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>>>On this Thanksgiving Day: a sobering reminder. This issue of THE JUDEVINE MOUNTAIN EMAILITE is one short essay written by Carl Maugeri, an American Friends Service Committee staff member, about his visit to Iraq, which I came across in the AFSC QUAKER SERVICE BULLETIN. The article moved and upset me so much I wanted to share it with you. Maugeri writes about five U.S. doctors who recently visited medical schools, centers, and clinics in Iraq. I’ve written a little introduction to Maugeri’s article called “Bridges.”

>>>Today as we gorge ourselves, it seems a good time to send out this sobering reminder of, as Jacob Riis put it, “how the other half lives.”

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BRIDGES by David Budbill

Maybe it’s because I’m a poet, because I know that the Greek word from which “metaphor” comes means “a bridge from this to that, from here to there,” or maybe its just because bridges are so exciting, useful and beautiful, whether it’s the little foot-bridge I built out of red Spruce pole stringers and two-by-six Hemlock planking to span the stream out back in my woods here in the mountains of northern Vermont or the awesome Golden Gate bridge looming over San Francisco Bay or the lovely, stately and elegant Brooklyn bridge linking Brooklyn to Manhattan. Whatever the reason, bridges are both alluring and functional, and they are mysterious also; they beckon to us to cross them to see what is on the other side just as those other bridges: metaphors, call to us as well, helping us make a connection between two things we might not have thought possible, for example: “burled up like a cat who’s seen a fox” or “glad of spring as a phoebe in the sugarhouse.”

Maybe it’s for these reasons that this past spring I couldn’t stop thinking about all those bridges lying in ruin in the Danube in Belgrade put there by American bombs dropped in the name of “peace and stability.”

For THE JUDEVINE MOUNTAIN EMAILITE #13, sent out on 18 May ’99, “The Littleton/Yugoslavia Issue,” I was going to write an essay called “Bread Trucks Use Bridges Too,” but the response from readers with essays of their own about both Littleton and Yugoslavia and how the two were connected, was overwhelming and I decided to forgo my essay on bridges. I more or less forgot about it until recently as I read what follows here.

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THE SUN IS SETTING over the old city section of ancient Basra, and the tan brick of the buildings captures the changing hues of desert twilight–the rose and salmon reds melding into soft purple and finally charcoal. The heat of the day is gone.

We walk along narrow streets bordering what was once a canal crossed by now-ruined Venetian-style bridges. The intricate decorative carvings of Ottoman architecture strain above passages now filled with old tires and concrete debris. A stream of sewage runs by. Old city contains mosques, a thriving Chaldean church, and a small Jewish quarter. It is just above Basra that the two rivers that traverse Iraq, the Tigris and Euphrates, join as one waterway leading to the Persian Gulf.

In many ways, this battered city is a microcosm for all we have observed in Iraq these two weeks: a once thriving society, rich in culture and diversity, crumbling under an economy devastated by war and economic sanctions. Our delegation consists of three AFSC staffers: Bill Pierre, Bahiya Cabral, and myself; and six medical specialists: doctors Kwasi Dgubatey, Steve Wall, Ramona Sunderwirth, Richard Garfield, Chris Hansen, and Leila Richards.

The goal of this delegation, AFSC’s fifth within the last year, is to examine the UN’s Oil for Food program. Oil for Food is touted as a humanitarian measure to ease the most severe malnutrition problems of Iraqis. The program’s authors admit it was never meant to solve the impact of sanctions, which has left the majority of Iraqis living on the edge of starvation.

This delegation is especially interested in the embargo’s effect on medical education and training, and so we spend most of our time visiting hospitals and medical schools. However, our interaction with Iraqis has the greatest impact.

There is an understated sense of indignity among the Iraqis, even as they welcome us: What is the basis for the continuing animosity from the West, they ask? Why the heavy heel upon our necks, why the continued sacrifice of the elderly, and, most poignantly, what is the purpose for the deaths of 500,000 children under the age of five?

Yet, just as apparent is the geniality of the Iraqi people in shops, restaurants, and on the streets, even toward Americans visiting their country while U.S. bombs fall on military and nonmilitary targets alike.

The walk through old city caps a day of hard travel and many stirring impressions.

Earlier this day, we passed through the city of Nassariya and saw the ruins of a bridge, which have become something of a monument. Several hundred people, no one knows for sure how many, hid under this bridge during the Gulf War bombing, unaware that bridges were prime targets.

A direct missile hit destroyed most of the bridge, killing all under it and changing this city forever. While massive efforts went into repairing the country’s bridges after the war, this bridge was left as is, a stark reminder. It is forbidden in Iraq to take photos of bridges, but this one nonetheless leaves an indelible picture in my mind.

One of the most hopeful signs is the many people working to heal the country.

Hassan, a man in his early twenties, an engineer working for the Middle East Council of Churches, is in many ways representative of the hope of Iraq. Proud of his role in creating a water treatment plant, Hassan is young, educated, and socially conscious, resolute but not angry, determined to use his skills to rebuild his country. His quiet, understated humor is also a great resource. When our twelve-year-old Oldsmobile breaks down between Baghdad and Mosul in the north, Hassan, in the back seat, shakes his head and mutters, “Ah, these American cars. . . .”

Perhaps the strongest and most lasting impression, as I sort through the many contradictory and disturbing images of this trip, is the ease with which our Iraqi hosts seem able to forgive. One of our guides, Mazin, works with the Iraqi chapter of the International Federation of Red Cross/Red Crescent. He and I talk easily about our families, our concerns as fathers, even our careers and hopes for the future. It is a conversation I could have with an old college friend. When I mention that I wanted to take home a tape of Iraqi folk music, Mazin takes me to a store and finds just the right recording.

It is only later that he mentions he was a soldier stationed in Baghdad during the Gulf War. He recalls being one of the first soldiers to arrive at a bunker where hundreds of Iraqi civilians were incinerated when U.S. “boring missiles” penetrated the underground shelter. He found a scene of unspeakable horror. His only comment to me is that he decided never to carry a gun again, but instead to work for change through the Red Crescent.

His life has followed a route much closer to the worst of what warring people can do to each other than has mine. Yet here, on a Basra street corner at dusk, not far from long lines of mothers with children at feeding and rehydration centers, near the haunts of begging street children, between the violated waters of Iraq’s great rivers, is the most certain statement of peace that I have ever heard. * * * * * * * * * *

Editor’s Note: The delegation mentioned in this article was one of five this year sponsored by AFSC in which professionals from the United States investigated conditions in Iraq. For information on this and other AFSC work in the Middle East, visit: http://www.afsc.org/iraqhome.htm. For more general information about AMERICAN FRIENDS SERVICE COMMITTEE and how to make gifts to AFSC visit: AFSC]

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[This article was reprinted with permission from QUAKER SERVICE BULLETIN, Fall 1999, published by the American Friends Service Committee, 1501 Cherry Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102, phone: (215) 241-7100, AFSC]

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