Dan Handelman/Voices in the Wilderness 43rd Delegation to Iraq

Frequently Asked Questions--May 28, 2002

*When did you get back? How long were you there? And did Customs stop you?

I got back to Portland Sunday, May 19. I was in Iraq May 9-16, eight days. We actually flew into Chicago on the 18th and walked through Customs with no problems. I have my videotapes (12 hours on mini-DV) and film (about 3 rolls, now developed).

*What was the most striking thing about your visit?

Three people told us the same thing: That many families in Iraq are so poor, they can't afford to eat the food they are given for free. Because the food basket only includes rice, cooking oil, flour, beans and sugar, people who want other food--say, eggs, cheese, or vegetables--or need to buy clothes or other essentials, sell parts of the rations since they don't have any other income. The three people who told us this were: Um Hayder, the mother of a boy who was killed by a cruise missile in a no-fly zone bombing in 1999; Prof. Richard Garfield, a nurse who has been studying the effects of the oil-for-food program over the last several years; and Tun Myat, the current head of the UN Humanitarian Program in Iraq.

*Has the health situation improved since you went last?

While the hospitals seemed to be less crowded, there appeared to still be too many cases of gastroenteritis and other water-borne diseases bringing children in, and in some cases, causing their deaths. There has also been an enormous increase in the number of cancers, leukemia, birth defects, and spontaneous abortions, which the doctors blame on Depleted Uranium. (The US used about 300 tons of DU, a heavy metal which has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, in the "Gulf War"). We were shown photos of babies born with organs on the outside, missing limbs, even missing their head. One child we visited in the hospital had stunted thighs, only about half the usual proportionate length.

*Are there any improvements?

Yes, frankly, the hospitals are much cleaner than they were in 1997--they no longer smelled like sewage; there were fewer flies; there were sheets on the beds (as opposed to bare mattresses stained with blood). In the streets, most cars in 1997 had cracked windshields and spurted black smoke. Such cars were much rarer, though many people were still driving older vehicles.

*What about the infrastructure?

We visited water and sewage treatment plants, and two members of the delegation went to an electrical plant. The water plants were functioning relatively well--including the four which had been repaired in part by money provided by Veterans for Peace. (Members of the Vets' Iraq Water Project were with us on the visit.) However, several people indicated that the way they chlorinate the water, for lack of regulators, was to "add more chlorine when the water looks more brown, and less when the water looks clearer."

At the sewage treatment plant, we were told that on occasion, the three pumps (there are supposed to be 5) can't handle the load, or a substation will break down, causing backflow which goes into people's homes and/or out into the street. The filter screen which was supposed to be cleaned mechanically (I will let you guess what got caught on the screen, let's just say it didn't smell too good) had to be cleaned by hand; a number of people working that job had fallen ill in the last year or two and two died.

At the electrical plant, my colleagues were shown how the turbines used to power the generators included scavenged jet fighter engines. Needless to say, getting spare parts for the regular turbines is hard enough without Iraq asking the UN Sanctions committee for parts to fix the jet engines.

Everywhere we went, the electricity was cut at some point in the day. Quite a few places (hospitals, hotels, restaurants, a TV station, a middle-class home) were hooked up to their own generators or to private generators which power up to 300 homes.

*What do you make of the new "smart" sanctions?

The new sanctions resolution (#1409) passed while we were in Iraq, in fact, on the same day we met with Tun Myat. He put it best when he told us that "no matter how much you try and modify [the existing program], it is not designed for -- and it will never be -- a substitute for normal

economic activity." He also stated, in response to a question about how Denis Halliday and Hans Von Sponeck, his two immediate predecessors, had both resigned, that "if by my resigning today, sanctions would be lifted tomorrow, I would be very happy to do so." He decided it would be better to stay on and do what he could to help improve the situation, since the other resignations did not lead to a lifting of sanctions.

In short, the 300-page list of "dual use" and "military use" items will likely keep the U.S. and the U.K. in the position to prevent many needed goods from entering Iraq, including ambulances, spare parts for the civilian infrastructure, and medical equipment for cancer treatment.

*What about the threats of a new attack?

While the U.S. seems hell-bent on destroying the country of Iraq once again, signs indicate that they will not have an easy time doing so. In addition to the outright rejection by most of the Middle Eastern countries visited by VP Dick Cheney, in Britain, the US' staunchest ally, Prime Minister Blair is facing serious opposition in Parliament on the idea of launching an attack without a U.N. mandate.

On my last trip, the U.S. had moved warships into the Gulf and everywhere there was graffiti reading "Down USA" "No, No America," etc. This time, nothing. As in the rest of the Middle East, all attention in Iraq was focused on the situation in Israel/Palestine.

*What do the people think?

As before, most people were wary to even utter the name of their leader. A standard response about Saddam Hussein is that he provides for them all and protects them. Most everyone had a story of hardship due to the sanctions; most people are not performing the jobs they went to school to learn. Some are cab drivers, some are shoe shiners; some were once engineers, some were once teachers. Many children are out in the streets daily begging for money or performing menial tasks for a few dinars. Average salaries seem to be between $3 and $10 a month, though some government jobs (including those in universities and hospitals) have some kind of bonus added which makes it easier to survive.

I had two striking interactions regarding September 11. In one, students at a University in Baghdad performed a play about 9/11. They portrayed Arabs living in America, who witnessed the attack. They were overwhelmed by the tragedy....but quickly recovered to blame the Zionist entity (Israel) for all that happened. (In a conversation afterward we discovered that the rumor about Jewish workers not showing up at the WTC is widely believed in Iraq, and indeed, the Arab world.)

The other was the tour guide in Babylon (yes, we did some sight-seeing, but not necessarily by our own choice), who said he felt the attacks in September were wrong because "only Allah should decide who dies."

*What was it like flying through the no-fly zone?

While we expected the Iraqi Airways aircraft to be a rickety propeller plane with just the 14 of us Westerners aboard, it was in fact a full-sized Boeing passenger plane which was nearly filled to capacity. As we flew from Baghdad to Basra, we were serenaded by various American songs about cities (Frank Sinatra--"Chicago, My Kind of Town," etc) and landed to Elvis singing "Viva Las Vegas." It was surreal. (While our trip was uneventful, I'm distressed that there have been either two or three bombings in the no-fly zone in the week since we got back.)

*Is it true that you can find anything in the markets in Baghdad?

While it is true that the markets are full of food and various consumer goods. most people can't afford to buy any of it. A small elite group (other than the inner circle of Saddam Hussein) has made money by importing goods and by selling electricity (see above) or water (often in Reverse Osmosis tanks in the south). I myself was able to find mini-DV tapes when I ran out, but it turned out it was a complete fluke--the man who owned the store had been to Paris and bought the videotapes while there; there were no more there, and possibly no more in Iraq for sale.

*Are you available to talk to my organization/media outlet/house party?

Yes, you can call me at the Voices in the Wilderness/Portland voicemail (503-299-4798), or call or email Peace and Justice Works (503-236-3065/pjw@agora.rdrop.com) to set up a talk or interview. I've got a seven minute rough edit made from the first three hours of my tape; I expect to be constantly working on adding to/changing/updating the video and eventually producing longer pieces for cable access/distribution through Flying Focus.

*Anything else you can think of?

Yeah, I'd really like to thank Martin Gonzalez and Cecil Prescod at the American Friends Service Committee office in Portland for their support and work while I was away (and since I've been back). If you feel moved to send support money, donations to AFSC/Portland can be made tax-deductible. Donations to Voices in the Wilderness/Portland, are not--but are much welcome. (I've spent several hundred dollars more than I planned to complete the trip and do the video). PJW and Flying Focus, too, are tax-exempt educational organizations.

Thanks to all of you who were concerned for my well being and who've welcomed me back. In my first week, I spoke at PCC Sylvania, on KBOO and OPB, to Melbourne, Australia community radio, and on the cable access program "The TV Set." We were covered in Iraq by Abu Dhabi Satellite TV, Iraq Satellite TV, and Al-Jazeera; we were accompanied by a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch whose multipart series appeared on that paper's website beginning Saturday, May 25.

I look forward to seeing you all and sharing more of my experiences, photos, and video in the near future. I also hope that together we can end the sanctions and prevent another war.

For information you can email: vitwpdx@agora.rdrop.com

Click here to see the Frequently Asked Questions list from before my trip.

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