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Slide From the Impossible to the Apocalyptic
1 September 2002
A little over a month after the 1991 Gulf War, Maarti Ahtisaari, then UN special rapporteur, commented on conditions inside Iraq: 'Nothing we had heard or read could have prepared us for this particular devastation, a country reduced to a pre-industrial age, for a considerable time to come.'
Since Ahtisaari's remarks, Iraq has slid from the impossible to the apocalyptic. The Unicef report, State Of The World's Children (2001), rates the country 11 points below Eritrea, with the highest increase in infant mortality on earth.
Water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, polio - largely eradicated prior to 1990 - have become epidemic. A child with dysentery in 1989 had a one-in-600 chance of dying. By 1999 it was one in 50. Had the weapons inspectors (UNSCOM) in their search for biological weapons turned on any tap in Iraq, they would have found them.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that each month an average of 5000 children aged under five die as a result of 'embargo-related causes'. Last December, 11,500 people died, the majority of them children.
By 1993 doctors had made a new diagnosis. With inflation stratospheric the price of staple foods rose by up to 11,000 times. Malnourishment became rampant. Mothers too weak to breast feed, and unable to afford milk powder, fed babies sugared water or tea. They became wasted, bloated and almost all died. Doctors called them the 'sugar babies'.
'Time is running out for the children of Iraq,' wrote Dieter Hannusch of the World Food Program in 1995. Time ran out for seven-year-old Yasmin that year. Diagnosed with a minor heart ailment in 1990, a small surgical procedure would correct it when facilities were restored. But in five years a minor ailment become a major one and her damaged heart failed her frail body.
'I hope they told her before she died that she had failed to comply with the United Nations embargo,' remarked an Iraqi friend with searing fury. Dignity in death too, is the embargo's victim - shroud cloth and coffins have been vetoed by the UN Sanctions Committee
In Basra, Iraq's beautiful, battered southern city, decimated in Desert Storm, Dr Jenan Hussein's thesis compares the rate of cancers and birth abnormalities with those in Hiroshima. A quarter of live births now are of premature weight. In the Pediatric and Maternity Hospital, small faces, the haunted eyes of parents and the conditions haunt the stoniest heart.
When I returned after six months, Dr Hussein said hesitantly: 'You remember those children you wrote about in June? I am sorry, they have all died.'
They included 17 babies in the premature baby unit without even oxygen. Incubators too were vetoed.
The US and UK have bombed Iraq on an ongoing basis since Operation Desert Fox in December 1998 - and again we prepare to bomb the 'most traumatized child population on earth', according to experts.
Denial is rampant. One child told Count Hans von Sponeck, who succeeded Denis Halliday as UN aid co-ordinator, that when the bombs come: 'I play the piano so I can't hear them.'
An eight-year-old said that when the bombing starts: 'My father goes outside and stands by the gate to protect our house.'
One doctor reached on a crackly line inside Iraq said: 'I can cope with anything now, patients who die for want of simple treatment, operating without anesthetics. What I cannot cope with is the children's fear. When the bombing starts I swear that I can hear the cries of every child, in every house in every street in the entire neighborhood.'
This psychological effect permeates every level of life. It would seem the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child lies in the mass grave of the children of Iraq - some report a million and rising - who die of 'embargo-related causes'.
Now America again threatens to attack a country with no functioning fire engines, no disaster provision, and where even radios for ambulances are vetoed. In 1991, General Norman Schwartzkopf boasted of a 'turkey shoot' for the Allied forces inside Iraq. This time, we will be bombing a sitting duck.