Life In The Danger Zone
issue 316 - September 1999
photos by NIKKI VAN DER GAAG
Nikki van der Gaag reports on why the citizens
of Mosul can’t get a decent night’s sleep.
Her name means ‘the East’; the East where the sun rises, but also the mysterious East, the Orient of myth and legend. She is old, her face, once clearly beautiful, now has that look of utter weariness that I have seen so often in Iraq. Exhaustion, however, does not mean defeat, and her words come fast and furious.
‘Don’t talk to me about the Americans! It is because of the Americans that I am hungry and thirsty and my grandchildren wake in the night afraid of the bombs. The US planes have been bombing here every day since December. May God damn the Americans and God bless President Saddam Hussein!’ She stares at us so indignantly that even she cannot help smiling despite herself as the rest of the family burst out laughing.
Her son Haitam is more subdued as we sit on one of two beds, placed end-to-end in the tiny room. The only other contents are a broken cupboard containing an oil lamp and an old iron.
‘Five of us sleep in this room in winter. When it rains the roof leaks and we all get wet’, says Haitam. And he points to the stains on the ceiling of the impeccably tidy room. ‘In the summer we sleep on the roof, like everyone else. It may be more dangerous because of the bombing, but at least it is cool.
‘This room costs me 15,000 dinars a month. I used to work for a Bulgarian company and earn a good wage but there are no foreign companies now so I work as a daily labourer – on the days I work I earn 1,000 dinars a day. My son Omar, aged ten, now has to come and work with me. I would have liked to keep him in school but this was not possible.’ Haitam’s voice is edged with regret.
Omar is not the only child who has had to drop out of school. Schooling used to be free and compulsory – parents could be fined if their children did not attend. Now everyone turns a blind eye. Children walk the streets, shining shoes, selling tissues and sticks of incense. When I ask them how old they are, they give an age at least three or four years more than I imagine, and I realize they are now stunted from a childhood with not enough protein. Results of a nutritional survey conducted on 15,000 children under five in April 1997 showed that almost the whole child population was affected. One in every four infants is malnourished.1
Haitam at least has work so his family may go hungry but will not starve. ‘I get about 20 days’ work a month if I am lucky. With the Government rations we can manage for the first 20 days of each month.’
The rations that Haitam, and each Iraqi citizen, receives from the Government vary from month to month according to how much oil Iraq has managed to sell under the oil-for-food deal. These now include rice, wheat, sugar, cooking oil, tea, soap, milk powder for babies and very occasionally cheese or milk. An international multidisciplinary team reported in 1996 that ‘the [ration] system is highly equitable and appears to be one of the most efficient distribution systems operating in the world’ and that ‘there appears to be a high level of political commitment on the part of the Government to ensure that people have access to the basic bundle of staple commodities’.
‘Without this system,’ added the report, ‘the Iraqis would likely have experienced a widespread famine’.2
But even with the ration system, life is hard. Says Haitam: ‘After the 20th of the month we have to live on tea and bread, with a little tomato and oil in the evening. We are helped by friends and relatives, otherwise I don’t know how we would all manage. When we have something to spare we share it with them, and when they have extra they give it to us.’
This spirit of generosity also extends to foreigners. We never spoke to anyone without being invited back to their house, or offered small glasses of sweet tea – an Iraqi tradition.
And yet tea, sugar and even kerosene (in a country sitting on the world’s second-largest oil reserves) are in short supply.
Iraq accuses the US of complicity in a plague of foot and mouth disease and screw worm which is reaching epidemic proportions due to the collapse of the veterinary infrastructure. Iraq’s major veterinary plant, one of the main producers of a vaccine for foot and mouth disease in the area, was closed by UNSCOM in 1995 (see page 17) and consignments of veterinary medicines are routinely vetoed by the Sanctions Committee.
Screw worm, indigenous to the US, Mexico and Central America, infects the wounds and orifices of warm-blooded livestock and can affect humans. The screw worm fly can travel up to 290 kilometres in several days and under warm, favourable conditions completes its life cycle in as few as three weeks. The larvae can consume an entire cow in five to seven days. At least 40 people have also died in Iraq.
Screw worm was unknown in Iraq until September 1996 when it suddenly appeared north of Baghdad and spread quickly to 12 of Iraq’s 18 governorates. ‘We have no idea how it got here, in the heart of the country,’ said Professor Basil of Iraq’s Ministry of Agriculture. ‘But to date there have been over 70,000 reported cases.’
The US has had considerable success in eradicating screw worm by breeding sterile male screw worm flies and releasing them from the air into infected areas. An article in the Baghdad Observer in July 1997 noted that ‘a fast-breeder factory capable of producing up to five million flies a week has unsterilized parent flies for every sterilized fly... That these Latin American parasites are now to be found in Iraq should provoke a few questions about the probability of biological warfare.’
The article went on: ‘To answer the question of how the flies came to Iraq, one does not have to look far; the same way the sterilized insects are delivered, in boxes on a small plane.’ The only flights in and out of Iraq are those of the UN or, more recently, the bombings by US and British planes.
There was an alternative treatment being produced at the El Shifa factory in Khartoum, Sudan – and being exported at a fraction of the world market price. But on 20 August 1998 US planes bombed the factory, claiming that it was producing chemical weapons – an allegation subsequently disproved.
Iraq is not the only country of which the US disapproves to have suffered such an infestation. The CIA have admitted a range of biological attacks in Cuba. A biological warfare expert at the German Bundestag noted that ‘Iraq is the latest victim of what appears to be a deliberate introduction of screw worm... in Libya an outbreak occurred in 1989 at a time of exceptionally strained relations with the US. In a year it covered 5,000 kilometres and killed 12,000 livestock.’
In early July of this year, Ian Broughton, a New Zealand national, employed by the UN in demining work, was expelled from Iraq for allegedly planting boxes of locust larvae in the north of the country, an allegation the UN categorically denies.
On top of everything else, water has become a problem. This year has seen the worst drought in living memory. The Tigris is very low, partly due to the drought and possibly also due to the 21 dams constructed further up the Tigris in the Kurdish part of Turkey.3
We speak to a group of farmers cutting their wheat at the side of the road some 30 kilometres from Mosul. The grandfather, his two sons, their wives and four of their children are bent double in the hot sun.
‘This is the first year in 50 I have known so little rain,’ says Karim Ghadar, the father, as he straightens up to welcome us. ‘Look at our crop. It is half the height it would normally be.’ The wheat is a faded yellow and reaches to our knees. ‘If there was rain this would be up here’. And he raises his hand above his head. ‘If it rains we live well. We can sell our crops and we have a cow and 100 sheep. The Government is giving us six kilos of food for our sheep each month. But if it doesn’t rain soon I don’t know what will happen.’ He smiles a toothless smile and looks up at the sky, crossing himself. ‘We can only hope that God will provide.’ Like many of the people in the villages surrounding Mosul, Karim is a Christian.
He hurries down to a little cool hollow where he keeps a basin of home-made sheep’s yoghurt and which he offers to us each in turn.
One of the strange effects of the sanctions is that farmers and those with land to grow things are now better off than professionals. In 1985, an average civil servant’s monthly salary was the equivalent of $200. Today it is just $2. And yet in July 1995 average shop prices of essential commodities stood at 850 times their July 1990 level.4 In the space of less than a decade, a wealthy oil-rich society has been reduced to a pre-industrial state.
The middle classes are forced to look elsewhere for income. Every taxi-driver I met in Baghdad had once been an engineer or a doctor or a teacher. A UN survey of professionals shows that 63 per cent are now working in ‘general service or menial labour areas’.
Rich and poor alike have sold all they can to buy food. Every day in certain parts of Baghdad you see people squatting on the pavement selling a few books, a couple of pairs of shoes, or even their children’s toys. But few can afford to buy. Those who could do so have long since left the country, either to escape the regime or because the life here is so expensive. It is estimated that two million Iraqi professionals are working outside the country.
And few people come here any more, unless they are working for the UN. There are only six non-governmental organizations and no tourists. Iraq once had a thriving tourist trade, but the only guide book you can now buy is dated 1982. The centre of Baghdad has a cluster of once-smart hotels. In one, there is a shop is full of family heirlooms; silver, paintings, carpets, musical instruments; things which have clearly been loved and handed down from generation to generation. They now sit and gather dust, waiting for buyers who never come. No-one can afford such luxuries any more.
Yet many of the families who possessed such treasures still have substantial amounts of money sitting in foreign banks. All overseas Iraqi assets – including private bank accounts – have been frozen since the Gulf War. It is estimated that there are 30,000 such accounts in Britain alone.
Some people of course do profit from the embargo. And it has often been pointed out that the President and officials of the ruling Ba’ath party are not starving. But even they can’t escape polluted air, dirty water and an almost completely destroyed sewage system. It is estimated that between four and eight per cent of the population are smuggling goods across the border, doing deals, and as a result managing very well. If you have foreign currency in Iraq – even quite a small amount – you can buy most things. But you have to have hard cash – ideally dollars – as there are no facilities to change traveller’s cheques or deal with credit cards. When I changed my first $50 I felt like a bank robber; the pile of 250-dinar notes could have filled a small suitcase.
‘You know,’ said one diplomatic source,’ people are always going on about Saddam’s palaces, ‘but quite frankly, anyone with foreign currency is rich. Labour costs peanuts, local materials are cheap. One of those palaces probably cost the same as a two-up two down in Neasden or a bungalow in East York.’5
Haitam’s small room is very far from a palace, however, and as we continue to talk into the cool of the evening we are suddenly plunged into darkness. The electricity has gone and our visit is over. His wife lights the oil lamp with an ease borne of much practice. We shake hands and cross the yard by the light of the moon.
As we head back to our hotel, I imagine East and her family making up their beds on the flat roof above that little room. As Mosul settles down for the night I know that each and every person is listening for the faraway drone of an aeroplane engine, harbinger of the next delivery of Western bombs.
The cost of survival
CAROLINE PENN / PANOS PICTURES
1 UNICEF, April 1998.
2 CESR Mission to Iraq.
3 Friends of the Earth reports that the Ilisu dam, 60 kilometres north of the Iraqi border, will flood 70 Kurdish villages (including the historic Hasan Keyf, one of the oldest human settlements in the world) and displace 20,000 people. The environmental impact is unknown, but the dam will allow Turkey to control the flow of the Tigris. This dam is being assisted through export credits by the British, Italian, Swiss, Swedish, Japanese and German governments. For more information email: [email protected] or phone +44 171 490 1555.
4 Certain items have risen even more than this; for example, a box of 30 eggs has gone up by 1,111 per cent, wheat flour has risen by 11,667 per cent, cooking oil by 4,500 per cent (FAO report, Rome, 1995).
5 Interview with Nikki van der Gaag and Felicity Arbuthnot, May 1999.