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When the hysteria subsides.

On January 17,1991, when the Gulf war began, I was one of seventy-three volunteers from fifteen countries who had joined a "peace camp" on the Iraq-Saudi border. Our witness for peace in the war zone lasted until the end of January, when Iraqi civilians evacuated us to the Al Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, the site from which Peter Arnett broadcast CNN reports. Four days later, after a bomb exploded in a lot adjacent to the hotel, Iraqi authorities again evacuated us - this time to Amman, Jordan. On the road from Baghdad to Amman, we passed many mangled and charred passenger vehicles, including an ambulance and several buses. Some were still smoking. Our bus regularly swerved to avoid huge bomb craters.

In Amman, a large press conference had been arranged for us. I was to speak for U.S. Gulf Peace Team participants, but I felt at a loss for words. "How can I begin?" I asked George Rumens, a British journalist who was also a member of our team. "Tell them," he said, "that when the war fever and hysteria subside, we believe the lasting and more appropriate responses to this war will be felt throughout the world: deepest remorse and regret for the suffering we've caused."

Now, two years later, I see that George was right. Since my return to the United States in July 1991, I've had a chance to talk with more than 100 gatherings of people from many different walks of life. I've never yet encountered even one remark that indicated readiness to celebrate "victory" in the Gulf war. Instead, people say again and again, when I tell them what we saw and heard, "Oh, we didn't know...."

I tell them about a March 1991 visit to the neighborhood of Ameriyah, Iraq, where, on February 13, 1991, U.S. smart bombs were so smart that they were able to enter the ventilation shafts of a building that sheltered hundreds of Iraqi women and children. The exit doors were sealed shut and the temperature inside rose to 500 degrees centigrade. All save seventeen survivors were melted.

I had begun to cry, staring at the scene, when I felt a tiny arm encircling my waist. An Iraqi child was smiling up at me. "Wel-kom," she said. Crossing the street were two women, draped in black. As they approached, I felt sure they were coming to withdraw the children who now surrounded us. I had learned just a few words of Arabic. "Ana Amerikia, ana asafa," I stammered. "I'm American, and I'm sorry."

"La, la, la," said the young Iraqi mother. She was saying "No, no...," and then went on to tell us, "We know that you are not your government and that your people would never do this to us."

Perhaps it was for the best that without electricity these women and children couldn't know what was being said, just then, in the United States. It wasn't until I returned that I heard those popular lines: "Rock Iraq! Slam Saddam!" - shouted by college students as they hoisted another beer mug to cheer the war on. "Say hello to Allah!" sung out by U.S. soldiers when they blasted Iraqi targets. And the unforgettable words of General Colin Powell, when asked about the number of Iraqis who died in the war: "Frankly, that number doesn't interest me."

Now, listeners shake their heads and feel troubled.

Another story needs to be told. When Gulf Peace Team members settled into Baghdad's Al Rashid hotel on January 27, 1991, we discovered that all but a handful of international journalists had left Iraq. One press crew had abandoned an old manual typewriter. We quickly appropriated it and began typing by candlelight, thinking we ought to produce a press release just in case Peter Arnett ever took notice of us. While I was pounding away on the typewriter, one of our Iraqi "minders" shyly asked whether I would type something for them. I said I'd like to read it first. He handed me a letter addressed to then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Javier Perez de Cuellar; to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and to various nongovernmental organizations. The letter, signed by a cabinet-level official, begged the recipients to try to halt the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Iraq and of the Baghdad-Amman road, the only escape route for refugees and the only passage for humanitarian relief entering Iraq. I quickly agreed to type the letter. The man handed me dog-eared stationery and carbon paper which had been used at least twenty times.

I thought to myself, "I'm from the country that is pounding these people back to the stone age. I'm typing official government correspondence, by candlelight, on an abandoned, antiquated typewriter, using wrinkled stationery and used carbon paper." And I thought of the Pentagon and the State Department, with their hightech machinery, sophisticated software, and hordes of well-equipped workers, all in support of the war. Yet Americans had been persuaded to fear the Iraqi menace.

That anecdote helps me grasp another vast disproportion: the sinister contrast between U.S. troops and the Iraqi soldiers who tried to flee out of Kuwait, to Basra. Iraqi soldiers hopped buses, ran on foot, even tried to cram into old Toyotas. They believed a cease-fire had been declared. They raced, with no cover overhead, along a highway that is now called "the death road." The Allied forces rained down tons of TNT. Later, military jeeps equipped with plowing apparatus mowed through the carnage, burying bodies in the sand. Some were buried alive.

There is absolutely nothing to celebrate about Operation Desert Storm. It was a shameful display of brutality and contempt for human rights. But we can take heart from the fact that George Rumens's words have been borne out. In the aftermath of yellow-ribbon fever, in the absence of warmongering media barrages that obscured and ignored stories of Iraqi suffering, a more sober response grows. We didn't know.... We didn't realize....

Be wary, then, of believing that U.S. interventions in Somalia and in former Yugoslavia are as benign and humanitarian as they're cracked up to be. In a few months, we may find out what was really going on. And, we may wonder if even the primitive efforts of an unarmed, nongovernmental intervention would be more essential in pointing us toward real understanding, mediation, and peace.
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Title Annotation:Gulf War damage
Author:Kelly, Kathy
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:May 1, 1993
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