Voices in the Wilderness vows to stand with Iraqis

WASHINGTON – Voices in the Wilderness (VITW), which has delivered medicine, toys and other humanitarian relief to the Iraqi people in defiance of U.S. sanctions imposed in 1991, announced Jan. 21 that they will not pay $50,000 in fines imposed by the Treasury Department and will stand beside Iraqis against a U.S. war.

“I have the distinction of being the first member of Voices in the Wilderness to have a fine against him for bringing medicine to Iraq,” declared Bert Sacks, a retired engineer who works full time with VITW. He was one of five VITW activists who spoke during a National Press Club news conference Jan. 21. Standing in front of a banner that read, “No War Against Iraq,” Sacks said, “Most people in the U.S. don’t know that it is a crime to deliver medicine to Iraq. They have no idea that it is our (government’s) policy to make life difficult for the Iraqi people in the misguided notion it will impel the Iraqi people to remove Saddam Hussein.”

Artist Paul Chan of Hunter College in New York and the University of Pennsylvania displayed photographs he took on a recent trip to Iraq of Iraqi men, women and children who may die if a new war is unleashed.

VITW Coordinator Kathy Kelly, who has traveled countless times to Iraq, said, “We are just the tip of the iceberg of people who want to resist in the most emphatic way what many fear is an inevitable war. We do not believe that what we have done is a crime. But the sanctions are the most egregious case of child abuse on the planet today.”

Kelly hailed the protest demonstrations by hundreds of thousands against war on Iraq and the stand by France, Germany, Russia and other countries against the Bush war policy. “A go-it-alone U.S. war on Iraq might not stop the terrorism,” she warned. “It may actually trigger more instances of terrorism.”

She said that she was planning to go to Iraq later that week. VITW delegations will not act as “human shields” if the U.S. attacks, she added. “but it is our purpose to stand alongside the Iraqi people who are in the cross-hairs, to provide voices for them.”

Stephanie Schaudel, a VITW coordinator, reported that since 1996, VITW has sent over 60 delegations, 200 people from 34 states, in defiance of the economic sanctions and military warfare against the Iraqi people. “We will continue to openly and nonviolently oppose U.S. government policies,” she said.

In recent days, the Chicago-based group has received 300 applications from people who want to travel to Iraq in solidarity with the people. Jan. 20, another delegation left for Iraq and others will leave Feb. 2 and Feb. 8, to live with Iraqi families for as long as five or six weeks. More than 1,000 people have made financial contributions to sustain the project.

Dr. David Hilfiker, a retired family physician who runs Joseph House, a shelter for homeless men with AIDS in the District of Columbia, told the news conference he returned from a three-week visit to Iraq Dec. 20 where he met with many doctors and other health care workers .

“In the short time I was there, the lethal power of the sanctions on Iraq especially on the children, became obvious,” he said. “I visited four water treatment plants where the managers expressed great frustration that they could not get spare parts to fix their water treatment equipment. Each day, 500,000 tons of raw sewage are pumped into surface water sources. The UN estimates that 40 percent of the water is contaminated. There is three times the normal rates of diarrhea and ten times the normal child mortality rate.”

Before the Gulf War of 1991, he said, Iraq’s health care system, sustained by billions of dollars in oil revenues, was one of the best in the Middle East. Since the country was destroyed by U.S. bombing and sanctions, the UN estimates that 5,000 children are dying each month from preventable illness, more than a million deaths in the past decade. “The sanctions are a weapon of mass destruction that has killed more than those who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined,” he said. A new war, he said, will unleash an even greater human catastrophe.

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com