The RW Interview

Mission of Defiance

"Voices in the Wilderness" Travel to Iraq

Revolutionary Worker #1016, August 1, 1999

The RW Interview is a special feature to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music, literature, science, sports and politics.

The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in the Revolutionary Worker and on this website.

In November 1997, Dan Handleman, Joe Zito, Bert Sacks and Randall Mullins traveled to Iraq as part of the 8th delegation of the Voices in the Wilderness (VitW). VitW opposed the 1991 Gulf war against Iraq through non-violent protests. Since the end of the war, VitW has carried out a campaign to openly defy and oppose the U.S./United Nations sanctions imposed on Iraq.

In December 1998 VitW and the members of the 8th delegation received a "pre-penalty notice" from the U.S. Treasury Department--charging them with violating U.S. law through "exportation of donated goods, including medical supplies and toys, to Iraq." VitW and the activists were threatened with huge fines. VitW and the activists have publicly refused to pay the fines. And VitW has continued to openly defy the sanctions and the U.S. government by sending more delegations to Iraq. VitW campaign coordinator Kathy Kelly said in a December 30, 1998 news release: "With respect to the enforcement of this embargo, we are conscientious objectors. We will not allow the U.S. government, in the name of democracy or national security, to order us to cooperate with a strategy designed to starve the people of Iraq, to deprive them of medicine and medical supplies, or any of the essentials necessary to sustain daily life. We will not participate in the enforcement of an embargo which uses food and medicine as a weapon, and has led to the deaths of over one million people."

The U.S., along with its imperialist ally Britain, insists on keeping the murderous sanctions against Iraq. The Iraqi Health Ministry recently said that almost 8,000 young children and old people died just in the month of June as a result of the sanctions. And the U.S. and Britain continue regular bombing attacks on Iraqi territory. The latest bombing strike took place on July 18. As usual, the U.S. claimed their warplanes were acting in "self defense." People in the U.S. know about how cops shoot unarmed people and then claim "self defense." The U.S. military is doing this to the people of a whole country. Reports from Iraq said that at least 17 civilians died in this one bombing.

Earlier this year, the RW talked to two members of the 8th VitW delegation about their trip to Iraq and the U.S. government's threats against them:

RW: Tell us the basics of your case.

Dan Handleman: We went to Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness in direct violation of United States law and United Nation sanctions, in order to deliver medicine to Iraqi hospitals and to expose the U.S. policy as unjust. There were threats of U.S. bombing of Iraq at the time. When we came back we were stopped by customs officials. Randall and I had items seized from us that they suspected we might have purchased in Iraq--including videotapes and film that I took when I was there. When we asked them why they were seizing these things, they said, "Because they contain evidence of a crime." I was tempted to say, "Oh yeah, you're right, it contains evidence of a crime against humanity." I wasn't quick enough on my feet do that. We ended up leaving the airport without our stuff.

About two weeks later we got something in the mail that said they had seized these things because they were goods or services of Iraqi origin, and we had 30 days to respond. So Randall and I wrote a response. Eventually customs turned our stuff over to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is another branch of the Treasury Department.

Joe Zito: We didn't hear anything for a year. One day, all of a sudden we get these letters saying there's a $10,000 fine for each of us, and a $120,000 fine for VitW. When the group decided to start making delivery of toys and medicine to Iraq, it was really clear from the beginning that it would be illegal under U.S. law. There's a travel ban, and there's a ban on exporting anything of value to Iraq, spending money in Iraq or brining anything of value back.

DH: There was a little bit of hesitation when we got this pre-penalty notice. But mostly we were excited--because the idea of doing something like this was to get caught, so that we could challenge the law. Again, we were given 30 days to respond, and there was a long discussion. We talked to attorneys. We got a letter written on our behalf by Howard Zinn about the history of disobedience. We got a letter written by Professor Richard Faulk, an international law professor. And another letter from Father Simon Harak, a member of the VitW, about the religious implications and the moral reasons why it was important for us to do what we did. In December 1998, the Chicago Voices people brought these letters to Washington, D.C., with a stack of commitment sheets from other people that said, "Hey, I'm part of the conspiracy to violate the sanctions." And we're still waiting to hear back.

RW: What type of things were you actually bringing to the people of Iraq?

DH: We were bringing in medicine, other medical supplies and toys. Medicine like aspirin, cough syrup and antibiotics--basic things that you and I take for granted. Some syringes--real basic things. And toys and stuffed animals, tennis balls--tiny things that would fit into our bags.

JZ: We wanted to do something for the children who have seen so much suffering and have seen their brothers and sisters die and their fathers killed in wars. Even if we had gotten permission that the U.S. sometimes gives to bring in medicine, we never would have gotten permission to bring toys. Because importing anything other than food or medicine into Iraq is for the most part illegal under the international embargo. So we brought a lot of toys. And pencils--pencils are banned because the U.S./UN is supposedly afraid that the graphite might be used for military purposes. So I had this image in my mind of all these Iraqi generals sharpening pencils and coloring the sides of planes with graphite.

RW: What did you see in Iraq of the conditions of the people, particularly related to the sanctions?

DH: There's so much that's striking. The very first thing that happened as we pulled into Baghdad and came to a stop light, this little girl who was probably 4 years old hopped up on the running board and begged for money. And she wouldn't get off even as the light turned green. Apparently begging is not only a shameful thing in Iraqi culture, and it's something that never happened before the sanctions. This girl, being so young, was really striking.

We went into three hospitals. And doctors brought us to room after room of mothers holding onto their infant children, who looked like they were in a famine, in a country where there was some kind of natural disaster that wiped out the food supply. And this is a country that used to be able to feed all their people, where the medical system used to be the best in the Middle East. Now there's children dying of diarrhea and malnutrition. There was a woman who I was videotaping. She looked at my camera and said something in Arabic--which I was told later was, "Please, god, have mercy on our children." She was showing us her infant son's hand that kept bleeding and bleeding. And she was trying to cover it up with a cloth. One of the things the doctor explained to me was that when children get dehydrated, this spontaneous bleeding just happens, and there's no way to stop it.

The Catholic church in Iraq is called the Chaldean church. This Chaldean sister who ran a private hospital there was saying that there were people coming in that had these horrible ailments. They would check them out, and there was physically nothing wrong with them. Basically, they were suffering from stress. And there were people dying, literally of broken hearts--because they felt there was no hope that the sanctions would ever be lifted.

JZ: There was sewage in the streets in a lot of neighborhoods. We spoke with an expert on water treatment and sewage from Italy who was over in Basra working on some sewage treatment projects. He said that before the war there was advanced sewage treatment. In the poorer neighborhoods it wasn't as advanced as it could have been, but even the poor neighborhoods had sewage disposal. Now, pipes are broken, pumps are broken down, the plants aren't working. There's a shortage of chlorine to treat the water. Some of the raw sewage falls right into the rivers.

The wards in the hospitals were just full of children. The doctors were exhausted. They talked about how hardened they've become, because they've seen hundreds and hundreds of children die--way more children than they ever would have seen die in a normal medical career.

Everywhere in the U.S. when I show my slides of the trip, I tell people, "Wherever you stand on the sanctions, at least you need to take into consideration what their effects are and who they're affecting. Let's be honest about it. Let's look at the pictures. I don't know how you can support the sanctions after you see these pictures. But if you still want to support the sanctions, at least you'll know what you're supporting."

RW: What was the reaction of the Iraqi people to your visit?

DH: It's interesting. I told you before that the U.S. had a huge military build-up and were threatening to bomb at the time we went. We were a little worried about how the Iraqis would react. We'd walk down the street. And we'd learned to say "hello" in Arabic--"salaam alaikam." And the people would say, "alaikam salaam." And they would ask, "Where are you from?" We'd say, "Oh, we're from America." I cannot remember a single person who didn't say, "Oh America, welcome." That was something to me, because you know in this country we're so racist, so short-sighted, that when the Federal Building gets blown up in Oklahoma City, everyone assumes that it was somebody of Middle East descent. You go over there, they say "welcome." And "Down USA, down America" was chalked on the sidewalk everywhere, yet we were so welcome. And then when we told them we were delivering medicine to their children in the hospitals, they would offer us free cab rides or give us free food. We'd say, "No, no, you're really hard up for money, we can't let you do that. But we appreciate that, we understand that, that's why we're here."

JZ: There was a lot of pride. People would point out different accomplishments in the city, different things that had been built, different areas that had been cleaned up--things that they wanted to communicate to the American people, that they wanted us to bring home. And of course, pride in their children. Everyone wanted a picture of themselves with their child, and they wanted us to bring the pictures back. The only anger that ever was directed at us was anger that they wanted us to communicate to politicians here in the U.S.

I developed warm feelings for the Iraqi people really quickly. It was just such a great feeling to meet people who had been labeled as my "enemy," this faceless mass of dangerous people, and to say, "Wow, these are normal people. They're eating in restaurants. They've got kids. They go to Catholic mass or to the mosque." They're just normal people with everyday struggles that have nothing to do with international politics. It was really good. I think that probably was what made our trip worthwhile--to meet people I had been told not to meet, who I'd been told were terrible.

RW: You got a sense that people were drawing a distinction between you and the U.S. government.

DH: I think that's very much what it is. I think that's a distinction we fail to make in the United States a lot.

RW: On the UN "oil for food" program--one of the things the U.S. puts out is that the program allows Iraq to sell enough oil to feed its people, and that any problem is the fault of the Iraqi government and Saddam Hussein. Can you speak to this situation?

DH: The "oil for food" program was started in 1996 under UN Resolution 986. It allowed Iraq to pump $2 billion of oil every six months. Of the $2 billion, 30 percent goes to reparations to Kuwait and other countries like Egypt. Three percent goes to UN administrative costs. So you're down to only two-thirds of the $2 billion. Early in 1998, the UN voted to raise that amount of money from $2 billion to $5.2 billion every six months. But the Iraqis have not been able to pump anywhere near that amount of oil. And the price of oil has been falling constantly since that time, so they would have to pump more to make that much. With the "oil for food" program, if you break it down, two-thirds of $2 billion ends up being 25 cents a day for each Iraqi citizen for food and medicine. Now with $5 billion, it's still maybe 60 cents a day--that's nothing.

JZ: We talked to Eric Fault from the UN office that was actually the architect of the "oil for food" deal and its implementation. What he told us is that the "oil for food" deal is nothing but a safety valve. It was a way of releasing pressure against the sanctions by letting some humanitarian aid dribble in--to kind of put up a front of actually caring about people. But this guy from the UN looked at us and said, "You know, the `oil for food' deal was never meant to solve the humanitarian crisis in Iraq among the civilian population." We were really confused; we looked at him and said, `What do you mean it wasn't meant to solve the humanitarian crisis?' He said it was only meant to prevent further deterioration in the humanitarian situation, the health and well-being of the Iraqi people--because people who support the sanctions know if it got too bad for the civilians, they would lose international support for the sanctions. When you look at the time when the "oil for food" deal was implemented, somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 children were dying every month. This was a level they were willing to accept. I mean, at that point when the "oil for food" deal was put together, they could no longer claim that the deaths were an unintended side effect of the sanctions, because they knew the situation. They had a chance to put together this "oil for food" deal to solve the problem--but they only allowed Iraq to sell enough oil to put a tiny little dent in the humanitarian situation.

RW: There's also the question of the infrastructure destroyed by the Gulf war bombing. I read that it would take $14 billion just to get the electrical grid back working properly.

DH: Right. Dennis Halliday [former UN coordinator of the "oil-for-food" program, who resigned in protest of the sanctions] said it would take something like 10 years to get the country functioning again as it was before the Gulf war. You're talking about an embargo that's on top of the destruction of the infrastructure in the war. You've got a country that doesn't have electricity up to speed to where it was before. Their water and sewage treatment facilities are not up to speed. And that's because the U.S. and their allies bombed them during the war. So you walk through the streets of southern Iraq, and there's raw sewage flowing in the streets, and there's children running around in bare feet, playing in it.

RW: You visited the Amiriyah air shelter, which the U.S. bombed during the Gulf war. What did you see?

DH: Al Amiriyah was bombed in February 1991. There were mostly civilians there--I don't know if there were any kind of military there. 400 people were incinerated. The heat of the bombs seared human flesh to the wall. They showed us, and I just lost it. The thought of it. It was an incredible experience. The woman who did the tour, her children were in the shelter. She had gone over to a friend's house the night the bomb dropped. She had said, "I should get back to the shelter." And her friend said, "You go there every night, so why don't you just stay here tonight." And she lost her family. So she moved herself onto the ground of the bomb shelter. Now she lives there, and she gives tours. There are shrines to families of the people who died there.

JZ: It was one of the U.S. "smart bombs." As you go into the shelter, it's got a very primitive lighting system set up. There's pictures of all the people who were killed. Those they didn't have pictures of, they did sketches or paintings. People have brought things that their loved ones had in life, like favorite books or toys, and there's flowers.

The U.S. talks about "that was one of the unfortunate accidents of war." But look at the other sites that were bombed on purpose, like water treatment plants and other parts of the civilian infrastructure. Even if one were to say, "Yes, that was an accident," look at all the parts of the civilian infrastructure that were purposely bombed, that have resulted in people's deaths. Even if you don't directly bomb a person, if you bomb something that is necessary for their lives, it's just as bad.

RW: Can you talk about the stand taken by you and the VitW of not paying the fines demanded by the government?

JZ: In term of the fines, I guess the best response I've heard was from one of the other delegates: "I'm not paying any more money for them to kill more children." I don't want to voluntarily give money to a government that's going to use the sanctions to kill children--or any of the other killing the U.S. government does.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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