It feels oddly like being at a wake in a funeral home. Our Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation members speak very quietly with one another as we wait for a hospital official to brief us about conditions at the al-Mansour Children’s wing of the Saddam City Medical Center. Dr. Mekki, the director, is away, so a hospital official went in search of a senior doctor to speak with us. I open my diary and it dawns on me that at this time four years ago, in March 1996, our first Voices in the Wilderness delegation visited Iraq. Now, 30 delegations later, little has changed within this hospital. What must doctors and workers here think as one delegation after another hears the litany of shortages and views the dying children?
When the senior doctor enters the office, my grim mood lifts immediately. It’s Dr. Qusay. My companions meeting him for the first time will probably regard him with the same warmth and esteem as I do. He educes a sense that we’re working in concert to solve intractable problems, that even little gains, in the face of overwhelming odds, are meaningful. When I first met him two years ago, he accompanied us up to his ward, apologizing that the elevator didn’t work and that the hallways were dark because they had no light bulbs. Suddenly he raced away in response to shouts for help at the bedside of Ferial, a seven-month-old who had suffered a cardiac arrest. Dr. Qusay swiftly bent over her and administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Ferial’s heart gave out in a fight against malnourishment and septicemia, full body infection. The hospital lacked both the nutrients and the antibiotics this baby desperately needed. I watched Dr. Qusay face the girl’s anguished mother to say, “I am sorry, but your child cannot live. We do not have the oxygen, we do not have the tube.” How many times has Dr. Qusay felt shattered, having to speak such words to disbelieving parents?
Now he explains to us that it is a challenge to invent new ways to help the children. And when something works, he says, “This keeps you hopeful.” He carefully details some of the greatest problems the hospital faces at present: they’ve run out of high-protein biscuits formerly supplied by UNICEF. They lack immunizations for MMR (measles, mumps and rubella). Sufficient batches of the vaccine arrive, but electrical outages interfere with proper storage.
So far, his tone has been that of a kindly teacher, one who wants us to understand. Then he lowers his head and shakes it back and forth several times. “We had a terrible tragedy recently. Our incubators are old and broken down, but we try to repair them. We placed an infant inside a patched incubator, thinking it would work, but the sealant was faulty, and the baby grew very cold. In fact, we lost that baby.”
I jot down the words, “Incubators — mom!” in my notebook. Shortly before the Gulf war began, I applied to join the Gulf Peace Team, a non-violent, non-aligned encampment that would interpose itself on the border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, between the warring parties. The organizers placed me on a list. To my surprise, I learned in early January 1991 that if I could be in Boston in two days, I could join a US contingent on the last plane to enter Baghdad. I had just enough time for a hurried visit with my parents, who tried their hardest to dissuade me from going. As I flew out their door, the last thing I heard my mother calling out, in her thick Irish brogue, was, “Kathy, what about the incubators? What about the incubators?” She was referring to testimony from Nayireh, a young Kuwaiti girl, who told the US Congress that she had witnessed invading Iraqi soldiers barge into a Kuwaiti hospital and steal the equipment. With luminous eyes and a compelling presence, she told of her horror as she watched the menacing soldiers dump babies out of incubators. Months later, reporters learned that “Nayireh” was actually the daughter of a Kuwaiti emir. Doctors in Kuwait could not corroborate her testimony. The supposedly stolen incubators had in fact been placed carefully in storage during the invasion, and the Hill and Knowlton public relations firm had effectively coached the young woman on how to give apparently false testimony.
“What about the incubators?” The Desert Storm bombardment destroyed most of Iraq’s electrical grid, in effect pulling the plug on incubators in hospitals across the country. It ruined refrigeration units, sewage and sanitation facilities. Lifesaving devices in modern hospitals were rendered useless if not destroyed outright. Thus, as the Allied bombing proceeded, my mother’s question became intensely relevant, but went largely unasked.
When our teams visit Iraq after nearly ten years of the most comprehensive state of siege ever imposed in modern history, we see incubators, broken and irreparable, stacked up against the walls of hospital obstetrics wards. Sanctions have prevented Iraqis from importing new incubators and from getting needed spare parts to repair old ones. There are many other vitally needed items that sanctions prohibit.
Dr. Qusay tells us of other methods he wants to pursue: “I have heard about the kangaroo method. I tell the mothers of tiny infants to try it. They can place the baby between their breasts and wrap themselves in a garment and this may keep the baby warm enough. Or I tell them to try to create conditions like an incubator. You see, we must invent and try to cope.”
If Dr. Qusay testified before Congress as Nayireh did ten years ago, would we respond with the same moral outrage now that such actions are US policy? Would we mobilize to end sanctions with the same fervor that drove us to destroy Iraq, its incubators and its babies? Now, as then, as any mother, Kuwaiti or Iraqi, can tell you, child sacrifice is wrong.