Outraged American Champions Iraqi Children
Retired engineer's personal mission Sanctions are `actually terrorism'
by Catherine Porter
Toronto Star - 1 December 2002
Picture the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C, Bert Sacks instructs.
It is a list of the dead — the names of more than 50,000 American soldiers killed in the Vietnam War inscribed on black marble that reflects the viewer's face like a darkened mirror.
Now, replace the names of men like Robert and Benjamin with names of Iraqi children like Issam and Nemya. And rebuild the monument every year since 1991.
That's how many children under 5 have been killed each year in Iraq over the past decade. Not by war, but by the U.N. economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait.
"The sanctions are lethal. They're actually terrorism," says Sacks, 60, a retired engineer from Seattle who lectured last weekend at Trent University in Peterborough.
"In particular, these sanctions take children hostage. They say 100 are going to die every day until we get what we want."
It's a picture Sacks has been painting publicly since his first trip to Iraq eight years ago. There, he found a country devastated by two blows — the American bombs that targeted infrastructure like electrical plants during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the U.N. sanctions that prohibited the Iraqis from rebuilding that infrastructure.
Today, as war drums again grow louder in America, so has Sacks' message that the real terrorist in Iraq is American foreign policy.
"I know about the abuses of Saddam Hussein probably better than most people," he says. "But that's not the reason children are suffering and dying. This has never been about weapons of mass destruction. It has always been about a regime change."
The U.S. government, he says, aims to replace Saddam with "someone who will do Washington's bidding. It's intended to mark the official emergence of the U.S. as a full-fledged global empire."
This is a position that has brought Sacks both trouble and acclaim. Over the past few months, as talk has grown of a pending war with Iraq, he has criss-crossed North America, delivering lectures to bolster the rising peace movement.
He also has been threatened with a jail term.
Sacks was charged by the U.S. Treasury Department for violating the economic sanctions on Iraq, after he brought $40,000 (all figures U.S.) worth of medicine to that country in 1997. He has refused to pay the $10,000 fine and still waits to discover the consequences, which could be up to 12 years in jail for aiding an enemy of the United States.
"There is a legal obligation to ask permission to do that?" he scoffs. "Ask permission to help people in need?"
Sacks was spurred from his retirement by two newspaper articles. The first appeared in the New York Times in March, 1991, shortly after Washington claimed the Gulf War as a victory. It cited a United Nations' survey of civilian damage caused by the bombardment as "near apocalyptic," with demolished power plants no longer pumping water or treating sewage.
"Iraqi people may soon face a further imminent catastrophe, which could include epidemic and famine, if massive life-supporting needs are not rapidly met," says Sacks, reciting the report from memory.
Those life-supporting needs were never met. Instead, the United Nations upheld sanctions banning all trade with the country that began in August, 1990, after Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. A UNICEF report later held the sanctions responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children under 5 by 1998.
The second article that incensed Sacks also appeared in 1991. In it, the Washington Post quoted a Pentagon official who said the American military targeted power plants precisely to cripple Iraq's ability to clean its water.
"My God," Sacks says. "We deliberately bombed the infrastructure knowing what it would do? I was fed up with how we treated this like it was a football game."
He saw the devastation first -hand in 1996, when he spent 10 days in Iraq with a group called Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, which carried basic medicines, such as antibiotics and aspirin, forbidden by sanctions.
He tells of dark hospital wards without lighted halls or sheets on the beds. There were children born without all their limbs, mouths where their noses should be, brains unfolding outside their skulls — all symptoms, Sacks says, of depleted uranium used in U.S. warheads.
He speaks of high cancer rates with no recourse to chemotherapy and the mother he saw unwrapping her infant's bandages to reveal intestines growing outside the skin.
"The doctor said it was easily corrected with surgery, but they didn't have anesthetic," he says, holding up a picture of a small, still body. "There are Western-trained doctors who know how to treat their patients. But they don't have the means. Here's a girl who died because they didn't have a 50-cent breathing tube."
Sacks has returned to Iraq eight times, driven both to help with donated medicines and to document what he sees. He has noticed improvements since the U.N. implemented its Oil-for-Food program in 1996 and later removed limits on how much oil Iraq may sell to address its humanitarian needs and pay war reparations.
His most recent visit was in October, when he was accompanied by three U.S. congressmen. They witnessed roads being paved, saw pipes being laid and found hospital cabinets stocked with basic medical supplies.
But, Sacks says, once war reparations and administrative charges are taken from the oil proceeds, Iraqis are left with only $100 a month per person. Not enough for teachers who earn $5 a month, or doctors who earn no more than $45 and have been forced to sell their furniture on the black market to survive, he says.
And, he adds, the death toll of under-5 children marches on at 3,000 a month.
"That's a World Trade Center worth of children under 5 every month. They're dying form preventable causes and we can't understand why people are angry with us?"
Sacks says he knows Washington's true intention in its push for war with Iraq.
"You can't say you are concerned about the welfare of the Iraqi people and then go cause 50,000 of them to die every year to get a better leader," he says. "That's a non-sequitur.
"What are American intentions? Can anyone seriously believe they are concerned with democracy and human rights? These are complicated issues. I can't give you answers in a single sentence or say I even know them. I do know what governs is intention. And what America's intention is: empire, oil, power."