The Sound of Silence
I was among many United Nations employees who could not last a full year in Iraq. Where were all the people of conscience?
BY: Manal Omar
In October of 1998, I thought that my dreams had finally come true when, as a fresh college graduate, I was offered a job by the United Nations. After graduating, I had decided to pick up my bags and return to my region of origin, the Middle East, to pursue work in my field of international relations. I had never lived there and had dreamed of living among the palm trees and olive orchards my father had often described. When I was offered a job with the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to work in Baghdad for a humanitarian program, I felt that my career dream was complete.
I could not even have imagined the nightmare I was going to witness. My first assignment upon arrival in Baghdad was to visit a local school. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight. Children, clearly malnourished and with little or no clothing, sat on damp floors or waded through sewage that had leaked into the halls. The wall of the main hallway, which seemed to stretch endlessly, was covered with drawings of children. Curious, I asked the head principal who drew these pictures. "The pictures are from the students in memory of their classmates who recently died," the principal answered. It was more then I could take, and my "observation visit" was cut short as I ran back to my secure white landcruiser with the blue letters "U" and "N" on the side.
Since 1991, the United Nations Security Council has maintained comprehensive economic sanctions against Iraq as punishment for Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. These sanctions were why the children I saw were starving and lacked clothing and clean water.
The economic sanctions have done little to affect the Iraqi government or to further international goals. But children who were not even born when Saddam Hussein launched his infamous invasion of Kuwait are paying the price for his act with their lives.
The Humanitarian Report to the UN Security Council of March 30, 1999, notes that Iraq "has experienced a shift from relative affluence to massive poverty" and that "infant mortality rates in Iraq today are among the highest in the world." UN report after UN report has emphasized the damages of the sanctions, with UNICEF reporting in 1997 that 32% of children under age 5--some 960,000 children--are chronically malnourished, a rise of 72% since 1991. Current UNICEF reports estimate that 6,000 to 7,000 Iraqi children under 5 die every month. The World Health Organization has reported that Iraq's health care system has been completely devastated as a direct result of the sanctions.
I was among many United Nations employees who could not last a full year in Iraq, my dream turned to nightmare. For those inside, it became painfully clear that the United Nations had not only failed to alleviate the pain and suffering of the Iraqi people, but, through the sanctions, were in fact the cause of much of the suffering. Among the high-profile UN officials who resigned in protest of the sanctions was Dennis Halliday, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Chief UN Relief Coordinator for Iraq. In a speech to Harvard students, Halliday explained that "sanctions continue to kill children and sustain high levels of malnutrition. Sanctions are undermining cultural and educational recovery. Sanctions will not change governance to democracy. Sanctions are counterproductive and have no positive impact on the leadership, and sanctions lead to unacceptable human suffering, often the young and the innocent." Halliday's predecessor, UN Humanitarian Coordinator Hans Von Sponeck, had also resigned after less than a year in Baghdad.
I left Iraq with the images of dead children etched in my soul and with a taunting question echoing in my mind: Aside from a few UN officials, where were all the people of conscience?