Their schools and hospitals in ruins, Iraqis hope the next generation finds peace
ERIC HOSKINS,SAMANTHA NUTTMay52003
WAITING FOR THE FUTURE
Their schools and hospitals in ruins, Iraqis hope the next generation finds peace
As executives with Toronto-based War Child Canada, an organization that provides aid to children in warzones, Toronto doctors Samantha Nutt and Eric Hoskins have made numerous humanitarian trips to Baghdad. During their most recent visit, from April 17 to April 26, they arrived in a city shattered by war. Nutt and Hoskins, who are married, toured hospitals and schools and found them badly damaged and looted. But many of the doctors and teachers the couple talked to hoped that a lasting peace had finally come to Iraq:
AT 6:30 A.M., five white GMC trucks with the letters “TV” spelled out with duct tape on the hood and doors pull up to the IraqiJordanian border. Four journalists and 10 tired, beleaguered aid workers get out. Dressed in matching cargo pants, pocketed vests and crumpled shirts, we shake hands and better introduce ourselves. We don’t know each other, having just met at the bakery (the last stop for fresh pita bread) outside Amman, Jordan, at 2 a.m. There, we formed a spontaneous convoy, as a measure of added security for the long, dangerous drive to Baghdad, a route rife with robberies, ambushes and shootings—enough to keep the United Nations and most aid agencies firmly rooted in Jordan.
Representing various nationalities, we proceed together to the Jordanian authorities and present our documents. Initial efforts fail, and we haggle our way up the chain of command to the border chief of police. After three hours of tea and exhaustive explanations, he taps his cigarette on the stack of passports and announces: “Those of you with press passes can travel to Baghdad. Anyone who is a doctor cannot. You must go back to Amman and get visas
from the Iraqi embassy.” It’s irrelevant that there is no official Iraqi embassy in Amman, or that a humanitarian crisis is unfolding. But we refuse to give up, and following a series of manoeuvres (waiting for the shift to change and passing off our Ontario driver’s licences as press passes), we are finally granted exit stamps.
As the convoy crosses into Iraq, it passes by a three-metre-high portrait of Saddam, with the former leader’s face scratched out, hanging above two U.S. marines at a check-
point. They’re young, with matted blond hair. They advise us to be careful and we set out on the five-hour drive across the desert to Baghdad. We must move quickly to ensure arrival before sunset. Hours later, as our convoy approaches the capital, it narrowly misses a car blockade that appears to be cover for an ambush. “AlHamdu Lillahf shout our drivers—thanks be to God—as they set their sights on the thick, black smoke stretching out from the city centre.
For anyone who has visited or lived in Baghdad, it is at once heartbreaking and compelling to see it now. Burned-out tanks,
cars and buses litter the streets. Garbage and looters overwhelm the city; smoke billows from buildings; homes sit in darkness. Perhaps the only government building that remains intact, with American tanks entrenched outside, is the Ministry of Oil. Statues of Saddam lie in ruins—one large bronze of the dictator at the entrance to the city still stands, but is decapitated.
A half-dozen American tanks and a handful of troops block all roads leading to the Palestine and neighbouring Sheraton hotels. These are home to the majority of journalists covering the war. Parts of the roof of the Palestine Hotel are a sea of cameras and satellite dishes. At night, residents of this city fall asleep, without water or electricity, to the crackle of gunfire while their stories are transmitted across the world.
A few things quickly become clear in Baghdad. The U.S. soldiers are much younger than you expect, and only some actually know where they are. A soldier from Texas asks: “How did y’all get here?” An explanation about the flight from Toronto apparently was not sufficient, because he still looks puz-
zied. “No,” he repeats, “I mean, how did y’all get here? We came in tanks.” We then explain that we drove from Jordan. “Where in Iraq is Jordan?” he asks.
It’s impossible for anyone new to Iraq to truly appreciate what it means to have a conversation with an Iraqi about Saddam. Questions that could not have been asked a few months ago are now openly discussed. On the way to the Iraqi Red Crescent Hospital, our translator, Rezaak, 43, talks about his brother, who was hanged with his driver
for accompanying a foreign photographer to An Najaf, 130 km south of Baghdad. At the hospital, Dr. Jamal, the newly appointed director, proudly holds up a file that he acquired from a friend who had rifled through documents in a recently uncovered intelligence office. “This is only one chapter,” he says, flipping through the pages. “All of these people reported about me because they were afraid of the regime. Before, I could not trust my closest friends, even my own father, my own son.”
Few Iraqis will tell you they ever supported Saddam, but few conceal their contempt for coalition forces. Iraqis worry about American plans for their country’s oil and future government. “I don’t care about Saddam,” says Dr. Jamal, “But we will not be like another Afghanistan or Palestine.” Rezaak agrees: “It is important that the Americans leave as soon as possible.”
At a meeting at the Palestine Hotel between aid agencies and the U.S. military, Col. King, the army representative in charge of coordinating the humanitarian response, restates his government’s position: “We’re
liberators, not occupiers.” But aid workers complain about security and the country’s shattered infrastructure. Then an Iraqi doctor comes forward. “I will tell you something very important,” he tells King. “Whenever Saddam came into our streets people would cheer. In the same way, when Americans come into our streets, people cheer. But just like we did with Saddam, when you walk away, we say, ‘motherfuckers.’ ”
It is virtually impossible to know how many civilians died. Hospitals report casualty numbers significant enough to suggest that several thousand were killed or injured in Baghdad alone. At al-Yarmouk Hospital, a 1,000-bed facility, doctors and nurses are haunted by the faces of those they could not save. Lists of deceased and missing are posted in the hospital’s waiting room—anxious relatives frantically scan them for the names of lost loved ones.
Dr. Tala Awkati is the director of the facility’s neonatal unit. Her ward is in a separate building from the main hospital. There is a faded stencil of Mickey Mouse above the unit’s empty oxygen canisters; the room’s dozen incubators sit empty. Awkati was forced to leave when she found herself, and her tiny patients, caught in a crossfire. She says Iraqi troops ordered her out, leaving three premature infants in incubators. Looters later shot the hospital’s security guard and stripped the wards of medications, beds, blankets, lights, even the ceiling fans. By the time she returned, the three infants had died. “Their bodies were decomposing, still in their incubators,” she said tearfully. “And the smell, I will never forget it.”
The hospital’s director, Dr. Ban Sami Basheer, puts her arm around Awkati. As they console each other, Basheer turns to her friend and says, “We’ve only seen wars and bodies and still we are not seeing anything else. It’s too late for us, we are hoping for the next generation now.” But the empty incubators are a painful reminder of the three tiny members of a generation lost to war.
Half of Iraq’s 24 million residents are under the age of 18 and have grown up knowing only war and sanctions. Disillusioned about their futures, many can’t even return to school because most have been damaged, looted or burned. The Babylon School for Girls, which is located down the street from al-Eskan Children’s Hospital, is one of those that was badly damaged. In its front yard, students have painted murals of
THE SURRENDER OF ‘MOST WANTED5 NO. 43
Just before the war in Iraq, Tariq Aziz threatened that invading American troops would leave in body bags and that every Iraqi would fight until the last bullet was spent. There was little bravado, however, when the deputy prime minister surrendered to U.S. forces in Baghdad last week. American intelligence heralded it as a major coup, but the fact that he was No. 43 on the U.S. list of the 55 most wanted of Saddam’s aides may reflect his true value. The former journalist’s flawless English and mastery of foreign affairs helped make him the most public face of Saddam Hussein’s government, but he always seemed an odd fit with some of the brutal men in the Baath party. In fact, the 66-year-old appeared to have fallen out of favour in recent years, being demoted from foreign minister to deputy PM. Nevertheless, his position in the Iraqi regime may prove valuable. The U.S. hopes that Saddam’s former right-hand man-who had a soft spot for fine whisky and Cuban cigars-will provide them with information about the whereabouts of the deposed leader and two sons.
Meanwhile, as American soldiers searched for other Saddam henchmen, Jay Garner, the American administrator of Iraq, said an inter-
file Iraqi flag, flowers and girls playing. But tanks knocked down the brick wall surrounding the school, and looters later helped themselves to everything they could carry.
The principal, Nooria Hatem, who has worked at the school for 23 years, now has other concerns. As she walks around the property, she steps over rubble, bullet shells and broken glass. In the schoolyard an unexploded grenade lies in the tall grass. In-
THEiR BODIES were decomposing, still in their incubators,’ she said tearfully. ‘And the smell, I will never forget it.’
side, there is a cache of weapons: bazookas, rocket launchers and machine guns—some still in wooden cases with foreign labels. “When I saw what happened, I cried,” Hatem says, exasperated. “Who will pay for all of
im Iraqi government would start to operate this week. Specific plans were tightly guarded, but George W. Bush said he expects democracy to take root, adding that the U.S. would help in building “a government of, by and for the Iraqi people.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld clearly stated one certainty about post-war Iraq. A government dominated by hard-line religious clerics, he said, “isn’t going to happen” if the United States can help it.
this? How will the girls go to school?” Unexploded ordnance continues to plague Iraq’s children. The al-Eskan Children’s Hospital alone continues to see five or six new cases of severe injury from explosions every day. On the day we visit, 18-year-old Hassen Mussin arrives with severe burns to his face and arms. He stretches his arms out to his mother in pain, as she explains that he was working in the garden and accidentally stepped on an explosive. Later, at another meeting with aid agencies, the issue of unexploded ordnance is raised. “Iraq is the largest munitions dump I’ve ever seen,” explains King. “Our teams are doing what they can but it will take time.” But Iraqis are becoming impatient. Unshackled from Saddam’s brutality, they now want the prosperity that once only benefited Saddam’s followers. Sitting in the home of an Iraqi friend, Dr. Akila, we listen to her sum up her experience of life under Saddam. “The last 30 years were confiscated from me,” she says. Akila, like many Iraqis, is hoping her future will not be confiscated as well. M
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