BAGHDAD, Iraq - Yes, as we stand in the dank wards of hospitals, 9-year-old children die of preventable diseases. Their mothers wail and are led away. Yes, rotting refuse piles high around overflowing dumpsters, without a garbage truck in sight in the whole city in a week. And yes, elite performers in the national symphony orchestra earn $15 a month and practice in their winter coats, lest they shiver as they play the notes of Haydn.
But who is to blame for the economic depression in which this once first-world nation finds itself?
As the 10th anniversary of the U.S. war against Iraq comes to pass, very few things are certain in this authoritarian regime we know so little of in the United States. But after a week in the cradle of civilization, arriving on the first civilian flight carrying Americans into Baghdad in 10 years, three things are certain.
Sanctions, backed now by no one but the United States and Britain, have all but snuffed out important chapters of public cultural life that once thrived in this jewel of the ancient Arab world. Also, the unprecedented bombing campaign, followed by a complicated embargo on medical supplies, processed by a shadowy Iraqi government, has led to massive numbers of cancer deaths in children. And finally, a U.S. public, lulled into complacency by its own State Department and its disinterest in world affairs, is complicit in this war of attrition.
Although U.S. air raids still - by all accounts - rain bombs down on Northern and Southern Iraq weekly, often killing civilians, it is the little things that have conspired to paint the grim picture in this proud Middle Eastern nation.
Little things like reeds for clarinets, strings for cellos and a broken heater in the symphony practice hall.
The Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra is a skilled group of 55 musicians and composers who come together each Saturday to practice for concerts performed every two months. Yesterday's "Peace Concert" in the Rasheed Performing Arts Center in Baghdad marked not only a war anniversary but also the beginning of a slow re-emergence from a dark past.
Mohammed, the soft-spoken, smiling conductor, leads the symphony with hands covered in scars. During sanctions, with electricity rare, he and his family used a kerosene lamp to light their home. One night it exploded, killing his wife and forever disfiguring his hands.
Near home in Seattle, the Sammamish Congregational Church of Christ donated replacement parts for the orchestra, which were received at a Saturday practice with open arms and genuine applause. Kareem, the principal cellist, has studied until recently at Indiana University, and has now returned to Iraq to dedicate his budding career to his struggling homeland. Kareem describes the effects of the sanctions on the artistic development of his orchestra as simply devastating. "Before the war, we were creating music; now, we are merely surviving."
Across town, in the back corner of the children's ward at one of Baghdad's top hospitals, an emaciated 9-year-old girl named Fahrat struggles to stay alive. She suffers from respiratory tuberculosis, Kalazar, and malnutrition, all preventable conditions. But under the cat-and-mouse game played by the U.N. sanctions regime and the Iraqi government, Fahrat is lost in the details.
Her tiny body - maybe 30 pounds - quivers as she slowly forces each breath. Her mother, covered head-to-toe in the traditional black Islamic gown, looks on as an IV protrudes from Fahrat's tiny wrist. As I blow from a bottle of sparkling soap bubbles, they cascade down onto her chest, and Fahrat contorts her face into a barely recognizable, but soon unmistakable, smile.
Fahrat suffers only because her doctors cannot provide a simple IV of lipids and proteins. Vanine and Intralipids, common in the West, were delayed by the bureaucracy of the "oil-for-food" program. Hemacile and hemagile - blood substitutes - are rationed, and are available only for emergency trauma victims.
Again, it's the little things that belie claims in the West that the oil-for-food program is "working."
All the while, as the orchestra members try to keep their homes lit with kerosene lamps, and Fahrat's doctors try to reassure her mother that the medicine will be here soon, Americans act as if they are not at war. We dash from the SUV to the office and home to the flickering television screen, not knowing, or perhaps not caring, about what is happening in the birthplace of our civilization. As the spin doctors of Iraq and the U.S. trot out reasons for their moral superiority and their questionable claims of acting for the public good, an observer in Iraq can see through the enigma of this tragedy.
Sanctions as a policy are ineffective - many goods find their way into the open night markets all over Baghdad. But it is the little things that, put simply, are breaking the spirits and killing the bodies of many Iraqis.
The Iraqi people love Americans, despite our appalling indifference. And the citizens on U.S. shores, if somehow inspired to recognize this creeping economic siege, at long last could stand up to their government and return the love of their sisters and brothers in the Middle East.
Mark West is on faculty in the Seattle University Communication Department, and directs the university's forensics program.
Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company