Letter from the Road #2

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Waiting for the Bombs


How do you prepare to be attacked by the most powerful military in the world? This question troubles me daily. When I ask Iraqi people about their feelings and preparations I understand how utterly vulnerable they are. We know very little here about what or when something is going to happen, only what we can read on the internet when it is working – a luxury that most of the folks in Baghdad do not have. Everyday they wait for tons of explosives to rain from the sky. They wait and worry and go on living.

I asked Fatima, a mother with nine children all living with her husband and her sister in three rooms, “How are you preparing for the war?” She replies, “Oh, there is not much we can do. We have a few extra liters of kerosene for our stove and we buried some gasoline in the yard if we need to leave Baghdad. We are just waiting and hoping America will turn away from this war.”

Amal, an older, educated middle-class woman expressed her outrage at President Bush. “I just don’t understand how he can do this! How can he discredit the inspections, and still talk about attacking us? He will kill innocent people. He won’t even leave us our hope! Does this man have no blood in his veins?”

Amal’s house was hit by a bomb in 1991. She lives near a bridge over the Tigres River. I asked if she had a bomb shelter. “No, bomb shelters are no good, we will just sit together in a room so if something happens we will all go together.” Her daughter reminds me of the disastrous bombing of the Aamayria air raid shelter. It was hit directly by a U.S. missile in the Gulf War. 415 mothers and young children were killed and hundreds more were injured. Now there is the general suspicion the U.S. will deliberately target bomb shelters so few people plan to use them.

In preparing for the coming war, a school we visited regularly shoots a rifle when the national flag is raised so the children get used to the sound of explosions. I read a recent article about the trauma and mental health problems that result from war – children are especially vulnerable.

The government gave a combined November and December food ration, urging people to save some. But many people either ate the extra food or sold the ration for much needed cash. A representative of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization told us if there is a war many Iraqis will face severe shortages of food and water. They have been under sanctions for 11 years and are extremely weakened. The war will take a heavy toll in civilian deaths – collateral damage. (For an extremely informative and well-researched article on the expected war’s consequences on civilians, prepared by the Nobel Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, see www.ippnw.org or www.medact.org. Print it off and pass it around.)

Many people here tell us they will fight if America invades Iraq. They may not like their government, but the thought of being invaded by a foreign power rallies them together. “If American soldiers come,” Amal says, “we will resist, just like the Palestinians, we will resist.” I can’t tell if this is true, or simply an emotional response to the idea of an invasion.

There is no sign of preparation for war on the streets of Baghdad. Outside my window the roads are filled with cars and people. Gasoline is about 5 cents a gallon. The sidewalks are in bad repair, the stores are humble, and dusty, and the items for sale are minimal. It is Ramadan, and restaurants and cafes are closed during the daylight hours. The place feels tired. Iraq was nearing first-world status at the time of the Gulf War – now it is clearly third-world and struggling. A few days ago we visited the U.N. Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq. The director there told us, “Sanctions paralyse every single aspect of Iraqi society.” There isn’t enough of anything – food, clean water, ambulances, medicines, doctors, teachers, tractors. Someone shows me this statement by Denis Halliday, the former U.N. Assistant Secretary General and Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq:

“I had been instructed to implement a policy [in Iraq] that satisfies the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults. …What is clear is that the Security Council is now out of control, for its actions here undermine its own Charter, and the Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions. History will slaughter those responsible. …We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that.”

I had read about the deadly effects of the sanctions on Iraqis before coming here, but seeing these effects with my own eyes is a shock. I know that some people in my country say this is Saddam’s fault – if he would only comply with the U.N. resolutions the sanctions would be lifted. Yes, the Iraqi government should be held to account for many things, but not at the expense of a hair on the head of an Iraqi child! I have also come to learn that, according to U.N. weapons inspectors, the eradication of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was 95-98% completed in 1998 when the U.S. – worried they would lose the leverage sanctions provided to gain control over this country – pressured the U.N. to withdraw its inspectors. Like many people in the world, I suspect U.S. motivations toward Iraq are not primarily about eradicating weapons of mass destruction.

I feel the imminent war inside of me too. The fear of attack manifests itself in little ways: my impatience with other team members; my craving to have more control over my actions; the frustration of not knowing who I can talk with; will this conversation compromise them? Is this solo walk I want to take all right? Is it an acceptable risk? I have more medical supplies with me than the local hospital! What does it mean to be in solidarity with a people? Our team meets almost every night to discuss scenarios for our response to an air attack, a ground attack, or a coup. Feelings are strong and diverse. I feel afraid of being useless. But perhaps the service is simply to be here, to share in the suffering of a people attacked by my country. I am more convinced than ever that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that it is up to us to change the future.

There is one bright light for me however. It erases all my thoughts and anxieties. Every morning I go to work at an orphanage run by the Missionary Sisters of Charity of Mother Theresa. There are about 20 little boys and girls with severe cerebral palsy. Only two can speak a little and some cannot even raise their head. But they all have shining eyes and beautiful smiles – surely these are the angels everyone speaks of. I spend 3 hours holding them, massaging them, singing, and playing. Their gaze never leaves my face. They squirm across the floor to put their head in my lap. They are completely present and so am I. This is the only time I am not ambivalent. I belong here. I feed them and clean them. They stay focused on my face. This smile is all they want in the moment. Toys come and go but the face of a smiling adult is their heaven.

I hope where you live there are opportunities to resist the U.S. war machine. Nothing we do is too little and I always speak of the caring American and British people who are struggling to prevent the rain of bombs.

In peace,
Rabia Elizabeth Roberts

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