Global Policy Forum

Healing the Wounds


By Susan Stewart

Toward Freedom
March/April 1999

While US air strikes pounded Iraq into early 1999, the message that Iraqis implored a California woman to bring home with her only weeks before seemed hopelessly naive. "Iraqis believe," said Dr. Peggy Sullivan, a consultant with the World Health Organization, "that if the world really knew how they suffered, it would surely lift the sanctions right away."

The US and its closest allies continue to advocate economic sanctions, despite rekindled debate among other nations, as the only way to force Saddam Hussein's cooperation with weapons inspectors.

Sullivan concedes that no amount of breast-beating on behalf of the Iraqi people will do much to change the status quo. Yet she cannot remain silent. What she witnessed during her month-long stay in Baghdad this fall was "an innocent, helpless, imprisoned population being systematically destroyed by a mindless, incomprehensible foreign policy of sanctions that leaves their leader and his tribe untouched, untouchable."

With a Ph.D. in epidemiology, Sullivan was hired to teach a series of workshops on research methods and problem-solving in disease control for the public health officials and providers of Iraq. The stark contrast between what she witnessed during her first two visits in 1987 and 1989, and her third a decade later, convinced her to speak out.

The glittering, prosperous city of Baghdad that greeted her during those first visits had become dramatically declined only 10 years later. Excerpts from her journal revealed once beautiful streets in fashionable neighborhoods riddled with potholes and littered with garbage; dilapidated cars that die in traffic, pushed aside by strangers willing to help; small sales of family furniture, paintings, and jewelry to buy food; beggars roaming the streets; huge government food markets, now standing empty; physicians weeping in helplessness as people, particularly children, fall ill from contaminated food and water supplies and die from untreated, once preventable diseases.

"And a former ally, now the enemy; the visible target for the audible grief of a population that doesn't know why it's being punished," Sullivan wrote.

In this small, isolated country whose population is a mere 22 million, the absolute and masterful control of information is relatively easy for Hussein. The result, said Sullivan, is that Iraqis have no idea what is really happening, or why.

In theory, the purpose of sanctions is to wear the people down so much that, in time, they will rise up and overthrow their own government. Sullivan is convinced that in Iraq, that will never happen. "Iraqis are so completely oppressed, so utterly controlled," she said, "that to believe such a thing is possible is a measure of our ignorance."

For all the years that Saddam Hussein has ruled, those who make even the slightest negative reference to country, government, or policy simply disappear. Those who know they are at risk for the discovery of such utterances now live in exile.

Sullivan met such a man in Jordan, an Iraqi who had also worked in the health industry, and who shared his anguished life with her over two days of conversation. His losses are staggering, and include not only the disappearance of two close friends, but also the knowledge that as an ex-patriot, will never see his family and country again.

Prior to the invasion of Kuwait, anyone who had the money to leave Iraq did so, according to Sullivan, and those who are left, cannot. Despite the Memorandum of Understanding that would permit exchange of medicine and food for small amounts of oil, people are still starving and dying because there are too many glitches in the bureaucracy that oversees the distribution of those supplies and because Hussein's son, "who is equally as monstrous as his father," controls what little does get through. Now there is speculation that when this program comes up for renewal next spring, Hussein could try to manipulate it further, to gain even more control over his oil revenues.

Sullivan recalled poignant incidents that illustrate the difference between the utter silence with which Iraqis have stoically endured the brutality of Saddam Hussein's reign, and their newly granted ability shake their fists in rage and sorrow at their perceived enemy: the United States. Hussein encourages this display, so long as it is directed toward the US, but continues to punish any negative expression toward him or his government.

One Iraqi woman brought a gift of sugar and eggs to Sullivan who suggests that "the words war, suffering, shortages, and fear were not spoken where they might be overheard." So this woman used a sort of code by whispering hastily that she thought the people in the might need these items, as they were hard to come by. Then she walked briskly away, and not another word was said.

"I am completely seduced by the kindness of Iraqis," said Sullivan.

She obtained information regarding the oppression of the regime through her friendship with a non-Iraqi man living in Baghad "who seemed to thoroughly despise Hussein and fearlessly, I might add, as he assured me that microphones were hidden everywhere," Sullivan said.

He told her that in every office in the city, a worker was assigned to provide the government with a copy of every document that came in or out. Even his home, he reported, was regularly ransacked, and the "secret" police didn't even bother to cover their tracks.

As the world's journalists speculated about the possible effects the most recent bombings have had on this beleaguered people, Sullivan wondered aloud how it is that Iraqis are able to go on: "How do they motivate themselves to get up each morning and go to work if they have jobs, if they have a way to get there, and if they have tools to work with, then raise their children to take their places?"

Providing a powerful lesson in resilience, faith, and perseverance against the severest of odds, Sullivan saw in the Iraqi people an enviable capacity to find joy and purpose amid profound sadness. Could it be a genuine naivete - the unshakable belief that one morning they'll wake up and the bombs will have stopped, the sanctions lifted - that enables them to go on? Perhaps. But of this she is certain: What she saw and heard and felt among the people of Iraq was something she could only describe as grace of a very high order.

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