Outta Here! Notes on Atrocity Overload from the Middle East
By Adele Welty
I was part of a delegation, put together with extraordinary care by
Medea Benjamin and Chris Michael of Global Exchange in San Francisco.
We traveled to Amman, Jordan this past December with medical supplies,
blankets, heaters and water purifiers—Global Exchange had received
donations valued at $600,000—for the refugees in the camps outside
My words are not adequate to describe the experience of meeting Iraqis,
for whom every day is September 11th. These good people, who wept as
they told their stories,
risked their lives to come to Amman to meet with us. We were Americans. Some
of whom had lost our children in Iraq—Military Families Against the War.
I represented September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Other members had
not lost a loved one, but concluded that the war was wrong, that Iraq had no
weapons of mass destruction (except those for which Rumsfeld has the receipts)
and no complicity in 9/11. We met with Arabs whose long history of oppression
has made them cynical of Americans, but who greeted us with warmth and gratitude
for caring enough to come with medical supplies and humanitarian aid. I told
them that my son, Timmy had died on 9/11 trying to rescue civilians trapped in
the twin towers and that now I was trying to stop innocent civilians from being
killed in his name.
On New Year’s Day we tried to get to the Iraqi border, but were turned
back and followed by the military police. We were finally able to stop in the
desert and hold a brief ceremony for peace with al-Jazeera filming us. We spoke
with some shepherds who politely agreed to be interviewed, but believed that
Americans are responsible for the chaos in the region. They know all about what
is going on from watching al-Jazeera on TV. Next we visited a refugee camp and
spoke, through an interpreter, to some of the children. One very articulate 12
year-old told us that many NGO workers came to visit them, but nothing ever changed.
She alleged there was a shortage of milk and other necessities.
I was then introduced to firefighters just outside the camp who invited me into
their tent for tea after learning that my son, Timmy was also a firefighter.
Afterwards they surprised me with a jacket and helmet honoring me for my son’s
At dinner that evening, one of the Iraqi doctors asked me if Americans know how
privileged they are. And while I answered yes, I wondered if it is true. Maybe
Americans know they are privileged and believe they deserve to be. For it is
obvious we consider ourselves “better” than people less fortunate
in other parts of the world. Dr. Jeff Ritterman, a member of our delegation,
responded that privilege incurs responsibility, and that is key. If we want the
government to truly represent us we need to keep ourselves informed to participate
in the development of government policies. We forget what constitutes a democracy—that
we also have a responsibility to those who are not so privileged.
Stories were exchanged. Questions were asked that most often could not be answered. “Why?
Why is America doing this? What have we ever done to you?” There is less
food now than under the food for oil program while $20 billion from that program
goes unaccounted for. Obesity among children that was once a problem in Iraq
has given way to malnutrition. Iraq was once one of the most advanced Middle
Eastern countries in terms of its educational system. It has now been bombed
into the dark ages—over 200,000 Iraqis have been killed in this war, 100,000
since the end of the invasion. Why?
These stories, so movingly related, are difficult to accept. Allegations were
made that would be labeled hearsay in a court of law. Yet we heard them repeated
by different groups that arrived over the course of that week. Stories of atrocities
committed by American troops that make Abu Ghraib seem like childish pranks instead
of the horrible acts of violence they really were. They told us that since Abu
Ghraib, the torture of prisoners has gotten worse. There are other prisons in
Iraq, outside of Baghdad. Prisons built underground, unmonitored by outside agencies
where whole families are detained—the males beaten and the women raped
in full view of the other prisoners.
They told us of tanks routinely rolling over and crushing cars on the road, cars
filled with people. In one case, the car held a seven year-old girl whose father
had just run into the market. She was screaming and banging on the window as
the tank crushed the car around her. Many of the Iraqis testified to having witnessed
this type of occurrence more than once. Others told of troops smashing down doors
in the middle of the night and shooting the males in the household, often in
front of their mothers and wives. And there were cases of rape, the rape of teenage
girls before their parents and siblings.
To the surprise of most Americans, civilians in Iraq now support the insurgency.
Witnessing these crimes has fueled this support. These atrocities do not occur
in the dungeons of the Iraqi prisons alone, but on the street in broad daylight—in
homes surrounded by families. Even in hospitals, males as young as 15 are dragged
out of the emergency or operating rooms and shot in the streets. In the Baghdad
hospital, only two of the 16 elevators work, making emergency transfer from the
ER to the operating theaters dangerously slow. After an attack, ambulances are
not allowed to leave the hospital grounds to attend the wounded. This is the
face of America the average Iraqi sees. This is where all the hate comes from.
We all know members of American troops who are trying to show a kind face of
America. These young soldiers distribute school supplies to children and other
items that are in short supply. Many of them take greater than usual risks to
help the NGO workers distribute humanitarian aid. The Iraqis with whom we met
said they could not do their work without these American soldiers. These are
the soldiers we would hope represent the moral character of our men and women
in uniform. These are the troops we support, who can make honorable judgments
in the midst of chaos. In the beginning of the occupation, Iraqis saw Americans
as liberators, but as goods and services became nonexistent, attitudes became
one of intense hatred, despite the efforts of these extraordinary soldiers.
In Falluja alone, 6,000 civilians were killed in one week. We saw pictures of
bodies, burned beyond recognition, whose limbs had been eaten by dogs. We saw
pictures of bodies discolored by chemical weapons of unknown origin; bodies showing
signs of napalm and radioactivity. Unfortunately, most pictures taken by Iraqi
journalists have been confiscated by the military, who routinely imprison journalists
not embedded with the troops. Their homes are searched, their cameras and film
are destroyed. The food and water in Falluja is contaminated because of the carcinogenic
waste from all the weapons used. Returning residents have been warned not to
eat or drink anything that was left behind. But there is nothing else, and the
doctors are expecting cancer rates to rise significantly.
The mainstream media is not reporting this. Western journalists usually stay
in their hotels and get information about what is happening from Iraqis who manage
to slip in and out of the compound. They must constantly change cars and routes,
leaving at different times of day. Gasoline now costs one dollar a liter and
the wait to receive it can take up to 48 hours. This includes gasoline for all
the generators. Electricity is only on between two to eight hours a day.
One of the Iraqis told us about a human rights meeting that was held over a year
ago where his brother gave a speech. American troops broke up the meeting and
randomly shot nine people. Two were pushed up against a wall and shot. The leader
of the meeting was beaten before all the participants at the meeting and imprisoned.
They broke his nose and his hands. This man’s brother is still in prison,
has not been charged with a crime, and the family was told that his legs are
We heard these stories until we were in atrocity overload. I asked the Iraqis
what they do to decompress, how they relax, what they do for fun. Did they go
out to the movies? They told me there is no such thing as theaters or concert
halls in Iraq, and because of the curfew, they could not go out at night to visit
friends. But that on evenings when there is electricity, they watched television.
Seinfeld! They love Seinfeld. I was amazed that they would understand the humor
and asked, “What does it mean—Get outta here?” After giving
it some thought, one of the doctors replied, “It means—that is so
unbelievable, it cannot be true.”
So there we were, Americans and Iraqis, our countries at war, sharing a common
humanity and a common sense of humor. In Iraqi homes in the late night hours,
some families sit in front of their TV sets watching Seinfeld. While in all probability,
American troops sit in their recreation halls watching Seinfeld. And when
the sun rises, they start killing each other.
GET OUTTA HERE!
Adele Welty is a retired social worker and member of September 11th Families
for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group of 9/11 families who have channeled their grief
into action for peace and justice. Her son, firefighter Timothy Welty, died in
the line of duty at the World Trade Center. Adele has traveled to Afghanistan
and was on the humanitarian aid delegation to Iraq to raise awareness of the
true cost of war and determine how best to help the Iraqis and create a climate
of understanding that can lead to peace. To learn more about this and other peace
delegations, see www.codepink4peace.org.