The Chicago-based group Voices in the Wilderness, which in the past has delivered medical aid to Iraq, has formed an Iraqi Peace Team composed of dozens of nonviolent antiwar activists maintaining an ongoing presence in Iraq. If war comes they will report from Iraq on its impact on civilians. The following account is by Elizabeth Roberts, now in the country (for more information see www.iraqpeaceteam.org).
I asked Fatima, a mother with nine children, all living with her husband and her sister in three rooms, “How are you preparing for the war?” She replies, “Oh, there is not much we can do. We have a few extra liters of kerosene for our stove and we buried some gasoline in the yard if we need to leave Baghdad. We are just waiting and hoping America will turn away from this war.”
Amal, an educated middle-class woman, lives near a bridge over the Tigris River. Her house was hit by a bomb in 1991. I asked if she had a bomb shelter. “No, bomb shelters are no good–we will just sit together in a room so if something happens we will all go together.” Her daughter reminds me of the Aamayria air-raid shelter in Baghdad, which was hit by a US missile in the Gulf War, killing 415 mothers and young children. Now there is the general suspicion that the United States will deliberately target bomb shelters, so few people plan to use them.
Staff members of a school we visit regularly are preparing the children for the coming war by shooting a rifle in the air when the national flag is raised, so the children get used to the sound of explosions.
The government distributed a combined November and December food ration, urging people to save any surplus. But many people either ate the extra food or sold the ration for much-needed cash. A representative of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization told us that if there is a war, many Iraqis will face severe shortages of food and water.
There is no sign of preparation for war on the streets here. Outside my window the roads are filled with cars and people. Gasoline is about 5 cents a gallon. The sidewalks are in bad repair, the stores are humble and dusty, and the items for sale are minimal. The place feels tired. Iraq was nearing First World status at the time of the Gulf War–now it is clearly Third World and struggling.
A few days ago we visited the UN Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq. The director there told us, “Sanctions paralyze every single aspect of Iraqi society.” There isn’t enough of anything–food, clean water, ambulances, medicines, doctors, teachers, tractors.
I had read about the deadly effects on Iraqis of the sanctions before coming here, but seeing them with my own eyes is a shock. I feel the imminent war inside me too. Our team meets almost every night to discuss scenarios for our response to an air attack, a ground attack or a coup. Feelings are strong and diverse. I feel afraid of being useless. But perhaps the service is simply to be here, to share in the suffering of a people attacked by my country.
Every morning I go to work at an orphanage run by the Missionary Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa. There are about twenty little boys and girls with severe cerebral palsy. Only two can speak a little and some cannot even raise their head. But they all have shining eyes and beautiful smiles. I spend three hours holding them, massaging them, singing and playing. Their gaze never leaves my face. They squirm across the floor to put their head in my lap. This is the only time I am not ambivalent. I belong here. I feed them and clean them. They stay focused on my face. This smile is all they want. Toys come and go but the face of a smiling adult is their heaven.