Women fighting to stem disaster in Iraq

`Independent' relief: Aid struggles to alleviate damage of UN sanctions on the people
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The Independent Online
MARGARET HASSAN does not shout when she speaks, but her indignation - uttered above the hissing air-conditioner in her office - comes across as a cry, angry and frustrated, from someone who is tired of listening to platitudes. "This is a man-made disaster," she says, banging her right hand into the palm of her left. "Yes, some people have benefited from what we have done. But we can't solve the problem of Iraq. It's got no economy. We can't replace this with aid."

Like her assistant, Judy Morgan from Dublin, Margaret Hassan works for CARE International, the largest humanitarian relief agency in the world. And since the two women run CARE's office in Baghdad, they are watching, every week, every day, sometimes every hour, the evidence of human tragedy on a massive scale, a disaster they can do little or nothing to alleviate.

These were the two women who distributed the medicines, bought by Independent readers, to the children's hospitals of Iraq, who had to plead with the authorities to accept the drugs and to persuade one of Iraq's finest medical officers to state their case to the office of President Saddam Hussein.

They were successful; but on the day of distribution, the Iraqi contractors sent only two refrigerated trucks to the cold storage shed where Judy Morgan was waiting to dispatch the medicines to Basra and Mosul as well as Baghdad.

"The man said he thought we needed only two barada (cold trucks) and I said, `How do you think we can deliver the vincristine vials to two Baghdad hospitals in an ordinary lorry in this heat?'

"I had to go out and look for a refrigerated truck in the street - and when I found one, the driver told me it had broken down."

Three hours late, another lorry with a roaring refrigeration unit backed into the yard of the Saddam Hussein Paediatric Hospital where the director was too busy - with a delegation of Iraqi expatriates - to arrange reception of the drugs. Ms Morgan persuaded the hospital's dispatcher to accept the manifest and herself plunged into the filthy reception bay to drag a rubbish trolley to the truck upon which the Independent medicines could be rolled into the hospital.

Down in the heat of Basra, Margaret Hassan - after a 400-mile overnight journey on a road sometimes cut by bandits - presented our drugs to the doctors of Iraq's southernmost city.

Two tough women. So it is not surprising they talk as tough as they are. "The level of deprivation in this country goes down and down and down," Ms Morgan says. "It spirals. Whatever we do, it's not even like King Canute. The water is lapping round our feet before we've even had the chance to order the tide to turn back."

Put very bluntly, the two CARE workers are convinced that they are providing the proverbial useless drop in the ocean, helping to salve consciences - Western consciences - while Iraqis die because of our United Nations sanctions.

Ms Hassan, who was born in London, has a thick file of examples to prove that she is telling the truth. "What use can we be here?" she asks. "Now if this was a Third World country, we could bring in some water pumps at a cost of a few hundred pounds and they could save thousands of lives. But Iraq was not a Third World country before the (1991) war - and you can't run a developed society on aid.

"What is wrong with the water system here is a result of breakdown and damage to complex and very expensive water purification plants. And this eats up hundreds of thousands of pounds in repairs - for just one region of the country. The doctors here are excellent - many were trained in Europe as well as Iraq - but because of sanctions, they haven't had access to a medical journal for eight years. And in the sciences, what does this mean?"

The pages flick past Ms Hassan's face. A teacher in a primary school earns 3,000 Iraqi dinars a month. This is less than pounds 2. What can he or she teach now? With all Iraq's faults before, there was cheap clothing, food was reasonably priced, public transport was available. But in some villages now, the parents can no longer afford to take a cancer-sick child on the bus to the nearest hospital.

"The people are really, really suffering. Do people know what it's like for a mother to wake up each morning not knowing whether she can feed her child - in a country which can feed every child?"

Both Ms Hassan and Ms Morgan are married to Iraqis. CARE rules forbid them to discuss politics. So there are certain subjects - the President, the invasion of Kuwait, human rights within Iraq - which do not cross their lips. But they are saying what almost every UN humanitarian worker also says in Iraq: that the sanctions reputedly intended to hurt the government are hurting only the people. Ms Hassan suspects that Westerners have somehow humanly divorced themselves from ordinary Iraqis.

"I don't think we see them as people," she says. "If you see someone suffering - if you have a grain of humanity in you - you have to respond to that.

"Sanctions are inhuman and what we are doing cannot redress that inhumanity. They are contrary to the UN Charter, which enshrines the rights of the individual. It's a contradiction, a hypocrisy - it's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. UN sanctions are contravening the very individual rights in the UN Charter. Anybody who looks at this objectively has got to say these things."

It is difficult to contradict Ms Hassan. Only last month, Dennis Halliday, the Irish head of the oil-for-food programme - the very system supposedly designed to alleviate Iraq's civilian suffering - resigned in protest at the calamity that sanctions are imposing on the people of Iraq.

"We are in the process of destroying an entire society," he said after his resignation. "It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral." If the world thinks that Saddam Hussein and his Foreign Minister, Tarek Aziz, are extremists, Mr Halliday said in New York, "I don't dare to think what will come" after the suffering created by sanctions.

Aid workers in Iraq - Margaret Hassan and Judy Morgan are only two among hundreds - now talk of a "lost generation", a whole people who do not understand computers or the Internet, modern science or literature, who are losing their literacy.

There used to be a popular expression in Iraq: that books are written in Cairo, printed in Beirut but read in Baghdad. Now in Baghdad, Margaret Hassan says cynically, "the books are sold - for money to buy food".

CARE International can be reached at Tower House, 8-14 Southampton Street, London WC2E 7HA