I recently informed an editor of a national news program about a delegation of Nobel laureates who planned to visit Iraq in March. He responded that “Iraq’s not on the screen now that the bombing has stopped.” A puzzling response, since on that very day, the US had bombed seven sites in Iraq.
Arriving in Baghdad on December 19, 1998, our nineteenth delegation to Iraq witnessed the effects of the “Desert Fox” bombings. Crossing the border into Iraq, soldiers noted our US passports and grinned. An officer joked, “Americans! I’m going to kill all of you!” This was our first encounter with the gallows humor that helps Iraqis cope with inescapable dangers. Sattar, our driver, told us that the intense bombardments of the past three days had terrified people. “All the walls, they shake,” he said, “and the children scream and cry. But what can you do? In Baghdad, even a maternity hospital was badly damaged. No place is safe.”
Sattar took us to visit Karima and her six children, just settling down to sleep in the room they share. Suddenly a man rushed in, shouting “Yalla, yalla!” as he pointed outside. Sattar calmly translated: “The bombing has started again.” En route to Baghdad, Arab fellow passengers had anxiously wondered aloud: “Will the US bomb Iraq on the first night of Ramadan?” Bracing themselves for a fourth night of bombing, Baghdad’s residents had their answer.
Anxious to let Sattar return to his family, we left Karima and checked in at al-Fanar hotel a few blocks away. Explosions continued, but the hotel staff seemed nonplussed. “Welcome, you are welcome,” they murmured, hoisting our bags on their shoulders.
One of our team members, Anne Montgomery, remained at the hotel while the rest of us went back to check on Karima’s family. As the bombing intensified, two hotel workers, Saad and Kamal, steered Anne down to their “bomb shelter,” a dingy, cluttered basement.
The next morning, we visited the Yarmouk hospital, where we met Qasim Risun. His left jaw was broken, he had lost hearing in one ear, and he had huge bruises on his forearm and forehead. His eye was also badly bruised and the left side of his face was paralyzed. Qasim and his family were sleeping in their living room when a missile crashed through the wall. The missile didn’t explode, so he, his wife and his three children crawled out alive, but injured. His wife and his daughter were also hospitalized. Susan, 9, was hit in the head by a piece of flying cement and is under the care of a neurosurgeon. His other children (18 months old and 20 days old) were not harmed.
On Christmas day we visited the village of al-Dayr, north of Basra. A teenager held his four-year-old brother, Sajad, as his sisters described an early morning blast that blew the windows out of their home. A bomb had hit the nearby microwave station that served as a telecommunications center. The children had wailed in sheer terror. Neighbors brought us a fragment of the missile, a heavy chunk of jagged metal bearing a serial number — a macabre Christmas gift.
Operation Desert Fox’s initial round of bombing, called “the first package,” was “delivered” at 4 am, causing 12 women to spontaneously abort their babies. Some speculate that more money was spent on the 400 Cruise missiles fired against Iraq in the combined “packages” than will be spent in repairing the damage. But no amount of money can remove the trauma inflicted on an entire generation of Iraqi children.