Things are not as they seem, part 2

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[The author was part of CPT’s December 26-January 9 delegation to Iraq.]

Hassan is my favourite person in Iraq. He is ten years old. Every day I was in Baghdad he shined my shoes for 500 dinars, or 24 cents. Double the going rate. (We were told not to give more than that.) His hands took hold of brush and polish and rag as if he was doing the most important thing in the world.

A priest from Notre Dame University, had given Hassan a soccer ball. Business was slow and I happened to be passing by. Hassan invited me to play with him.

In the sidewalk there was a plastic tube that came out of the ground: a public supply of water. A kneeling police officer was filling a jug with water to wash his patrol car. A thirsty Hassan ran up to the officer, who held the tube out for Hassan to drink from. He drank greedily and rushed back to steal the ball from me.

That afternoon, we met our government minder, Mr. Wadah, the Foreign Ministry official responsible for our safety and for approving our itinerary. The very first thing he said to us was, “Please, you must not drink the water. It is not good for us. You must only drink some bottled water.”

The day before, we went to a hospital. Dr. Ahmed, assistant director of Saddam Central Paediatric Teaching Hospital, took us to one of the wards. He brought us to a bed where there was no child–only a bunched-up blanket that lay at the head of the bed.

“A six month old baby,” he told us, ” was brought in last night, suffering from diarrhea. She died this morning from dehydration.” There was an old woman, a grandmother, sitting on the bed with the blanket, her hands folded helplessly in her lap. I suddenly felt sick. The blanket was concealing a dead child.

Dr. Ahmed asked the grandmother if he could show us the baby. She nodded and moved to the next bed. He pulled the blanket back.

There she was, little Azhar, lying on her side, face frozen in the manner of her last breath. Her eyes were open; her features colourless, cranial, emaciated. There was a white film about her lips. Tiny fingers curled gently into a fist.

“Please, if you like, you can take some pictures,” Dr. Ahmed said. No one did. Mercifully, he covered her again with the blanket. The old woman stared blankly, did not move.

By the beginning of 2001, UNICEF reports that the mortality rate for Iraqi children under five had increased 160% since 1990. In 1990, 95% of urban households and 75% of rural households had access to potable water. By 1996, all sewage treatment facilities in Iraq had broken down, and 300,000 tons of raw sewage are discharged directly into fresh water each day.

Dirty water. Dysentery. Diarrhea. Death. Take a picture. This is what sanctions look like in Iraq.

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