Since first heading into the war-torn regions of Central America in the late 1980’s, my primary focus has been to bear witness and shed light on the profound impact that war, poverty, and destructive environmental practices have on the most vulnerable members of society.
Following the First Gulf War I became acutely aware of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that resulted from the U.S. targeting of Iraqi infrastructure and the unprecedented sanctions issued against the country. Despite the horrific stories of severe poverty and destruction, I was astonished by the fact that few images were making their way into the mainstream media.
By early 2003 the threat of all-out war loomed heavily over Iraq. News reports flooded our screens, detailing the possibility of bombs raining down on the country any day. It was a time of heightened tension, but still, the only images we saw were primarily that of Saddam Hussein.
For me, simply participating in protests and sending letters to congress wasn’t enough. When the opportunity arose to join a delegation, largely comprised of individuals who had lost loved ones on 9/11, there was no hesitation. The delegation traveled to Iraq to stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people and to also send a resounding message of “Not in my name!” As a human rights activist and photojournalist, I was determined to put a human face on the Iraqi people and remind those who were in support of the war of who the unintentional, silenced and overlooked targets would be. It was my aspiration that these photos would help portray the compassion, warmth, and resilience of a people who longed for peace and an end to the sanctions and war.
Although I have worked in several war zones, I wasn't quite sure how the Iraqis would greet us. After all, we were representative of a country who had issued unconscionable sanctions resulting in an estimated 1.2 million Iraqi deaths (including 500,000 children under the age of 5 years). However, everywhere we went we felt welcomed. Even fishermen left their nets to come to shore to greet us. When asked about our country of origin, people almost immediately smiled, gave a thumbs-up, or made other welcoming gestures. They often recalled the years when the U.S. supported Iraq, hoping the two nations would be at peace again soon.
People were careful to differentiate between the U.S. government's policies and the American people. Whether it was at a university, in hospitals, on the streets, in the markets or mosques, or even while visiting families who had just lost loved ones or had been severely injured as a result of a US bombing strike, we always felt welcomed.
During Desert Storm, the U.S. utilized Depleted Uranium (DU) on the tips of many warheads, which is an extremely hard metal and an effective armor-piercing weapon. However, DU is also a heavy, radioactive material with a 4.4 billion-year half-life. Upon impact, 60-80% of DU becomes sub-aerosol particles, which can enter the body through inhalation, ingestion, or an open wound. It can also be transmitted from parent to child through the placenta.
Over 400,000 veterans were exposed to more than 315 tons of DU dust during Desert Storm, which contained trace elements of plutonium, the most toxic element known to humankind. The Veterans Administration cites over 164,000 Gulf War veterans on disability status, and nearly 15,000 have died within the past 12 years.
Since 1991 (-2003), cancer rates and the appearance of congenital malformations in Iraq have increased at least fivefold. Hospitals in Basra and Baghdad show first-hand the devastating effects of the sanctions and the use of DU, where many children photographed are dying from leukemia or hemophilia. In contrast, childhood leukemia in the U.S. has an 85% cure rate, whereas in Iraq, it is a death sentence.
A woman gazes off in the distance as bombs fall. Standing on the banks of where the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers meet, ironically upriver is where some believe the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life originated. Notably, this area is not spared from the conflict.
In addition to the devastating health impacts of Depleted Uranium, its use has also had severe environmental consequences. Not only has it contaminated water supplies, but it has also devastated crops. The long half-life of DU means that it will remain in the environment for billions of years, posing a continued threat to human health and the destruction of vital ecosystems.
The use of DU in Iraq has had a particularly damaging impact on agriculture, which is a vital source of income and food for many Iraqis. DU particles can contaminate soil and water, rendering them unusable for growing crops. This, in turn, has led to a decline in food production and an increase in food prices, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the country.
The woman seated in the middle holds a photo of her husband who was recently killed by a U.S. bombing attack while en route to work. Despite her recent loss and the deep sorrow she felt, she invited us into her home and thanked us for our compassion. She went on to say "I know that some of you are Christians, Hindus, Jews... I'm Muslim, and in my belief, we are all one family under God." It made no difference to her that our government was responsible for the death of her husband, what mattered only was that we had traveled to her country with a message of unity and peace. She asked me to take the photo of her and to share her message of love and reconciliation as broadly as possible.
A mothers gentle touch... Some have likened this image to Michelangelo's depiction of the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. It highlights the contrasting themes of innocence and poverty and serves as a poignant reminder of the sanctity and value of life itself. Tragically, this once-thriving community now lies in ruins, a testament to the devastation wrought by years of conflict and economic sanctions.
The entrance to Al-Mustansiriya University, located in Baghdad along the Tigris River, is a historic institution founded in 1233. It is one of the world's oldest universities and the oldest of its kind dedicated to theology, astronomy, philosophy, and mathematics in the Arab-Islamic world. The university spans over 4,800 sq. meters, including a 1,700 sq.m. courtyard, and is a symbol of the intellectual and cultural legacy of the Islamic Golden Age.
On March 23, 2003, the University was hit by air strikes on Baghdad, leaving a painful reminder of the destruction wrought by conflict and the fragility of cultural heritage.
The sanctions imposed on Iraq had devastating consequences on the country's healthcare system, leading to a humanitarian health crisis. Essential medicines were blocked from reaching Iraqi hospitals in a timely manner and, citing "dual-purpose usage," air-conditioned trucks and parts to repair them were prohibited. Life-saving medicines that required refrigeration became unusable due to intense summer temperatures and were often thrown away upon reaching the hospitals.
As a result of the sanctions, thousands of children have become the sole providers for their families. They resort to foraging for scraps of food in city dumps or working on the streets selling candy or shining shoes. Over one million children suffer from chronic malnutrition. Ahmed, the young boy photographed in the blue hoodie, works 7 days a week as a shoe-shiner. In a brief conversation with him, he stated that he longed to go to medical school so he could help end the suffering in his country. Prior to the sanctions, every Iraqi citizen had access to free education through the doctorate level.
A child walks through the abandoned streets of Old Basra.
"Old Basra" is known for its meticulously crafted canals and balconies; the Iraqi people take tremendous pride in their culture and ancient ways. However, many historic sites, such as the building displayed in this photo, were destroyed during the invasion.
As the escalation of war continues, killing more and more civilians and creating a growing number of orphaned or fatherless children, the radicalization of opposition groups grows exponentially. The impetus for this war was supposedly to avenge the attacks of 9/11, but when that did not garner enough support, President Bush called for the ousting of Saddam Hussein for allegedly harboring the same weapons that were provided to him by U.S. corporations during the Iran-Iraq War. As history repeats over and over again, the targets of war, the so-called "enemy," are very rarely contained, yet the consequences of war are always far-reaching and long-lasting, affecting generations to come.
The Bush administration, weapons manufacturers, and oil companies, including Halliburton led by Vice President Cheney, stand to benefit greatly from an extended war. At the time of this article, billions of dollars in contracts had already been allocated by the US government, but questions remain about who will finance the ongoing occupation and cleanup efforts. Many Iraqis are starving and have no access to potable water. The infrastructure is in disarray, and the US is now importing gas to Iraq. Thousands of Iraqi children have lost one or both parents. Will the US compensate these families, or will they simply be viewed as "collateral damage"? And what price can be placed on a life? What sum of money is sufficient to treat the severe trauma that has laid siege to an entire population? Will the billions of dollars spent on the war be taken from our already crippled welfare system, our school budgets, or social services earmarked for those most in need?
When the war is "declared" over, as the body bags carrying soldiers are brought home, as the smoke and ashes are cleared throughout Iraq, what will be left? 50% of the Iraqi population is under the age of 18, and it is these children, this ancient civilization, that the US and Britain aimed to "shock and awe" into submission. In this cradle of civilization, where every door was readily held open for us and where we were welcomed as sisters and brothers, we are left pondering what will become of Iraq? Can peace and stability take root from the devastation that has occurred and continues to ensue, and what will emerge from the ashes of this crippled and traumatized nation?