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Susan Taylor Martin
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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Photographs by JAMIE FRANCIS
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000
He needs to sell his washing machine.
In the nine years since Iraq lost the Persian Gulf War, the Zubeidis have gone from relative prosperity to absolute poverty. The family's real estate business collapsed, and now Zubeidi and a cousin take turns driving a beat-up taxi that is literally held together with tape.
The TV, the video recorder, the living room furniture -- all have been sold to buy food and make car repairs. That's why Zubeidi has come to Baghdad's biggest auction house with his 10-year-old washing machine jammed into the trunk of his 15-year-old cab.
"I hope to get 70,000 dinars," he says -- about $35 in Iraq's near-worthless currency.
The start of the auction is hardly encouraging. A lawn mower opens at a bid of 10,000 dinars ($5) and doesn't sell. Nor do a ceiling fan, a radio-cassette player and a never-used food processor.
Can Zubeidi possibly get $35 for his battered washing machine? Can he at least get enough to patch up his ancient cab so it can stay on the road a few more months?
All he can do is what Iraq and the rest of the world have been doing for 10 years: Wait and see.
Nobody thought it would turn out like this. On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading to the Gulf War and Iraq's quick defeat. The United Nations banned the country from selling any of its vast oil reserves -- second-largest in the world -- until it agreed to stop developing the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that had so alarmed its neighbors in the Middle East.
With his 22-million people facing severe food shortages, Hussein was expected to cooperate with a tough program of weapons inspections. He didn't. Although somewhat eased, the economic sanctions against his country have lasted far, far longer than anyone expected.
At first glance, Iraq appears to have survived the stalemate fairly well. A six-lane highway runs the 350 miles from the Jordanian border to Baghdad, a legacy of the days when both oil and money flowed freely. The city's souks have a surprisingly wide range of goods, some of them smuggled, from Syria, Turkey and the Persian Gulf states. Huge monuments and enormous presidential palaces give Baghdad a grandiosity that recalls the splendor of ancient Babylon.
But a decade into the embargo, Iraq is just scraping by, a potentially rich country now dirt-poor and largely isolated from the rest of the world.
There are no mobile phones, satellite dishes or foreign newspapers. CNN has a bureau here, but only government offices are wired to get its reports. With the national airline grounded since 1991, Iraq is one of the very few places on earth that has no commercial air service. Anyone coming or going must make a numbing 10-hour drive across the desert.
Through the years, Iraqis have adapted to deprivation in ways big and small. Doctors unable to get anesthetics learned to use Valium and other sedatives when doing Caesarean sections. Stores now rent wedding dresses because brides can't afford to buy them. With toothbrushes and even toothpicks hard to find, Iraqis clean their teeth with a tiny broomlike plant that grows in abundance.
Years of shortages have had a particularly devastating effect on health and education and as a result, many fear, the very future of the country. Iraq's schools and hospitals, once among the best in the Middle East, are dirty and ill-equipped. The number of infants who die each year is eight times higher than in nearby Kuwait.
"The humanitarian situation in Iraq poses a serious moral dilemma for this organization," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in March. "The United Nations has always been on the side of the vulnerable and the weak . . . yet here we are accused of causing suffering to an entire population."
There is much debate over the real cause of Iraq's hardships. Is it the U.N. sanctions, pushed primarily by the United States and Britain? Or is it the Iraqi government itself, a brutal dictatorship that has spent billions on weapons, allegedly at the expense of its citizens' well-being?
Hussein's critics note that he waited years before accepting a U.N. plan that enabled Iraq to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian essentials. His refusal to admit U.N. weapons inspectors since late 1998 has only delayed the lifting of the sanctions he claims are hurting his people so badly, critics argue.
Moreover, Amnesty International and other organizations charge, Iraq has an abysmal record on human rights.
"The Iraqi government has broken every human rights code," says the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based opposition group that has received money from the United States in a so-far-fruitless effort to overthrow Hussein.
"(Iraq) has committed genocide, ordered summary executions, arbitrary arrest and detention, numerous forms of torture, mutilation of prisoners, psychological coercion, restriction of movement, opinion and association."
Nonetheless, there is growing pressure to end the sanctions, which even some supporters concede might be having exactly the opposite effect of what was intended.
Although Hussein's grip on power seemed shaky after the Gulf War, many Iraqis have adopted an us-against-the-world mentality that appears to have boosted his popularity and cemented his strength at home. Aware that criticizing the regime can be risky, even fatal, Iraqis express nothing but affection -- at least in public -- for their totalitarian leader.
To visit Iraq today is to visit a country both sinister and saddening, a place with 3,500 years of glorious history reduced to a Third World squalor. The suffering is real, even if the reasons -- like much in Iraq -- aren't always clear.
* * *
As temperatures in the southern Iraqi city of Basra push toward 100, students are taking their final exams of the school year. It is only April, but it soon will be too hot to study.
Especially in classrooms without air conditioning. Or ceiling fans. Or water that is fit to drink.
While there are signs of relative wealth in Baghdad -- late-model Mercedes, well-dressed couples dining at the Al Rasheed Hotel -- there is nothing but fly-swatting poverty in Iraq's second-largest city. This area near the Kuwaiti and Iranian borders was twice a battleground: once during Iraq's eight-year war with Iran, again during the Gulf War.
Restaurants are deserted. Hungry dogs sniff in vain along the filthy streets. The vast majority of Basra's 3.5-million people live on little but the rations of flour, rice and a few other items that the government gives them once a month.
"The students' health is not so good," says Madeinat Al-Muden, director of the Intermediate School for Boys. "They don't have enough energy to be active in their classes."
It was not always like this.
"Before the sanctions," as Iraqis refer to the time before the Gulf War, the country was rich enough to provide students with snacks and soft drinks. Teachers made decent salaries. School buildings were well-maintained and equipped with the latest learning aids.
Now teachers earn just 4,000 dinars, or $2, a month. There are no computers or typewriters or Xerox machines. It's even hard to get chalk.
Ra'ad Hadi Al-Jabry, who teaches English, is especially frustrated. Despite hatred of the U.S. and British governments, which Iraq views as its true enemies, educators have long recognized the importance of English as a second language. But Al-Jabry must rely on a tattered, 10-year-old copy of The New English Course for Iraq to prepare lessons for his students.
"Before the sanctions, we had video recorders, pictures, things to help them learn," he says. "Now there are no aids, just repetitions. We need short stories, a sound lab, visual aids."
The only visuals on the walls are stenciled portraits of Saddam Hussein.
Ironically, schools officials put some of the blame for the shortages on the program designed to ease the sanctions' harsh effects.
Worried that the embargo was hurting civilians, the U.N. agreed to let Iraq sell ever-increasing amounts of oil to buy food and other necessities. However, the committee that oversees the oil-for-food program often turns down requests for items that could also be used for military purposes.
Thus computers tend to be taboo. About the only ones allowed into the country are of such low computing power they would be considered dinosaurs in a U.S. classroom.
Since February, Iraq has been allowed to buy a wide variety of educational aids -- everything from maps to copiers to band instruments -- without committee approval. But they have yet to find their way into schools like this.
"So we work with what we have," says Al-Muden, the director, and that isn't much.
The 24 teachers share a lounge that has four rusty lockers, a table and a few rickety chairs. The science laboratory doesn't have a single microscope. There are no art classes because there are no paints or paper.
The library consists of a metal file cabinet that a teacher says contains 300 books.
A visitor asks to see them.
"I'm sorry," the teacher apologizes, "but I keep the key at home."
* * *
Even a strong disinfectant can't mask the stench at the Basra Maternity and Pediatric Hospital. It comes from the sewage that is seeping toward the crowded children's leukemia ward.
"Each child should be in sterile isolation so they don't get infections," says the hospital's director, Dr. Ali Faisal. "But where else would I put them?"
Before the Gulf War, Dr. Faisal didn't worry much about sewage problems or the incidence of childhood leukemia. But now, he says, there are not enough spare parts to repair the hospital's decrepit sanitation system. And there are not enough resources to treat all the children who have developed leukemia in the nine years since the war ended.
Any link between the leukemia cases and the uranium, a radioactive substance, remains speculative and very controversial. But Abdullah Nassir has no doubt about who is to blame for the fact that his 6-year-old son is dying.
"How can Americans do this to our children?" he begins to wail, then abruptly turns his face to the wall.
"Muslim men find it hard to cry," Dr. Faisal says.
Nawaf Nassir is curled in a near-fetal position, lying on a sheet brought from home because the hospital doesn't have enough. His hair, which fell out during chemotherapy, is now a soft fuzz. A dark red line from internal bleeding stripes the delicate skin on his forehead.
It was seven months ago that Nawaf's mother noticed he was running a high fever. She took him for tests, which showed he had leukemia.
Nawaf could probably be cured if his doctors had access to the newest chemotherapy drugs or the facilities to do a bone marrow transplant. But neither is available, so the best they can do is try to prolong his life with frequent blood transfusions.
Even that is difficult. Iraq has such a shortage of blood that Nawaf is entitled to just one bag a month. To get the rest of the blood he needs, the Nassirs pay neighbors to donate; so far, 34 have done so.
Since Nawaf became sick, the family has sold most of its meager possessions. The television, refrigerator and beds are gone. About all they have left is a chest for their clothes and an electric clock that is of little use because Basra's power goes out so often.
Abdullah Nassir's heart is weak and he cannot work. He and his wife have four other children, including a 5-month-old baby who suffers from chronic diarrhea. It is hard to imagine a life any bleaker or more hopeless.
Yet when the two oldest boys are asked what they want to be, they answer quickly.
"A teacher," says one.
"A doctor," says the other.
* * *
By present-day Iraqi standards, Saddiq Ressn is doing well. He makes $30 a month, 15 times what teachers are paid. He has a job that is essential to millions of his fellow Iraqis.
Still, Ressn is very angry man.
"We know Americans are a civilized people," he says, "but what's behind this embargo is not civilized because the sanctions are killing an entire nation."
Ressn is director of the port at Um Quassar, the lifeline through which Iraq gets tons of wheat, rice and other staples under the oil-for-food-program. Yet Ressn can't help but remember when so much more moved in and out of the port, reflecting Iraq's position as one of the wealthiest countries in the developing world.
Since the Gulf War, Iraq has not been allowed to export anything but oil. Not the dates that grow in profusion, nor phosphates, sulphur or other things that could be sold to help revive the economy.
"How can any country in the world live without exports?" Ressn asks.
Iraq claims the program provides only 20 percent of the food, medicine and supplies it needs to repair its run-down utilities and refineries. U.N. officials counter that Iraq is now making enough money from oil sales to buy far more than it does, especially food.
Whatever the case, a lot is coming in.
Last year, nearly 290 ships from around the world unloaded a total of 384,000 tons at Um Quassar. In March, the cargo included detergent from Dubai, electrical equipment from Romania and dozens of cars (to be used in distributing food and medicine, officials say) from an unspecified locale.
The port operates almost around the clock, with dockhands unloading an average of 3,000 tons a day. They could handle more, Ressn says, if the U.N. committee that oversees the oil-for-food program didn't reject requests for "dual use" equipment.
"We need forklifts, gantry cranes, mobile cranes, carriers for containers, spare parts," he says. "But the embargo doesn't allow us to import any materials to develop the port."
Iraqis also bristle at the international task force that monitors all traffic in the northern Persian Gulf. Directed by U.S. Central Command at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base, the task force can search ships that might be smuggling oil out of Iraq or contraband into the country.
Ressn claims ships are sometimes detained for days before they reach Iraq. "I think a lot of crews are upset about the treatment they get," he says.
But the captain of the Ambassador, carrying 52,500 tons of wheat from Canada, reports no trouble at all.
"We hear there are many problems with the checkpoint; sometimes it takes four or five days," Ressn insists.
"For me, I don't have any problems," Samiotakis replies, a bit tartly. "They say, "What's the cargo?' "Where's the destination?' and I'm on my way."
The Greek-born captain is frustrated, though, that Iraq has rejected an entire hold of wheat, 9,500 tons, as "unsuitable for consumption."
"I don't understand this," he says. "In four days, the same pipe loaded the entire cargo and now just the #6 hold is unsuitable. I ask for the reason many times, but I get no answer."
* * *
The wheat that Iraq did accept will be ground into flour, which will be made into bread, which will keep millions of people from going hungry. But like the bread, there is an unrelieved flatness to life in Iraq today.
Although he has been on duty since 8 a.m., Haider Al Zubeidi has carried nothing in his taxi except the washing machine he wants to sell at auction. There are too many other orange and white cabs in Baghdad, their drivers hoping to earn a few dinars so they can buy a couple of eggs or maybe an orange.
Like Zubeidi many of the drivers once had good jobs or even their own businesses. Like him, they've sold almost everything they owned.
Much of it passes through the cavernous Al Zuhonr Auction House, one of many that have opened since the embargo. There's cut crystal from Czechoslovakia. Ornate porcelain from Italy. A life-size color photo of a guard at Buckingham Palace. Reminders of the days when Iraqis had money and could travel freely abroad.
There are reminders, too, of just how desperate they've become. Although the temperature will soon hit 120 degrees, dozens of fans and air conditioners are up for bid.
A ceiling fan, a new toaster oven -- nobody will, or can, pay what their owners want either.
And now comes Zubeidi's washing machine.
Although it is small and old and has a crack inside, it draws a surprising amount of interest. New washers are so rare and expensive that even used ones are in demand. If nothing else, it will be good for parts.
"Everything works? The motor is original?" the auctioneer asks Zubeidi. He solemnly nods his head.
The bidding goes from 60,000 to 65,000, from 70,000 to 75,000.
"Sold!" the auctioneer yells, pointing to a man in kefiyah and flowing robes. He turns out to be a used-appliance dealer.
Amazingly, Zubeidi has gotten more than he expected. But there will be no celebrating.
About all he has left is his 1985 taxi, in need of a speedometer, speakers, door handles and window cranks. The car will take all of the money. Zubeidi will go a few more months, or maybe years, on flat Iraqi bread.
* * *
PART TWO: Medical mysteries
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