Iraq: What You Should Know About the Country We Destroyed
by Claudia Lefko
Iraqi women at university in Iraq in the 1970s
I've been working with Iraqis since January 2001, when I made my first trip to Baghdad. Some of these long-time colleagues and friends are Christians, most are Muslims. I don't know if they're Shi'ia or Sunni. I've never asked, and they have never offered. So, I don't know if my friend Mazin in more danger or less in this current crisis… perhaps it's all the same. He doesn't worry to me about "the others" if indeed they are the others… maybe they're not.
Then there's Khalid, a young father now living in Jordan who for two years has been helping critically ill children in need of surgery transit from Basra through Amman to Europe. And, Thamir, a devout Muslim and the artist who coordinated projects for Iraqi refugees in Amman, including ones in a Melkite Catholic church in a neighborhood where many Iraqi Christians lived.
No one ever asked about religion when they agreed to be of help to other Iraqis. They rail against the violence and the corruption of the government, they want the borders in Iraq closed and long for security so they can resume something like a normal life. But they don't talk in sectarian terms when they talk about what they've been through or their fears about what is coming. It's a small sample, but it makes me wonder why the media is so insistent on this issue; why the narrative is strictly framed in sectarian terms. I expect this religious conflict doesn't make sense and even doesn't matter to most people in the US anyway. It's just, in my opinion, TMI.
I became an activist on behalf of children in Iraq in 1997, when UNICEF and other reputable agencies on the ground were reporting that between 5.000 to 7,000 children were dying every MONTH in Iraq as a result of US supported UN Sanctions. I didn't know anything, really about Iraq at that point, but I'm an educator and advocate for children. What American could live with this, our government sustaining a policy that was resulting in the death of so many, many children? I thought it would be an easy fight, tell people what's happening, and they'll demand an end to it.
But it wasn't an easy fight. These were not "just" children, these were Iraqi children. People heard the figures—not just from me and other activists but from "authorities" like then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. When asked about the deaths of 250,000 children on that infamous segment of 60 Minutes in 1998, Albright responded that the price of keeping sanctions in place, the price of US policies in Iraq, might indeed be the death of all those children. But, she said, the price was worth it. An entire Sunday night viewing audience heard this horrifying acknowledgement; I'm sure some felt badly But neither the public nor our elected officials reacted with enough moral outrage to change US policy.
Part of my activism was standing on a vigil line for one hour every Saturday for eight years, holding signs and handing out flyers about the human disaster created by UN sanctions against Iraq.. I live in what would be described as a liberal college community. It was my experience that the public—people passing by and talking or taking our flyer—couldn't care about Iraqi children because they were too worried about Saddam Hussein. Some even asked, well, how bad is 5,000 deaths per month in terms of the population of Iraq… is it significant?
Everyone knew the most important fact, the one they were supposed to know, and that fact formed the basis of their thinking and opinions about the situation in Iraq: Saddam was an evil dictator capable of murdering his own people. In addition, most people believed the government and media hype about the threat Iraq posed, believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was hell bent on using them against us if given half a chance. When all was said and done, fear won over concern for children dying in Iraq, over empathy for their suffering parents and the doctors who tried to care for them, over sympathy for the struggling communities who could not protect or provide for their basic needs.
Our thinking is clouded by fear. On top of that and even worse, for a long time I've been thinking that our moral inclination to be outraged and then moved to act is being overwhelmed by too much news with, too much purposefully irrelevant information framing and then dominating a complex issue such as Iraq. Saddam Hussein's evil deeds aren't necessarily irrelevant, but the story of Iraq as of all countries is complex. Yes Saddam was evil, but still there were and are meaningful lives being lived, despite evil dictators. There were many positives to go with the negatives. Education in Iraq was mandatory for both girls and boys through grade six; education was free through university and free and there was universal, high quality health care. But all of that, social and economic benefits we can only dream about in the US, all that along with tens, probably hundreds of thousands and some would say more than a million lives disappeared, with the evil dictator. The baby thrown out with the bath.
What could possibly have moved people in 2003 to support a war against Iraq knowing what devastation the sanctions had brought, and knowing what was at stake for ordinary men, women and especially children in Iraq? Fear and I suppose oil. What could possibly move people to support another round of military intervention in Iraq now, in 2014? The misguided notion that "these people" cannot solve their own problems…just look at the religious strife.
So, I've been asking: what's important to know about the current crisis unfolding in Iraq? Asking why do we as activists or academics—as humanists—keep talking about it, framing it in sectarian terms: Sunni vs. Sh'ia vs. Kurd? Isn't it enough to simply know there is yet another war and more marauding troops on the doorstep of Iraq?. What does it matter and who truly knows at this point who is fighting with whom, who is supporting whom and why? Ordinary people are caught up in wars they don't want and cannot end. They "join up" because they are forced to or perhaps they need the money or to save their house and family. Perhaps they are furious about the life they have been dealt. Who knows.
I argue that what we need to know, what we need to keep in mind so we can act as responsible, moral citizens is only this: the land, the people and culture, the entire society in Iraq has been torn asunder. Generations of children and their parents—Sunni, Shi'ia and Kurds—have been set back and will not recover sufficiently to be in a position to be of help in revisioning or reconstructing their country. The very air they all breathe, the water they all drink; the very earth they live on and the soil they grow food in is dangerously polluted and will be toxic for generations to come. Enough!
We already know enough to act. We know we cannot "save" people by killing them; we cannot "save" villages in Afghanistan or cities in Iraq or the country of Syria by destroying them. Turn off your radio and TV. Stop listening to corporate media pundits explaining (erroneously) why war between Sunni, Shi'ia and Kurd in Iraq is inevitable, why these frightening Arabs need us to help them control their out-of-control passions. Stop listening. Trust yourself, you already know enough to take action in whatever way is open to you. Demand that fighting—all combat and all financial support and intervention by foreign troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan—stop. Demand an end to all of it. It's way past time to stop destroying and start rebuilding; it's time for all of us to demand an end to war.
Then, we can begin using our vast resources to give back and help rebuild the lives and the countries we've destroyed.
It sounds impossible. But the alternative—to continue on this path—is unacceptable. Enough.
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Claudia Lefko, a long-time educator, activist and advocate for children, is the founding director of The Iraqi Children's Art Exchange and its project, Baghdad Resolve: An International Collaboration to Improve Cancer Care in Iraq.