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Open Letter to an American About to Visit Iraq

January 8, 2003

Dear David Berrian:

Congratulations on your plan to visit Iraq with Voices. I am sure you have been following the news from Iraq - both the political news and the reports from groups such as the Mennonite Christian Peacemaker teams who have remained in Iraq for longer periods.

My own trip to Iraq in January 2001, on the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Gulf War, aroused perhaps the most intense emotions resulting from any of my foreign trips, including the five humanitarian aid trips I have made to Russia and two to Mexico. I traveled with a group sponsored by Conscience International, of Atlanta, which included the director of that organization, a retired professor of Near East history, and four people fluent in Arabic, one a high school girl from a family recently arrived in this country from Baghdad. There were three others from Washington, including a sophomore high school student friend of mine from Tacoma. En route to Baghdad I read Gary Haugen's "Good News About Injustice," his plea, as the previous UN official assigned to establish the truth and reconciliation commission in Rwanda, for correction of the many and often incredible human rights abuses in the world and a report on his activities towards that goal since leaving the UN. Having already researched the injustices to the people of Iraq resulting from the Gulf war and subsequent sanctions, and responding sympathetically to his Biblically-based analysis of injustice and its causes and results - and its evil - I was still little prepared to see the gift shops in the El Rashid Hotel, where our government minders insisted we stay, filled with family treasures, sold in order that their owners might survive, or to talk with teachers who received salaries of $3 to $5 per month and to physicians unable to treat fatal diseases because of lack of medicines and technology previously available in Iraq and readily accessible in every developed country of the world. As a retired pediatrician, these experiences, driven home by a day and a half spent with the chairman of the department of pediatrics at Baghdad University and other physicians at the Al Monsour Children's Hospital, evidence in front of me of the huge increases in childhood cancers and birth defects since 1990, a visit to the Bisan Elementary School, attendance at Sunday service at Baghdad's First Evangelical Church, where I talked with the superintendent of the Sunday School, visits with WHO, UNICEF and FAO staff in Baghdad, and discussions with our Arabic-speaking friends who had visited relatives and acquaintances left me emotionally spent. My grief and anger, finally nailed in place by a visit to the Al-Ameriya bomb shelter, where 408 children, women and elderly persons died as a result of our bombing, was such that for a week after returning to Tacoma, following which we left for a California vacation, my wife found me unable to do anything but sit at my computer transcribing my notes into a diary of the trip and almost nauseated when we made a trip to San Diego's old town to look into its multitude of beautiful gift shops.

I hope you will have all these experiences and many more and that you will return anxious to help others to understand the magnificent past history of this great country where the wheel, mathematics and alphabetical writing were invented, where Abraham was born and invented monotheism, and where the greatest academic center in the Western world was located in the 8th century, help them to have some understanding of the incredible injustice which the people of this country have endured during the past quarter century, and to help them, along with you, put a face on these people and establish ongoing contact with some of them.

I have no doubt that you will find enough questions to ask, but I hope that mostly you will be able to listen, finding the many people who are fluent in English, that you will be as amazed as I was that these people are still able to distinguish between the hated policies and cruel actions of the US government and the love and respect which they generally hold for the American people, and that you will come home with an overflowing burden of pictures and stories to share with others.

My best wishes to you for your trip.


David Sparling

P.S.: Iraqi families love their children. Education, which was free through university, no longer is. You have perhaps already heard the story of the mother who offered an American visitor a seat on a rug in her living room because the family had just sold their sofa in order to pay the tuition for their 12-year-old daughter. Crayons, ball point and felt pens, small pads of paper, M&Ms, small stuffed animals, and hot wheel cars are great things to take with you - but you probably have already figured that out. Ibuprofen and aspirin will be welcomed by adults, but you probably should check to see whether there are at present any problems bringing them into the country.

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Last updated: January 9, 2003