Written by Jimi Izrael
January - February 2003
Iraqi children peek out of a classroom window at a National Council of Churches delegation visiting Baghdad. Robin Hoecker photo.
When war is close at hand, generals decide on an acceptable number of casualties. Never mind that those numbers are real persons, and many of those real persons are children. Times like these require much of people of faith, as the United States moves toward an apparent war in Iraq. Already millions of Iraqi children suffer the painful effects of 12 years of economic sanctions.
What will be their fate if war comes?
In January, 22-year-old Robin Hoecker got to see the impending conflict through the eyes of Iraqi children. A legislative assistant for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, she was part of a 13-member National Council of Churches delegation that went to Baghdad for four days to see the situation firsthand.
"These kids are very aware of what’s going on," says Hoecker. "Kids are like sponges, and they absorb what they see and hear around them. If they hear their parents talking about the sanctions or what life was like before 1991, they know that life was once better than it is now. And the word for sanctions, hessar, comes up in everyday conversations all the time. They know about the war. They know that it might come."
According to UNICEF, half of Iraq’s 25 million people are children, and only one in four attend school. While the rate of malnutrition has dropped from a high in 1996 of 11 percent to 4 percent, almost 1 million children still don’t get enough to eat. Infant mortality is two-and-a-half times what it was in 1989. Common illnesses, which easily could be treated, account for 70 percent of the deaths.
This is the aftermath of two major wars, domestic instability, and more than a decade of sanctions. Of the 1 million people who have died as a direct consequence of all the sanctions, 567,000 of them have been children, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
"Mothers are using unclean water to provide formula food for their babies," says the Rev. Huw Anwyl of Shepherd of the Hills UCC in Laguna Niguel, Calif., who was among the group that went to Baghdad. "This leads to diarrhea, and children die. This is completely preventable. Five hundred thousand tons of raw sewage are dumped into fresh water systems, contaminating half of the water supply."
Robin Hoecker also saw the living conditions and the faces of the children of Iraq.
"We went to the Al-Amiriya shelter that the United States accidently bombed in 1991," she says. "Over 400 civilians were killed. It was in a residential neighborhood, so the neighbors saw all of that. Our tour guide’s children were 2 and 4 at the time, and they couldn’t sleep at all. I still remember as a kid how devastated I was when my cat died. I can’t imagine how it would affect a child having seen his best friend incinerated, or how he would grow up."
Even though children are aware of these big issues, says Hoecker, they long for a normal life.
"They want to play outside with their friends and go to school. The war has made them very anxious," she says. The Rev. Peter Laarman of Judson Memorial UCC in New York City, who chairs the NYC Forum of Concerned Religious Leaders, raised $3,500 at an interfaith gathering for the medical needs of Iraqi kids. He says any aggression towards Iraqi would do more harm to the children than to their government.
"Are we prepared to live with our consciences if thousands of Iraqi children are killed outright as a result of U.S. bombing and artillery assaults?" he asks. Upon its return, the NCC delegation released a statement, "Sowing the Seeds of Peace," that said in part, "We are called by God to be peacemakers. War is not inevitable and can be averted, even at this moment." In the midst of all this misery, where is the hope? What keeps the children smiling?
"What keeps them going? Each other," says Hoecker. "Kids are resilient. They find pleasure in small things. Even with a dusty courtyard, they will find a way to play. The younger kids who weren’t old enough to remember the first war, they just don’t know what is about to hit them."