feels oddly like being at a wake in a funeral home. Our four delegation
members whisper together as we wait to tour the Al Mansour Children's
wing at the Saddam City Medical Centre. The Director is away, so someone
has been sent to find a senior doctor to brief us. As I flip open my
diary, it dawns on me that at this time four years ago, March 1996,
the first Voices in the Wilderness delegation visited Iraq. 30 delegations
later not much has changed within this hospital. What must the doctors
and nurses think as one delegation after another hears the litany of
shortages and views the dying the children?
a doctor finally enters the office, my grim mood lifts immediately;
it's Dr. Qusay Al Rahim, of whom I've spoken so often, to so many groups
in the U.S. My companions meeting him for the first time will probably
feel the same warmth towards him as I, and hold him in the same esteem.
He draws forth a sense that we're working, in concert, to solve intractable
problems, that even little gains, in the face of ridiculous odds, are
rewarding. I wonder how he maintains his quiet, indomitable strength.
years ago, when I first met him, he solicitously accompanied us up to
his ward, apologising for the elevator that didn't work, the hallways
that were dark because they had no light bulbs. Suddenly he raced away
in response to a furore down the hall. Hospital visitors were shouting
for help at the bedside of Feryal, a 7-month-old baby, whose mother
was sobbing frantically. Feryal had just suffered a cardiac arrest.
Dr. Qusay swiftly bent over her and administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Feryal's heart gave out in a fight against malnourishment plus septicaemia
full body infection. The hospital lacked both the nutrients and
the antibiotics this little one desperately needed. I watched Dr. Qusay
face the anguished mother to pronounce the verdict, I am sorry,
but your child cannot live. We have not the oxygen, we have not the
tube. How many times, since then, has Dr. Qusay felt shattered,
having to speak tragic words to disbelieving parents?
he is explaining to us that in a very real way he thinks we are all
fathers and mothers to these children, that it's a challenge to invent
new ways to help them. And when something works, well, you see,
this keeps you hopeful. He carefully details some of the greatest
problems they presently face they've run out of high protein
biscuits formerly supplied by UNICEF and they lack immunisations for
MMR (measles, mumps and rubella). Actually, sufficient batches of the
vaccine arrive, but electrical outages interfere with proper storage,
damaging the vaccines. So far, his tone has been that of a kindly teacher,
one who wants us to understand.
then he lowers his head and shakes it back and forth several times.
We had a terrible tragedy recently. Our incubators are old and
broken down, but some we try to repair. We placed an infant inside a
patched incubator, thinking it would work, but the sealant was faulty,
and the baby grew very cold. In fact, we lost that baby.
jot down in my notebook, Incubators mom!! Shortly
before the Gulf War began, I applied to join the Gulf Peace Team, a
non-violent, non-aligned encampment that would position itself on the
border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, between the warring parties. The
organisers placed me on a waiting list. To my surprise, I learned that
if I could be in Boston in two days, I could join a U.S. contingent
leaving on a plane that would be the last to land in Baghdad before
the bombing began. I had just enough time for a hurried visit to my
parents. Of course, they tried their hardest to dissuade me from going.
As I flew out their door, the last thing I heard was my mother calling
out, in her thick Irish brogue, What about the incubators?! Kathy,
what about the incubators?!
was referring to testimony from Nayireh, a young Kuwaiti girl, who told
the U.S. Congress that she had witnessed invading Iraqi soldiers barge
into a Kuwaiti hospital and steal the equipment. With luminous eyes
and a compelling presence, she told of her horror as she watched the
menacing soldiers dump babies out of incubators. Months later, when
the war was a distant memory, reporters learned that Nayireh
was actually the daughter of a Kuwaiti emir, that doctors in Kuwait
could not corroborate her testimony, that in fact the supposedly stolen
incubators had been placed carefully in storage during the invasion,
and that the Hill and Knowlton Public Relations firm had rehearsed with
the young woman how to give apparently false testimony effectively.
Desert Storm bombardment destroyed Iraq's electrical grid. Refrigeration
units, sewage and sanitation facilities, and all sorts of valuable equipment
were ruined. Life-saving devices found in a modern hospital were rendered
useless. As the Allied bombing went on and on, my mother's question
became more and more relevant, yet went largely unasked. What
about the incubators?
when our teams visit Iraq, following nine and a half years of the most
comprehensive state of siege ever imposed in modern history, we see
incubators, broken and irreparable, stacked up against the walls of
hospital obstetrics wards. Sanctions have prevented Iraqis from importing
new incubators and from getting needed spare parts to repair old ones.
And this is only one vitally needed item that sanctions prohibit.
Qusay's heroism is commendable. Earnest as ever, he tells us of other
methods he wants to pursue, in the wake of the tragedy incurred by an
irreparable incubator. I have heard about, maybe you know it,
the kangaroo method and this they do in Australia. I tell the mothers
of tiny infants to try it. They can place the baby between their breasts
and wrap themselves in a garment and this may keep the baby warm enough.
Or I tell them to try to find gauze and cellophane and with this they
might recreate conditions like an incubator. You see, we must invent
and try to cope.
wonder what would happen if Dr. Qusay testified before Congress as Nayireh
did 10 years ago. Would we respond with the same moral outrage now that
such actions are American policy? Would we mobilise to end sanctions
with the same fervour that drove us to destroy Iraq, and its incubators
and its babies? Now, as then, any mother, Kuwaiti or Iraqi can tell
you child sacrifice is wrong.
writer is a the director of Voices in the Wilderness, a non-profit making
group opposed to the sanctions on Iraq.