Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi A Journey Through Iraq

By Stephen Ausherman

JANUARY 26, 1998:  This past December, members of a humanitarian aid group called Conscience International traveled to Iraq to provide medical training and supplies to civilians, who have suffered from malnutrition and disease at unprecedented rates since the Gulf War, which began seven years ago this month. Alibi writer Stephen Ausherman joined the Conscience International team, despite U.S. government warnings that his actions could lead to a penalty of up to 12 years in prison and a $1 million fine. This is his account of the two weeks he spent behind enemy lines.

BAGHDAD, Iraq--The dead man in the road provoked mixed reactions. I saw him first, the body under the sheet, two blackened feet poking out. Another man risked the same fate as he swept up the windshield glass and pieces of chrome. Oddly, there was no blood on the road, and the sheet was spotless.

Dr. Jim Jennings leaned forward and said, "Oh look, a body," as though pointing out another sight on the tour.

Jim, the president of Conscience International, had assembled our international delegation and was leading this excursion through Iraq. At 60, he was an inexhaustible man with a seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of archaeology, world religion and the entire history of the Middle East. For me, it added up to team meetings that would last well past meal times, past midnight, resuming just after dawn for tours of ancient sites with lectures that spanned 1,000 years per hour. He was killing us with deprivation of food and sleep before we'd even left Jordan. I admired his conviction, yet it was that same tireless conviction that made me question his judgment. And already I felt like the dead man in the road.

Simon Bloemendaal, the Dutch member on the team, reacted to the body as though he wished he hadn't seen it. When Jim pointed it out, he turned away, albeit too late, and said he'd seen enough.

Simon had introduced himself only as a 44-year-old father of two daughters, and he often expressed childlike wonder with the world, as though it were one long cartoon. He later revealed that he was also a skydiver, a marathon runner and a nurse who had worked in Doctors Without Borders rescue missions in such joyous locations as Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda--any of which could've accounted for his aversion to dead men.

Others on the team included David Buchanan, an American physician who worked in Mexico, Costa Rica and Chicago's less privileged neighborhoods; Manuel Muñoz, an Argentinean with Spanish citizenship who also made the rounds with Doctors Without Borders in Central Africa and Peru and now worked as a hospital administrator in Holland, and me, with my limited health-training experience in a few African nations. I was by far the least qualified member of the team, and I felt like an idiot in their presence. Simon tried to reassure me that it hardly mattered, that no one was really prepared to deal with the crisis in Iraq.

Into the Fire

The events prior to my departure were disturbing at best. The U.N. inspection team had been kicked out of Iraq. U.S. carriers moved into the Gulf, threatening military action. Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz announced that Iraq was ready to fight, and ABC aired footage of the Iraqi government issuing weapons to women, while hooded suicide squads marched through the streets of Baghdad and commandos ripped apart and ate live dogs.

Seeking advice for travel in Iraq, I called the Vinton's in Santa Fe. Bob Vinton had been one of the more outspoken hostages in Iraq in 1990 and survived the ordeal unscathed, according to Robert Wiener, then the Executive Producer of CNN Baghdad. However, when I asked Sue Vinton if I could speak with her husband, there was an awkward silence before she told me her husband died five weeks after returning home.

"Don't worry," she concluded by the end of our unsettling conversation. "The Iraqis are kind people. They'll take good care of you."

More than 27 hours after I left Albuquerque, I arrived in Amman, Jordan. The final flight was packed, but I was assured to have the armrest the entire time because the girl sitting next to me had no arms. The drive from Amman to Baghdad was another 10 hours in two Jeeps packed tight with luggage and medical supplies. The narrow, crowded, two-lane Jordanian highway kept our speed down, and the border crossings were tedious. Members of an American news crew passed the time by rollerblading the perimeter of the Iraqi security zone.

We waited an hour in the Iraqi Government Executives Rest House, watching a static-ridden Arabic soap opera on a 12-inch black-and-white TV, while Iraqi guards rifled through our cargo. Jim had the foresight to pack extra of the things they wanted most: cigarettes, aspirin and Zantac. Seemed that guarding Saddam's borders was enough to give the most hardened soldiers a headache, ulcers and a nicotine habit, and they expressed their gratitude for the relief by expediting our crossing in record time. We left the rollerblading news crew behind.

On the remaining six-lane stretch of white, empty highway, we reached speeds up to 110 miles per hour, slowed only by fog and thunderstorms that grew more intense as we approached Baghdad. The scenery along the way closely resembled the unremarkable landscape along I-40 west of Albuquerque, but less green, less trash and only two towns in the 300-mile stretch. I tried to break the monotony by playing the Western cassettes I'd brought along, but the Jordanian driver seemed to despise Los Lobos, Ry Cooder, everything except for one band, Black Uhuru, which caused him to break into spontaneous off-beat clapping.

We arrived at the Al-Rasheed Hotel well after dark and found we'd be in good company: Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan were among the honored guests.

The next day, a crowd of anxious parents waiting outside the Saddam Hussein Children's Hospital told us that there was no medicine. It sounded like a cordial warning, a helpful bit of information they passed along to any new arrivals, and they seemed surprised that we went in anyway. They were right. The pharmacy shelves were bare, though two people manned the counter. All other supply rooms were empty as well.

No towels or soap could be found in the wash areas, and the bathrooms apparently hadn't been cleaned in months. In fact, the entire hospital smelled like death. The ventilation system was inoperable, and every exterior door except for the main entrance had been chained or welded shut. At best, one in every 10 light fixtures worked, and the halls and surgical suites took on a dim green flickering glow. The gift shop had a good supply of chips, drinks and plastic toys, but business seemed slow.

The hospital, built to care for 200 children at a time, was currently taking in 600. As with many other hospitals in the country, it was facing a shortage of doctors and nurses. All foreign workers left in 1990, along with any Iraqis who had the means and foresight to get out while they could. The nurses who stayed earned about 2,000 dinars per month. That and change was enough to buy a can of Pepsi.

Parents assumed nursing duties they hardly understood. Often that meant waving a raw oxygen tube under a child's nose. The one mask I did see was adult size, nearly covering a baby's entire face. The parents tried to seal the gaps with their hands, but to no avail. Within the hour, their daughter was dead.

Beyond Baghdad

Tired and somewhat irate, we returned to the Al-Rasheed Hotel to continue our medical motor-tour of the country. We suspected that our Iraqi drivers were government agents. Jalal, a robust man who recited from the Koran every time he started the engine, acted as though he didn't understand a word of English, but couldn't contain his laughter when Simon told jokes in English that were sometimes difficult for me to understand. Jassim revealed an English vocabulary of about 20 words, but shook his head and tisked when Voice of America reported more friction between U.N. inspectors and Iraqi officials.

One thing was certain: They were more than drivers. Their blue license plates indicated government cars to which all other drivers would yield, regardless of who had the right-of-way. This blue-plate special allowed us to cut in front of gas lines two blocks long, pass through military and police check points, run traffic lights and drive on the wrong side of the road at 100 miles per hour.

Their most difficult task, however, was keeping track of us--particularly Manuel, the Spaniard, who had a propensity for wandering away and taking photographs whenever the car stopped near military installations. Still, at times, we were able to sneak away from Jalal and Jassim. And when we were caught, the reprimands sounded more like an issue of our safety than of national security.

We cruised up Highway One in Jalal's and Jassim's 1990 Cutlass Cieras. Jim and David rode with Jassim. Simon, Manuel and I went with Jalal. We liked Jalal better. He let us smoke, play loud music and handle his weapons, like the automatic rifle he kept in the trunk. We listened to an AM broadcast of American music called Radio Monte Carlo. Sinatra crooned out "My Way" as we rolled through the fog, past farms, herds of sheep, 10-foot portraits of Saddam and fields of oil and anti-aircraft guns.

Stopping in Samarra to see the Great Mosque and its spiral minaret, a 170-foot structure once mistaken for the Tower of Babel, I met the Mohammed family as they enjoyed a Friday afternoon picnic. The father asked me where I was from, guessing Italy. Considering the strong military presence and anti-American graffiti in town, I wasn't sure I wanted him to know. So I told him New Mexico, hoping he'd think (like most Americans) it was a part of its namesake.

"Yes, I think it is next to Arizona?" he said, sounding unsure. "You are American. Welcome to Iraq." He introduced his wife and children, then insisted I join them for the family picnic. I would later learn, after meeting so many Iraqis, that his reaction was typical.

The heavy artillery increased as we approached Mosul, and darkness settled in as we drove into town. The Ministry of Health had arranged for us to stay in the enormous Hotel Ninevah Oberoi, which once offered all the Western amenities: disco, bowling alley, pinball, billiards, swimming pool and bomb shelter. Now its empty lobby and halls echoed with dreary pan flute muzak, its elevators didn't stop at every floor and its toilets leaked sewage on the bathroom floor. Most lamps lacked light bulbs and the menus in the restaurant were for display purposes only. The current food shortage kept our choices limited to lamb burgers and kidneys. Worst of all, they lacked coffee.

We visited the Iraqi Red Crescent to check on food distribution. Their offices were without power, and so cold that we could see our breath when we spoke. They offered both tea and coffee, but seemed embarrassed when we asked for the latter. "No coffee," the administrator sadly informed us.

Still, he seemed happy to report that only about a third of the population in the region relied on the Red Crescent for food, and that they were receiving enough foreign rice, oil, sugar and powdered milk to provide each person with 1,000 calories per day. Cutting down from 1,500 calories in previous years helped stretch supplies.

The results were apparent in Mosul's pediatric hospital. Some babies suffered forms of malnutrition so severe that the Iraqi doctors, who never saw a case a malnutrition before 1991, weren't able to make a correct diagnosis. Simon, having worked in Somalia, recognized it immediately. Other babies took on a pale shade of blue in incubators that functioned only as death beds. The hospital staff, with their Western-standard education and training, were unable to improvise or adapt to these Third World conditions.

Simon and I paired up to give a presentation to the nurses in the hospital. However, the hospital administrator provided us with about 20 male nursing students. They filed into the conference room and stared at us as though we were levitating. I knew then that we had a problem.

"Who here speaks English?" I asked.

After an awkward silence, one student held up his notebook and said, "Michael Jackson!" The others displayed their notebooks as well, showing me that each had carefully decorated their binders with magazine cut-outs of Michael Jackson, Madonna and an assortment of Lebanese singers. Not one binder contained any paper.

Heading South

Back in Baghdad, I took a sauna, swam laps in an overheated Olympic-size pool and wondered why they couldn't keep the babies warm in Mosul.

The next morning, I woke to gunshots and calisthenic shouting. A ragtag army troop was training in the parking lot next to the hotel, and they displayed all the enthusiasm of a junior high baseball team with a 0-7 record. Some jogged, others walked, most took frequent cigarette breaks. Only half were in uniform.

After breakfast, Jim, Simon and I met with ABC correspondent Mort Dean. He listened politely as Jim told him about the dismal conditions in Iraqi hospitals, but he concluded it wasn't newsworthy. Afterall, he said, the American people would only blame Saddam.

I asked him what was news in Iraq, since we hadn't heard any in the past few days. He told us that the Iraqis had executed four Jordanians who were caught smuggling car parts out of Iraq. Jordan was threatening to shut down the border if Iraq didn't release the fifth smuggler.

The prospect of being sealed in this country indefinitely distracted me so much that I didn't initially realize the absurdity of it all. There were no parts to be smuggled from Iraq; and if there were, Jordan had enough to make such an operation as ridiculous as smuggling pineapples from Siberia to Hawaii. More likely, the Jordanians had been smuggling weapons into Iraq to arm Saddam's opposition. Yet Mort conveyed his report with such newsman authority that, at the moment, it sounded believable.

Basra was the last venue for our traveling medicine show, but the Ministry of Health failed to provide us with the authorization to travel. Jassim told us not to worry, that he and his blue plates would be our pass. The only problem was that we couldn't travel via Babylon and Ur, as Jim had requested. The government was losing control along the southern part of the Euphrates, Jassim suggested. Bandits and opposition groups were not likely to welcome our blue plates. Jalal emphasized this point by running his index finger across his throat.

Instead, we took a highway that followed the Tigris and stopped for lunch in the piss-poor city of Kut (rhymes with foot), a name that caused Simon to burst out laughing.

"It's a slang word in Dutch," he explained. "It sounds to me as if we are having lunch in a vagina."

In fact, the lamb kabob they served us tasted as though it came from another orifice, so Manuel and I chose instead to wander the streets. When Jassim decided we had strayed too far, he called me back from a block away: "Mr. Stephen! Come! Now!"

Suddenly, it seemed everyone in Kut knew my name, and everyone I passed cheerfully greeted me. Shopkeepers, soldiers, children, old ladies--all smiled and said, "Hello, Mr. Stephen!" as I made my way back to the car.

Iraq turned from mudflats to marshes as we headed south, and numerous military bases took on the look of Camp Swampy. Some still showed scars from previous wars, some were just suffering from neglect, though it was hard to distinguish the difference.

The Basra Hospital for Children was in worse shape than its counterpart in Mosul, even though it wasn't stressed by overcrowding. Medical supplies were low. I watched in horror as a doctor divided a single dose of antibiotics among four children. When I suggested that might do more harm than good, he suggested that I tell their mothers which child should get the full dosage.

Another ward was full of mothers who had just given birth by caesarean and were now shuddering and groaning in pain. When I entered the room, one cried out in Arabic. The doctor replied to her, almost in a scolding tone. She closed her eyes and resumed groaning.

I pressed the doctor for a translation of what she had said: "America, give me analgesia." He smiled with a nervous laugh, then added, "I told her it wasn't your decision."

"A Journey Through Iraq" will continue in next week's issue of Weekly Alibi.

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