How long, O Lord? How Long?

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Posted by AssyrianVoice4Peace from ? ( on Friday, November 15, 2002 at 2:02PM :

How long, O Lord? How Long?

Posted By: AssyrianVoice4Peace (
Date: Friday, 15 November 2002, at 10:13 a.m.

How long, O Lord? How long?(effects of trade sanctions on Iraqi

Author/s: Christopher Allen-Doucot Issue: August 11, 2000

In Iraq, a child is delivered to earth and Allah

Editor's note: This month marks the 10th anniversary of the imposition of
sanctions on Iraq following that country's invasion of neighboring Kuwait.
According to a United Nations report a year ago, more than 500,000
children under the age of 5 had died as a direct result of the U.S.-backed

She arrived at the children's cemetery just before dusk. Her black abeia
(robe) was billowing in the mounting wind, revealing a red dress and a
pregnant form. The gusts were the leading edge of a sandstorm. She
walked past hundreds of small mounds and by a trio of goats eating at the
scrub around the markers, to an open-air mud brick and thatch work area.
An elderly man wearing a white robe and kafia (headpiece) greeted her
and accepted the shoebox she carried. Few words were spoken.

The box was handed to one of three younger men who worked at the
graveyard. The young man moved to the rear of the work area and with
great care removed from the box the woman's niece. In Arabic, her binit

The child had been born onto earth, into hell and unto eternity earlier in
the day at the Basra Pediatric and Maternity hospital in southern Iraq. The
wards at this hospital are full of mourning mothers and dying children. In
any given room can be found children with rickets, malnutrition,
kwashiorkor (protein deficiency), typhoid fever, cholera or cancer. The
maternity ward has an air not of hopeful anticipation but of fearful repose:
Will the expected child be whole? The day before binit ukhti was born, a
hydrocephalic child and a child missing his head, neck and arms were born
and died on the ward.

Basra Pediatric and Maternity is a teaching hospital. In an earlier era
before massive bombardment by American forces, before widespread
contamination of the soil by radioactive depleted uranium -- a toxic heavy
metal used in thousands of munitions fired by Americans -- before 10
years of deprivation induced by the most comprehensive sanctions regimen
in history, before this madness, young doctors learned about typhoid,
polio and malnutrition from textbooks, and the congenital defects they
saw were cleft palates and club feet.

One classroom in the hospital is a gallery of grotesquery with dozens of
photographs of the horrendously deformed children that are born and
perish daily.

Next to this classroom is the hospital morgue; it is cool at best. The
actual drawers where the corpses are kept are not quite cold. The
purchase of coolant fluids, needed to maintain the unit, is constrained by
the sanctions. The entire room smelled like an unplugged, dirty
refrigerator. The nation's electrical grid was targeted by the United States
during the Gulf War. Restrictions imposed by the sanctions have hampered
repair efforts, so when the power goes out twice a day for three hours the
morgue begins to warm up. Thus, when a child dies, she is sent home with
the family to be buried. The day binit ukhti died, the morgue had 15 boxes
with 15 babies that had been unclaimed because their families couldn't
pay to bury them. The family of binit ukhti raised the 5,000 Iraqi dinar,
roughly $2.50, for burial.
Back at the cemetery, the worker placed the naked body of binit ukhti,
umbilical cord still attached to her belly, on a three-foot square stone slab
at the rear of the chamber as carefully as if he were placing her in a
bassinet. The man filled a plastic pitcher and a teakettle with water. He
measured the child and cut a length of white linen from a bolt kept in a
satchel. The aunt then joined the man at the stone slab, and together
they gracefully washed the body with a yellow bar of soap and a cloth. The
woman rinsed the girl with the water in the kettle.

Meanwhile a gravedigger was busy digging his second grave of the hour.
The hole was three feet deep, too narrow to turn around in and not long
enough for the man to take a step. He would soon carve a third opening.
At midnight he would be done for the day. In the hour we spent at the
cemetery on Sunday, June 4, three children were carried here in tiny boxes
for burial.

In the shanty the man dried the body and moved it to another stone slab
in the center of the space. Beneath the child lay the length of linen. The
young man opened a jar that once held powdered baby formula. The
vessel now contained the white powder made from the sacred cidra tree.
He dipped his fingers in the concentrate and anointed binit ukhti on her
hands, feet, elbows and knees. The body was then swathed tenderly. Only
the face of binit ukhti, snugly framed by the linen, was left exposed as if
the burial swaddling was an ivory abeia. Another length of linen was then
wrapped around the body and tied with strips of the fabric below the feet,
above the head and in the mid-section. These men repeat this ritual two
or three times an hour during their shifts. They move with grace and
condolence. They don't simply bundle inanimate packages. They are
midwives of rebirth, forming new placentas so that the children they meet
can be delivered into the expectant hands of Allah.

A prayer was uttered, and then the aunt in her crimson dress and ebony
abeia picked up the body to surrender binit to the grave. She walked alone
through a labyrinth of tomb-stones with binit resting on her swollen belly.
The sky was gray; the sun was white. The graves before her, behind her
and beside her were ashen. There were neither flowers nor grass.

To the left of the cemetery a group of teenage boys played soccer in a
lush field of grass ringed by a dozen date trees. Everywhere in Iraq, in
urban vacant lots and on the dirt roads that run between fields of wheat,
children and young men gather to chase the white and black ball.

To the right of the cemetery a wedding was taking place. Dozens of
children, the girls in peach and yellow dresses, played in the street
outside the parlor where the ceremony was underway. Weddings in Iraq
are brief outbursts of joy amid despondency.

Typically weddings happen on Thursday afternoons and evenings, though
this wedding was on a Sunday. Outside the wedding chamber a crowd of
revelers waited in anticipation. The couple's car was decorated with white
and pink crepe paper. Three school buses idled to take the assembly to
the reception. Men with trumpets and drums prepared to announce the
union of woman and man.

In between these scenes of life, the aunt carried binit ukhti. At the grave
the body was placed on a leveled mound of dirt. Her shroud was opened
slightly, and a handful of earth was placed with the body before the cloak
was again closed. Another verse of the Quran was prayed and, as the body
was interred, the newly married couple stepped outside to the excited
blast of trumpets and the pulsing of drums. The union of child with God
was heralded to all who bothered to notice.

When Mary, pregnant with Jesus, went to see Elizabeth, pregnant with the
Baptizer, John "leaped for joy in the womb." The Good News was soon to
enter our world. When her aunt rested binit ukhti on her belly did the child
awaiting birth recoil in fear of life during war? Or did she leap with joy
because binit had been spared a life of suffering and instead had been
returned into the womb of Allah to be born into life everlasting?

Christopher Allen-Doucot is a member of the Hartford, Conn., Catholic
Worker House and has traveled to Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness, a
group opposed to the sanctions, five times during the past two years.

COPYRIGHT 2000 National Catholic Reporter


-- AssyrianVoice4Peace
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