A Promise to Aiyat

I spent a good part of the summer of 2000 living in Iraq. After a first visit in early June, I joined a delegation that lived with families struggling to survive on the UN Oil for Food Program rations, in a part of Basra called Al Jumhuriya (pronounced JOO-moh-REE-yuh).

After seeing conditions in Iraq that first time in June, I decided that I had to leave my job as a technical writer and do anti-sanctions work full-time. My way of bringing back what I saw in Iraq to the people in the United States was to film what I saw. I was determined that this would turn into my first documentary, and I have been amazed at the way in which doors have opened, allowing its completion. "Greetings From Missile Street" has screened at several festivals, conferences, colleges, universities, and Quaker meetings. Recently it aired on Free Speech TV. It is my witness now, and as my friends in Iraq requested, I share their realities wherever and whenever I can.

Our standards of Quaker simplicity do not prepare one for the destitute conditions in Iraq. I visited many homes that had nothing but a mat on the floor. Many families sold or bartered off belongings over the past 11 years, in an effort to buy clothes for their children or put a little more food on the table. While the Iraqi economy has been crushed, the price of something as essential as a pair of shoes for a child has remained at a rate equal to a month’s salary for most of those who are fortunate enough to have a job.

Aiyat (pronounced EYE-yaht) is one person from Al Jumhuriya who I will always remember. She was eight when I was there, and she is adorable. Like most Iraqi children, she is very thin, and tiny for her age. I would have guessed that she was four or five. It was common for me to think that preteen kids in Iraq were a few years younger than their actual age. In pre-sanctions Iraq, obesity was the top childhood medical issue. Not anymore. Since the bombing of infrastructure during the Gulf War (or the "Bush War" as Iraqis call it), and the sanctions that followed, death from dehydration and other complications that arise out of gastroenteritis is the number one childhood health issue. It is the leading killer of children in Iraq. UNICEF has stated that 5,000 children under the age of five die every month as a direct result of the sanctions. The war, by whatever name one chooses for it, never ended for the Iraqi people.

At this writing in mid-February, the United States is holding back over $5 billion in contracts for humanitarian aid to Iraq through its vote on the UN Security Council. Yet our politicians keep telling us that if any people are dying in Iraq, it is all Saddam Hussein’s fault.

Eleven years ago, the elder Bush said, "Our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people."  Six years ago, Madeleine Albright said that the price of over a half million Iraqi children dying under sanctions is "worth it." This year the younger Bush named Iraq as part of the "axis of evil." I see no end in sight for the suffering of the Iraqi people.

One morning while in Basra, I got up very early, hoping to shoot some footage in the streets without a group of little children trying to get in front of the camera. Kids everywhere like to be on camera; Iraqi kids are no different. When a camera appears, they will swarm in front of you, hoping that they will be your subject. The Arabic word for picture is surra (pronounced SOO-rah). At times I had as many as 50 Iraqi children at once, vying for position in front of me and shouting, "To-mas, To-mas! Surra, surra!!" I stepped out of my host’s home at about 6:30 a.m. The sun was already beating down, but the temperature at that hour was still tolerable. I panned up and down the road—not a soul in sight. And then Aiyat came skipping out of her home. "To-mas, To-mas! Surra!" I thought that her greeting would surely bring more children out, but as I tried to continue with my camera work, I noted that she remained the only child in the street. She stuck very close to my side, and from time to time repeated her request to be on camera. I tried to ignore her, but she was very persistent. Finally, she stepped out in front of me, and with her hands up to her face, she again said, "To-mas, surra!" I noticed that she was holding something in her left hand. At the same time, I stood there trying to think of a way to communicate that I had gotten her on camera many times, and that I really just wanted to get some shots of the street conditions. Then she held out her hand and opened it, and again, in a much more pleading tone she said, "To-mas . . . surra." In her hand was a small cross pendant. She held it out to me, obviously wanting me to take it. I smiled and indicated that I couldn’t take it from her, but she took a step closer to me and then put the cross into my hand. I looked at it, knowing that she would not take it back, even if I tried. I thought, "What a beautiful gift," and at the same time I felt the irony of being given something by someone who has literally nothing. I filmed Aiyat for a few minutes, and then she ran off, smiling. I wear the cross on a chain every day.

A delegation that visited Al Jumhuriya in June of 2001 came back with a picture of Aiyat. I keep it on my desk. She is sitting in the living room of her home. Her family is slightly better off than others in Basra, so she actually has a chair to sit on. She is holding a phone to her ear—it doesn’t work, but she likes to pretend. Her beautiful smile radiates the joy that is almost shocking to find in conditions that are so dismal. She is beaming at the camera, as much out of pure sweetness as for her love of having her picture taken. On the back of the picture, her brother wrote for her in English, "Promise me that you will never give up." I promise, Aiyat.

Tom Jackson

Tom Jackson, a member of Dover (N.H.) Meeting, is the chair of New Hampshire Peace Action, cofounder of War Resisters League of S.E. New Hampshire, and works with Peace Response NH.