I am nothing more than a timid college professor, but the likely murder of Margaret Hassan compels me to respond to her honesty, hospitality and ultimate sacrifice with my own painful, but ultimately hopeful tribute.
Margaret Hassan and I met in Baghdad for several hours in early October 2002, under the most dire circumstances -- a looming American invasion. Care-Australia of Baghdad, which Margaret headed, served as the lead NGO for water rehabilitation in Iraq.
My passport held my credentials: letters identifying me as a reporter for the Progressive Magazine and as a researcher for the Canadian affiliate of the Nobel Peace Prize awardee, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
I was traveling to Iraq to estimate the level of child mortality that would result if the US government unleashed its threatened war of "Shock and Awe". I had also come to Iraq as a member of a group of aging pacifists called the Iraq Peace Team.
The goal of the Iraq Peace Team was to save innocent lives by interposing our bodies between US bombs and missiles and infrastructure indispensable to the survival of civilians (such as water treatment plants, and the electrical plants on which the production of safe water depends). Article 54 of Protocol Additional of the Geneva Convention categorically bans attacking or rendering useless such items. Such guarantees of international law were grossly violated during the first US invasion of Iraq -- shockingly, as a matter of policy, laid down in advance in the US Air Force document Strategic Attack 2- 1.2, Elements of Effective Operations.
I marveled at the serenity and hospitality of the Iraqi people, including the staff at Care-Australia's Baghdad office. But what shattered me was Margaret's answer to my basic question: how was it possible that more than a decade after the previous US invasion, the water system of Iraq was not yet functioning? For the horrific result of its dilapidated condition was nothing less than a continuous epidemic of water-borne diseases so severe that they were now the leading cause of death among children under the age of five.
I expected Margaret to attribute the public health calamity to the manipulation of economic sanctions by the US government. Using the fig leaf of the UN, the US had prevented the normal importation of indispensable items of equipment for more than a decade. I myself had published an account of the partially declassified US Defense Intelligence Agency Document Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities -- the blueprint for destroying whatever had remained of Iraq's water system within six months by using sanctions to prevent the import of a mere handful of items of equipment and chemicals.
Margaret confirmed to me that the machinations of the US-dominated UN Sanctions Committee had denied and delayed many items indispensable for the rehabilitation of Iraq's water system. But nothing prepared me for what followed next. Margaret handed me a section of pipe of huge diameter. The pipe, however, was so clogged that only a trickle of water could pass through it. What prevented the necessary maintenance of such water treatment pipes? Margaret explained that any items which the Sanctions Committee did, from time to time, permit to be imported were paid for in hard currency generated by the Oil for Food program. Nevertheless, Iraq was required by the US-dominated UN to pay 100 per cent of the cost of these shipments at the border, before being allowed to inspect even these life-saving articles for usability or completeness. And, according to Margaret, the shipments were almost invariably incomplete and of unusable quality.
Such cruelty by officials of my own country shattered me. That night sleep was impossible. The next day I could not leave my bed. I recalled the warning of a Canadian psychiatrist who had worked extensively with ex- refugees like me, that the experience of the first five years of my life as a refugee/displaced person increased my risk of "falling apart" in Iraq. The Canadian doctor warned me that if I could no longer function, I should leave the country at once.
Following this medical advice, I took the next flight out of Baghdad. In my dazed condition, I mistakenly thought the Jordanian airliner taking me to Amman was traveling through the "no-fly zone". I remember looking out the window for US fighter planes and their heat-seeking missiles. Curiously I felt no fear. I was beyond caring. A part of me wanted to die.
Now, I realize that I should have followed Margaret's example and stayed in Iraq, even if I remained bed- bound, to share the fate of the Iraqi people. Surely if enough pacifists had followed the example of those who remained in Iraq -- people like Margaret, former Medal of Honor holder Charlie Litkey, and Kathy Kelly and many others from the Voices in the Wilderness and their partners in the Iraq Peace Team -- then this sacrifice would have averted the invasion, the subsequent occupation, uprising and civil war, and ultimately the kidnapping of Margaret Hassan. Surely there must be a limit to the number of its own ageing citizens that an aggressor country can bomb to death and still remain in power?
But unlike Margaret and the more courageous pacifists, I fled. The very least I can do is to tell the world of my personal encounter with Margaret's heroism, as well as the heroism of her staff and the people who voluntarily entered and stayed in Iraq in an effort to avert the calamity that has since befallen the people of Iraq and besmirched the last remnants of American Honor, whose own brand of terrorism risks brings down on itself the very terrorism it professes to be fighting.
If Margaret Hassan is indeed dead, then a great deal of vital truth and heroic humanity has perished with her. Something of infinite value has left the universe.
If Margaret is dead, then are we not compelled to ask who benefits by her death? And are we not compelled to memorialize her dauntless heroism by racing to any country threatened by future invasions and staying there to try and avert war by sharing the fate of the innocent?
Can there be any more fitting memorial to Margaret than to make wars and invasions impossible by interposing our bodies between their child-victims and the terror weapons of our own governments? Let us call future pacifist groups who take on this mission Margaret Hassan Peace Teams.
If the current invasion of Iraq has killed Margaret Hassan, then may the example of Margaret Hassan inspire us to slay war itself.
Tom Nagy (email@example.com) is professor of Expert Systems in the School of Business at George Washington University, Washington, DC. His writings include, "The Secret Behind the Sanctions: How the US Intentionally Destroyed Iraq's Water Supply," The Progressive (September 2001)
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