I first went to Iraq in 1992, after hearing for the first time about the traumatised child population of Iraq. And I was astonished. I saw a largely well developed industrial country, which had had some of the best hospitals in the Middle East, reduced to the pre-industrial age. During the ten visits I have made since 1992 it has just got worse. I have watched a country go from the impossible to the apocalyptic under the weight of sanctions.
Contrary to the propaganda, food and medicines are not exempt. You can export certain medicines, for example, but not the syringes to inject them. You can’t export dialysis machines, X-ray equipment or ECG monitors. Large numbers who were successfully receiving dialysis treatment have simply died.
It takes an age to get export licences. First you have to get permission to negotiate — in the case of Britain from the DTI — which can take months. Then you can negotiate. By the time you get the whole thing passed the price will have changed, so the paperwork is invalid. That’s before it even goes to the UN, which also takes months — again by which time the price will have changed.
Childhood cancers have gone up five-fold since the war, because of the depleted uranium used in weapons. When the weapons explode the depleted uranium burns off and can be inhaled or just lies around. 50 tons would cause half a million extra cancer deaths by the end of the century. There were 750 tons left from the Gulf War.
At one hospital I met a three year old girl who was bleeding internally as her capillaries had ruptured. There were no painkillers or rehydration fluid for her. Her eyes were full of tears: at three she had had to learn not to shed her tears as the sobs would increase her pain even more.
Another girl, Jasmin, had been waiting for a simple operation to correct a minor heart defect when the war started. Three years later, the minor heart defect having become a major one for want of the equipment to do the operation, she died.
Children have been affected mentally too. Ali, who was three years old when he attended the funeral of his father killed in the war, was so traumatised that every day for three years he would run away to his father’s grave and start digging with his hands, telling his father he could come out now as the men who had attacked him had gone away.
Another little boy I met wouldn’t go to bed without his shoes on, in case he had to go to the air raid shelter again. Most Iraqi children — a third of the population are under 15 — shiver uncontrollably during thunderstorms. They think the bombs have come back.
People in Iraq now have a lower calorie intake than people in Mali. The health care and clean water supply systems have been decimated. Whole families have committed suicide together as they have nowhere to turn, nothing else to sell or anywhere to borrow from.
There are five million people in Baghdad. In 1991 there were 60 ambulance stations equipped with up-to-date ambulances. Now there are two ambulances — with no sheets, oxygen, resuscitation equipment or anything for treating burns.
A member of the Emergency Committee on Iraq, Felicity Arbuthnot is a journalist with a particular interest in Iraq who writes about social and environmental issues for various publications internationally.