HAMPTON - Numerous sources estimate at least 350,000 and probably more than half a million Iraqi children have died because of economic sanctions imposed by the United States in 1990.
"Until you see the faces, it’s just a number," said Winnacunnet High School senior Jared Middleton.
He’s never visited Iraq, but he has seen a documentary by New Hampshire filmmaker Tom Jackson titled "Greetings from Missile Street." By watching the film and interacting with other N.H. residents who’ve been to Iraq, Middleton learned something about the children there.
"The kids like to paint and draw," Middleton said.
That’s why he and his friends from the WHS chapter of Amnesty International have begun a donation drive to send art materials, toys, children’s clothing and basic medical supplies to Iraq.
The fact that this is illegal is both an obstacle and an opportunity for the kids. They plan to find some alternative route to get the supplies to the Iraqi equivalent of the Red Cross, but not before visiting a post office on Saturday morning, Jan. 26, and trying to mail the donations as a protest against the U.S. sanctions that prohibit Americans from sending anything to Iraq without a license from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
The WHS students will have to find a delegation that has a license or is willing to risk penalties by carrying items to the Middle East.
"That’s really the only way," Jackson said.
Jackson visited Iraq twice in 2000 with a group called Voices in the Wilderness. Now, members of that organization are facing $60,000 in fines for illegally delivering aid to Iraq without federal approval.
"There’s potential for really severe jail time and fines," he said.
According to U.S. Treasury Department spokesman Robert Nichols, "You can’t just send money to Iraq. We just don’t want to prop up their economy."
These sanctions, which first took effect only days after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, are aimed at keeping Iraq’s military in a weakened position. However, the United Nations Children’s Fund reports the sanctions have drastically impacted Iraq’s 23 million civilians, especially children. More than one in 10 babies born in southern and central Iraq die before they reach age 5. Five thousand children die every month.
"Diarrhea leading to death from dehydration and acute respiratory infections account for 70 percent of child deaths," states a UNICEF report on humanitarian action in Iraq released in October.
Iraqi civilians are in a catch-22. The Gulf War of the early 1990s destroyed much of their infrastructure, including water treatment facilities. Yet even though the U.N. has slackened the trade restrictions since 1996 through the "oil-for-food" program, Iraq is still unable to import enough water-purifying materials to produce the potable drinking water the people need. As a consequence, disease spreads quickly.
A U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency document dated Jan. 22, 1991, outlined the expected results of the U.N. sanctions on the people of Iraq.
"Unless the water is purified with chlorine, epidemics of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid would occur," the DIA reports states, as quoted in The Progressive magazine.
Middleton would like to be able to send chlorine and other water treatment supplies in the January package, but these dual-use items are on a list of goods whose shipment must be reviewed by a U.N. monitoring commission because they can be used in making weapons.
"Those are the really risky things to send," Middleton said. "We’re fully ready to be risky. To us, that shouldn’t be illegal."
When Middleton says "us" he means himself and friends Jake Hess and Chris Caesar, who have organized a group called Student Advocates for Freedom and Equality. It’s not an official extracurricular group at Winnacunnet, but a grassroots organization that aims to attract students from all over the United States.
Middleton says today’s youth are interested in peace, social action and accountable government. He’s also working with the American Friends Service Committee in Concord to recruit students from other N.H. communities to join the "Mail to Iraq" effort.
"So many people know the repercussions of U.S. intervention in a country that’s already knocked back to the Stone Age," he said. "The more that comes out about this war, the more upset they get."
The planned post office protest would certainly not be the first in the Seacoast. In August, more than a dozen members of Seacoast Peace Response tried to mail medical supplies to Iraq, but were snubbed at the post office on Daniel Street in Portsmouth.
"If they try to mail them, the post office is going to refuse to send them," Jackson said.
Seacoast Peace Response is the local arm of N.H. Peace Action, and that agency’s co-director Patrick Carkin said the Winnacunnet student activists are a rarity in the state.
"This is the first time I’m aware of a student group doing it," Carkin said. "It’s not too often that high school students do things like this."
Carkin said he is among nearly a dozen N.H. residents who have personally delivered humanitarian aid to Iraq in violation of U.S. law.
"Tomorrow they could come along and nail us with a fine and press charges," he said.
Ironically, Carkin argued, the same government that could prosecute him is guilty of destroying Iraq’s water treatment capabilities against the Geneva Convention.
"That, in itself, is a war crime," he said. "We prevent what treats the diseases as well as what will prevent the diseases."
As part of their relief packages, the Winnacunnet youth plan to send generic medical supplies such as aspirin and vitamin supplements, particularly iron.
"People can donate Flintstones vitamins if they want," Middleton said.
To help with the "Mail to Iraq" project, e-mail email@example.com or call the American Friends Service Committee at (603) 224-2407.
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