Michael Wolff is a San Diego activist and writer who works for the International Action Center and A.N.S.W.E.R. He writes for radio and television. In January 2001, he traveled with Ramsey Clark’s delegation to witness firsthand the effects of war and sanctions on the Iraqi people.
(Author’s note: During our five day visit, the Iraqi people treated us with a warmth and generosity that was overwhelming. We were treated like heroes and showered with gifts from people who had next to nothing. I never heard any anti-American sentiment. The incident in the marketplace was the one exception. A year ago, I discovered that the marketplace was located in a predominately Shiite area that had been the scene of an anti-government uprising in 1979.)
"There can be no justification for the death and malnutrition for which sanctions are responsible"
Former Chief UN Relief Coordinator for Iraq
After a late lunch at the Al-Rashid hotel, we prepared to make the final trip of what was proving to be a very long, emotionally-draining day. My spirits were fine, but I was mentally and physically tired. With the trip to the Amerijah bomb shelter where hundreds of women and children had been incinerated by a "smart" bomb and the visit to Saddam Children’s Hospital where some of the delegates had seen a little girl die from leukemia, I had absorbed too much information today. My mind was still trying to register what I had just seen. I was also having a problem with the air quality in the city. My throat was sore and my voice was becoming hoarse. Several other delegates had experienced the same symptoms. It was probably air-pollution, but there was an unusual remanent taste in the air that was difficult to define.
Our last destination for the day was a place that still gives me dark and haunting memories. More than any other place, it was here in the marketplace where I literally came face to face with the nightmarish effects of the Gulf War and the hellish inhumanity of the U.S. imposed sanctions policy.
We sat in a traffic jam for a very long time before pulling up in front of Kadhimie mosque. The ancient mosque was a stunning piece of architecture with towering minarets and gold handcrafted tiles. We were invited to go inside. For a minute, there was some debate about the requirements for going into the mosque. Were we dressed properly? Were women allowed? Did the women need to have their heads covered? Were non-Muslims allowed inside? I disliked the idea of exclusiveness, so I chose not to go inside and instead connected with my roommate, Wil Van Natta. After getting permission from a staff member, the two of us decided to walk through the market place while the rest of the delegation visited the mosque. Wil and I immediately engaged in a very vibrant, animated conversation about what we had seen that day. We talked about the hospital, the staff—the other delegates. I explained to him my concerns; I wondered if we were getting an accurate view of what was taking place in the country. I was troubled by a number of things I had seen, but combined with the unbelievable excitement of what we were doing here. I was filled with strong and mixed emotions. Wil shared many of these same feelings and expressed many of his own concerns. He told me that during the visit to the hospital, he had been ambushed by an NBC camera crew, and in the heat of passion had made some "improper" statements about the U.S. government that could have made the ISC look bad. He had taken some criticism from some of the other ISC members and he felt resentful. In a way, he felt like me—besieged on all sides.
As we conversed, I began to look around and gauge the unusual situation. We were two American men, thousands of miles from home, walking unsupervised through a Baghdad market in a country under siege, a country in a perpetual state of war. I immediately felt apprehensive as I wondered what impact our presence would have on the local Iraqis. I knew that we were attracting a lot of attention, and I wasn’t sure if it was all positive. I mean, this was a very serious situation. Our country had dropped over a 100 million pounds of bombs on this country—in fact, was continuing to bomb them on an almost daily basis—and was responsible for over one million deaths and suffering on a colossal scale. I was deeply aware that every man, woman and child in this country had been badly victimized by ten years of U.S. military aggression and economic warfare. They had been victimized by people who looked like me. Of course, there was going to be some animosity. How could there not be?
I was uncertain what to expect as we walked along the sidewalk, talking excitedly. A moment later, we saw a heart-breaking sight. Wil pointed out a child—a young boy—without any legs dragging himself through the mud. It hurt very deeply to see this. In fact, every time I think about this image a tear comes to my eye. I wondered how he had lost his legs. Were his legs blown off by a mine, or an unexploded U.S. cluster bomb? What would happen to him? Where were his parents? What did the future hold for this tiny child? It would probably be very grim and full of suffering. I doubted that he would live very long. This is the true face of war—a child crawling through the mud without legs. This is the face of war that we don’t see on our television sets. All I could do was shake my head in disbelief; I felt like I had just been punched in the stomach.
Without really thinking about it, we turned into a crowded alleyway. We had walked about twenty meters when I noticed a very definite and distinct change in the attitudes of the people around us. The mood seemed to turn dark and ugly. Everyone was carefully watching us and I felt like the two of us had suddenly crossed some unseen line that we should not have. I had never experienced anything like it, and I was surprised by the suddenness of the change. Something had happened—something was different now.
Two young boys walked up to me holding out knives arrayed in a case. They wanted me to buy them. I tried to explain that I wasn’t interested. I walked off, following Wil.
A few moments later, I turned around and found them still following right behind me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the entire crowd was watching this spectacle as it began to unfold. I clumsily pulled out a couple of 250 dinar notes from my pants pocket and handed one to each of the boys, then walked off. I turned around again and the boys were still following right behind me, holding out the knives. Rather than being placated by the dinar notes, they became emboldened as if my gesture was a sign of weakness. I saw a number of people shouting in my direction. People seemed to be looking at me with contempt. A man made an angry gesture with his hand in my face and walked off. The crowd started laughing. I turned around and saw that each of the boys had taken a knife out of the case and was making stabbing gestures at me. There was a vicious expression in their eyes. It was at this point that I began to feel a concrete sense of dread. Something was wrong. A man in an overcoat walked up next to me and began pushing up against me. He opened his coat a little. He smiled and nodded wickedly. Unbelievably, all of this went unnoticed by Wil who was walking a few meters ahead of me. I grabbed him. "Wil," I said. "We’ve got to get out of here. Something is wrong. Something is going on."
He looked around and surveyed the scene for a moment, almost as if he were waking up from a dream. "Yeah," he said. "I think you’re right."
We quickly entered a shop and Wil began to barter with the owner over a red and white checkered head-covering. When he put it on he looked like a Palestinian liberation fighter. I felt better being inside the shop, but I was deeply concerned. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if we were going to safely make it out of there. I just wanted to get out of there and back to the safety of the group.
We left the shop and made it back to the main strip without incident, but we could not find the bus or any of the other delegates. We decided to wait where the bus was supposed to meet us at. As we stood there and talked, we were soon surrounded by children beggars. We tried to ignore them. A minute later, a police officer waded in behind the children and suddenly, savagely struck one of the boys over the head with a downward fist. The children scattered in every direction. We didn’t realize what was taking place.
"What in the fuck is wrong with that guy," I said, "Did you see that? That cop just walked over and knocked the shit out of that little kid."
"Yeah, that was fucked up," Wil said.
We waited and again the children began to gather around us. The officer returned and struck another child. Kids ran off. It was like a game to them. Across the street, we saw another shocking scene take place. We saw a group of children piling on top of an elderly woman clutching a small paper bag, trying to drag her down by sheer weight of numbers. Many of the children were hardly more than toddlers. They were so desperate; they must have been starving. A police officer came over and began knocking the children off of her. Even then, they were still trying to drag her down. The officer threw a child to the pavement and the rest fled. It was a shocking and demoralizing thing to see.
The children had gathered around us again and this time an angry taxi driver came over and kicked one of the boys right in the backside. A little girl fell over and was trampled by the fleeing children. "Jesus Christ," I said, suddenly realizing what was taking place. "We need to keep walking. Let’s go. Come on, Wil." I pushed him. "Don’t you see what’s happening? We need to keep walking." We found ourselves in a disturbing situation where every time we stopped, the children would gather around us and an officer would come over and strike one. We had to keep walking back and forth on the street. I didn’t realize it at the time, but our mere presence was causing a significant and tragic disruption to the local society. The Iraqi people are a very proud people and the sight of their children being forced to beg from white American men must have been unbearable to them. We had bombed them; we had destroyed their economy and now their children were begging from us. That was why they struck the children beggars. This was not normal behavior. Our presence was causing this to happen. The thought filled me with shame and bitterness.
"We don’t belong here," I told Wil. "This is inappropriate. We never should have come here."
We waited for the bus or the rest of the group to show up, but they were nowhere in sight. I began to feel very far from home, very lonely and vulnerable. We walked up and down the street and considered the possibility that we had misunderstood the staff’s instructions and were waiting in the wrong place. I thought that maybe we would have to take a taxi back to the Al-Rashid hotel. The sun was going down and I began to feel fatalistic. The situation seemed unusual—almost eerie. We were in a foreign land. The sun was going down. The bus was gone. There was no sign of the other delegates. "Where in the hell are they?" I kept muttering, looking at my watch. We didn’t know where to go and we couldn’t stop walking for fear that a child would be pummeled by an officer again. Our ridiculous exercise in walking back and forth aimlessly was also beginning to attract unusual attention. An emaciated child came up to me with a desperate expression on his face, pointing his finger to his mouth to signify hunger. I tried to give him a piece of candy, but he let out a frightening feral hiss and fled from me. I couldn’t understand his reaction. Did he think I was trying to give him poison? It was frustrating. It seemed that nothing I did was working right this afternoon.
Five minutes before our scheduled departure time, three of the other delegates appeared out of the crowd. They told us about the wonderful experience they had. They showed us the beautiful items they bought—scarves, bracelets. They had not had any problems. They had not seen any bad things. Needless to say, I was glad to see them. The bus pulled around and I was the first one on. I felt morose, tired and I just wanted to get out of there and back to the comfort and safety of the Al-Rashid. It had been a long day.