(Ottawa, January 30, 2001) -- "Tell them what depleted uranium is doing to Iraqi children. Tell them about the deformed babies," cried an emotional Iraqi teacher, when members of the Iraq Sanctions Challenge asked an elementary class what message they wanted brought back to North America.
Her voice shaky at times, and her eyes glistening, Samaa Elibyari held a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on January 30 to share her experiences during a recent visit to Iraq. "(After the teacher spoke) the students, who were already intimidated by our presence, started to cry," she told the press.
Ms. Elibyari, a long-time human rights activist, called on the Canadian government to respect human rights and to end its support of the sanctions, which have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.
Last month's visit to Iraq was coordinated by the International Action Centre in New York and was headed by the former US attorney general Ramsey Clark.
Representing the Canadian Islamic Congress, Elibyari traveled with a delegation of 48 representatives of 15 U.S. states and seven countries including Canada, Japan, Palestine, Greece, Lebanon and Scotland. The delegation arrived in Iraq on January 13 and remained there for five days.
Elibyari's trip was co-sponsored by Voices of Conscience, a Montreal-based NGO, that raised $4,500 for medicines as a contribution to the cause.
The trip was the fourth time that a "sanctions challenge" has been mounted, defying UN and US resolutions prohibiting air travel and the supply of medicine and other necessary goods to the devastated country.
"The 90-minute flight aboard a Royal Jordanian Airbus from Amman to Baghdad had specific significance; since the US sanctions were imposed, no flights have been allowed in or out of Iraq for 8 years. The only way to get to Baghdad was a 12-14 hour ride from Amman.
"In May, 1999, another route was opened from Damascus and the Iraqi capital. Although there is no specific UN text that spells out the ban of flights, it is the view of former US Secretary of State Madelaine Albright that air traffic isn't allowed, an opinion that has been disputed by France and Russia. The head of our delegation, Ramsey Clark, didn't abide by this rule, saying that air flights are an international human right, enshrined in the Geneva Convention," said Elibyari.
"You can imagine our joy and great relief when we landed safely. We applauded and chanted 'UN-US end the sanctions now!'"
According to the UN, over 1 million people have died as a result of the sanctions, which were instituted in 1990 after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The UN has reported that as many as 250 children die each month as a result of the sanctions. This number is expected to grow as the number of children and adults who develop leukemia grows. The US continues to dispute that depleted uranium, a radioactive material used in the tips of shells and to coat tanks, is responsible for making people fatally ill. The material, which was also used in Kosovo, is only now gaining attention after European soldiers have stepped forward with their illnesses.
But in Iraq, the suffering has been going on for years.
In Basra, a city that was bombarded heavily with depleted uranium munitions, not a soul could be seen or heard. "It was as if the entire city was in a coma," said Elibyari.
"You sense that there is no life, there isn't enough noise, you don't see the cats in the streets, you don't hear the dogs barking... Where are the inhabitants of the city, why aren't things moving? Why don't we see cranes, new buildings? It's as if the city has been sleeping for at least 20 years, in a deep sleep," she said.
The delegation visited several other locations, including a rations centre and the University of Baghdad, once a top school where all four Sunni Muslim schools of thought were taught.
"Before the embargo, Baghdad University was one of the best in the Arab world; since the embargo was imposed, staff members have seen their salaries plummet with the devaluation with the Iraqi Dinar, [and] no reference books are allowed in the country. Most students are dropping out of school, simply because they cannot afford to pay for transportation and clothing," said Elibyari.
Elibyari admitted that had she hadn't the courage to visit a hospital, [where] she would have seen the worst cases of intense suffering.
"I didn't want to go to a hospital because this is the place where you would see children dying. I must admit I didn't have the courage to do it."
What she did see was enough to convince her that the current sanctions regime isn't working, a fact that is shared by most nations. Even Kuwait is beginning to change its tune, Elibyari noted. However, the United States continues to insist that sanctions are the only way to deal with Saddam Hussein.
"President Bush and his advisors are not in touch with the feelings of the Arab-Muslim world regarding Iraq. Bitterness and resentment are running high towards the intransigence and double standards of the US and the countries supporting its policies in the Middle East. Egypt has recently signed a trade agreement with Iraq. Baghdad will participate in the international book fair to be held in Cairo next week, after an absence of 10 years," she continued.
"Saudi nationals are alarmed by reports of depleted uranium dust being blown across the border. Even in Kuwait, editorials are now calling for a change of policy.
"Arabs and Muslims know the truth. It is time our government takes into account these recent international changes and the continued suffering of the Iraqi people. Our Canadian government should uphold universal principals of justice and peace towards Iraq and call for an end to the sanctions."