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Iraqis Know What New Yorkers are Suffering


14 September 2001

Kathy Kelly was 37 days into a 40-day fast and vigil near the United Nations when terrorists brought down the World Trade Center towers and massacred 6,000 people. The co-founder of an organization working to end the U. N. Security Council's economic sanctions against Iraq, Kelly and her cohorts continued to fast but quietly finished the final three days of the vigil in a church parish in Brooklyn. They also began to move about downtown Manhattan.

"People in this country have a terrific capacity for compassion. You saw it all over New York," said Kelly. "And the closer you were to the (disaster) site, the more you heard people say things like, 'I never want to see this happen to other people.' "In 13 trips that Kelly has made to Iraq in the past 11 years, she has heard hundreds of Iraqis express similar sentiments. One of the most recent was a young mother with whom Kelly sat just moments after the woman saw her 6-month- old son die. A dose of ordinary antibiotics would have saved the baby, but -- since the end of the Persian Gulf War -- there has been no such thing as ordinary medicine in Iraq. Or food. Or water.

"The woman looked at me and said, 'I pray this will never happen to a mother in your country,' " said Kelly. "If people here knew as well as they know about JonBenet Ramsey what has happened in Iraq in the last 11 years, I don't think the economic sanctions would have survived the light of day."

Since Sept. 11, we Americans have had to go out of our way to remain ignorant about Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Many of the answers to "Why do they hate us so much?" have been the grim realities that Kelly has decried for years. Suddenly, the name of her group, Voices in the Wilderness, is a little less accurate. All sorts of Americans, not just college students and peaceniks, have begun to understand the pain and death that have been inflicted in our name.

Perhaps chief among the transgressions are the deaths of a half- million Iraqi children that UNICEF ties directly to the short Persian Gulf War and the protracted economic sanctions: They have failed to oust Saddam Hussein but have eviscerated his nation's infrastructure. Worse, as recently declassified documents from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency demonstrate, American officials knew this would be the outcome.

As early as January 1991, the DIA predicted that damage to Iraqi water treatment plants could "lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease." By March 15 of that year, the DIA documents note that only 5 percent of Iraq's original water supply remained potable and that "there are no operational water and sewage treatment plants." Of the mounting cases of diarrhea and respiratory infections spreading through the country: "Children particularly have been affected by these diseases."

Despite this and more unspeakable cruelty -- visited upon a besieged civilian population in the name of harming an entrenched despot -- Kelly says she has been amazed at the lack of bitterness toward the people of the United States.

"Over and over, the Iraqis have told me, 'We know you're not your government. We know your people would never do this to us,' " she said. "Some of the people who can best understand what is being suffered by New Yorkers are these people who are themselves targeted civilians."

To those who insist that the Iraqis could simply overthrow Hussein, Kelly says, get real: "There is not a thing they can do anymore than if they were on a hijacked plane."

Later this month, Kelly will join the former U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, for a series of talks in the Bay Area. The schedule and venues can be found at www.peaceandjustice.org or by calling (650) 321-4464. As a current bumper sticker puts it: "Your ignorance is their victory."

Stephanie Salter.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
2001 San Francisco Chronicle.



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