Sad woman of Basra 1998  by Alan Pogue

U.S. Threatens VITW for Seeking to Help the Dying

"We want to be human in a time when being human may be a literally criminal act." -Dan Berrigan (Voices in the Wilderness)

    When the U.S./U.K. military assault on Iraq commenced December 16, members of Voices in the Wilderness (VITW), a Chicago-based charity group, quickly gathered medical supplies and departed for Iraq the following day. Kathy Kelly coordinates VITW activities from her home in Chicago. She and three other VITW members comprised this spur-of-the-moment delegation to Iraq, the 19th since VITW began a campaign of civil disobedience against Iraqi sanctions three years ago. The limited amount of medical supplies they have been able to bring into Iraq amounts to "a mere drop in a vast ocean of need," she says, but by deliberately violating U.S./U.N. sanctions they have succeeded in bringing the issue home. On December 7th the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) notified VITW and four of its members that fines of $160,000 were pending against them for violating U.S. sanctions laws. On December 30th VITW responded to the OFAC: "We will not allow a government to dictate to our conscience. We will not allow the U.S. government, in the name of democracy or national security, to order us to cooperate with a strategy designed to starve the people of Iraq...."(1)

     The mounting Iraqi death toll may have had something to do with this extraordinary position. On December 1, 1995 the New York Times reported that 576,000 Iraqi children under the age of five had died due to U.S./U.N. sanctions, citing reports issued by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). UNICEF reported in 1997 that 4,500 children continue to die each month due to U.S./U.N. sanctions, a figure that has since been revised upward to 6,000 or 7,000 child deaths per month.(2) According to VITW, UNICEF predicts that 1.5 million children will suffer from malnutrition or a variety of untreated illnesses because sanctions have made basic food and medicines unobtainable.

VITW puts government on notice:
"We won't be party to this slaughter in the desert"

     A little over a month after the FAO report was released in December 1995, VITW sent a polite letter to Attorney General Janet Reno stating: "We can no longer be party to this slaughter in the desert" by continuing to respect the U.S./U.N. blockade. They affirmed their commitment to "solicit and transport medical supplies to the people of Iraq" while acknowledging that the penalties for violating U.S. sanctions could be twelve years in prison and a one million dollar fine. They also respectfully invited Janet Reno to join them in conscientious objection to the sanctions "which in themselves violate international law and are an affront to respect for human life and basic human rights."

     Evidently, the attorney general refused the invitation. On January 22, 1996, Kathy Kelly, VITW coordinator, received the following warning letter from the U.S. Treasury Department's OFAF by fax. The letter said:

"[Y]ou and members of Voices in the Wilderness are hereby Warned to refrain from engaging in any unauthorized transactions related to the exportation of medical supplies and travel to Iraq. Criminal penalties for violating the Regulations range up to 12 years in prison and $1 million in fines. Civil penalties of up to $250,000 per violation may be imposed administratively by OFAC. (emphasis in original)

     VITW had already counted the potential costs associated with their stand as was evident in their initial letter to Janet Reno. In February 1996 VITW replied to the OFAC's warning:

Literature for this campaign already includes mention of the penalties that could be imposed for aiding people of Iraq. We thank you for the clarity of the warning.

We also want you to know that we will continue our effort to feed and care for the children and families of Iraq. We will do so by collecting medical relief supplies and then by, openly and publicly, transporting these supplies into Iraq for delivery to people in need. We are governed not by rules that license people to bring aid to people in need, but rather by compassion. We invite you to join us in our effort to lift the current sanctions against Iraq and end the cruel suffering endured by innocent people.

     On March 25, 1996, the first Voices delegation to Iraq transported $16,000 worth of medical relief supplies to the al-Qadissiya Children's Hospital in a poor district of Baghdad. Afterwards the delegation visited the U.S. embassy in Amman, Jordan where they met with a U.S. consular officer and shared their concerns about the human devastation caused by U.S./U.N. sanctions. The consular officer informed them their violations of the sanctions regime was mentioned in a U.S. State Department press briefing the day before.

     Seventeen other delegations followed over a span of thirty months with no apparent retaliation on the part of the government. VITW member Bert Sacks traveled to Iraq three times over the past two years, delivering medicine and collecting information on the suffering sanctions are causing there. Upon returning from his last trip in October, he was interviewed by Common Ground's Patrick Mazza.(3) Sacks told Mazza that on his way back this time he stopped at Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland. He reflected on the deaths of approximately 1.5 million Iraqis since sanctions began in 1990, comparing it to the Nazi atrocities. Said Sacks, "As a Jew, I always heard, 'Where were the good Christians? Where were the good Germans 55 years ago?' ... Well, I can't stand by and be a good American when my country is doing this."

Iraqi child with swollen lymph glands

     Bert Sacks recalled a visit to a hospital in Basra, the southernmost city in Iraq only 70 km from the infamous "highway of death" - the strip of highway where U.S. warplanes incinerated thousands of trapped Iraqi soldiers with depleted uranium (DU) tipped armor piercing ammunition, cluster bombs and napalm.(4) According to VITW, 350 tons of DU shells, rockets and missiles were fired by U.S. forces in what may be accurately termed a nuclear war, "spreading tons of highly toxic uranium oxide particles into the air"(5) that are suspected of causing a huge increase in birth defects, childhood cancers and leukemia.

     At the hospital in Basra a woman "doctor spread out in front of her photographs of several dozen children who were born without a nose, without an eye, without an anus, with the legs not separate from each other, horrible things to look at," said Sacks in the interview. "I could imagine what it must be like for the delivering doctor to have to show a baby like this to the mother." Sacks said while this woman doctor was speaking to the group, she began to cry. "She was a very professional woman," he said, "but in the stress of this conversation she began to cry. It certainly affected me very much. Then she looked up when she composed herself and she said, 'This is a crime. This is a crime which your country is doing.'"

Fines for Delivering Medicine -- Customs Grabs Evidence

     When Mazza asked Sacks if he thought he would ever be charged for violating U.S. sanctions, Sacks replied, "We now think it's unlikely because we think the federal government is unwilling to confront the publicity of sentencing American citizens for the crime of bringing aspirins and antibiotics to save the lives of the 6,000 children who are dying every month in Iraq." The government proved him wrong, however, when a few weeks later the OFAC notified him of the impending fines. Sacks is named specifically in the Civil Penalty Proposal for a fine of $10,000 for making "currency travel-related transactions to/from/within Iraq."(6)

     These fines are related to a visit Sacks and three other men made to Iraq in late November, 1997. Upon their return a few days later the U.S. Customs Service seized several items from their possession - mostly photographic film, video tape, audio tape, note pads and photographs - in other words, records of what they observed in Iraq. When Sacks and his companions asked why these items were being seized, a Customs officer told them they were "evidence of crime."(7) In the Civil Penalty Proposal the OFAC advised the four men that these items would be "forfeited to the United States." In their response to this notice, VITW advised the OFAC, "We sincerely hope you have reviewed the video, pictures and notes, for we believe this material represents compelling evidence of a Crime Against Humanity. We request you return this property to its rightful owners at your earliest convenience."

     Last September Denis Halliday, U.N. Assistant Secretary General and Chief U.N. Relief Coordinator for Iraq, resigned his post in Baghdad as an act of protest against U.S./U.N. sanctions. Halliday was responsible for coordinating the 1995 U.N. "oil-for-food" resolution (986). Last September Halliday told the BBC that sanctions are "a totally bankrupt concept" and that his 13-month stint as oil-for-food coordinator had taught him the "damage and futility" of sanctions. "There is an awful incompatibility here, which I can't quite deal with myself. I just note that I feel extremely uncomfortable flying the U.N. flag, being part of the U.N. system here," Halliday told the BBC.(8) The day before he told the Associated Press, "The fact that we in the United Nations have been obliged to sustain ... the sanctions regime, for me is a very unfortunate and uncomfortable situation." Halliday left his 30-year career as a U.N. official in protest.

Phony Compassion

Starving child of Iraq

     This high profile defection, along with a growing awareness of the holocaust in Iraq, has prompted U.S. officials to float a proposal to remove the limit on the amount of oil Iraq may produce in exchange for "food and medicine." One unnamed senior White House official had the gall to tell CNN the proposal was meant to "show our enduring interest in trying to meet the basic needs of the Iraqi people."(9)

     This pretense to compassion was pawned off on the public in 1995 when the outcry over sanctions prompted the U.S. to support U.N. resolution 986, the initial "oil-for-food" proposal. This program failed, Kathy Kelly told The WINDS, because Iraq lacked the finances, infrastructure and logistical capacity to pay for U.N. monitors and distribute the food and medicine to its population. Increasing the amount Iraq can purchase is a "cynical gesture," she added. "It's like saying, 'Okay, get back in the race, but we've cut you off below the knees and we won't give you a prosthesis.'" In other words, the U.S. is saying, "Yea, we'll let you buy [food and medicine], but we know you can't," she said.

     Ms. Kelly told The WINDS that the Iraqi oil industry is so dilapidated that it cannot pump the amount it currently is permitted to sell under resolution 986 (a capacity further reduced by the recent U.S. bombing of oil facilities in Basra). Iraqi equipment and infrastructure is so destroyed or broken down that this nation is unable "to lift itself up by its bootstraps" -- a problem compounded by the "brain drain" of engineers and other professionals who have left the country. The collapse of oil prices have made recovery prospects even more grim, according to Ms. Kelly, who returned from her last trip to Iraq on December 29.

     Dr. Habib Rejeb, M.D., head of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Iraq, emphasized the gravity of the infrastructure needs in an interview with VITW one year ago. He said Iraq could trade oil for medicine "but you would be providing this in a vacuum because you don't have the equipment. If you buy laboratory materials and you don't have the equipment, it's give antibiotics but because of the poor hygiene in hospitals it's unlikely that you can prevent cross-infections. If you don't provide the proper food in hospitals, then you can't enhance recovery. You can't really work without electricity, you can't really work without water, and you can't work safely while stepping on sewage which comes out often. To improve the health situation you don't only need drugs because this is the tip of the iceberg....If you want to provide the proper care to the population, then you have to rehabilitate the infrastructure."(10)

Never Ending Sanctions

     Few people grasp the idea that Iraq's infrastructure is so ruined that they would be helpless if sanctions were completely dropped, a fact conveniently masked by the sanctions themselves. If sanctions and travel restrictions were dropped, the immense harm done to the Iraqi people by the Gulf War and eight years of sanctions would become evident to the world and, in the minds of our foreign policy elite, this must not be allowed to happen. Iraq is now a ruined country, and yet remains the sorry excuse for a massive U.S./U.K. military presence in the region. Iraq is helpless, and yet remains the convenient target of U.S. cruise missiles and smart bombs, timed to enhance the standing of politicians back home.

Iraqi toddler

     The tragic absurdity of U.S. policy toward Iraq was adequately summed up on May 12, 1996, by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.). On the CBS program 60 Minutes Leslie Stahl asked Albright about the estimated half-million Iraqi children who have died from disease and malnutrition as a result of sanctions. Stahl asked Albright, "Is it worth it?" Albright replied, "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, is worth it."

     What kind of government would punish people who take much needed medicine to dying children in a distant land? What kind of government confiscates photographic film and notes of its own citizens returning home with a story to tell? What kind of government perpetuates a policy that has killed over 1.5 million people, almost half of them children, and says "the price is worth it?"

     It is hard to know who to feel more sorry for -- the Iraqis or the Americans.


  1. VITW response to the OFAC, 12-30-98, VITW web site (emphasis supplied).
  2. UNICEF, updated figures confirmed by Dennis Halliday, former U.N. Assistant Secretary General and Chief U.N. Relief Coordinator for Iraq in a speech at Harvard University, 11-5-98.
  3. Copy of an interview available on the VITW Web site.
  4. See American Officials Charged With War Crimes, The WINDS.
  5. The Sanctions - Myths and Realities, VITW Web site, also, Allied shells 'may have given Gulf troops cancer', BBC, 3-2-98.
  6. Civil Penalty Proposed Against Voices in the Wilderness, VITW Web site, includes prepenalty notice from the OFAC dated December 3, 1998.
  7. VITW Response to OFAC, 12-30-98.
  8. U.N. official blasts Iraqi sanctions, BBC, 9-30-98.
  9. U.S. wants to lift ceiling on Iraqi oil sales, CNN, 1-14-99.
  10. The Sanctions, VITW Web site.

Written 1/18/99


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