Monday, March 15, 2010

Seventh Anniversary of the Iraq War: Help Comes to the Garden of Eden

A few months after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted that the war would be “a long, hard slog.” Truth is, the victory that Americans expect, will be a longer and harder slog than Rumsfeld could ever imagine.

What policymakers forgot—or maybe never considered in planning the war—was the devastating aftermath that civilians must bear like the lack of the basic necessities of life including food, water, medicine; schooling for their children; families destroyed by death, illness, discord and homelessness; daily life severely disrupted; the land ravaged and polluted.

Iraq has not known peace for 25 years. It has endured a 10-year war with Iran, the Gulf War, sanctions, Saddam, and the seven-year American occupation. Iraqi citizens have been left with extreme poverty, 4 million refugees (half of them under 18), hundreds of thousands of dead, millions more wounded, a corrupt government that doesn't work—and tiny brown flakes of depleted uranium (DU) that float in the air, a topic of daily conversation among the women who recognize that DU has caused birth defects and miscarriages.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, the cancer rate in Iraq has increased by ten and birth defects by five. The increase is believed to be caused by depleted uranium used by American and British troops, who continue to use it today.

In the province of Basra alone, the cancer rate rose by 242 percent while leukemia among children under 15 rose 100 percent during 1976 to 1999, according to a study at the College of Medicine at Basra University. Children living in the area were falling ill with cancer at the rate of 10.1 per 100,000. In districts where the use of DU had been the most concentrated, the rate rose to 13.2 per 100,000.

Most diseases, like diarrhea, are preventable with clean water but women must walk long distances to get it.

Enter Haider Al Saedy, an Iraqi immigrant from a small village near Basra in southeastern Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers converge and empty into the Persian Gulf. He left his country in 1991 because of Saddam's brutal policies and lived for five years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia before he settled in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he eventually became a U.S. citizen.

In 2006, Haider returned to his hometown for the first time. What he saw was a complete breakdown of the city's infrastructure where there was little electricity or clean water. The streets were full of garbage and raw sewage seeped into the water supply. Dirt settled at the bottom of water bottles. The privatized water treatment facilities there were staffed by unqualified and untrained employees who are only there to make money.

He visited his nephew, Dr. Dhurgam, a medical doctor, who also told him that the hospitals lacked supplies like gauze, blood bags and urine sacks. They re-used syringes and had no antibiotics. But what doctors needed most were cancer medicines.

Haider also visited the nearby marshes, whose annual floods had created a resource-rich ecosystem and a 6,000-year-old civilization in the area known as the Fertile Crescent—presumed home of the Garden of Eden. However, instead of finding a thriving agricultural paradise, he discovered that thousands of people had died and lost their living after Saddam partially drained the marshes from 9,000 square kilometers down to 760 as payback against the Shiite Muslims who had opposed him.

They escaped to the marshes for safety, but their refuge was short-lived. In 1991, Saddam rained down more bombs and 30,000 Shiites fled the marshes and went to Iran to join 650,000 other Iraqi refugees. Thousands of others died. Then Saddam took out his anger on the 250,000 Marsh Arabs who lived there and attacked them with bombs, napalm and indiscriminate slaughter. The 65,000 who couldn't flee were sent to camps away from their homes.

The people in the marshes lack many of their basic needs, said Haider, and 32 percent have little access to clean water, which mostly breeds water-born diseases. They have no money, schools or power sources where they live so they must transport themselves by boat to other villages. Their whole way of life as a traditional water culture has been shattered.

Since the American invasion, 40 percent of the marshes were re-flooded but drought is shrinking them once again and the water remains very salty. The rest of the area is now a salt-encrusted desert.

"Mammals and fish that existed only in the marshlands are now considered extinct," said a 2003 United National Environment Programme (UNEP) study. "Coastal fisheries in the northern Gulf, dependent on the marshlands for spawning grounds, have experienced a sharp decline." Global biodiversity has also been ruined stretching from Siberia to South Africa because the marshes served as a way station and breeding ground for migratory birds.

To make matters worse, Haider's brother, a hydro-engineer, said that Syria, Iran and Turkey have constructed dams on the rivers bordering Iraq. In this way they trade their water for Iraq's oil.

Along the desert roads are trashed landscapes with scattered “villages” of refugees living in tents. Many of people have escaped from the ravaged cities of the north. They cook their meals over charcoal fires.

Haider felt a profound emotional heartbreak over these sights and stories.

When he returned to the United States, he was determined to do something for his former country. He gathered a few peace activist friends—Kathy Murphy, Maia Storm and Helen Salan—to figure out what to do. Together they formed Iraqi Health Now.

In December 2006, they sent a cardboard box full of syringes and gauze by U.S. mail. It took two months to get there.

Then they began to think bigger and enlisted more help from local peace activists. In March 2008, they sent a 20-foot container to Basra with over 100 walkers, 50 sets of crutches, 15 wheelchairs, dried food, toys, soccer balls, toiletries and over-the-counter medicines.

Iraqi Health Now also became a project of Healing the Children Michigan/Ohio.

Then again in May 2009, they sent a 40-foot container full of medical equipment and supplies, clothes, food, and 120 Hydraid bio sand water purifiers from Clean Water for the World, a Kalamazoo-based organization that sends simple, adaptable 35-pound water purification systems“to communities without access to clean drinking water.”

Surgical kits were donated by Borgess Medical Center through Sister Elizabeth Veenhuis, CSJ, patient representative for the Catholic hospital.

Dr. Richard Hodgman, M.D., arranged for a supply of medicines. (The long-time social justice activist had founded the local chapter of the Physicians for Social Responsibility in the 1980s.)

Iraqi Health Now also held fundraisers that attracted nearly 200 people for a delicious Middle Eastern dinner supplied by a local restaurant.

For the past three years, Iraqi Health Now has sent over 3500 pounds of medicines and medical supplies to Iraq. And all of the donations go directly to the Iraqi people living in villages and the marshes near Basra. There are no overhead costs or paid employees and it is a total voluntary operation.

The strength of Iraqi Health Now is in the personal contacts Haider has through his family and friends in Iraq. In this way supplies get to the people who need them. This is especially critical now since many NGOs and charitable organizations have left Iraq due to the lack of safety in the country.

During his visits back to Iraq, Haider soon learned that what the people most want from the American people is to care about them and to know and understand their suffering. So Bill Murphy accompanied and videotaped Haider on his trip last May and secretly took 15 hours footage lest it or his camera be confiscated by authorities. The film was edited down to 30 minutes by a Kalamazoo College videography student and local filmmaker, Matt Clysdale.

The highly emotional film also shows the Iraqis' big smiles and expressions of gratitude as the supplies are distributed. One mother of a severely deformed boy cries over her son's good fortune of getting a wheel chair. An old man lovingly pats his new crutches.

Haider and Murphy were in Iraq for three weeks. They made many new friends and discovered that what they had ultimately done was to bring together two communities half a world apart with aid, hope and smiles.

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