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Oman, a 13 year old boy was killed during US bombing in May 2000 while shepherding cattle and goats in his village. His father is the man on the right.

Iraq Sanctions BustingTour

By Jo Wilding

"Hello Officer. We've come to hand ourselves in for breaking the law. We've broken the sanctions against Iraq by taking supplies into Iraq without a licence from the foreign secretary, contrary to article 3 of Statutory Instrument 1768 of 1990. We've also broken Article 2 of the same law by buying things in Iraq and importing them into this country for sale here without a licence."

The copper in reception at Charing Cross nick looks a bit bewildered and scuffles off to ask his sergeant what to do. "I don't think we can arrest you," is his verdict when he comes back. "Oh, yeah, you can. It's an arrestable offence under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act." He looks at the relevant bit of the printout of the legislation and scuffles off again. "Um. Can you come back in a couple of hours? We haven't got enough officers here at the moment to arrest you."

It's never this hard to get arrested when you're not trying.

The five of us crash out in the corner of reception to sleep off the night flight and the sergeant comes out eventually to tell us it's a customs matter. He takes our names and addresses, promises to pass them on to the relevant authorities and ushers us out of his station. And no we bloody can't use their loo.

I'm not generally in favour of accountability to a corrupt state system, but the amount of useful tat you can carry into Iraq in a suitcase is limited. The civil disobedience of sanction breaking is more significant than the token amount of aid you can take in. Global capitalism is responsible for poverty and death around the world but the difference in Iraq is it's so blatant and on such a massive scale. 4000-6000 children under five die every month as a result of sanctions. The total death toll may be as high as 1.5 million people - roughly 6% of the population. We've returned to the place where civilisation began to destroy an entire nation of people for the oil under their desert.

Sanctions were imposed on August 6th 1990, days after Iraq invaded Kuwait, having been told that the US would take no action if it did so. In 1996 the Oil For Food programme began, whereby Iraq can sell oil and the revenue goes into a bank account administered by the Sanctions Committee (less 25% for administration of the programme, compensation for Kuwait, one of the richest countries in the world, and miscellaneous other expenses). Credit notes can be issued against this account and supply contracts applied for.

The Sanctions Committee can put holds on contracts it doesn't approve of - to date this has included a consignment of pencils for the Ministry of Education, because they contain graphite. Quite right too, otherwise they'd only have the kids peeling the wood off the pencils and turning them into nuclear reactor cores. As of February 2002, there were $5.25 billion of holds on humanitarian items and oil industry spare parts.

Driving into Iraq from Jordan the desert highway was littered with torn tyres which didn't mean much to us till August 6th, the day of the 11th anniversary protest at the UN HQ in Baghdad. We were across a busy road from the UN and, in six or seven hours, we saw three cars completely wrecked in accidents caused by bald tyres blowing out. Two of them were taxis - their drivers' entire livelihoods. Safe tyres, even if available, are unaffordable for most Iraqis.

We met a woman called Fadma who runs a money exchange. Before sanctions one Iraqi dinar was equivalent to 2. Now it's about 0.02 pence - a fiftieth of a penny, 3650 to the pound. If, before 1990, you had 5000 in savings, it'd be worth around 75p now. There's no insurance because the currency's worthless and the only social welfare is the monthly food ration, because there isn't any cash to give to people. Unemployment is rampant -jobs, even whole industries, have disappeared because there's no public money to pay public sector workers and most people have no money for private spending.

The ration consists of flour, beans, rice, oil, tea, sugar and powdered milk - there's no fresh food, fruit or veg because it can't be stored and distributed on a monthly basis. For a lot of people the food ration is their main or only income, so some of it has to be sold to buy things like medicine, transport to hospital, shoes and clothing, just basic essentials.

The doctors we met told us that over the last year their wages have gone up from 5000D to 30000D a month. The increase comes from the proceeds of illicit border trading with Iraq's neighbours, bypassing the Oil For Food programme. It's still only about 10 a month and a packet of aspirin costs 2, a pair of women's shoes about 8, but it's a lifeline. It's also evidence that the money from the smuggling is going into the economy and the population where it's so desperately needed, and not being used to get weapons. This lifeline is what the British and American governments are trying to cut off with their so-called "Smart Sanctions" proposal.

The smart bit of "Smart Sanctions" is the humanitarian veneer they put on what's really a tightening of the sanctions. Instead of everything being embargoed and certain items being allowed through, as things are now, everything would be allowed through apart from certain items. Obviously there needn't be any practical difference at all in the range of items let into Iraq, but the trade off is the sealing of the borders, severing the only source of desperately needed cash.

We made friends with Ahined and Saif, two fourteen year old shoeshine boys who hung out outside our hotel. Hazim, a shopkeeper we met, told us that before sanctions, it was unthinkable that there would be children working on the streets. There were a few shoeshiners but they were unemployed adult men. Education was compulsory to sixteen and free through university.

A lot of kids are too malnourished to go to school or else they have to work to help support the family or their parents can't afford shoes and transport to school. Even those who do go face lack of sanitation facilities in the schools, lack of electricity, books, desks, chairs, pencils, everything. UN observers rated 90% of primary and 75% of secondary schools as unsafe in the Secretary General's report m March 2001. Some materials have been distributed for repairs, but without cash, it's impossible to pay for installation.

Similarly the water, power and sewage plants are operating well below demand and can't be repaired under sanctions. Damaged water pipes run alongside damaged sewage pipes, so the drinking water gets contaminated, reaching families unsafe for consumption. Doctors told us that gastro-enteritis is the biggest killer of children. The power goes off for about six hours a day in Baghdad and up to twenty hours a day in Basra, in the south. That means no air conditioning, which causes heat related illnesses. It means people use cheap kerosene lamps which blow up and cause serious burns and lots of deaths. Public and private poverty combine to fill the hospitals with children.

The thalassaemia unit at Mosul Paediatric Hospital in the north was filled with children receiving blood transfusions. Thalassaemia's an extreme form of anaemia. It's congenital and patients can be kept alive with monthly blood transfusions, but they need bone marrow transplants. Without transplants, the doctor said, they wouldn't make it past sixteen.

There were two toddlers sitting on the first bed, giggling at us and putting the medical instruments into their mouths, and their mothers were taking them out again. And as you looked around the room the children got older and sicker, less animated, thinner, their skin yellower, more translucent, their heads on one side, the necks too limp and fragile to hold them. It was like looking through the years of those two babies' lives, watching them die young.

The Oil For Food system is so cumbersome that quality control just doesn't happen and suppliers feel able to offload any old shit onto Iraq. One of the doctors showed us damaged transfusion bags that are no use. As a result there aren't enough bags to treat all the patients. We cuddled a woman as her eleven year old son went into a coma which the doctor said he wouldn't recover from because there weren't enough platelet bags to treat him.

There was a young woman called Alia - she was 17. She had leukaemia, went into remission, had a relapse. She was in tears when we met her because she wanted to go home and hang out with her friends, go back to school and go to teaching college. Its' worse for the teenagers than for the little ones, because they know what's happening to them. There's been a twelvefold increase in cancers since the Gulf War. The cure rate for leukaemia before sanctions was 70%, similar to the rate in Britain, using the same treatment protocol. Here, eleven years on, the cure rate is 90%. In Iraq now it's zero. Children who get leukaemia die.

We went to the mental hospital in Baghdad to deliver some occupational therapy journals. The chief resident told us that since 1990 Iraq has experienced a vast increase in neurotic disorders: schizophrenia, manic depressiveness, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress. He said sometimes there aren't the drugs to treat the patients properly - they stabilise on one form of medication and then its not available anymore and they're back to where they started from. The hospital's stretched to its capacity of 1200 in-patients and they're forced to discharge even homeless patients too soon as more acute cases come in.

The war hasn't ended for anyone there. There were at least two US/UK bombings a week while we were there. We heard the air raid sirens go off in Mosul but no one else even seemed to hear them: "So what? They bomb all the time."

We met a man in the southern marshlands whose 13-year-old son Omran was killed by a US bomb in May 2000. He was herding goats in a field at the beginning of the school holidays. He was no kind of target. He was a boy in a field near a mudbrick village with some skinny cattle and skinny goats and the water drying up in the drought.

We went to the Ameriyah Shelter where 409 women, children and old people were killed in 1991. The first missile made a hole in the roof, took out the power supply so the doors couldn't be opened and burst the boiler pipes so the lower level flooded. The second one was a thermobaric weapon dropped through the hole made by the first one. A thermobaric weapon is a fireball which sucks out all the oxygen, sucks the eyeballs out of their sockets, melts bodies together. It also made the steel doors swell with the heat so they couldn't be opened manually, and it boiled the water flooding the lower level, flaying the skin from the bodies of the people trapped in there. It's still stuck to the walls now.

Now Bush and Blair are plotting a new bombardment as part of their War of Terror. Watch this space for yet more violations of international law and human rights. The "Smart Sanctions" resolution comes up for debate in May so be ready to counter bullshit humanitarian propaganda.

Check out www.viwuk.freeserve.co.uk for more info.

Break the sanctions without leaving the country: send vitamins, painkillers, kids' clothes, toothbrushes, medical and other academic journals, etc, by post, either to Iraqi Red Crescent Society, Al Mansoor, Baghdad or University Library, Baghdad. If you write "Iraq" under the address, the parcel will probably be returned to you, but it's worth doing because the authorities will know people are opposing the sanctions. If you write "Jordan" underneath there's a much better chance of the items getting through to Iraq. Alternatively, find someone who can write Arabic and write "Jordan" in English at the bottom. It's a really useful, practical thing that everyone can do. Not to resist is to collaborate.