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?
The broad-based coalition that organized the day answered a cry from people of conscience all over the world. Organizations such as the Ireland-based Campaign to End Iraq Sanctions, Christians for Compassionate Community in Long Island, Masjid Al Islam in Los Angeles, the National Muslim Student's Organizations, the Society of Latino Engineers and Scientists (SOLES), the Stanford Coalition Against Sanctions in Iraq, and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War Anti-Imperialism were among 35 organizations across the nation sponsoring the event.
For many religious groups, the day of silence was an opportunity to demonstrate their strong disapproval of U.S. policy towards Iraq. Muslims, Jews, and Christians from all across the world emphasized a religious obligations for those who fear God to defend that which all the prophets preached: justice.
Within the Islamic tradition, for instance, a person who speaks the truth in the face of oppression and is killed for it is considered a martyr. There is also a strong tradition within Islam where speech, or lack thereof, has resulted in change. Imam Jowhari Abdel-Malik, the Muslim chaplain at Howard University, explains, "The history of using speech or silence to call attention to injustice has a place in the Sunnah [the way of the Prophet Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him]." Imam Jowhari recalls how Angel Jabreel commanded Mary, mother of Jesus, to fast and not speak, and the popular story of the companion of the Prophet (P.B.U.H.) Kaab bin Maalak, who was punished by silence from the community for nearly 20 days for his inaction and apathy towards Muslim injustices. Imam Jowhari also tells the story of the Battle of Tabook, where Muslims were able to defeat an army of 10,000 soldiers through words. In that battle, the Muslim army marched to the city, and the poets stepped forward reciting the injustices the Muslims could not accept, and calling on the people of the city to step down from corruption and stand up only to God. The Prophet Mohammed, P.B.U.H., then stepped forward and began to recite a prayer to God The people were so moved by the poets and by the prayer that they surrendered. Imam Jowhari explains, "The Battle of Tabook was a bloodless victory because of the power of their speech. It also shows us today that speaking out on the injustices in Iraq can also make a change."
According to Father Simon Harak of New York, Canadian bishops have announced that helping the Iraqi people is a moral obligation. In his opinion, the moral obligation also extends to a religious duty. He explains, "My own sense when we are looking at God from the Hebrew Scriptures, and when we are looking at a God who liberates, is that the burden of the cross is seeking justice."
One of the primary obstacles facing the coalition is lack of awareness by the public. With media coverage of Middle East issues already a sore point among American Muslims, who believe that U.S. media reflect the double standard found in U.S. policy, the lack of coverage on the Iraqi situation has been extremely frustrating.
Over the past few years, a wide array of bishops in the United States have issued a number of statements on the subject, including a letter to President Clinton signed by the heads of all the major Christian denominations last September and statements by the president of the bishops' conference during the annual meeting of the full body of bishops in each of the last three years. Gerard F. Powers, Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace, wrote in a letter, "In my thirteen years here, I can think of no other public policy issue that has received that much attention at the annual meeting, which is the forum that attracts the most attention of the media." Nonetheless, the media has failed to cover these statements on Iraq.
The lack of media attention on the issue of Iraq has allowed the human rights violations against the Iraqi people to continue for 10 years. The Day of Silence hoped to help bring them to an end.