Report by Felicity Arbuthnot, a Freelance Journalist
Felicity Arbuthnot is a freelance journalist, who has visited Iraq on
many occasions since
the end of the Gulf War. She has just returned to Britain from her eighteenth visit. In the first
of a two-part interview she explained to Barbara Slaughter how she became involved.
Like many others I had opposed the Gulf War. I knew that, like the war in Yugoslavia, it was about
the strategic interests of the western powers and not about either Saddam Hussein or "little Kuwait". At the end of the war
I thought, "We did our best and failed. And now the rebuilding of the country will begin."
A few months later I attended a press conference given by Magne Raundalen, a Norwegian professor in child psychology, and Eric Hoskins, a Canadian public health expert, on child trauma in Iraq. They were the first people to report what was actually going on.
Nothing was being done to help and I felt impelled to go to Iraq and see for myself. A week later I was in Baghdad and I was appalled by what I saw. It was a country which had, as James Baker had threatened, literally been reduced to a pre-industrial age; a country, which had been highly dependent on modern technology, was just being left to rot. What was unique was that this was done in the name of the people of the United Nations. It will go down in history as one of the great crimes of the twentieth century, along with the Holocaust, Pol Pot and the bombing of Dresden.
This was my 18th visit to Iraq since the Gulf War. The last four have been very close together: last October, January/February, I went back at the end of March and then again in May.
Each time I am struck by the deterioration. Each time there is another horror. In March it was the daily bombing of the infrastructure. The electricity has just died. Many people can't afford candles and use makeshift lamps. People put a wick in a bottle with oil and quite often the bottle explodes. The injuries have soared. The burns are horrendous and there is no treatment, not even cling film as an emergency measure to cover the wounds. There are no painkillers. There is no plastic surgery.
There were two other things I noticed. Like with every embargo in history, there was a small amount of profiteering in money dealing. You have a fraction of the population at the top of the regime who have family abroad sending in dollars. There are restaurants springing up. You can get Christian Dior sunglasses, absolutely anything. Yet 98 percent of the population don't have a way of sterilising burns.
The other thing that struck me was the breakdown in the spirit of these very brave people. They feel that it is never, ever, going to end. Yet when I became ill on this trip, they were so concerned. I suddenly collapsed in the hotel foyer in Mosul and was virtually unconscious. My interpreter and my driver kept letting themselves into my room, touching me on the head and saying: Are you all right? Shall we get a doctor?" They were saying, You keep coming back here and Iraq has made you
I was in and out of consciousness for about 18 hours. I don't know what caused it. I just think the atmosphere is poisoned. The colleague I was with was also affected. She would be ill and I would do the interviews and then she would do the interviews the next day. We didn't go to hospital because we felt that we would be taking medicines needed for other people, so we just battled on. It was a nightmare, but they were apologising to us because Iraq, where they had to live, had made us ill.
Another thing that struck me was the unique way they have of announcing a death in Iraq. They have these death notices, which are called naie. They take a large piece of black muslin and they write on it in whitethe name, the age, the cause of death. Then they write the name in bright yellow. They put one outside the home and, if the person has died somewhere else, one there too. In March, if you were driving around for an entire day, you might see perhaps two. This time, in 13 blocks in one
area of Baghdad, I counted 18. It became a thing, to count them. In one very small square, there were three on one wallso the whole family had diedand one on the opposite wall.
Iraq has been more or less at war for 20 years, starting with the Iran-Iraq war. It is a nation that has been starving for 10 years. The doctors say that more and more people are dying, particularly young men aged 30 to 35. These are young men who have had all their formative years under the embargo. Now they see middle age approaching and they just give up and die.
Mosul is in the no-fly zone. What a misnomer! The British and the Americans are bombing there every single daywith a two-week break in March and a four-day break in May. One day last week, there were 100 sorties. At night you can't sleep for the sound of anti-aircraft guns.
I'd gone to the area near Mosul because I'd heard that they were bombing flocks of sheep. Middle
Eastern friends told me that it was becoming like a target practice for the pilots.
They are also bombing in Basra but I was in Basra in March. Mosul has the largest Christian population in Iraq. It has ancient
Christian monasteries and wonderful buildings that go back to the time of Petra. I went in search of the flocks of sheep and found one in the middle of the plain, in the middle of nowhere, that had been bombed on April 13.
We went to the village where the family of the shepherds lived. A little, tiny, very poor, pastoral village of Christians and Muslims, with no oil installations and no military. The houses were built like the adobe houses in Arizona. These people had been living together in a mixed society of Muslims and Christians for centuries.
The bombing took place on a Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, and a very hot day. There were 105 sheep and goats. About 50 people had gone down to the plain with the shepherds. In the early dawn, before it got hot, they were having a kind of Sabbath celebration and sharing their food and drink. Then the villagers drifted off and the family of six were left. There was the grandfather, who was 60, the son who was 37, and the four children of whom the youngest was a boy of six.
As they left, the villagers heard a plane circling. It circled for about three hours, and they were listening because the area has been bombed so many times. Then they heard the bombing and they ran to see if they could help. They searched for the entire day, and by nightfall, they could only find enough remains to bury the family in two tombs instead of six. They could identify the torso of the old man, and that's all they found. His head, his arms, his legs, were all blown off.
The six-year-old boy, Soultan, had just finished his second term in school. His marks had been very good and he was so proud of them. There is still this incredible adherence and passion for culture and education in Iraq. He had got a ballpoint pen (vetoed by the UN) and a piece of paper (also vetoed by the UN), and taken them down into the fields with the sheep to practice his writing and arithmetic.
The villagers couldn't identify even one bit of him. One of his relations looked at me and grabbed my notebook. It was a very personal thingalmost like a sort of "witness". He said, I have to write not you. I have to write their names down in your book. His hand was shaking and he had tears on his cheeks. When he wrote the name of the little boy he
said, What do they want from us? All he had was his pen. Is that what they want?
This area is in the middle of a huge plain, surrounded by mountains, with a tiny village nearby. The sheep would have stood out starkly. The family had a red tractor with them and a battered white Toyota pick-up truck pulling a water barrel for the sheep. All of this would have been clearly visible.
I spoke with a Dominican priest, who was from the Lebanon. He was 60 years old and very academic and measured, but he was incandescent with fury. He told me that the Iraqi people are very moral, and that they only had their dignity and their morality left. He said, Just before you arrived, 24 people in a Christian village, a small pastoral community living totally off the land, were killed by an American bomb. It's just the Americans and the British."
I heard this repeatedly. The planes take off usually from Turkish air bases, he continued. We keep reading in the western media that they are bombing legitimate targetssuch as radar that is locked on to them. Why don't they say that they are bombing just for the sake of it, because that's what we see?
Every day mothers are losing children, children are losing mothers and fathers, brothers are losing sisters, sisters are losing brothers. This is the cost of it.
He made a very interesting point, which the Ministry of Defence and the
Americans won't talk about. He said, They are bombing from a distance
of fifteen kilometres, but our anti-aircraft guns only have a distance of five
kilometres. So how can we be a threat to them?
I rang the Ministry of Defence and said, I've just come back from Iraq
and I've seen evidence that you are bombing sheep. What are your
comments? The spokesman replied, We reserve the right to take
robust action whenever we are threatened. I asked Against sheep?
Then I just gave up and put the phone down.
Another question that has to be asked is whether they are continuing to
use depleted uranium bombs? I looked for evidence, but didn't find many
pieces of the tractor and none of the bomb. The relatives told me that the
authorities took the fragments away. They said it was a 500lb bomb, and
the crater confirmed this. But I couldn't get confirmation of what type it
was. The senior spokesman at the Iraqi Ministry of Defence said, We
are not releasing anything on the bombing until we are one hundred
percent sure, because everything we say is rubbished by the western
press and the United Nations. In my experience this is true.
I asked the Ministry of Defence in Britain whether depleted uranium
missiles are being used in northern Iraq, but they refused to comment. I
asked whether they were using them in Yugoslavia and were we going to
see a crop of birth defects and cancer like we are seeing in Iraq? Are we
going to see a rerun of Gulf War syndrome now the soldiers are on the
ground? He replied, Our personnel have been given the strictest
instructions, handed down by the Minister for the Armed Forces,
Douglas Henderson, to all the senior officers, that none of our personnel
are to approach anything that might have been hit with depleted
uraniumany burned out tanksabsolutely totally not. And if it is
unavoidable they are to be issued with special instructions, special
protective clothing, and special breathing apparatus."
I then said, (and this applies of course both to Iraq and Yugoslavia),
"Excuse me, but what about the people living there? What about the
refugees?" He would only address Yugoslavia and he said, "That's up to
UNHCR". So I asked if UNHCR had been informed. He didn't know
and I haven't been able to contact anyone that does know.
One of the questions I've asked both in the west and in Iraq is why are
they targeting sheep, and I really can't come to a conclusion. It seems so
irrational, but I wonder, is it just target practice, or is it their intention is to
destroy the food chain? For these pastoral people, the sheep, the barley
and the wheat they produce are everything. It's so basic and nothing is
wasted. They use the meat and they sell the excess. They use the leather.
They use the wool. Every single bit of it is utilised. They boil down the
bones for soup, for gelatine and for preserving. This is all they have.
After the Gulf War even the date crop went wrong. Dates are just dates.
They sit on top of a palm tree and just grow. You don't spray them with
anything or fertilise them. But there was no date crop for five years. The
date harvest in Iraq is a big thing. They have nearly 600 different kinds of
dates and they were the world's biggest exporter. But they killed the date
Since then there has been the screwworm epidemic, foot and mouth
disease, which are both non-endemic to that country. There are now
reports of locustsalso non-endemic. It's difficult to know what is going
on, but what is certain is that there are diseases happening right across
agriculture affecting flora and fauna, in Iraq that have never been seen
All over the area where the bombing happened there are monasteries
going back to the period just after Christ. There is a Dominican
monastery where it is said that St Matthew was buried. On the other side
of the valley, there's a mosque named after Jonah, who is reputed to be
buried in the same place. We went to this wonderful Christian monastery
on top of a mountain and I interviewed one of the priests. He was blind.
He told me that St Matthew had powers of healing and people come for
healing from all over Iraq, from all denominations and all religions, to this
ancient little chapel.
While we were there an ambulance drew up. There aren't many of them,
so they must have been a relatively wealthy family. Inside was a woman
who had been in a coma for eight months. Something had gone wrong
with the anaesthetic she had been given. There are all sorts of problems
with the stuff that's going in. The woman was a Muslim and her father
was a surgeon in the same hospital where she was being cared for. They
were coming for healing from a Christian saint, and just down in the
valley we were bombing pastoralists with their flocks of sheep.
On May 18, Tam Dalyel MP asked Tony Blair why the bombing was
continuing. Blair replied, and I quote, "We are doing it for the protection
of the people of Iraq." When I told this to the Dominican priest, he said,
"They are saying this in the British parliament? In the Mother of
Parliaments they are saying this?
The current claim from Blair and Clinton is that Iraq is withholding food
and medicinethat the warehouses of Baghdad are overflowing. But
even a spokesman for the UN has admitted that the logistical problems
are an absolute nightmare. There are no refrigerated trucks; there are no
phones outside Baghdad. You have to target these inadequate amounts
very carefully. You have to know what Basra, which is seven or eight
hours away, actually needs, You have to know whether they have a
refrigerated warehouse. Well you probably know that they haven't,
because the electricity is off practically seven days a week now. So what
are you supposed to docommit medicines to an unrefrigerated truck,
probably to arrive at a warehouse that has no refrigeration, then take it
back when it's going to be totally destroyed?
A few months ago a large consignment of medical equipment finally
arrived in Baghdad that had been vetoed by the US since 1990. There
were scanners, X-ray equipment and other sophisticated stuff. But what
nobody at the UN had taken on board was that Iraq's technical
knowledge is so out of date now, that they are not able to install it. They
also lacked the necessary materials for the job. For example, they need
special cement, because if there is anything wrong in the cement it can
interfere with the readings. So the equipment that is desperately needed
in the hospitals is just sitting in a warehouse.
Al Mansour Hospital in Baghdad, was once one of the finest teaching
hospitals in the Middle East. Most of the time it has no electricity. The
temperature is about 125 degrees Fahrenheit; the heat is such that you
are constantly in your own personal steam bath. There are children,
mainly leukaemia victims, dying in these impossible conditions. And the
equipment needed for their treatment can't be installed because they
haven't got the parts for the generators. When the electricity does come
on you get a big surge in power, then it dies again, and then another
surge. You can't keep having these sudden great power surges without it
affecting the machines. So they can't be used.
Yet the bombing continues and has done every single day since the
"cessation of hostilities" after the four-day bombing in December 1998.
We've destroyed the entire infrastructure. And now our representatives
stand up in parliament and in the Senate and blame Iraq for not being
able to distribute stuff. It's double standards on a scale almost impossible
I walked round the wards in hospitals in Baghdad and in Mosul, and I
looked around at those kids who could be saved but were dying, for
want of chemotherapy. I was with the doctors, who were trained to heal.
If they had done everything they possibly could and a child died, it would
be a disaster. But they hadn't even got the necessary tools. I asked them,
"How do you feel? How do you cope? How do you even get here?"
Every time I got the same reaction. They almost cried and said, "You are
the first person to ask me that. Everybody leans on me. How do I cope?"
One doctor told me how he'd got a job at Al Mansour hospital. He was
a senior house officer and he was really proud, in spite of his problems.
He thought "I'm young and I'll survive the embargo. I still feel I have to
put something back."
He said that when he came to work there he had a car and now it has
collapsed. The hospital is about twenty minutes drive from the centre of
Baghdad, but the public transport system has also collapsed. When he
leaves work to go home he has to walk to the main road, which takes
him about an hour. Then he has to hitch hike and wait until a car stops.
And because of the collapse of the social fabric, he is not even sure that
the person who picks him up isn't going to mug him for the few dinars he
has on him. Then, at maybe four or five o'clock the next morning, he has
to walk back on to the main road, hitch a lift and then walk an hour back
to the hospital. This is how the doctors survive.
I spoke to a senior charge nurse whom I've known for years. She was
one of the few nurses left in the hospital and again her salary wouldn't buy
you a bus ticket back into town. But she is committed because she has
been there for 27 years, and she told me how proud she was in her job
and her passion for these children.
She encourages them to draw pictures, if there is anything for them to
draw with. She took me round the wards and said, "This is Jasmine's
picture, this is so-and-so's picture". Then she looked at me and at these
beautiful pictures, of birds and trees and starsone had a lovely person
in a wedding dress, you know, children's pictures with sunshine and so
on. She told me all their names and ages and said, "She died yesterday.
He died last week. He died three months ago." Then she looked at
herself in what I thought was a very neat, white uniform and said, "Look,
look. I would have been so ashamed to come out like this, but now I
don't care anymore." What had been her tights she had cut down and
down as they had split round the back and got more and more tattered
and she was now wearing them as sort of pop socks.
Then she said to me "I've only water to offer you, but it's clean." She
explained how difficult it is, because her monthly salary wouldn't even
buy three bottles of clean water. But she and her sister had found a way
of filtering the water that they thought was ok. "You know I wouldn't
offer it to you if I thought it would make you ill," she said. She explained
to me in this hundred and twenty-five-degree temperature how, about
three weeks before, her refrigerator had finally died. A refrigerator costs
three million dinars and her monthly salary is three thousand. She
explained that in this great heat they somehow needed the water to be
cold. The refrigerators in the hospital do sometimes work, at least when
the electricity is on. So having found a way of filtering the water, she
takes what she knows is dangerous ice from the hospital refrigerators and
adds it to her drinking waterthis is the crazy upside down world that is
Second Part of the Report
I think the biggest disaster is what we are laying
down in the Middle East. There's this sort of bewilderment, particularly
about Britain. They have all written off the US as a maverick crazy state.
But they say, "You know, all the ties we have with Britain. We know
about colonialism, we know about the spying that went on over the
years, we know about the manipulation. But deep down we have had
cultural ties, trade ties, historical ties. So many families have had
somebody who came to Britain for postgraduate study." And now there's
both bewilderment and a sort of hate, that a country, with which they
have had these historic tiesand history is very strong in Iraqhas just
trashed them and abandoned them.
You wonder about the number of educated people who tell you in
different ways, how their children repeat at night how much they hate
Britain. How are these children going to grow up? How are they going to
lay this thing to rest?
There is talk about lifting the embargo. Britain and Holland have put a
motion to the UN, which the US has agreed to. But basically it turns Iraq
into a mandate state. The big powers will be able to keep financial
control, virtually forever. If Iraq doesn't comply with whatever conditions
they impose, however unreasonable they are, the plug will be pulled
again. It also puts the onus on Iraq to prove that they haven't got
weapons, rather than UNSCOM having to prove that they have. It really
is a New World Order that is being imposed by Britain and the US.
The parallels are so stark between Yugoslavia and Iraq, whether it's the
weapons used, whether it's Rambouillet, which again meant the complete
takeover of the country, making Yugoslavia into a mandate state. The
Vienna Convention states that no treaty is valid if people are threatened
and coerced into it. At Rambouillet, Britain and the US said, "If you don't
sign we are going to bomb you!" so it was an invalid treaty. They have
imposed totally impossible conditions on both countries. When the Gulf
War started the British parliament was in recess and so was the
equivalent in the US. George Bush announced the war when he was on a
fishing trip. When they decided to bomb Iraq last December, there was
absolutely no discussion in parliament.
They are now operating an entirely illegal war against Iraq. George
Robertson and others have said, "We were not at war with Iraq last
December and we are not at war with Iraq now". And Robertson and
Blair say the same about Yugoslavia; "We are not at war."
In both countries the entire infrastructure has been destroyed. Yugoslavia
relies on the bridges over the Danube and all the tributaries, for
international trade, commerce and travel. They have bombed all the
bridges. In Iraq also, just like Yugoslavia, they have cut the country in
two, by bombing all the bridges. All this is prohibited under the Geneva
Convention. But they bombed five electricity stations, whilst preaching
about human rights.
At a press conference on May 3, Jamie Shea made this extraordinary
"The fact that the lights have gone out over seventy per cent of
Yugoslavia shows that NATO has its finger on the light switch and we
can turn off the power whenever we need to and whenever we want to."
The lights have gone out all over Iraq and the lights have gone out all over
Yugoslavia and with it the jobs, the normality. They bombed the
telecommunications. Again it's illegal, under the Geneva Convention.
They used Iraq as a blue print and went further in Yugoslavia. If you
remember, Wesley Clark said that if the media didn't run six hours a day
of western propaganda, they would bomb the broadcasting centre and
they did. The western journalists were warned not to file their reports
from the television centre that night. But nobody warned the Yugoslavs.
When I was in Baghdad this time I went to what is called the
Reconstruction Museum, which is in a huge, very beautiful Ottoman
building beside the Tigris. They have minutely reconstructed every public
building, from Mosul in the north to Basra in the south, that was damaged
in the Gulf War. Then they show how they have been reconstructed. I
was stunned to see that in every city the television station was bombed.
In Yugoslavia they bombed every radio and television centre. We heard
about a couple of them, but in fact there were 27.
They also targeted education. In every single town in Iraq, the
educational establishments were targeted. On the same day the stores
that provided educational materials were also targeted. This can only be
described as a kind of cultural or historical cleansing
During the Gulf War I remember a report from a Spanish journalist going
round with a very old man who was an expert on the historic sites of Iraq
which appeared to have been be deliberately targeted. The old man was
saying, "Even during the Iran-Iraq War, with all its carnage, we had this
common heritage. We respected each other's history. There were real
efforts made to avoid these sites."
In Yugoslavia again the NATO spokesmen were actually boasting that
they would teach them a lesson about history if that's what they wanted.
In Iraq this meant destroying the ancient monasteries, the ancient sites,
the world heritage sites listed by UNESCO. It's an attempt to destroy the
country's psyche, its historic soul.
There are allegations that new weapons are being used, which they
simply don't know the end result of yet. Maybe they will run on down the
Another parallel is the unprecedented environmental degradation in both
Iraq and Yugoslavia. We have seen the terrible toll in Iraq of the use of
depleted uranium weaponsthe spiralling birth deformities, the up-to
ten-fold cancer increases amongst children, the toxicity which has been
released and all the things that we don't know about yet.
On the way back from Mosul we visited hospitals and found the same
sort of deformities that you see in Basra. One woman was there with an
incredibly deformed child and she had two others at home equally
deformed. They had been born since the Gulf War. The doctor said that
in her whole family, even the extended family, there had never ever been
a deformity. What we were seeing was acute lymphoblastic leukaemia,
which very often results in horrendous growths behind the eyes. You see
these children, who had previously been beautiful kids, who look as if
their eyes are literally going to pop out of their heads because of the
pressure behind them. The doctors can't treat them and these kids just
die in agony.
Given the intensity of the bombing of Yugoslavia, we are going to see
birth deformities there within a year, amongst the people and amongst the
animals, and very quickly the cancer rates will rises. All these things are
parallels and future generations if they survive, are going to have to live
with them and with the consequences.
On the way back from Mosul, I realised that if we made a small diversion
there was Hatra, which was built at the same time as Petra in
Jordanthe "rose red city half as old as time"and Baalbec in the
Lebanon. It was one of the great historic sites in an area that has been
consistently inhabited for the past six thousand years.
I said to the driver, "We've got to go to Hatra, we absolutely have to."
So we went off the road and we arrived there at five in the morning, with
this azure blue sky. And there were these great columns like the
Parthenon in Athens. It's almost untouched and it is so incredible with this
golden stone. We walked round in the early morning and everything was
absolutely still. It was like travelling back in history. It was beyond
anything you can imagine.
An archaeologist came running out. He had been looking after this
remote site for 10 years, all on his own and he was just steeped in it. And
he was so proud to have people there and to show us round. At the very
end he asked if we could take a photograph so that he could believe that
people had actually come to see it again. Then this man, who had come
out at five in the morning, with his immaculate white shirt and his pressed
trousers, said, "But please don't take a photograph of my shoes." His
shoes were so battered, because shoes cost about two years salary. This
proud and educated man, who spoke five languages and is a world
acknowledged authority in archaeology, said, "Don't take a photograph
of my shoes."
As we walked round he told us that there had been a bombing nearby,
but Hatra hadn't been affected except for the vibrations. We saw this
beautiful statue, about three feet high. It was like something in the Uffizi
Museum in Florence, but from the original time when Hatra was built,
and it had lost its head in the bombing. I just stood there in the wonderful
early morning light and I thought of Flecker's poem about the British
Museum, which of course has robbed countries all over the world.
There is a hall in Bloomsbury
That no more dare I tread,
For all the stone men shout at me
And swear they are not dead.
And once I touched a broken girl
And knew that marble bled.
In that dawn light in Hatra, a place that screams at you, "This is the cradle
of civilisation", I thought, "That's what this statue says, that the Americans
have blown the head off."
I don't know where it all unravels, where we go from here. The Iraqis are
not going to accept this new mandate that the UN is proposing. So we
have reached an impasse, where 7,000 children a month are going to
continue to die until the country is bereft of its youth, bereft of its future,
bereft of its hope, of its education.
The bus journey out of Iraq to Oman takes 26 hours. People who have
got the money to go there for proper medical treatment sometimes die on
that bus. Iraqis have to pay a huge exit fee because there is such a
haemorrhage of talent from the country. Everybody who gets themselves
on the bus has a story. We talked to two Shia women in their black
garbvery elegant, very beautiful. They had this two-year-old boy with
them, in a baseball cap and little shorts and a tee shirt. It looked very odd
to see the two traditions meeting. They were actually mother and
daughter and they were travelling to Jordan to look for work because the
little boy's mother had died of burns. She had been lighting one of these
makeshift lamps and it had exploded. She burned to death in front of the
The other person we spoke to was a sheikh, with large horn-rimmed
glasses, dressed in long white robes. He spoke better English than you or
me. He told us that half his family lives in Kuwait and the other half in
Iraq and there are no phone links between the two countries. He said he
was fortunate because he has a little money, so every six weeks he
makes the 26 hour journey on the bus, to telephone his family in Kuwait
and then gets back on the bus for another 26 hours.
These are just two examples of the human cost. What has happened to
the UN Declaration of Human Rights that we were trumpeting last year?
What has happened to the Declaration on the Rights of the Child? And
what has happened to our common humanity? It seems to me that if
anybody is charged with war crimes at the International Criminal Court at
the Hague, it should be the leaders of NATO, the leaders of Britain and
the United States.