Lessening our shame 

More than one million Iraqis have died — 567,000 of them children — as a direct consequence of economic sanctions.

—United Nations, 1995.

Having trouble finding enough time to work, play and get ready for the holidays?

Consider this on your next drive to the health club or the Somerset Collection. Right now, as you read these words, a baker's dozen metro Detroiters are probably on an aged bus, without air conditioning, driving on a dusty road from Jordan across Iraq.

They are taking a pittance — a few hundred pounds — of badly needed medical supplies and other humanitarian items with them, which makes their mercy mission illegal. We slapped sanctions on Iraq in 1991 to punish Saddam Hussein for the Gulf War. Eight years later, he's still in power, and doesn't look any thinner. But hundreds of thousands of babies in his country are dying, thanks to us.

"That's why we are going over there — to raise a direct challenge to this policy, which is not only immoral, it doesn't work," the ageless Rudy Simons said last week, when we met at Peace Action of Michigan in Ferndale.

Now before you conservatives out there start foaming at the mouth, let's get one thing perfectly clear. Saddam Hussein is a nasty, bad man. Yes, precious, I know it, you know it, Simons and every member of his delegation knows it.

Nor is ol' Rudy some pathetic '60s wannabe in search of a cause. He is fairly well-fixed financially and in even better shape personally; he has a lovely wife and a 3-year-old son, Eli, whom he has no desire to leave during the holidays.

But he feels what we are doing is so wrong he has to make this particular statement. Brad VanGuilder, a 38-year-old physicist who gave up subatomic particles to work for sanity as head of Peace Action of Michigan, agrees.

He's on that bus too, as are Mary Carry, a gentle teacher, and her husband Bill, a retired Chrysler executive.

The delegation is led by Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, no stranger to progressive and controversial causes. But I think it important to name the others, who are not famous, and who are standing up for human decency at a time and in a place when there is no apparent financial, social or political benefit in doing so.

They include a preacher — the Rev. Ed Rowe; another teacher, Therese Terns; two nuns, Sr. Rita Mary Olszewski and Sr. Gerry Sellman; a lawyer, Helen Weber; a manager, Frank O'Donnell; a grad student, Raj Chablani; and Jeff Nelson, listed as just a plain, good old Detroiter. What might our government do to punish them?

"Well, we could get up to 12 years in jail and a fine of $1 million each, plus court costs," VanGuilder said wryly. Odds are, however, that nothing will happen. Though this is the first all-Michigan delegation, others — and Tom Gumbleton himself — have gone to Iraq before, without any reprisals; the feds possibly have learned some PR skills.

What really worries Rudy Simons and co. is that no one will pay attention. The international media stopped paying much attention to Saddam's wretched fiefdom long ago, except for brief notes when we fire at his planes when they dare to appear in that part of Iraq we moronically call the "no-fly zone," which always sounds like that other great artifact of Western civilization, the "No-Pest Strip."

But the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sent a reporter and a photographer to Iraq in May, and their report might make even a Gannett executive weep. Visiting the best pediatric hospital in Baghdad, they found a tableau from hell. "Malnourished children, covered with flies, lie on stained mattresses ... The hospital is dark; electrical power is shut off periodically ... the usual antiseptic odor of medical facilities has been replaced with the stench of urine, feces and decay."

Medicine is in very short supply. UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, reports that 4,500 children are dying each month, from hunger and disease.

Millions have no access to clean drinking water. The World Health Organization reports more than half the country is on a semistarvation diet.

Yet we continue this insane policy, a course correctly condemned by the Detroit City Council, praise be, as a violation of the Geneva Convention's rule against starving civilians as a means of warfare.

Why? Someone asked the intellectual shrub himself, George Bush the lesser, whether he would continue sanctions if he gets to be president. Why, of course. "Have to put Saddam on notice," he stuttered, adding that if he caught him building any more weapons of mass destruction, we'd take him out.

Him? The man his daddy had called "worse than Hitler?" Well, no. "Uh, them, the weapons," the shrub said. Not to pick on Bush; every other presidential candidate has expressed the need to look big against the Infidel of Iraq.

Fortunately, a few people feel differently. How this will all end is not in my power to predict, but this much is clear: When history is written, those who send food and medicine to hungry babies look better than those who starve them.

This won't be the last mercy mission, and Peace Action is petitioning Congress and the United Nations to end the sanctions. If helping in any way appeals, contact Metro Detroit Against Sanctions, 248-548-3920 or 313-297-8808, or send e-mail to Peace Action.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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