PRESIDENT Bush's assurance during the Gulf war that "the war is not against the Iraqi people" kept ringing in my ears throughout a recent trip to Iraq. Yet "Desert Storm" has now been moved directly into Iraqi homes. This latest "surgical strike" is turning out to be neither "clinical" nor "gentler and kinder."
As a result of the United Nations sanctions, many in Iraq don't get enough to eat, but they are hungry with dignity. Many others have succumbed to diseases, but they are willing to die if their pride remains intact. It is only the most vulnerable members of the society who have given up - babies, children, the enfeebled, and the sick. Conversely, Saddam Hussein and his ruling cadre are neither hungry nor dying.
Yet the staying power of ordinary Iraqis in Baghdad appears invincible. Their lives are shattered, their homes in shambles, but, amazingly, not their spirits. With diligence, courage, and unusual perseverance, the ordinary people of Iraq are struggling to rebuild their war-torn country.
Most of the rubble is cleared; all the Baghdad bridges are repaired; highways and many demolished buildings are being reconstructed at a rapid pace; essential telephone and power lines are back in operation; vast date groves are being cleared for alternative cultivation; formerly abandoned lands are now being plowed; the government's efforts to liberalize what's left of the economy are even more vigorous than they were before the war.
"Why are you Americans doing this to us?" was repeatedly asked of us by Iraqis, both in Baghdad and Karabala, a Shiite holy city. It was as though they expected an answer that made sense.
When this question about the sanctions was first posed to me by our Iraqi driver during our 14-hour journey from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad, I was caught off guard. I turned to my husband, a professor of Middle East and Islamic history, for help. "Why, Howard?"
The obvious answer, of course, was, "Get rid of Saddam fast or you are doomed to go with him." But at that moment neither of us could articulate it. One university student had his own answer: "In the brave new world order, Big Brother Bush wants us to obey all his commandments, cloaked in UN resolutions!"
It is the women of Iraq today who carry the greatest brunt of this tragedy. They are the ones that deal day-to-day with the malnutrition-related diseases that their families suffer. They are the ones who sit on hospital floors with their dying babies; who go through the motions of nursing, with sagging breasts that have no milk, babies too weak to suck; who have to wash diapers in contaminated waters; who have to suffer when the pain of their children is not relieved because the hospitals have run out of
medication and supplies.
Above all, it is the women of Iraq who have taken it upon themselves to prevent the starvation of their children and families. You see them bartering off their jewelry, silverware, rugs, furniture, household appliances, and even clothes in return for food. Most Iraqi men are unemployed today because Iraq's economy depends so heavily on oil and on the trade now interdicted by the sanctions.
Many Iraqis say they would rather starve than allow the UN or any other outsider to dole out food to them. Iraqis will never accept enforced charity. They appreciate the way their government is distributing the little food they had.
The Red Cross and other international agencies that conducted house-to-house surveys in 17 of Iraq's 18 provinces last August and September agree with this assessment. They say the current food distribution system in Iraq is "remarkably" efficient and fair. They warn that attempts by outsiders to feed 18 million people would result in utter chaos, hoarding, corruption, and possibly famine.
Aside from hunger, malnutrition, and disease, the entire social structure and family life of Iraqi people have been disrupted. Ordinary "small folks" no longer visit each other, which is the core of entertainment in the Arab world.
Iraqis have personalized the Gulf war and the sanctions. They direct their wrath against President Bush rather than lash out against a less tangible entity called the UN Security Council. All over Baghdad you hear Bush's name chanted with hostile slogans. Many Iraqis blame Bush for "deliberately" starving them "like Stalin did to the Ukrainians." Saddam Hussein is not their "Hitler." Bush is their public enemy No. 1.
As hard as we tried, we could not make a single person in Iraq admit, even behind closed doors, that Saddam was to blame for their current tragic plight. Some admitted that he was "ruthless," though often adding, "not any more than those who are brutalizing us today." They were convinced that Saddam had no other choice but to retaliate against Kuwait for waging "economic war" against the "motherland." Most Iraqis view this conflict as "a family quarrel" which would have been resolved without a massive wa r if left alone.
None of those we spoke with believed that Saddam was interested in Saudi oil. (Nor did anyone we talked to in Saudi Arabia.) Weapons of mass destruction that Saddam had amassed, they said, were necessary as a "deterrent" as long as others in the region possessed them. They reminded us that Saddam didn't use them even when cornered and that he warned in advance that if Baghdad were attacked, Kuwaiti oil would be burned.
At the same time, they accuse the United States of committing "war crimes" by burying Iraqi soldiers alive during "Desert Storm" and resorting to collective punishment after victory. They call the sanctions "America's newest weapon of mass destruction," and consider destruction of the water and sanitation system of a crowded city to be "biological or germ warfare."
An important lesson of the war, especially in third-world countries, according to Iraqis, is: "Use all your options because the victor will punish you savagely regardless."
Now back in comfortable America, what torments me most is not what I saw or what I heard. It is what I did not see or hear.
Nowhere in the children's hospitals in Baghdad and Karbala did I see a child talking or smiling, let alone playing; there were only little limp figures whom this world had forsaken. Nowhere was I reassured by stretched out little hands to grab the goodies I was offering; there were only their forlorn blank looks with their huge brown eyes staring at me. Nowhere in those dreary corridors did I hear howling babies, screaming children; there were only whimpers and moans.
They had no strength to cry. They could not say, "Why are you doing this to us?" And I will never be able to say, "I do not know."