“The Salt on the Wound”

Photographs by and interview with Alan Pogue


In July and December of 1998, Observer staff photographer Alan Pogue travelled to Iraq with representatives of Voices in the Wilderness, a U.S. peace activist group opposed to the U.S./U.N. sanctions. The December delegation (four people, including Pogue and Voices organizer Kathy Kelly) arrived in Baghdad December 19, the last day of the most recent U.S. bombing attacks, and visited Baghdad and Basra for eight days. Pogue was not restricted in his travels, and was asked only to avoid photographing military installations and bridges.

The photographs provide a partial record of the effects of eight years of sanctions and intermittent attacks by the U.S., Britain, and other Western powers. The photographs also serve as an introduction for American readers to the ordinary people of Iraq, since the mainstream U.S. media have been largely content to portray Iraq and the government of Saddam Hussein as one and the same.

Precise numbers of the civilian casualties caused by the most recent attacks on Iraq are not available, but pre-bombing Pentagon estimates cited 10,000 deaths as a “middle-level” prediction of the probable outcome. The destructive bombing and missile attacks – in violation of international law and carried out at very small risk to U.S. troops – are only the punctuation of the ongoing war of attrition against the civilian population through the brutal economic sanctions. According to the U.N.’s own estimates, more than 1.3 million Iraqis – most of them children – have died since 1991 as a consequence of the sanctions. Approximately 4,500 children die every month, of malnutrition or illnesses directly related to the sanctions, and from lack of medicines for treatable illnesses.

Upon his return to Austin, Alan Pogue discussed his visits to Iraq with the Observer. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. – M.K.

The delegation flew into Amman, Jordan, and traveled by car to Baghdad (a thirteen-hour trip). They arrived in Baghdad on the night of December 19.

When we were coming into Baghdad we went through the final military checkpoint at the city limits. There was a group of rather tough-looking Iraqi soldiers, with their AK-47s. They looked at our passports and they said, “Ah, Americans,” and with a twinkle in their eyes and a smile on their faces, they looked up and said, “We kill all Americans. Welcome.” They were making fun of the whole situation.

From U.S. news reports, it appeared that the most recent bombing was mostly outside of Baghdad. Is that what you saw?

There was not much new bombing in Baghdad, but some. The U.S. bombed the old Defense Ministry – I stress, the old Ministry – nothing there now but a bunch of records, and a half-dozen clerks who work there. It was leveled, to rubble. But across the street was the largest hospital in Baghdad, the Baghdad teaching hospital in the Saddam medical complex. It’s ten stories high and a long city block long, the whole hospital. Every window was blown out of it. There was a lot of structural damage, and the ceilings on all the levels, the tiles were falling from all of them. All of the patients had to be evacuated to other hospitals. Across the river from the ministry, was a maternity hospital – all of the windows were blown out of it, and a lot of women lost their babies to spontaneous abortions, due to the shock of the blast and the terror. In another part of Baghdad, a missile just slammed down in the middle of the street, in a marketplace.

I went to a middle-sized hospital in the suburbs – Yarmouk Hospital. I photographed sixteen people from Baghdad, civilians, hurt in the neighborhoods by falling shrapnel and debris. I was told that sixteen people had died in that hospital alone. I photographed another sixteen people who had been severely injured.

How much can the doctors do for them?

The one doctor I spoke with was just beside himself, he was so incensed. He showed me these children whose legs were in casts. They had external fixators (rods with pins to hold the broken bones together). He said they only had two of these appliances, and the only reason he had the two is because they were given to him by some French doctors. The two were in use, and he had no others, because of the sanctions. He said, “Look, first you have the sanctions to keep us from getting medical supplies, and then we’re bombed, so we can’t do anything.”

Even on a day-to-day basis, people are dying for a lack of very simple drugs. For instance, the children who have diarrhea, will develop acidosis of the blood, due to the dehydration. All they need is sodium bicarbonate. They don’t have any sodium bicarbonate, so many of them die for a lack of sodium bicarbonate. This doesn’t even touch on the more expensive and hard to get drugs, like anti-leukemia medicine. [According to U.S. news reports, the lack of medicine for childhood leukemia has reduced the cure rate in Iraq – which was about 70 percent – to zero.]

Were you able to get any sense of the overall casualties from the December bombing?

I was trying to figure out just out how many people were hurt, because we didn’t have many figures. There were sixteen people in just this one hospital, and there was a dormitory in Kirkut, in northern Iraq, which was struck. Twenty or twenty-five freshman college students were struck and killed instantly, in this one dormitory. It wasn’t possible for me to come up with a good figure, overall, but just from the people I was able to talk to, it was two hundred – so it would have to have been several times more than two hundred.

Were you able to determine the sort of targets selected for bombing?

What I saw that was specifically targeted was communications. The Post Office in Basra was struck, and levelled. The Post Office also houses telecommunications, and that’s why it was hit. So that cut off all telephone communications between Basra and anywhere. Then outside of Basra, a microwave relay station, tiny, was struck.

That explosion caused two spontaneous abortions, at least one man died of a heart attack, all the windows in the neighborhood were blown out in all the houses, structural damage in many of the houses, at least one man was killed by falling debris – everyone was traumatized. All for this dinky microwave relay station which could be replaced in two days.

There were some military supply depots, of course, and some barracks that they tried to hit. The Iraqi government claims they had that figured out and evacuated everybody from those places ahead of time, knowing they would be targets. In the middle of Baghdad, they blew up the television station, which supplies the civilian population with news and programs. It was replaced in two days, and they had it back on the air.

What’s your strongest impressions of what’s happened in Iraq, and what the bombing means?

Well, to me, the bombing is the salt on the wound. The wound is the sanctions. Because, if two hundred and fifty children under five are dying every day because of the sanctions, because of lack of food and medicine, then the bombing is really minimal in relation to the sanctions. The effects of sanctions are tremendous. So the bombing is terrorism – people are terrified, and rightly so. But the sanctions are the real destructive force. What I did notice specifically, though, even in the short span between July and December, there was a marked increase in children begging on the streets. Coming up to the taxi and asking for money. Shoeshine boys out during the middle of the day – kids that should be in school, not being in school. The level of desperation is just mounting.

Yet the people welcomed you?

That was the other overwhelming thing. The only negative thing that anyone ever said to me was in one of the hospitals. An Iraqi woman was there because one of her close relatives had been injured in the bombing. She said, “Well, first the Americans bomb us, then you come and take pictures of us.” I thought it was a pretty mild response in relation to the reality she was living in….

Some of the doctors used us as a sounding board to complain about the lack of medicines and supplies. But that’s the worst – other than that, everyone was very friendly, and were glad that we were there. And several people remarked that they were thankful that we were willing to be there during the bombing….

Their message was, basically, that they had nothing against the American people. They just wish that the American people would realize that the Iraqi people are suffering, and have nothing to do with the military or government decisions. So they should not be made to suffer. One man said, “My children were not even born during the Gulf War. Why are they being killed now?”

What of the argument that the sanctions are aimed at the Hussein regime?

The effect the sanctions have is the opposite to that the U.S. government says it intends. The U.S. government is doing this to the Iraqi people, the U.S. Government is bombing the Iraqi people – so really they have no alternative but to support the Hussein government, against the aggression of the United States. No one ever told me they were interested in getting rid of the Iraqi government in order to make the situation better.

It’s just like the bombing of Berlin or London – in both of those instances, all the people could do is rally around the authority that existed there at the time. That’s been the experience over the years in reaction to bombing – there’s no reason to expect anything different.

How does the situation in Basra compare to Baghdad?

People in Baghdad are just better off. Basra is a port city, and there’s just nothing happening in a port city, because there’s no trade. It was a city of one million, and then after the war, 600,000 people descended on Basra from the south. There’s all these people in these internally displaced camps that don’t have any water or sewage….

Most of the water sources are contaminated, although you can get bottled water if you can pay for it. Most cannot. For mothers with infants – can they get enough nutrition to nurse? Then if they need to be put on formula, that requires water, so if the children get bad water their immune system crashes, and they’re a lot more likely to get infections, so it’s just a whole downward spiral. In Basra, there’s a hospital dedicated solely to the rehydration of children, put up by the Italians (through Bridges to Baghdad)…. Typhoid and cholera are common.

What’s your sense of the overall effect of the sanctions and the attacks?

It’s the destruction of a generation. All of these children are not going to school, and since they were born, they’ve been living under sanctions. Their horizon is different from other Iraqis – from the perspective of an older Iraqi, or the people that were even ten or twelve years old in 1990, they were living in a prosperous, first-world country. They had free universal education, free universal health care – there were no epidemic illnesses. A lot of the oil money was spent on the Iraqi people.

You met one family in Baghdad whose house had been hit by a U.S. missile.

This was the home of Dr. Jasim Risun, a Ph.D. in engineering. One of his daughters was already ill, due to ingesting contaminated water and depleted uranium [used in U.S. weapons], as a consequence of the Gulf War. He had to take her to Turkey to a hospital – he met many Americans there who were very sympathetic to his situation. Now a missile struck his house, on the outskirts of Baghdad, an upper-middle-class neighborhood. The whole back wall was knocked out by a missile. His family had been gathered in the upstairs bedroom – which is unfortunately exactly where the missile struck. It didn’t explode, but everyone was hurt by debris. His wife was in the neurological hospital, three of his four children were in the hospital, and he was in the hospital. But his twenty-day-old baby was unhurt, and so the baby was with him in the hospital, because he needed to take care of her because his wife was more severely injured than he was.

He said he hadn’t slept in six nights because he was just so terrified. His left eye was hurt, and he couldn’t hear out of his left ear, and his jaw had been violently dislocated and so the nerves were damaged. His right arm had a huge bruise, and his legs were also hurt although I don’t know the extent of that injury.

What do you think should be the response of U.S. citizens to the situation?

I think American citizens should be asking to halt the bombing. Ninety percent of the casualties are civilians. Ask yourselves how much influence they really have over the government – ask yourselves how can it be right, to bomb civilians in order to change the policies of their government?

And the sanctions are killing the equivalent of bombing a large day care center every day. Two hundred and fifty young children, every day, die because of the sanctions – just like dropping a bomb on a day-care center, every day.

To contact Voices in the Wilderness: 1460 West Carmen Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60640. Telephone: (773) 784-8065. Website: www.nonviolence.org/vitw.