Dr. Louise Cainkar grew up in Evergreen Park and calls herself “a nice Catholic girl.” For the past five years she has also been the executive director of the Human Rights Research Foundation and head of the foundation’s Palestine Human Rights Information Center. After the gulf war began, people started calling her office, asking what was really going on in the Middle East. At the end of March she went to Iraq as an observer with the fourth Gulf Peace Team medical-relief convoy, which was working in cooperation with the Jordanian National Red Crescent Society and the Iraqi Red Crescent.

The convoy left Amman, Jordan, on March 23, carrying 3 tons of medicine from Germany, 1.5 tons of infant formula and medicine from Canada, and 3 tons of formula and intravenous fluid from Japan–all of which was in short supply. The UN embargo allows humanitarian aid to be sent to Iraq, but shipments of food and medicine are still often blocked.

Cainkar traveled throughout the country until April 15, gaining firsthand information and documenting how the gulf war continues to affect civilians. I talked to her shortly after she returned to Chicago.

Tom Johnson: Could you begin by describing your overall impressions?

Louise Cainkar: The first thing that I saw at the border was no less than 40 bombed-out cars, trucks, and buses on the side of the road–all over the side of the road, blown up and strafed. These were clearly civilian vehicles. Even shepherds were strafed and their flocks were killed. It was not always pinpoint bombing in that part of Iraq. No doubt most of the people in those vehicles were dead, because they’d been burnt to a crisp. Many Jordanian truck drivers died–the crown prince of Jordan said 40. Many of these people were Iraqi civilians simply trying to flee Iraq. Refugees were attacked on this road. We were continually rerouted because all of the bridges had been knocked out on this road.

The next major thing that I saw was the Al Falluja market. The British admitted to bombing it. It’s in the center of Falluja, close to one of the bridges crossing the Euphrates River. The market is surrounded by apartments, four-story buildings. The Iraqis say 100 people died in the market bombing. This was a case of “collateral damage” when they missed the bridge across the Euphrates. But they went back and got the bridge, because it is now gone.

Traffic has to be rerouted through this town. It’s a single-lane perpetual traffic jam because the bridge is gone. And this when at most five percent of the cars are actually running because of fuel shortages. This gives you some idea of what day-to-day life is like. Just think what it would be like if they had fuel.

Then we arrived in Baghdad. In Baghdad what you see mainly is government buildings blown up: communications centers, post offices, some of the ministries, a convention center. But the bombs often hit houses next to them. And even if they didn’t, the force of the bomb explosions would break every single window in a six-block area. In the Adhamiya neighborhood, near the Tigris River, seven houses were completely destroyed by a bomb. It’s about half a kilometer from a bridge. Neighbors say that 40 civilians died in that bombing attack.

The most striking thing about Baghdad is that you have to walk around with a flashlight–if you can get one–or a candle. Most people walk around with candles. There was no power at night much of the time that I was there, although it was improving. You couldn’t drink the water coming out of the tap. We stayed in a hospital, so we were better off than most Iraqis. But even in that Baghdad hospital you could not drink the water coming out of the faucet. We’d brought bottled water from Jordan. They don’t even have bottled water because of the sanctions.

When they can get fuel, they boil the water. They’re using these kerosene stoves, and I can tell you that I saw an entire hospital ward of burnt children who tipped over these stoves. Their bodies are burned from head to toe, and they have no way to treat these babies. The normal treatment is to submerge them into some kind of bath and then to put a lotion on them. They don’t have any of this. The burns become infected because they don’t have the antibiotics to stop the infection. They can’t do skin grafts, so these children will just become encased in scar tissue–if they survive.

The first place I went to outside of Baghdad was Karbala; it’s about an hour-and-a-half drive south of Baghdad. The Shiite rebellion had just been crushed two days before in Karbala. It was an awful sight. In most of the downtown, along the main street, the buildings were in rubble. We went to a hospital and everything was destroyed. There were no beds. All the medicines were taken, and the ambulances were destroyed. This is because the rebels in the south mainly went after government buildings and people who worked for the government. They murdered people who worked for the government, and they burnt and pillaged government buildings.

You could see that the rebels had used the hospital as a base, and then you could see where the tank fire was used to rout them. So that hospital was in very bad shape. There was little coalition bombing visible there; but still their infrastructure had been destroyed by the coalition. No water. No electricity. No sewers. Food shortages.

The next day I went to Basra from Baghdad. All the way down to Basra, which is between Iran and Kuwait at the mouth of the Persian Gulf–the Shatt al Arab–all the way down, all of the bridges had been blown up. There was one traffic lane at best open. Transportation from Baghdad to the south had been rendered virtually impossible during the war. Parts of the bridges had been repaired so you could get through only on one lane. We stopped in Amara. There’s a large hospital there right next to a bridge that had been hit by a coalition bomb.

All the way down we passed thousands of soldiers packed into trucks moving north. We had to go through about 20 checkpoints and show our papers to prove that we were with the Iraqi Red Crescent. Only once did we have to get out. When the soldiers asked where I was from, I said the U.S. So one of the soldiers said, “a’nd Bush”–it means “Bush’s house” in Arabic. Then one of them said “Oh, you are our enemy” in English. But he was smiling and offered to show me Baghdad. I heard that Iraqi TV always had these reports on how the American people are not the same as the American government, and it was very clear that the Iraqis understand this. All the way down to Basra we saw soldiers.

When we got into Basra itself, you could see tanks facing right into the neighborhoods–they were still on alert because of the rebellion. On the way into Basra we’d been detoured through the desert, and all you could see were bombed-out tanks and bombed-out trucks and skeletons along the way. In Basra conditions are very bad–you see the same things as everywhere else. The main hospital had been hit by a bomb, and the one hospital that was working was filled with babies dying of malnutrition and diarrhea and dehydration.

I went from neighborhood to neighborhood to neighborhood in Basra hit by coalition bombs. The U.S. press said it was carpet bombed. I saw civilian areas bombed and a large warehouse untouched. They hit a water tank right next to the warehouse. This is where you see women and children with buckets taking water from craters in the streets, from ponds, from the river. And of course it’s contaminated.

The bombing was clearly not surgical in the Basra area. The actual number of civilian deaths is unknown because the communications infrastructure has been destroyed. You can’t call anywhere. You don’t know what’s happening from one place to the next. The Iraqis don’t know how many civilians died. Nobody does. But I myself can account for at least 600 dead in parts of Basra. Overall I personally counted about 4,000 civilian deaths in Iraq.

TJ: So when the United Nations reported that the coalition bombings were “near apocalyptic,” knocking Iraq back into a “preindustrial age,” they weren’t practicing hyperbole.

LC: Not one bit. Iraqis would tell me that “We’re back in the 17th century. We’re back in the 18th century. We’re back in the Stone Age.” Iraq was a highly developed country–you can see that. The infrastructure was very, very sophisticated, more than I’ve seen in any other Arab country. And all of this was destroyed. So you have a society that functions on the basis of assuming that they have telephones, electricity, running water, drinking water, a working sewage system, good hospitals, medical care, the best surgeons, good roads. But in fact, none of that exists anymore. None of it. There is very little electricity, very little running water. The running water that exists is in isolated areas, and it’s sporadic and poisonous. It cannot be cleaned because the treatment plants were bombed and because the chemicals used to clean it are not allowed to be imported. So raw sewage is being flushed into the rivers, and that same water is coming out of the tap.

Obviously people who live in high rises don’t have elevators. Hospitals are without medicine, without medical equipment, without water. How can surgeons perform an operation when they can’t clean anything? They have little or no electricity for lighting, they have no antibiotics. They have no refrigeration, so they can’t store any blood. They have no blood banks. There are severe fears of cholera, meningitis, typhoid, and hepatitis epidemics. There are no vaccines in Iraq because of sanctions–they’re still not being allowed to bring them in at the level at which they need them.

The turbines that powered the major electrical works–I was told that each engine costs $500-800 million–were destroyed. Where will they get the money to replace these? What they’re doing now is using small generators. There’s also very little fuel in a country that was a leading oil producer in the world. People can’t move around from one place to another. People of all classes–all 18 million Iraqis–are suffering.

Can you imagine your life right now without electricity, without water, without toilets, without a telephone, without a car, without medical care, not even knowing if your family is dead or alive because you can’t communicate with them?

TJ: The New York Times says that “the bulk of the damage found by the U.N. team was not accidental or ‘collateral,’ but the intended consequence of the successful air campaign to destroy Iraq’s war machine by attacking its industrial base and urban infrastructure.” Do you agree?

LC: Of course. And the U.S. government is aware that hundreds of Iraqi civilians are dying every day because of the lack of infrastructure. I’m sure that they know that. And they know that it’s going to get worse, because in Iraq the temperature rises to as much as 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. They know about the catastrophe.

But I don’t think that they’re going to loosen sanctions until Saddam Hussein is out of power. I can’t see any other reason for this kind of cruelty. They talk about surgical bombing as if only certain buildings were struck. But in fact, the way that surgical bombing was used was so that every single Iraqi would suffer. It’s worse than random bombing. It’s like neurosurgery–they took the brain out of an entire nation. So the functions that the brain is supposed to direct are just collapsing.

TJ: Could you describe more exactly what you saw when you visited hospitals?

LC: What I saw was hospital after hospital after hospital full of infants dying of malnutrition, dehydration, diarrhea. Infants that are maybe six months old and weigh less than their birth weight. I’ve seen hundreds near death. And you must realize that at best only 10 percent of the population can get to a hospital or clinic.

The director of the children’s hospital in Baghdad told me that every day they receive 40 new children–infants–and two of them are dead by the time that they get there. For every 40 babies that arrive at that hospital, there are another 360 who will probably die because they can’t get treatment. For every two who arrive dead, there are at least another 20 who are dead and have not even gotten out of their houses. And this is in the region served by Baghdad–the city that’s in the best shape. Imagine the rest of the country.

When I was in Zubair, a town outside of Basra near the Kuwaiti border, there was no existing medical facility in that town of 250,000 people. The health centers didn’t have medicine. The main hospital had been bombed during the third week of the coalition bombings, then ransacked by the rebels, then attacked by the Iraqi army. According to Dr. Karim Abdul Sa’adeh, a nurse was killed by one bomb and the hospital had to be evacuated. Normally the patients would have been sent to Basra, but the bridges had already been knocked out. So some went to the military hospital, and they just sent many home.

There is a large bomb crater on the hospital grounds as well as a yellow unexploded detonator marked: “Part number 8661753-10 Dispenser and Bomb Aircraft CBU-87A/B.” I also saw a segment of a shell about three feet long and one foot wide marked “Bomb Frag BLU 97/B 809420-10.” In addition to the hospital grounds, a number of civilian areas were bombed. Doctors estimate that 200 people died in the bombings.

There’s no medical treatment available in this town now. They can do nothing with the people that come to them. When we were there near the end of March, we talked to a mother and three children who had not eaten solid food in a week. We took them in our van to Basra. They had only been drinking polluted water. The doctors with me said the baby would probably not live.

The hospital in Basra was full of babies like this. Hospital rooms were very hot. Here are these dying babies crammed in hot rooms with their mothers fanning them. Because there is no air-conditioning–because there is no electricity. The doctors say that all they can do is keep the babies for two or three days and try to stop the diarrhea and try to stop the dehydration–if they have medicine and IVs to do that.

They’re running out of IVs for babies and have to reuse them. Then they send them home, where there’s no food. But they can’t do anything more for them. The families have to bring their own water because there isn’t any in the hospital. And it’s polluted water. But this woman was “lucky” because we were able to give her a ride.

TJ: You’ve been widely quoted in press reports accusing the United States government of using “biological warfare.” Could you explain what you mean by that?

LC: This was a new kind of war, and we have to look at it differently. I call it biological warfare. All of the deaths have not yet happened. How many people continue to die every day? Among children alone, it’s a hundred at least. How many are going to die in May and June and July when the temperatures rise, I don’t know. But the greatest amount of civilian casualties have not yet even happened. It’s biological warfare, it’s spreading disease. You know when you’re destroying infrastructure that you’re spreading disease. They go together. And when you have hot weather, the deaths rise exponentially. And you have no medicines, vaccines, functioning hospitals, no electricity–there is no health system to absorb these people or to treat them.

They have loads of doctors in Iraq, loads of them. Many of the doctors are women–the position of women in Iraq is the best that I saw in any Arab country. Women run the clinics, and they head maintenance departments in the hospitals. They had good medical schools and are well trained. You’ve got the technical expertise there, but they have nothing to work with.

They told me that they can’t even diagnose typhoid and cholera because they don’t have the equipment to run lab tests. So they’re calling everything gastroenteritis. They were saying that they were back in the 17th century, having to rely solely on their clinical experience to diagnose and treat. They’ve even seen cases of polio, which was eradicated from Iraq five or ten years ago. You see baby after baby after baby lying in hospital beds with bloated stomachs, their mothers next to them, and you realize that it’s all from this war.

Many of the attacks did not have a military function. Bombing water-treatment plants, bombing the main power stations, destroying telephone exchanges and communications centers–perhaps some of these had a military function, but all of these things in Iraq did not have a military function. Certain selective sites could have been bombed, but all of the major infrastructure was destroyed. The purpose was clearly to punish the Iraqi people so that they would rise up against Saddam Hussein.

It was the doctors who coined the phrase “biological warfare,” because the kind of bombing that went on promotes the massive spread of disease. Iraq is going to become a disease-ridden society–once the epidemics fully start, they are going to become nearly impossible to stop. Already, for many it is too late for vaccinations, even if they could get them.

TJ: Just after you left the area, Amnesty International issued a report stating that large numbers of people, especially Palestinians, were being tortured and executed in Kuwait by members of the Kuwaiti resistance and the Kuwaiti armed forces. Were you able to visit Kuwait?

LC: No. Before I left Jordan, I went to the Kuwaiti embassy to get a visa. It was pouring rain, but they wouldn’t let me in the door. So I said, “You mean my country spent billions of dollars and sent all these soldiers to liberate your country, and I’m not allowed inside your door?” And they said, “Yes.”

So I called the U.S. embassy because I was so upset about it, and told them I wanted a visa to Kuwait and that they should help me. They said that only people on essential business could go to Kuwait. I told them that I was the director of PHRIC [Palestine Human Rights Information Center] and that we needed to see what’s going on in Kuwait, and we needed to do it now. So I was pushed up to a vice consul. I told her the same story. She said that she agreed with me, but that the U.S. could not force Kuwait to give me a visa. That would be “intervening in another country’s internal affairs.”

So I asked for some letters, and she gave me some form letters. I got a form letter for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia–you have to enter Kuwait via Saudi Arabia. Then I went back to the Kuwaiti embassy ten minutes before they closed. I was able to get in because there wasn’t a guard. They gave me a visa application for press only, so I went out and obtained press credentials and came back with them. They said, “Sorry, no visas for Kuwait.”

I also tried to have my office in the U.S. work through Senator Paul Simon’s office, but they got nowhere. Nowhere. Obviously Simon’s people didn’t use sufficient pressure to make this happen.

TJ: So you weren’t able to find anything out about the situation of the Palestinians in Kuwait?

LC: Oh no. To the contrary. In Baghdad I stayed in a hospital–that was my home–the Iraqi Red Crescent Hospital. I met five Palestinians in the hospital who had been severely tortured by Kuwaitis and had just escaped. They had been brought there by the Jordanian embassy to be transported back to Jordan with the Jordanian Red Crescent Society because they were Jordanian citizens.

I have photos. You can see the cigarette burns up and down their legs. They have bruises three inches wide by three inches long. One of them was hit in the head. They were walked on, they were hit with metal pipes, the torturers played Russian roulette with them. And they were told things like “We can’t wait to have Israeli embassies in Kuwait. We can’t wait to get rid of you people.”

All of them had just been picked up off the street going to get bread, shopping, or something like that. There was no interrogation of any of them–they were not questioned about anything. It’s an ethnic thing. If you’re Palestinian or Jordanian in Kuwait, you’re the enemy and that’s it.

The most horrible thing that they told me was that in each of the detention centers, which were schools, there were U.S. soldiers there. They said that the soldiers did not encourage the torture, but they did not stop it–and they knew it was going on.

The soldiers didn’t intervene until finally one of the young men screamed loud enough and long enough that an American soldier did take him out of this torture room and brought him to a hospital–with the Kuwaiti who was torturing him. There the Kuwaiti told an Egyptian doctor to minimize the evidence of torture on his report. After the Palestinian was treated, they took him back for six more days of detention.

The Americans could have prevented the torture and did not. I suppose they call that “not intervening in the internal affairs of another state.” Everything that the Palestinians told me is consistent with the Amnesty report.

You must understand this about Kuwait. Palestinians and others built Kuwait. There were half a million Palestinians in Kuwait, but they were never given citizenship. They were the doctors, the teachers, the engineers–even the bureaucracy and the bankers. They’re the most highly educated population in the Mideast.

If you want to look at the future for these people, you should get the Pentagon document recently discovered by Pacific News Service. The Pentagon has issued a 200-page document detailing plans for postwar Kuwait that call for the reinstitution of dictatorship in Kuwait, the abrogation of press freedoms. It also identifies Palestinians as security threats. It was all known and planned for.

TJ: We’ve heard many conflicting reports about the bomb shelter in the Al Amariya neighborhood in Baghdad. Were you able to visit the bomb shelter? If so, what did you see and find out?

LC: I’m not surprised that you’ve heard conflicting reports. When I was in Baghdad, the army had gone to the south to crush the rebellion there. The Kurds were still in control in Kurdistan, and the Kurdish rebellion was succeeding in the north. Baghdad was very quiet. However, the BBC was saying that Baghdad was under military control and there was fighting in Baghdad. It just wasn’t happening. I was there when these reports came on, and they were clearly wrong.

But let me answer the question about the Al Amariya bomb shelter. They still don’t know who’s dead and not dead. There are cars next to the shelter that have never been picked up by anybody that were used by people who may have been buried in the shelter. Was everyone in a family killed, or did some of them leave and go to another part of Iraq? It’s just not known. But I do know this. The worst day of my life is the day I went to Amariya, a middle-class neighborhood in Baghdad.

When I first came into Iraq, I rode in a Jordanian Red Crescent van with a 21-year-old Jordanian youth named Ghassan. He’d lost his mother and four sisters in the bomb shelter. He was carrying with him large photos of his mother and sisters to hang in their home in Baghdad. They’re all beautiful people. He had a 20-year-old sister, a 17-year-old sister, a 15-year-old sister, and a 12-year-old sister who were all killed along with their mother in the bomb shelter.

So a couple of days later I took a taxi out to his home in Amariya, because he’d given me his address. I was a little worried that he and his father, the only survivors in the family, wouldn’t be home. What would it be like for an American to be walking around this neighborhood that our government had literally exterminated–at least most of the women and children in this neighborhood who were in the bomb shelter?

When somebody has died in a war in Iraq, they put a black banner on the house. Every single house in Amariya had one of these banners. Every single house. Some families lost 15 people in that bomb shelter.

I went to Ghassan’s house, and he and his father, Mohammed, were home. They were trying to wash clothes, something I’m sure that they weren’t used to doing. They had some running water. The father, who spoke English, immediately brought out a bin of photos and sat with me. He showed me photos of all of his daughters and his wife. He would point to one and say, “She was going to go to medical school, but that was before the accident.” He called it “the accident.” And then he’d say, “We were going to do this, but that was before the accident.” He was a professor at Baghdad University.

He took me through their house and showed me his daughters’ rooms. They each had TVs in their rooms. He was proud of how well he had provided for them. He said all of his dreams were with his children and what they would do. He opened their drawers and showed me their little trinkets. Then he said, “You know, this is the first time that I’ve been able to touch these things.” He wants to get out of there. He doesn’t know what to do.

The bombing happened about 4:30 AM. Mohammed heard it, but he thought it was a communications tower or something. Males over 16 were not allowed in the bomb shelter. It was for women and children only. Apparently the way they kept men out was by telling them that if they showed up, they would take them for the army. So the added horror of it for these people is that the women and children were to be safe in the shelter. If anybody had to die, it would be the men.

He said, “You know, if this was a military target, we would never have let our families go there. We heard Voice of America radio that said they would bomb military targets. Why would we send our families there?” He said that at most there were 10 to 20 soldiers who were there for crowd control. Never was there any kind of military activity near or around this shelter.

Shortly before we left, a woman who survived the bombing came in. As much as I could see of her flesh was covered with burns. She said that when the first bomb hit, they were all sleeping. She was startled awake and just picked up by this crowd fleeing toward the exit doors. The second bomb sealed the inner doors shut and made escape impossible. Everybody left inside was incinerated.

She got caught between the inner door and outer door. The outer door was made of bars, so the people trapped where she was could breathe. The bombs had gone right through the top and destroyed the insides of the shelter, but the outside is still standing, without even a crease in the concrete. The woman was taken to a hospital and treated for burns. They did not tell her that her mother had died until later. She’s an orphan now. Her mother was divorced. She has no one.

When I saw this woman, all I could do was cry. You can’t say, “I’m sorry.” What can you say? You can’t say, “We didn’t mean to do it.” Words become totally meaningless, so I just sat there and cried. I felt that every American should be sitting in this spot where I was sitting. Every single one, especially those people waving flags, should see what we did to these people. To be an American in this neighborhood is to feel like a mass murderer–a participant in a massacre.

TJ: What will become of Ghassan and Mohammed now?

LC: Ghassan’s family was Palestinian. His father comes from a village that’s now part of Israel–and no longer exists. He went to the Gaza Strip after the 1948 war, then he went to the West Bank. He went to Jordan, and he got his degrees in Libya. By that time he married Ghassan’s mother, Adiba, a graduate of Beirut University who would become a teacher in Iraq.

They had to leave Libya because Adiba had asthma and Mohammed finally got the job in Iraq. But now he wants to leave. He tried to burn his own house down the day after the bombing. He was in it, and a neighbor stopped him.

He’d been to the shelter to look for his family the day before and watched charred bodies being pulled out for three hours. He finally realized his wife and daughters would never be found. Since then he cannot walk or look in the direction of that bomb shelter, only a block and a half from his house. He can’t even face that direction, because he knows that the bodies of his family are still inside the shelter.

People in the neighborhood say that there were 1,600 people in the shelter. The capacity is 2,000, but they’re sure there were 1,600 people inside–nearly all women and children. So Mohammed wants nothing now but to get out. I asked him what citizenship he had. He has none, only an Egyptian refugee document. This means that he can’t go anywhere. He is not a citizen of any country. He’s skilled–he’s an expert in soil geology.

But this is just one story of hundreds in this neighborhood. Not a country. Not a city. Just a single neighborhood. Most houses are just men. No women. No children.

First the U.S military said the bunker was a command-and-control center. You look at the newspapers, and they’re saying how there were these antennas and signals. Then, within a week, they admitted that was not the truth. Then they said it was camouflaged. I didn’t see any camouflage. Then they said they really hit it because they thought that Saddam Hussein and his inner circle was in there. So they admitted that they never thought it was a military site at all.

But Mohammed told me that there’s another shelter in Baghdad where the families of the ministers go. Not this one. This one is just for the people in the neighborhood.

In any case, with all of this high technology that they’re so proud of, they certainly could have flown over it and seen that women and children were entering it. Even if they got bad intelligence information, there’s no reason that they could not see who was entering that shelter. So there’s no excuse for the bombing. Absolutely no excuse at all.

But, you know, after all of this, Ghassan’s father would even come to the United States to live. I don’t know why. This country exterminated his entire family except for his son. But he just wants to get out of there.

And like him, there are thousands of Palestinians–in Kuwait, for example–who only have refugee documents for places in Israel that don’t even exist anymore. So they can’t go anywhere, even though they’re being tortured and murdered in Kuwait. There are two million stateless Palestinians throughout the Mideast who only have these refugee documents. If you lose your job, you lose your residency permit and belong nowhere. You don’t legally exist.

TJ: What did you observe in Kurdistan?

LC: I went to Kurdistan just after the Kurdish rebels had been routed. They’d been in control for about a month. First the Iraqi army crushed the rebellion in the south and then moved to Kurdistan at the end of March or beginning of April.

The rebellion in the north, as I saw it, was different than in the south. It was not as destructive. The rebels did burn some government buildings, but the hospitals were intact. The medicines were not stolen, and the ambulances were not destroyed. I think that the Kurds’ goals were very different than the goals of the Shiite rebels. It seemed to me that the Shiite rebels just wanted to destroy, but the Kurds seemed to want to leave a structure there so that their people could survive.

In the south, and I talked with many people about this, it seemed that the rebellion was Iranian-led, with an indigenous participation primarily by young boys and men who just kind of followed along with the basic slashing and trashing.

My sense is that the Iraqi Shiite rebels were not a well-organized entity, but joined a well-organized entity that was well armed. The rebels may have been Iraqis who were prisoners of war in Iran. Some of them may have been the pilots who flew over to Iran. Some of them may have been ethnic Iranians who lived in Iraq but were expelled during the Iran-Iraq war.

But in the north there was a lot less trashing done. In both the north and the south people fled when the Iraqi army came. But in Kirkuk there was a lot less damage. Since most of the people in the north actively supported the rebellion, they had to flee. In the south it seemed like more people were simply caught in the middle. So the Kurds may be a lot more afraid to come back.

But I did not see in the north the massive military presence that I saw in the south. It was almost relaxed from a military perspective. But it’s obvious to me that these people need to return to their homes, it’s obvious that they’re afraid. But they do have homes to return to. There is some electricity in Kirkuk, though the water was knocked out. And one of the refineries was spared from allied bombing.

TJ: What do you think about the U.S. military setting up refugee camps inside of Iraq for the Kurds?

LC: It’s obvious that the Kurds need to return to their homes, and if people feel that they need to have protection they should. But I feel that the U.S. Army getting involved will have really negative consequences for the Kurdish people. I think that it’s highly regrettable. This work would be more appropriately handled by the UN and international relief organizations.

But I think that Kurdistan is basically in better shape than most of the country that I saw. It’s very fertile land. They have lots of sheep. Most things are still standing. But even there I saw in the hospitals of Kirkuk many of the same things: babies dying of malnutrition, diarrhea, etc. Many of them were Turkoman, another ethnic minority. Maybe some of the talks that we’re hearing about–between the rebels and the government–will help. Certainly the people can’t survive like they are now.

TJ: You seem to have gotten around the country fairly well in the time that you were in Iraq.

LC: It wasn’t easy. There are no spare parts for cars and trucks in Iraq. In one car I was riding from Kirkuk to Mosul, the gas filter got so crudded up that the junk just got into the engine and wrecked it. The car broke down about ten kilometers outside of Kirkuk. The only reason we could have been going there in the first place is that we brought our own fuel in from Jordan.

Everywhere we went we had to provide the fuel for our trips. So we had about 40 liters of fuel in jerricans on the way out of Kirkuk. A doctor gave us a ride because we had the fuel. But then his car broke down because of the dirty filter. A British engineer with us declared the car hopeless without new parts. So we had to hitchhike back to Kirkuk.

A small Toyota pickup stopped, and the driver said he’d take us only to the checkpoint outside of town. But if we gave them two jerricans of gas, they would take us all the way to the station where we could get another car to Baghdad. So we siphoned the gas from the car that just broke down. That’s how you get around–everybody carries a siphon hose in their car.

But then they wanted another can of gas. I started screaming in Arabic “Yella, yella”–“Let’s go, let’s go.” And for some reason that scared them, and they hopped back into the Toyota and took us back into town.

When we got to the central taxi area of Kirkuk, it was full of people, soldiers–everybody trying to get somewhere. So we got out of our car with two cans of gasoline and our stuff. I was left standing alone with thousands of people milling around while the others went looking for rides. But nobody harassed me or anything to get the gas.

It was getting late, and we found a driver who would take us back to Baghdad. But he wanted a guarantee that we could get him enough fuel to get back to Kirkuk again. Finally I was able to convince him that I had come from Jordan and I had access to gas, and he agreed. But first he took us home for tea.

His family brought out a pitcher of water, and I was really thirsty and moved to drink from it. But the people with me reminded me about drinking the water. But we had tea, and we drove back to Baghdad and encountered only about four checkpoints on that road.

TJ: For the record, could you give us a little personal background?

LC: You mean, how does a nice Catholic girl like me end up doing something like this? Sure.

I grew up in Evergreen Park and went to Catholic schools–Mother McAuley High School. I received a bachelor’s degree in criminology from Illinois State and worked in prisons around Illinois. I studied for a master’s from the University of Illinois in criminology, but it began to occur to me that I was treating symptoms rather than causes. I went to Northwestern University and switched to sociology, got my master’s, and worked toward a PhD. I lived in Sweden for a while as a graduate student studying prisons. Then I went to Morocco in 1981.

I spent five weeks there and became extremely curious about the Arab world. When I came back, I began to read a lot about Arabs at the Northwestern library and found many of the books to be very racist. So I approached Professor Janet Abu-Lughod in the sociology department there. But at this point I didn’t speak Arabic and didn’t have money to go to the Arab world to study, so–to test me I think–she had me do fieldwork in the Arab American community.

She apparently thought that my work was OK, but told me that I was reaching too broadly, that I should concentrate on one Arab community. So I decided on the Palestinians, because there were a lot of Palestinians in Chicago and they’d been very open to me while I was doing my early fieldwork.

Even though some people had been skeptical about why I would be asking questions like “Where did you come from, and why did you come?”–for all they knew, I could have been an undercover immigration agent or even CIA–they were happy that a native-born U.S. citizen was concerned enough about their situation to want to tell the story, no matter what my motives were.

So I started my work with Palestinians in March of 1982. In June 1982 the Israelis invaded Lebanon. That’s the first time I really felt the suffering of the Palestinians, as they watched the bombings every day–because there were hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in Lebanon. And then the massacres came at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Once you go through that with a people, I don’t think that you can ever turn back. I finished my dissertation on Palestinian and Arab immigrants in Chicago and the U.S. in 1988 and received my PhD in sociology from Northwestern.

I’d also begun writing for the newsletter of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign in 1984. And in 1986 the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem opened the Palestinian Human Rights Information Center to document human-rights violations against the Palestinians. They hired me to be a U.S.-based coordinator to distribute the information, and I’ve been doing that job ever since. Of course, our work quadrupled with the intifada in Gaza and on the West Bank. A colleague–Laurie Hasbrook–and I continue to staff the PHRIC.

When the war began, or actually in August, people began to contact us about what was happening in the gulf, so we expanded our work in response to that. I proposed investigating the effect of the war on civilians. When I found funders, some Americans who believed that the American people have the right to know this, I made the trip to gain firsthand information.

TJ: How do you view the prospects for the future?

LC: I’d thought when the U.S. became massively involved in the gulf on a military level that perhaps the American people would finally learn something about the Arab world. After all, we would certainly be presented with some information on the people of the region to help us understand why our taxes and bodies should be over there in such massive amounts.

But before, during, and after the war we learned nothing. No part of the mainstream media even attempted an honest educational lesson about Arab society or the history of the modern Middle East. Anti-Arab racism in American society and other factors had assured us of a void in this area. It became easy for the U.S. media to limit our information to the intricacies of high-tech weapons and the actions of Saddam Hussein.

I marveled at how Kuwaitis were invited to testify before Congress on human-rights violations perpetrated by the Iraqis in Kuwait after three months of occupation, when to this day neither Palestinians nor human rights observers who focus on Palestinians nor anyone of Arab descent has been allowed to testify about Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights during 24 years of occupation.

Perhaps these voids made it easier to get the American people to support the war venture. But during my postwar visit to the Middle East, I understood the main reason why we never learned about the peoples and history of the region: this war was never fought for people for whom culture and history are integral pieces. This war was fought for multinational corporations, oil companies, military and construction contractors. Of course, I’d known that before, but now the conclusion of this venture was passing before my eyes–and it was very ugly.

The scene in the Middle East is very, very pessimistic. Iraqis, Jordanians, Palestinians–what’s going to happen to them? Economically, Jordan is on the skids. They’re being punished for having been neutral in the war. They’ve been isolated. Malnutrition and the poverty rate are rising there. On top of that you have up to 200,000 new refugees from Kuwait who are Jordanian citizens with no jobs–and they were not allowed to take their money out of Kuwait. I don’t know how they can absorb all these new refugees, most of whom are Palestinians. It’s a time bomb.

Personally, I think that the Palestinians should have the right to return to Palestine. But obviously the United States government has no interest in settling the problem between the Palestinians and Israelis. If it did, it could use the UN as it did in the gulf war. All the resolutions are there. All the solutions are there. But they’ve chosen not to employ them. They say they don’t want to push Israel.

I think that the most recent talks are really about establishing ties between the gulf states and Israel, opening up the gulf to Israeli investment and technology. And the few gulf people that I met can’t wait for Israel to come there.

So the vision you get is Israel on one side, the gulf states on the other, and all these people in between–Jordanians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and probably Syrians and Egyptians in the future–being squeezed and pushed around. Whether they live, die, or eat will be controlled by the U.S. government through Israel and the gulf-state surrogates. That’s what’s happening right now. This is the New World Order.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Darrow Montgomery.