I tried to post these photos at the proper place in my blog, but for some reason the site didn’t cooperate.
In July & August of 1998 I made a memorable journey to Baghdad. After writing THE RAPE OF KUWAIT, and hearing my “banker” volunteer driver Soud A. Al-Mutawa talk about how fond he was of ordinary Iraqi citizens, I was always curious to find out for myself how it was that so many ordinary, but nice, Iraqis had fallen under a regime who not only tortured and murdered Kuwaitis, but also tortured and murdered Iraqis. After leaving Kuwait, I knew that I must visit Iraq. But years passed before the timing was right. In 1998 I felt the time had come. Lots was going on in Iraq during that hot summer. Saddam was battling publicly with the UN over the weapons they thought he had and he swore he didn’t have. With so much heat generated between Saddam and the western organization, few people were going to Iraq in those days, so that made me want to go. Knowing that as the author of RAPE that I would never get a visa in the normal route, I wrote directly to Saddam Hussein, and sent him a copy of my book about the invasion of Kuwait, telling him that while I hated all war, and what happened to the Kuwaitis, that I was not in favor of the sanctions against Iraq. While I would not disagree with weapons sanctions, anything to do with food or medicine or farming supplies for ordinary life for Iraqis should not be on the sanctions list. Much to everyone’s surprise but my own, for I knew from my time of living in the Middle East that most Arab men respect bold females, so long as that female is not their wife or daughter or sister, I received a personal invitation from the President’s office to visit Iraq. Told to go to the New York UN offices of Iraq to pick up my visa, I did so. While there I met with some of the Iraqi officials, who informed me that they had been assigned to read RAPE and to give an opinion to the Iraqi government in Iraq. I laughingly requested a good book review, and the official declared in a teasing manner: “You want me to be hung by my feet??!” I’ve often wondered what happened to that good natured man.
Several months later I took off on my journey, first going through Jordan to rent a vehicle and to hire a driver and to cross the desert. I loved Baghdad at first sight, despite the broken down buses and the obvious poverty from years of war and sanctions. I checked into the Al-Rasheed Hotel to much curiosity, as in those days no Americans were visiting their ancient city. They felt certain that I was a German until they saw my American passport. Once there, I was left alone. I wondered where the security might be, for I felt very much alone. Truthfully, I felt a bit mistreated that I was not important enough to be followed. Finally I asked Salwan Mohammed Ali, the lobby manager of The Al-Rasheed who was so protective of my safety, to arrange for a taxi to take me to the Ministry of Information. I’ll never forget the look on Shakir Al- Falahi’s face (the Director of the Press Centre) when I marched in and told him that I had my feelings hurt, that I was obviously not important enough to be followed the way I had read other writers and/or journalists were followed. Shakir burst out laughing, telling me, “Oh, we knew you were here, but we were told to leave you alone.” I guess the letter from Saddam’s offices had done the trick too well! At that point I said that I must have a female translator to go around the city with me. Shakir, still smiling, said that he would get me a nice young man. That’s when Shakir and I went round and round as we had a different opinion. In fact, I liked Shakir and I felt he liked me. Yet he wanted to assign a man. I insisted upon a woman. At the end of the day, I had my female translator and her name was Mayada Al-Askari, a lady from one of the finest families of Iraq. Shakir had done me the most enormous favor. I soon met with the D.G. of Information, Mr. Farouk Salloum, a fine man married to one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen (a ballerina). Farouk and his wife took me to a few lovely parties where I met other nice Iraqis. My experience in Baghdad was so very different from other accounts I had read. For that I was very happy.
Going around the city with Mayada I discovered that Soud was right, that most Iraqis WERE lovely people. Their misfortune was to be ruled by a cruel dictator. There’s many interesting stories to tell about the nearly three weeks I spent in Baghdad, but none touched me more than the fate of the children. While being driven through Baghdad, I was struck by the number of street children begging on corners, some no more than five or six years old, some holding tiny infants in their arms. Although Mayada very kindly discouraged me from passing out what money I had on me, telling me that so long as people gave them money, they were stuck as street beggars. I knew she was right but I really could not bear to ignore those little faces, so hopeful when they spotted a blonde foreigner passing their way. Yet as sad as those tiny street beggars made me, nothing prepared me for the hopelessly sick children in the AL-Iskan Hospital, a children’s hospital in Baghdad. There I met a saint of a physican, Iraqi doctor Dr. Qais Muhsin Hameed. Dr. Hameed took Mayada and me to his little patients, introducing us to the parents or grandparents, telling us that as sick as those babies were, they would only get sicker and die. There was NO hope for a recovery, for with the sanctions, the hospital could only get one of the medicines required for childhood leukemia, not the combination of drugs required.
Those babies were SO sick that I could scarcely bear it. There were NO hopeful smiles on any faces, adult or children. I had taken several suitcases filled with toys to Iraq, and I’ll never forget passing out the toys. The scene was not what one would expect, though, with squealing, happy children. The kids seemed confused as they fingered the toys listlessly, as though they had never before seen a toy!
My heart was ripped into little pieces. Trying to get a smile out of those tragic children, I started dancing and singing. The morose looking parents broke into smiles, but the little children? Never.
I’ve never written about that fateful journey to Baghdad, although I am soon to do so when I write about the adventures I have lived since first going to Saudi Arabia in 1978. I’ve pushed many thoughts aside but anytime anyone talks about the children of Iraq, my memories come back in a rush. Recently Mayada, who has remained my dear friend and who is a reporter for The Gulf News in Dubai, wrote about the life in Iraq under the current regime and I quote: ” According to UNICEF reports, in many urban areas, children are employed in merchant shops, as ticket collectors on buses, and are found washing cars, shining shoes, and cleaning litter from the streets. Children also dig through rubbish, drive donkey carts and work in brick factories in Iraq. Since the war, the number of street children in some areas of Baghdad has been increasing. Povery has forced families to make their children seek food in waste dumps, turning them into beggars.”
I also read a story online about the state of Iraq’s children’s hospital, and the writer specificially mentioned the AL-Iskan Hospital, and the quote was “Dying of Neglect.” How can it be that after all the energy and money and hope in Iraq, that the little babies are still dying needlessly? If anything, the hospital sounds worse off than it did when I visited in 1998.
I really HATE war and hate what it does to the smallest victims. Children are so helpless and need every adult’s protection. I’ve never had children out of choice, but I love children, and cannot bear to see a child suffer. The children of Baghdad have been suffering for too many years. All the funds being spent on war, on weapons, on bribes, should immediately be shifted to provide little children with medical care and with education. Children should be H A P P Y!!!! Children should be thrilled to have a toy!
I’ve posted only a few of the photos I took while at the Al-Iskan Hospital. I will remember every name, and every face, until the day I die.
Here are the names of some of the children. Mayada tells me that for sure all are in their little graves. But I can scarcely bear the thought.
Ahmed Hassan Jabbar
Amir Hassan Ali