : Is it fertile with water?
Maturin: Yes it is, yes. They grow barley, because barley stands the salination apparently better than other grains. They grow a bit of rice, and they grow quite a bit of alfalfa for stock feed. And dates of course.
Geoff R. : Did you see much stock?
Maturin: Very little. Well, no, you're travelling through the middle of the desert and here's a little mob of sheep with a shepherd sitting down somewhere about a hundred yards away, and a donkey standing beside him and perhaps a couple of sheep sort of nuzzling him. And a couple of miles further on there's another little mob, thirty or forty sheep, perhaps a hundred sheep.
Geoff R. : So it was hard to work out from what you saw what the organisation of their farming is?
Maturin: From that yes. I never worked it out. I never worked out their method of agriculture either. But it was obviously based on irrigation, and probably flood irrigation at that.
Geoff R. : Were you stopping on the way, or did you drive more or less straight into Baghdad?
Maturin: More or less straight away. We had a couple of comfort stops.
Geoff R. : Baghdad then. The city, it was bombed, it was attacked, there were cruise missiles flying in and out, did you see that sort of sign of damage there?
Maturin: Very little. I sent you an account of those attacks, the Coalition attacks, didn't I. They were terrible. They went on for about five weeks or something, I don't know how many thousand tons of bombs, and they literally destroyed all of the civilian infrastructure of the whole of Iraq, not just Baghdad.
Up till 1985, I was talking with the UNICEF man, and he said there was a really heavy investment in the social structure of the country. And so they had potable water for, say, ninety percent of the people, electricity the same, sewerage the same, free education right through tertiary, with degrees that were accepted overseas. A really good, well-organised up to date society, and the hospitals I'm sure were as good as some of ours. And all of that was just bombed to pieces.
The electricity supply was cut off nation wide within very few days, and that brought almost everything to a halt. The pumping stations were likewise destroyed, water and sewage pumping. The whole place was just a shambles. The US boasted about having bombed them back fifty years or more.
Geoff R. : That was then -
Maturin: That was then, but the sanctions are on top of that -
Geoff R. : But now? What's it like now? Do they have those things?
Maturin: Yes, they rebuilt a lot of it. They still have power cuts - a lot of people only have power for say, two hours in the morning and two hours at night. And that includes hospitals. And it includes pumping stations, and includes everything a society relies on. And in the south of course it's horrendous because it gets very very hot in the summer time. And the disease there from contaminated water is just going up and up and up.
Geoff R. : Well yes, you mentioned they had potable water, they no longer do, or do they in the cities?
Maturin: It sort of works from the centre out. In Baghdad - I wouldn't drink the water - but I got cholera, probably through being careless. But I was trying not to be careless. And through the rest of the country there's not always potable water, and in the south, round Basra in particular, which bore the brunt of those attacks, they say the water tends to be forty percent sewage. Because of the power cuts which allow the water pumping stations to stop work so the pressure in the pipes drops and the sewage system is just old and obsolete and pumping stations there don't work either so they can't keep it moving and so it gets sucked into the water.
Geoff R. : Horrible.
Maturin: I know, it's horrible yes. I know, in eighty five for example, there were no cases of cholera, and I think last year over two thousand.
Geoff R. : You came home with cholera? What's it like? What does it do to you? I mean it's one of those words - people think cholera!
Maturin: Yes I know! When I got the first signs of it, just diarrhoea, I treated it as you would here. Stop eating and you drink boiled water for a couple of days. And so I stopped eating, and didn't eat for about ten days actually, or not very much. Consequently you just get weak and more and more stressed. But there's so much going on that you can't stop!
Geoff R. : When you're on a trip like this you've just got to keep going. Yes, I know what you mean. Back home you got proper treaMaturinent?
Maturin: Yes, well, no treament required actually, it works its way out.
Geoff R. : Well I think we needn't go into that! Now tell me if you would what you saw of the people in Baghdad. You talked about friendly people. You were able to talk with anyone you wanted to?
Maturin: Almost, but not quite. Because we were there not at the invitation of the Iraqi government exactly, but the Iraq Belgian Friendship society, which of course is funded by the government. And what happens is - the Society organised an itinerary for us, so we went with a guide from them, which obviously had something to do with representing the government, and interpreters, who didn't necessarily have anything to do with representing the government, and they were very very good. And it was very easy to duck out of the programme and go to see the people you wanted to.
But first of all, I have images in my mind of the Saddam Children's Hospital for example. Went in there, and there were sixty people remember and it was very intrusive and very embarrassing to be in a situation like that. It was absolutely horrible, and you go in there, and the first ward you go into, it's - dingy - I mean it's no worse than just dingy. But there are a line of beds and on each bed there's a woman in the black Chador with a child, and only one of them asked me for money, most didn't. And you sort of point at your camera and ask if you can take a photograph and you do and you get the name of the child and the outlook from the nearest doctor. And you see some pretty terrible things. Because mostly they're under ten, round about five perhaps, and they're all malnourished and they suffer from low birth weight. Low birth weight is one of the big problems for a start, because sixty or seventy percent of the mothers are anaemic.
Geoff R. : In the hospitals are the medicines getting through the sanctions
Maturin: No they're not - well, some are, but there are always shortages. I went up to the second floor of that hospital. There's no lift, the lifts don't work there, it's a bloody wreck, it's terrible, and I was in a room with some incubators, and all of a sudden the passage outside rang with a woman's screams and this young woman was being escorted to a ward where she fainted. She'd just lost her child who was about four months old.
And I spoke to the doctor about it, and asked him what it was. And he said it's gastro-enteritis, it's due to malnutrition and we don't have enough medicine to cover it. And I asked him how many cases he would have in a week. He sort of looked at me a bit blankly and said, I don't know. So I said, ten? He said no more than that. Twenty? No, more than that. Thirty? Put down any figure you like he said, it doesn't matter, it's happening all over Iraq." And it occurred to me a little later, that it was an inane question. It shouldn't have been a question. It should have been a statement, and the statement is a very simple one. This should not be happening.
Geoff R. : Take me out of the hospital now, onto the streets. Are people moving around? Do they seem to be, shall I say going about normal life? Driving around, shopping, things like that?
Maturin: In Baghdad itself? Full of taxis. There's some paint on some of them! I had a ride in a couple and they're full of exhaust fumes inside and they keep them going by cannibalising parts I guess. So there's quite a lot of traffic. And it's pretty dangerous I think. I had friends there who said we don't drive, we get a taxi.
You go into the suqs and the people are very friendly, yes, they're a great crowd. Everybody seems to know the English word welcome. And they're friendly in that way. That's in Baghdad where they're fairly used to visitors. What comes across immediately - I was talking for example to one of our interpreters, we were standing on the banks of the Tigris, it's very beautiful, but it's very low just now because Turkey's gone and dammed it further up. And we were at the Museum of Reconstruction which has models of the buildings that were hit in the bombing. You know, there were schools and hospitals and ministry buildings and radio stations, the whole thing, and what happened was that the government got onto reconstruction very quickly. The country's rich in building materials, all they had to import was the reinforcing steel. What also happened was, that in order to keep some kind of economy going, they printed the dinar. Which resulted in inflation, something like 6,000 percent inflation, But at least it kept a little bit of money circulating. And it meant that people - engineers for example, would be getting probably $30 a month. At the very most.
Geoff R.: So there was some money moving through?
Maturin: A little bit yes. But there's something like 60 percent unemployment. And if people do get jobs, they're not steady jobs. People work at three jobs during twenty-four hours as much as possible. Including mothers.
Geoff R.: You talked about malnourishment in terms of the people you saw in the hospitals, do the people on the street seem malnourished?
Maturin: They don't seem malnourished, and I brought this up with a newspaper editor. I said, you know, they look well fed, well clothed, and she said, well, what do you look for? What are the signs of the people suffering under the sanctions like these. And the signs really are in the figures, because they get a food basket from the oil-for-food programme. You see, the Iraqi government gets no money from the oil at all. It all goes through the escrow account. And they get this food basket, about which the Director of UNICEF, who gave me a quarter of an hour's very good interview, said the distribution is absolutely superb. It's one of the biggest operations in the world, and one of the best caried out in the world.
Geoff R.: But the food is getting through to the people?
Maturin: Yes, but the Iraqis used to be a meat eating people. They used to get protein from meat. Now they get beans and rice and cooking-oil and tea and sugar and salt and not a great deal else. A little milk and high-protein biscuits for lactating mothers and young children.
Geoff R.: A rather strange diet when you're used to something else.
Maturin: If someone came along to you and said you have to live on lentils and rice for the next ten years, I guess you'd feel slightly put out about it.
Geoff R.: You were getting around the country, you weren't only in Baghdad were you?
Maturin: No, we got down to Basra as well. Which is worse because it bore the brunt of the Coalition bombing. And is further away from the centre, the it's very very hot there. Power supply there is worse, the potable water situation is worse, sewage is worse. And the disturbing thing down there is the increase in cancers and leukaemias.
We went into the Saddam Hussein Children's Hospital in Basra, and I went into one small ward, and there's a child there with a brain tumour, he was about ten I think, a lovely kid. But one eye was as big as a golf ball, it looked gross, I took some video shots of it actually. And the doctor lifted up his shirt and the shoulder was all swollen and right out of proportion, and he said it was leukaemia, and he said, "He came in about four years ago, we've known about him for four years, and we just haven't got the chemo-therapy drugs. They're not allowed through the sanctions." They're blocked, ninety percent of them by the United States. You know, the United States has a huge amount on their conscience, if they have a conscience. Some people in the States have I know, but others I don't think so.
Geoff R.: What about the spirit of the people?
Maturin: Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. I went there you see with the expressed purpose of trying to discover why there were drug shortages. Because people say, "they're getting through, there's plenty in the warehouses, it's the fault of the government." It's not the fault of the government, full stop. But I found that the bigger issue was the whole issue of this culture which is being destroyed. And how the people feel about their culture.
You get the feeling very quickly that they're tremendously proud about it. You know, there was the guy I told you about I was talking to on the river bank, he said to me, "Look at those bridges. They were destroyed by the bombing. Each end was deliberately bombed. And we've rebuilt them." And you look around, and they're rebuilding and rebuilding everywhere. With quite primitive means mind you. I saw them paving the courtyard of a university they were renovating. Two guys with a shovel and a wheelbarrow, and another guy squatting down with a little builder's triangular trowel, patting it down. It's been going on for centuries and will go on for other centuries and without using up the earth's resources. But there's this great pride in being part of an ancient, and immensely valuable culture.
Geoff R.: Did you see any signs of the conflict between the Shi'ites, the Kurds, the non-Kurds, the Iraqis?
Maturin: Oh no, we weren't there long enough and we weren't in the North either where most of that's going on. The people I did speak to - I met friends there in the form of an Iraqi man who was married to a New Zealand woman, and I went and had a bit of time in their house.
Geoff R.: Tell me about it. What sort of conditions were they living in?
Maturin: They were living in very good conditions because he was a specialist and so he was well paid. And he was working in the private sector. And the house we went into was interesting because - you go into the main entrance and they show you into a room, perhaps ten yards by ten yards or something like that. Absolutely beautiful, stunningly beautiful. A lovely marbled floor and tyled walls, dark blue and hangings, simple but nice furniture. And he saw I think that I'd accepted it as their living quarters. Certainly not. Every Arab house has a guest room like this and this is far, far better than their living quarters.
It's part of the Arab hospitality thing. And being a guest can be embarrassing because they look after your every want. You can't lift a finger. More than that, they take responsibility for you. If you turn out to be a bit of a rat bag and behave badly outside, they take responsibility for that. It's part of an ages old hospitality of which they're tremendously proud. It's a lovely country you know. I came away impressed with the quality of that culture.
Geoff R.: You were in the nice room, did you get to see what the rest of the house was like?
Maturin: No! I got to see the street of course, which was largely rubble outside, with a couple of big houses. What's happening is that, some people with friends outside, can bring in dollars and make huge amounts of money on the exchange rate, and grow very very rich, and like the rich in most places they build these huge houses and live quite opulently. So there were two houses like that, but the rest of the street was a shambles. Apart from this house, which was just an ordinary looking house outside, with the usual sort of square building, flat roof, cool.
Geoff R.: What about military presence. Were you aware of it?
Maturin: I've been in Guatemala, and there the soldiers were all armed and carried their guns ready to use. Here, there were soldiers around, not many armed. I spoke to one or two, asking directions, they were friendly and helpful, all said welcome!
Geoff R.: And did the people you spoke with indicate they felt free to tell you anything they wanted to, or did you feel that they were -
Maturin: I didn't ask them that. I didn't ask them that because I know very well that that government has a horrendous human rights record. We know that. What we don't know, they're also a very benevolent government as far as the country goes. They've done tremendous things for that country. They've built it up from nothing, and they're building it up from nothing again. And the people I spoke to, taxi drivers, people in the suqs, that kind of thing, they all say - I asked them specifically about how they feel about the possibility of a US attack, and they all say, "Well, they bombed us last time and we rebuilt, and if they bomb us again we'll rebuild again. We'll fight them mind you, but we'll rebuild. And we have a country that our government is doing their best to make a strong country again."
And it's all part of this national pride. You know you speak to a doctor and ask him what are the shortages, and he doesn't really tell you. You know they're there. He tells you a little bit about not getting the right surgical instruments, whatever, but he says, "We improvise." He's simply saying, "We're not giving in." And that's the spirit of those people.
Geoff R.: So what did you come away thinking about in terms of the weapons inspections, the sanctions, the whole question I guess of the role of the UN, the US, in all this?
Maturin: Well I have no hesitation in blaming the whole thing on the US. I mean, there is a good case to be made for their engineering the invasion of Kuwait in the first place. There's a very good case been made against them by a guy called - Oh, sorry I've forgotten his name. An international lawyer in the States. Who's saying they deliberately chose war, they're deliberately destroying this country. It broke every UN Resolution you could possibly think of. It was meant to be done in the name of the United Nations which is meant to be a humanitarian organisation looking after peace. And it just abrogated the whole thing. I know the United Nations has been taken over, especially the Security Council. And the Sanctions Committee, things they think should be placed on hold because they're "dual use" for example. Five billion now. And a lot of them are humanitarian goods. So I put the blame fairly and squarely on the United States.
Geoff R.: Do you think sanctions should be lifted?
Maturin: Sanctions must be lifted. There's no doubt about that. The weapons inspection thing I think is a red herring. If people are concerned about weapons inspectors, that's their affair. But they must not use sanctions as a political tool as is being done now.
Geoff R.: Because they're hurting people?
Maturin: It's terrible. UNICEF will still tell you that between four and five children under five are dying each month. And this has been going on for the last twelve years. And it's going to continue to go on as long as there are any form of sanctions.
Geoff R.: Do you believe there should be restitution that other nations should be paying Iraq?
Maturin: Very definitely. I think that any fair-minded person would say that if one country goes in and destroys another country, for no reason, then restitution should be made. And there wasn't a reason - the reason was not to get Iraq out of Kuwait. Because the sanctions should have been lifted as soon as Iraq withdrew and they weren't. The United States changed the goal posts there. I would call very strongly that the Coalition partners should pay restitution according to their share in the destruction.
Geoff R.: We contributed!
Maturin: I know, specially the previous government. We had a frigate in the Gulf supporting the blockade. Our present government certainly has moved ahead, but it's not doing anything to lift the sanctions. They're saying, modify them. But modification, is really, when you look at them, tightening the grip of the United States on this country.
Geoff R.: Do you believe then that the United Nations, which supposedly represents world opinion, can do anything here?
Maturin: With its present constitution, no. Because you've got the five permanent members, and only one of them needs to veto something - and it happens over and over again. Until the Security Council is reconstituted so that you don't get one country controlling it, then we've got problems with the United Nations. But I'm quite certain we must make every effort to return the UN to the moral high ground where it belongs. And that's what I want the New Zealand government to do. I want us to take an initiative in all this. Because a lot of countries now - I've got a list of them - are calling for the lifting of the sanctions. And even for the restoring of sovereignty to Iraq, including the Arab league and people like that.
Geoff R.: Tony, thank you very much for joining us today. Sharing your story. I'm glad to hear you're recovering from cholera. And thank you for the insights you've offered us too. It's a part of the world we hear a lot about, but don't know much about, and it's interesting to hear your first-hand impressions.
Tony Maturin interviewed by Geoff Robinson