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Paying With Their Lives

Iraq's children suffering most under sanctions, film shows


British journalist and documentarian John Pilger
  • British journalist and documentarian John Pilger

Award-winning British journalist and filmmaker John Pilger begins his documentary Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq, with quotes from two prominent world leaders: George Bush Sr. and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"We have no quarrel with the people of Iraq," then President Bush told the nation in a scripted television statement about the impending war against Saddam Hussein.

The quote was followed by a similar disclaimer by Blair, a staunch ally of Bush and Clinton in the West's posture toward Iraq.

But in 74 minutes of footage from within Iraq and the United Nations, Pilger aptly exposes both Blair and Bush as, at best, wishful thinkers. The cold hard facts, Pilger shows, is that the West's quarrel against Saddam Hussein is not targeting the well-insulated dictator, but thousands of children who are dying for want of proper medication and nutrition.

A group of local peace activists, some of whom have traveled to Iraq to witness the sanctions' effects firsthand, will show Pilger's documentary on Thurs., Nov. 9, 7 p.m. in the Worner Center at Colorado College.

Some members of Pikes Peak Peace and Justice Commission, who are screening the film, also protested against the sanctions and continued bombing of Iraq by holding a demonstration this week at Buckley Air National Guard Base in Aurora. Air National Guard units have been the backbone of the United State's role in enforcing the no-fly zone in southern Iraq.

The group is showing Pilger's film for the same reason they've been protesting the sanctions -- to bring attention to a major humanitarian disaster created by U.S. foreign policy and totally ignored by Western media.

Using extensive interviews with Iraqi doctors, political dissidents and U.N officials, Pilger details the absurdity of Western policy toward Iraq: that the sanctions will ultimately force Saddam Hussein to comply with U.N. resolutions concerning biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Pilger hardly shies away from preaching his own views of the sanctions, but the video's strongest moments come as he simply juxtaposes grim tours of crumbling hospitals full of dying children with interviews of U.N. and state department bureaucrats.

After one particularly gruesome sequence, in which Pilger tours a children's cancer ward, which lacks even the most basic chemotherapy drugs and equipment, Pilger cuts to his interview with state department spokesman James Rubin.

Rubin defended a comment made by his boss, Madeleine Albright, in response to a question about UNICEF's estimate that a half million children have died as a result of the sanctions regime. Albright allegedly said the loss of life was "worth it," ostensibly because of the sanctions' role in denying Hussein use of weapons of mass destruction.

In defending the statement, Rubin said Albright made the statement because she disagreed with the methodology used by UNICEF, the World Health Organization and other U.N. agencies in coming up with the 500,000 number. "We don't accept that figure," Rubin tells Pilger.

When asked how many children the United States thinks have died due to sanctions, Rubin deflected the question, focusing on what he believes the policy will achieve: the disarmament of Iraq.

Whether it's a half million or 100,000 dead babies misses Pilger's main point: that the suffering of ordinary Iraqis is too huge to justify and that, in any case, the sanctions are having no effect whatsoever on the hard-line Ba'ath Party leaders who still run Iraq with an iron grip.

Backed by interviews with top U.N. officials, academics and political dissidents, Pilger shows that an entire generation of Iraq's children, along with adult women and men, are suffering under a massive one-two punch. First, they were "bombed back into the stone age" during the Gulf War, then they had try to survive with virtually no sanitation, electrical or water services -- as well as a dearth of even the most basic medical supplies.

The most chilling scenes are those shot inside the bare, peeling walls of hospitals where children are lying on flimsy metal beds, dying of cancer and a variety of other ailments that could be easily treated in well-equipped hospitals.

One of the main problems is that despite the U.N. Security Council's move to allow Iraq to pump and sell more oil, the oil-for-food program has held up many shipments of medical supplies and parts.

As one example, a shipment of diphtheria vaccine was stopped because it could be used as a weapon of mass destruction, according to a U.N. report. The cancer wards, meanwhile, cannot get the drugs needed for chemotherapy, which must be given in the right sequence at the right time.

Other drugs such as morphine, which might at least ease the misery of these cancer patients in their final days, are also not available.

Meanwhile, the rate of cancer, particularly among women and children, has skyrocketed since the Gulf War, a fact backed up by U.N. reports and Pilger's interviewees, including a former Army medic and two Iraqi surgeons.

It's commonly believed by UN health agencies that the cancer rate has increased due to depleted uranium, a radioactive substance that allows shells to pierce even hardened metal. Radioactive particles are scattered around the sites of battles and bombing raids in Iraq.

Because the West also bombed sewer, water and power utilities in an attempt to deny Hussein any infrastructure, people are contracting a high rate of fatal water and airborne diseases that are all but obsolete in developed nations.

To back his point, Pilger talked to two former high-ranking U.N. officials who quit their jobs in the oil-for-food program in protest of the sanctions.

One was the former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, Denis Halliday, who has gone so far as to call the sanctions a form of genocide against the Iraqi people.

Genocide or no, are the humanitarian effects of the sanctions "worth it," to quote Albright? Pilger examines the question by interviewing the United Nation's former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, a former Marine named Scott Ritter.

Though Ritter once took a hard line against Iraq, Ritter now insists that Iraq has no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or any long-range missile capability. Ritter favors lifting the sanctions, as does his former boss Richard Butler, who headed the United Nation's weapons inspection program in Iraq.

Pilger's documentary has some weak points, however, the main hole being that it examines the Iraqi sanctions regime in a vacuum, failing to compare the sanctions regime against Iraq with those levied against South Africa, North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Yugoslavia, among others.

There are big and important differences in each of these cases (South African anti-apartheid leaders supported the sanctions, for example), and it would have behooved Pilger to point those out. Otherwise, the viewer is left wondering whether Pilger would oppose sanctions in all cases if they might lead to human suffering.

The documentary also steers clear of several key issues raised by supporters of sanctions: that Saddam Hussein has still not met several conditions of the U.N resolutions against him requiring access to areas believed critical to his weapons program, and that Hussein is sucking money from the oil-for-food program.

Interestingly, Pilger also shies away from another key area often raised by critics of the sanctions regime: that the embargo helps the dictator by allowing him to consolidate power and perpetuate the image of the West as the enemy.

Those weaknesses aside, the documentary is most valuable in areas ingored by Western news media, most notably the continued killing of Iraqi civilians due to enforcement of the no-fly zone.

An internal U.N report, for example, shows that during one five-month period in 1998 and 1999, nearly half of those killed under the West's enforcement of the no-fly zone were civilians.

In one segment, Pilger takes viewers to the Iraqi highlands, where he interviewed a British journalist and local witnesses to an air attack on a group of camping shepherds. Six people, including four children, were killed by Western warplanes.

Pilger's film may not tell the whole story of Iraq's struggle with western sanctions, but it tells a lot. It's a must-see for anyone who's curious about the real human fallout of U.S. foreign policy in the post Cold War era. (For the record, the Democratic and Republican candidates for president support sanctions, while Green Party candidate Ralph Nader favors lifting them).

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