Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Hope Amidst the Pain: Grassroots Japanese Network Gives Voice, Support to People in Iraq

                              Doctors Ghufran Saba and Ansam Salih from Basra, Iraq

Between visits to Roppongi Hills, Harajuku, and Tokyo Disneyland, the busy schedule of Ansam Salih and Ghufran Saba this past February could have been that of any other tourists in Tokyo. In reality, however, the pair — both doctors of pediatric medicine — were visiting Japan’s capital to tell the agonizing story of the reality befalling the people of their hometown in Basra, Iraq.
              Ansam and Ghufran — Iraqi tradition dictates that people are referred to by their first names — spent a six-month stint at a hospital in Sapporo between September 2006 and March 2007 at the joint invitation of Save the Iraq Children Sapporo and Soroptimist International. The purpose of their visit was to hone their medical and technical skills in order to continue providing the best care possible for the tiniest members of their community — whom both assert as bearing the heaviest cost of the succession of wars that have plagued their city and country over the past several decades.

Unimaginable suffering

              Both Ansam and Ghufran were the featured speakers at an event titled “Iraq Today: A Conversation with Two Iraqi Women Doctors,” held at a community hall in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward during their visit to the metropolis. The doctors began by giving an historical overview of their country, including the rich cultural and literary traditions that developed in the civilizational cradle of the Mesopotamian river s. They then described, from a humanitarian perspective, the tumultuous events occurring more recently in their country, beginning with the Iran-Iraq war in the early 1980s. Neither doctor minced any words in describing the unimaginable suffering that has continued to befall their fellow citizens since that time.
              “Iraq’s infrastructure was nearly completely destroyed during the first Gulf War,” explained Ghufran in a tone conveying both subtle grace and fierce conviction. “Conditions then deteriorated even further during the sanctions that followed, as both medicines and hospital equipment were barred for import under the allegation that they could be used for chemical weapons and other military purposes.”
              Both doctors agreed that the most recent war and its ensuing occupation have brought Iraq to its lowest point yet. It is widely thought that more than 2,000 tons of depleted uranium (DU) have been leaked into Iraq’s environment since the war was launched in 2003, on top of the several hundred tons that were used in the country during the first Gulf War. This DU has been linked to a steady rise in the rate of cancers — particularly in children — as well as babies born with severe malformations. The doctors estimated that birth defects have increased by two to six times since 1991, and that three to twelve times as many children have developed cancer and leukemia.
              The continuation of sanctions, however, has meant that hospitals remain unable to provide proper treatment. In addition to short supplies of lifesaving medicines and equipment, regularly occurring electricity power outages and shortages of clean water are literally spelling death for sick babies and children. The doctors explained that 80 percent of children with leukemia and other cancers throughout the country are now dying — an exact reversal from prewar days, when 80 percent recovered. In the two doctors’ hospital in Basra alone, an average of five to ten children are losing the battle with their diseases every day.
             “The devastating damage all this DU will do to the health and fertility of the people of Iraq now, and for generations to come, is beyond imagining,” commented Ansam. Vivacious and outgoing by nature, she turned somber and forceful when speaking of the situation in Iraq today. “Poverty in Iraq has worsened acutely during the invasion and occupation, and those who were already surviving on the margins due to years of deprivation have sunk even further,” Ansam continued. “The suffering is enormous, even for adults. For children, it is simply unimaginable.”
              She added, “While we don’t hate Americans, I don’t recall Iraq ever inviting them to bring their troops into our country. Honestly, the kind of military invasion that we have seen in Iraq is totally unbefitting of the 21st century. It truly feels as if we have gone backwards in time.”

Iraq Hope Network

Ansam and Ghufran’s presentation in Tokyo was sponsored by the Iraq Hope Network, a Japan-based consortium of NGOs, aid-workers, journalists, lawyers, university professors and volunteers who together sponsor projects in Iraq focused on humanitarian aid, reconstruction and human rights. The event was also co-sponsored by the Japan-Iraq Medical Network (JIM-Net) and Peace On, both of which are member organizations of the network that are involved in a variety of interesting initiatives aimed at providing support and services to people in Iraq.
              JIM-Net’s work has consisted of spearheading a number of fundraising and educational projects aimed at bringing relief to children in Iraq suffering from leukemia and other cancers. For the past two years, the group has sold Valentine’s Day packages that include chocolate-covered almonds and a picture drawn by a young sick Iraqi — each of which funds the cost of one day’s treatment for a child. Over the two years, they were able to raise a total of thirteen million yen (US$115,000) through this initiative. Other network activities include exhibitions of Iraqi children’s art, a blog on JIM-Net’s website detailing conditions in Iraqi cities and providing medical updates on the young Iraqi children with whom it has worked, and the publication of a book in Japanese aimed at younger audiences that provides basic explanations of war and weaponry, as well as depleted uranium and its connection to illnesses such as cancer.
              “One of our aims in exhibiting Iraqi children’s artwork is to dispel the misguided notion that these young people are somehow the terrorists of the future, since one look at their artwork makes it clear that they are simply kids, doing what kids everywhere do,” explained JIM-Net founder Sato Maki. “Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have lost their lives, and this artwork also helps to bring home the point that every single one of them was a precious individual human being.”

              JIM-Net has also worked with other organizations, including the Campaign for Abolition of Depleted Uranium Japan, to put pressure on the Japanese government to comply with international initiatives aimed at putting an end to violent tactics of war. Sato laments the fact, however, that the Japanese government still refuses to admit the dangers of depleted uranium — a bitter irony given its status as the only hibaku (atomic bomb victim) nation in the world — and instead continues to parrot the United States in insisting that more DU research needs to be conducted. “Whether we are talking about depleted uranium or cluster bombs, the Japanese government has repeatedly prioritized the maintenance of its relationship with the United States,” Sato commented. “As a result, Japan is not signing on to these agreements.”
              Peace On is another member organization of the Iraq Hope Network that has sponsored a number of projects aimed at bringing relief to war-weary Iraqis. It has provided support to displaced populations within Iraq, as well as Iraqis who now reside in neighboring Jordan and Syria. The group has also directed its efforts toward other vulnerable populations in Iraq, such as organizing specially chartered school buses for disabled children in Baghdad who were unable to travel to school due to the deteriorating security situation.
              Peace On director Aizawa “Yatch” (Yasuyuki) is a musician who traveled to Iraq in 2003 to serve as a human shield during the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign that was carried out by the U.S. military. Following this experience, he returned to Japan to found the organization as a way to encourage grassroots-level interactions between people in Japan and Iraq. “Living together with Iraqis during the beginning of the war allowed me to experience their terror, as well as learn about their zest for life,” explained Aizawa. “Every time I traveled to Iraq, I came away having learned so much from the resilience of its people. Particularly striking was my meeting with different Iraqi artists, whose distinctive personalities made me feel as if I was truly witnessing light amongst the chaos.”
              Like JIM-Net, Peace On has also used art as a means by which to raise awareness of deeper issues underlying the matters of war and violence. Aizawa’s experience inspired him to organize and sponsor the visit of a team of Iraqi artists to Japan in order to showcase their work for the Japanese public. Aptly titled “Light From Chaos,” the annual exhibit has run for the past four years at various venues throughout the country. While some of the pieces focus upon themes connected to the war and occupation, they also offer windows into other aspects of Iraq such as modern everyday life and the country’s rich cultural history — thereby providing Japanese audiences with a human face to Iraq that they would otherwise be unable to encounter.

Is the World Truly Safer Now?

In addition to fundraising initiatives, the Iraq Hope Network has sponsored a number of additional projects aimed at raising awareness regarding the war and occupation in Iraq. One such action was an international petition drive aimed at getting the U.S. military to stop its violent tactics in Ramadi, a city near Fallujah where many network members have cherished friends and colleagues. Ramadi suffered heavily from strong-handed military action, such as checkpoints, nighttime home searches, and random civilian killings. While the petition was obviously not in a position to end the war, it did gather around 5500 signatures from people in 42 countries and was read by people back in Iraq, whom network members reported as taking comfort from the many thoughtful, heartfelt comments.
              The network has also brought several other Iraqis to Japan to speak of their plight. One such visitor was Mr. Kasim Turki, a humanitarian aid worker from Ramadi who has provided jobs and support to refugees and other displaced people in Iraq. A former soldier in the Iraqi army, Kasim once considered joining the resistance movement against U.S. troops, but was swayed by his contact with Japanese aid workers including former hostage Takato Nahoko, who encouraged him to turn his energies toward rebuilding instead of retaliation. While visiting Japan this past April, Kasim went on a speaking tour around Japan to tell his story and raise funds for his work. “My brother bled to death in his car after he had been injured in a traffic accident and the U.S. military refused to let him pass through their checkpoint to proceed to a hospital,” Kasim explained in a voice fraught with pain. “While I once would have wanted to take revenge, I am now planning to build an emergency medical clinic in Ramadi to help others, which will also stand as a tribute to my brother and what happened to him.”
              As part of its mission to continue educating people in Japan about the lives of ordinary Iraqis and all that they have continued to endure, the Iraq Hope Network issues an e-mail bulletin with various news items of interest. At the end of these transmissions, the group periodically poses the following question: “Has the attack upon Iraq truly made the world a safer place?” It is a question that continues to resound with meaning, and one that members of the network will likely continue to pose until peace is restored to Iraq and the human rights of health and safety returned to its citizens.  

Antiwar Resources:

Peace Not War Japan:
*Peace On:
World Peace Now:

Code Pink:
Education for Peace in Iraq Center:
United for Peace and Justice:
Voices for Creative Nonviolence:

Iraq-Related Blogs:
Alive in Baghdad:
Baghdad Burning:
**Iraq Hope Diary (Takato Nahoko’s blog)
Iraq Mail — The Voice from Ramadi:

* Limited English content
** Japanese only

--Kimberly Hughes

(originally published in Kyoto Journal magazine #68. November, 2007)