When bombs begin to fall in Iraq

July 1, 1993

When bombs begin to fall in Iraq

By By LeAnne Clausen, Contributing Writer

Jan. 3, 2003—Greetings from Baghdad! I have been here about three days now, and the weather is sunny, though cool. It is the rainy season, and though it has only rained a little here, everything is beginning to grow green. I am reminded everywhere I walk of how only a few decades ago, this was a popular, exotic tourist country. I hope all of you are able to come here someday and experience the best of Iraq.

We kicked off the new year at the U.N. compound, where the weapons inspectors depart from each morning. New Year’s Eve, we held a “public celebration” of the fact that most nations in the world and most U.S. citizens as well, do not want this war. Quite a bit of press showed up for our candles, sparklers, traditional Iraqi-drum-and-bugle party band, and dancing. (If you saw the girl with the pink hat doing a “peace shimmy,” well, there I was.)

The next morning we were back early under the same banner, waiting to send off the inspectors with waves, smiles and words of encouragement. They seemed to really appreciate it. We also released doves as a prayer for peace in the new year. Our regular taxi driver, Mohammed, found them for us. In what couldn’t have been better if it were planned, the doves flew backward over the U.N. compound and circled overhead for about five minutes! We kiddingly congratulated Mohammed on his long hours of training. The cameras stayed around and got plenty of footage of the circling doves, too. Hope some of our stuff made it back home.

We heard Kofi Annan (head of the U.N.) say on the radio that he is pleased with the progress of the inspections, that there is no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and no justification for an attack against Iraq. A few moments later, we heard Bush say in an interview that the “results were discouraging.” I pondered how so, exactly. Later in the day, we heard Bush say his wish for the new year was that we wouldn’t have to have a war with Iraq. Maybe there is a change in the air? One can only hope. Our 10-year-old shoeshine boy who stays outside the hotel, Assan, sneaked along for the demonstrations and accompanied us afterward while we had a singalong over dates, oranges, baklava, and “numi Basra,” which is a tea made of dried lemons. The song “We Shall Overcome” is also translated into Arabic, as he showed us.

Assan was hit by a car a few months ago and has several teeth broken. Still, he is an incredibly sweet and smiling boy. He’s extremely small for his age, as are many children for whom the monthly food ration is their family’s main source of income. We try to get as many shoe shines as possible while here. He is an extremely calm, polite and responsible child for his age as well, which is somewhat disconcerting. Yesterday, there was another accident on the road outside our hotel, where traffic moves at 40 mph, and a dump truck collided with a sedan. While the drivers argued and cars continued to speed by, he slipped out to the accident site and gathered up all the broken little pieces of the are and put them inside, then came back to shine shoes.

On Monday, we visited Central Teaching Hospital here in Baghdad. While I have seen pictures of babies with deformities that appear to be linked to the high radiation levels from our weaponry in the first Gulf War, this was the first time I saw them in person. We met a 3-year-old boy named Omar, and his mother. Omar’s head was swollen to double its size with tumors, in stark contrast to the thinness of the rest of his body. He groaned and wept while his mother held him. The doctor told us plainly: “We have done what we could with the medicines we are able to get. But we cannot get the full regimen of cancer medications here. Now we all know we must wait for him to pass on.”

His mother is a strong woman who has spoken to many groups, and encouraged us to take pictures. There are many strong women in that ward who shouldn’t have to be. Other children in the ward were suffering from hydroencephalus, one a newborn who seemed to have another head behind her own. Others were dying of wasting diseases. I did not see the baby who died while we were in the ward. Her mother brought her in a few days ago with severe malnutrition. The doctor took the rest of the group in to see her. The doctor asked the group to take her photo, too, to document what happens to children here. No one felt quite able to do so.

I was in the nearby neonatal wards, where many of the premature and severely ill infants and their parents waited. There, some of the tiniest and most sickly babies I have ever seen were lined up in old, yet still somewhat functional incubators. Since I know how to use a Polaroid, I got the task of taking pictures of the babies for their parents as a thank-offering for visiting with us. Each mother opened the incubator and arranged their child’s clothes for the picture. I tried to take the photos from an angle that showed as little of the incubator and as little of the illness as possible. The parents were incredibly grateful for the photos. The nursing staff on the ward also asked for their photo together.

While taking the photos, I thought to myself that it probably wasn’t healthy to whip open an incubator and shoot a camera flash in a sick infant’s face. I asked the doctor about it, and he said to go ahead. A little later, I realized that for most of the parents, they were not expecting their children to survive much longer. “It is a memory,” our guide said as I left the ward.

I thought a lot about the twisted circumstance everyone was in at the hospital there. The brilliant, American-educated pediatrician, who was giving tours to American peace activists about the devastation of their medical system from the Gulf War and 13 years of sanctions. The parents who graciously allowed us to see their children’s slow deaths, that could have been prevented or made more comfortable with the medicines our government forbids them to have. Myself, walking in with a fancy machine to spit out a photograph at them instead. I thought also that it might be more appropriate for these parents to simply spit at me.

I wonder, how would people from our country react if the sides were reversed over these past 13 years? Several news articles I have read from the States suggest the military will use a “microwave bomb” to immediately knock out all electricity, phones, television, radio, and etc. I thought to myself for a moment, well, this seems logical from a military perspective. The hospitals here do not have backup generators like our hospitals at home. Doctors told us about having operated on patients late in the last war, and at other times, without electricity, running water, medicines or anesthesia. When the bombs begin to fall, the children in the incubators and hooked up to other lifesaving machines will be some of the first to go.

I know that now. Bombs do not discriminate, particularly when aimed at a city crowded with 5 million people. I wish that I could stay here when that time comes. And I know that for myself, I cannot. My role to play will be outside, likely helping train international volunteers for accompaniment and documentation work when they begin to arrive in larger numbers in Palestine. Many there expect that a large-scale campaign of “transfer,” or ethnic cleansing deportations, will begin when war on Iraq begins. The world’s attention will be diverted then.

Probably if things are looking bad, I will try not to come home in February as scheduled. I have more to write and little time to do so. I am thinking about you all constantly and looking forward to coming home again when I am able to do so.

Please work as well as pray for peace now.

LeAnne Clausen, 24, is from Mason City, Iowa, presently with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. She is a graduate of Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.

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