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What Happens To Your Heart

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They journey to Iraq from every quarter of the United States and from around the globe, traveling mostly in small groups. They include extraordinary individuals from more than a dozen organizations whose concern for the children of Iraq has propelled them into action. Most are not famous, although they include two Nobel Peace Laureates. Their lives are living testimony to the power of spirit in action.

But their pilgrimage goes unreported in the US media—for a reason: this is not the kind of story most readers will want to read about over coffee. The brutal fact is that the US continues to wage the Gulf War in Iraq today, in the form of economic sanctions that claim the lives of 5,000 Iraqi children per month, mostly as a result of still unrepaired water purification and sewage treatment plants that have left much of Iraq's fragile water supply contaminated. Most readers prefer not to know that these deaths are occurring and that they are the direct consequence of US policies.

“Those children die quietly,” says Doug Hostetter, who has traveled to Iraq three times. “No media. No outrage.”

Hostetter, who is 55, with a thick salt-and-pepper beard and steady clear voice, is former International/Interfaith Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, based in Nyack, New York. He is a Mennonite, but says he has found his own spirituality deepened and enriched through cooperative work with people of various faiths. He married into a Jewish family, took in two Bosnian Muslim students during the war in Bosnia, and has worked with Methodist and Quaker organizations. He is typical of those leading the delegations into Iraq whose compassion transcends the bounds of any particular religious faith.

Much of Hostetter's time has been devoted to the Campaign of Conscience, a gutsy project undertaken jointly by Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), that attempted to install four small water purifiers to provide clean water for a few hundred Iraqis. Because the purifiers use chlorine, they violate UN sanctions and US law against “dual use” chemicals that could conceivably be used by the Iraqi military. By signing on to the Campaign of Conscience, some 90 Quaker meetings in the US have joined in this act of collective civil disobedience. By publicly breaking the law and risking US government fines up to $1 million, they are challenging the inhumanity of the sanctions.

From his first visit in 1990, just before the Gulf War, Hostetter recalls a highly industrialized Iraq with “the best education and medical systems in the Arab world, a large middle class, beautiful cities.” He shakes his head in wonder. “We have destroyed it, and we have kept it destroyed.”

The 10 years of sanctions that followed the bombing of civilian infrastructure targets—electric generating plants and water-treatment facilities—have been condemned by most international observers.

A 1998 UNICEF report estimates that half a million Iraqi children have died as a consequence of the sanctions, which inflict suffering mostly on the poor and the physically vulnerable. Children succumb to water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. And they die due to the lack of medical facilities for treating birth defects—which are on the rise in areas contaminated by spent uranium and chemical pollutants.

Hostetter repeats Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire's burning question, “In 50 years, the next generation will ask: ‘What were you doing when the children of Iraq were dying?'”

 

A blessing

Jim Jennings, founder of a group called Conscience International, was similarly drawn to Iraq. Asked what was his most moving experience during the dozen visits he had made, he said it was “putting my hand on a dying baby, whose body was just starting to chill.” For Jennings, a 63-year-old professor of archaeology and Middle Eastern history, the relief effort is “a must-do kind of thing—not something I can shrink from. The children of Iraq are on the conscience of America.”

 

Although it is the suffering that has brought Jennings and others to Iraq, the relief work has rich rewards—as Michael Carley discovered during a trip last March to the southeastern corner of Iraq, the area hit hardest by the Gulf War. Carley describes his elation when the bus pulled up to Labanni and he saw the water purification plant that his organization, Veterans for Peace, had rebuilt in partnership with a Michigan-based group, LIFE for Relief and Development. Seeing the fresh paint and realizing that the Labanni plant was fully operational, Carley broke into tears. “It just wallops you—the fact that it's working and is saving thousands of children's lives!”

Unlike the AFSC-FOR water chlorinators, which will deliver clean water to only a few hundred people, the rebuilding of the Labanni water plant restored water to tens of thousands of people. (AFSC-FOR has recently followed suit, shifting its focus from the chlorinators to restoring a water system that would serve 9,000 people in northeastern Iraq. “If I never do anything for the rest of my life,” Carley says, “I will always know I had this project.” Carley, at 41, does not consider himself a religious person. But he does consider himself blessed. “I am surrounded by deeply motivated people who are powerfully led by their spiritual beliefs.”

Among the members of Carley's delegation was a Gulf War veteran, Candy Lovett, who at 40 suffers from Gulf War Syndrome and is confined to a wheelchair. She chose to participate symbolically in the project but Lovett was looking for something else, as she told me before the trip. The moment came for her in the nearby city of Basrah, when the delegation was meeting in the home of a mother who had lost a child to an American bomb in 1999. Lovett asked her for forgiveness. The mother, Fartous Iqbal, knelt by Lovett's wheelchair and said in English, “Of course you are forgiven.” Lovett says, “I felt a big weight come off my shoulders.”

One of the most articulate voices in the movement is Kathy Kelly, founder of the organization Voices in the Wilderness. Kelly, who has a bright smile and an astonishing array of facts at her fingertips, has led some 35 delegations into Iraq. She was in Iraq when American bombs started falling at the onset of the Gulf War. More recently she lived for seven months in Basrah, a city that suffers from both the sanctions and the ongoing bombardment used to enforce the so-called “no-fly zone” declared without UN approval by the United States and Britain.

“Every morning,” she says, “usually around 2:30, the planes would come, and we would wonder whether civilians had been hit. Little girls would make a sound —la-la-la-la—and hold their ears, trying to drown out the sound that terrified them. For the present bombings they're using National Guard reservists. They're up there at 30,000 feet and have little sense of consequences. That's why we think it's so important to have these people-to-people encounters with Iraq.”

The media's unwillingness to focus on Iraq is a source of anguish for Kelly. “If people in the US knew the plight of these parents, if they could see the faces of those children—gorgeous children—then they would stop seeing Iraq as the personification of one demonized person, Saddam Hussein; they'd be seeing people just like you and me. Then I don't think the sanctions could stand the light of another day.”

She cites a 1991 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency, only recently declassified, that pinpoints the vulnerability of the Iraqi water system and predicts the consequences in civilian suffering. She thinks Americans would be furious if they knew how cold-bloodedly the impact of the bombing was calculated.

Although Kathy Kelly's own spiritual roots are in Catholicism, she embodies the same values of nonviolence and simplicity espoused by Quakers and Mennonites. She pays no taxes. “I won't pay for weapons, for prisons.” She operates Voices in the Wilderness out of her elderly father's home in Chicago. She tells of the IRS agent who showed up to assess what could be seized for taxes; he looked around and said, “You don't really have anything, do you? I'm going to put you down as uncollectible.” Kelly chuckles. “Janis Joplin had it right. ‘Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.'” Her voluntary poverty is part of a larger vision. Kelly, 49, believes we have to “unhinge ourselves from a consumptive lifestyle. We need to move away from the assumption that it's okay to take other people's precious commodities—their oil—at cut-rate prices.”

Kelly's words touch on the broader spirit that animates this movement. Everyone I spoke with communicated a dedication to social justice based on nonviolence and an assumption that their spiritual lives were inseparable from their political lives. All expressed anger, but it was subordinated to hope.

This was certainly true of a Canadian couple, Rick McCutcheon and Tamara Fleming. I interviewed them shortly after they returned from seven and a half months overseeing several projects in Iraq. The projects ranged from distributing 2,000 metric tons of beans and lentils donated by Canadian farmers, to rehabilitating nine schools in the Baghdad area, to teaching Iraqi farmers modern methods of propagating tomato seedlings.

 

A breaking heart

I asked Fleming, 28, what she had gotten from the experience spiritually. “What happens to your heart?” I asked her. “For me,” she says, “it was seeing the darkness of the situation. The malnutrition, the unemployment, the suffering. And then seeing the light. Driving around Baghdad in some rickety old taxi, you come across a wedding and see people celebrating, clapping hands, playing drums. They keep going. You see the survival mechanisms at work, and it fuels my desire to keep going, to keep talking about the issues.”

 

After listening thoughtfully to his wife's response, McCutcheon returned to the question. “How does it affect your heart?” he mused. “As I was listening to Tam, I was thinking, it breaks it open. There's this Buddhist idea of the heart of compassion just breaking open.” He talked of the political burnout he had experienced in Toronto before they left for Iraq, his sense of futility. His voice was gentle. “My heart had just filled with that darkness for many years. And then it just breaks open. And there in the midst of this suffering, is light.”


David Morse's essays and stories have appeared most recently in Dissent and Friends' Journal. He can be contacted at his Web site:www.david-morse.com. For more information, or to find out how to oppose further military action against Iraq, see: www.afsc.org.

 

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