I visited family over Memorial Day weekend and I saw my cousin who had horrible experiences in 1991, as did so many Iraqis. He's a successful engineer and he's been happy in America since the mid 90s, but in the 80s he was forced to work as an engineer for the Iraqi military. He was released from the military at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, only to be redrafted in August 1990, in anticipation of the impending war with America. He was sent to a casting factory in Baghdad where missiles and other equipment were manufactured.
I asked him more about the last few weeks he spent in Iraq, after sanctions had an immediate and devastating effect on the Iraqi economy and when Baghdadis got their first taste of American bombing. My cousin and a few other relatives, including my mother's aunt, had escaped the intense bombing of Baghdad in January 1991 and went to Najaf, which the US and allied air forces had pretty much left untouched. It was in Najaf where my mother's aunt's condition deteriorated and where she died. I had always thought she died in Baghdad and her body was taken to Najaf to be buried. Another thing I got wrong: she did not die because she did not have asthma medicine as I claimed in this post. I don't know how I got that one wrong, because it's crucial, and I thought she died of an asthma attack because she'd run out of asthma medicine. My mom's aunt DID have asthma medicine, my cousin clarified after I asked him a week ago. It had become very expensive as a result of sanctions, as were so many necessities, including food. My cousin said that a small amount of food was handed out by Saddam's government, but that it wasn't nearly enough to feed everybody. To have enough food Iraqis had to resort to the black market, on which food was 30 times as expensive as it was before sanctions were imposed, according to my cousin. The average Iraqi family could not afford the black market. My mom's aunt may have died as a result of poor nutrition, but she did not die because she did not have asthma medicine. Sanctions did cause malnutrition among Iraqis and may have contributed to my mom's aunt's deterioration in health, but I cannot blame her death directly on sanctions. Her body was buried in Najaf. Allah Yurhamha. She loved us kids and took care of us as much as she could, considering she was blind all her life.
Another aunt of my cousin's, on his father's side, also in Najaf, had kidney problems, and she also died in 1991. My cousins buried her body in the same Najaf cemetery, but this time it was during the uprising, when Najaf was engulfed in heavy fighting between Saddam's forces and Shia rebels. My cousins were caught in the middle of it, and they were very lucky to escape with their lives. After the burial my relatives, the same group that escaped Baghdad just weeks earlier, were looking for a way to get out of Najaf alive. They heard that a bus was leaving for Baghdad the next morning and found a hotel near the bus station and stayed there. My cousin asked the hotel owner where they could find some food. The hotel owner said the owner of the house next to the hotel has a small store in the back. There my cousin found only biscuits and juice, and that's what my relatives had for dinner that night. My cousin said that entire night was filled with the sound of machine guns and bombs. The next morning was calmer and so they got on the bus to Baghdad. Incredibly, the bus broke down just south of Baghdad, and this during the middle of a Shia uprising when Saddam's Republican Guard was hunting down Shia rebels in southern provinces. Anybody suspected of participating in the uprising was arrested and in most cases killed. A couple of hours passed when my cousin saw a bus heading north. He got in the middle of the road and waved his arms. The bus driver stopped and picked them up. The driver had driven to Diwaniya earlier that day, but was not allowed to enter and was returning to Baghdad. The driver said my relatives were very lucky because there were no other buses going to Baghdad. On the outskirts of Baghdad the bus was stopped by the military, who were looking for rebels. Luckily my cousin had his military ID, and with that they got through the checkpoint. My relatives got home and found something they'd been missing: food.
The next day my cousin felt that he needed to report to his military bosses. He went to the missile casting factory to find it had been flattened. A few days later he left for Amman. Over the next few weeks a stream of relatives followed him and eventually moved to the UK, where nearly half my relatives now live. My cousin was the first to arrive in Amman, but he was the last to leave. The British government did not give him a visa because they said he was in Saddam's military. So we worked on getting him to the US instead, and that's exactly what happened. My cousin is a brilliant engineer and now a great asset to an American medical device company.
Back to the main subject of my post: the death of my mother's aunt cannot be blamed directly on sanctions, but sanctions did have a negative impact on the health of millions of Iraqis. An embargo does not affect the rulers of the country being embargoed. It is always the poor and middle class who suffer. This was true in Iraq and it's true in Gaza today, I'm sure. Saddam built palaces while ordinary Iraqis starved. Read Iraq Under Siege to learn how sanctions impacted the lives of ordinary Iraqis.