TEDDY-BEAR TRIO DEFY JAIL THREAT TO AID IRAQI CHILDREN

By FELICITY ARBUTHNOT

20 June 1997, London

"I felt like a fool in a concentration camp," says US-aid volunteer George Capaccio of his efforts to entertain dying youngsters in Iraq. He and two colleagues are unrepentant about staging mercy missions, reports Gemini News Service, despite warnings of stiff punishment in their own country for sanctions-busting.

Three American aid volunteers have taken medicines and children's treats into Iraq in defiance of United States government threats to impose huge fines and jail sentences for breaking international sanctions. The trio, from the small, Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness group, flew home in late April after distributing about $60,000 worth of aid - paid for with funds they had raised - to help relieve widespread civilian suffering. They returned from their five-week mercy mission to face the wrath of their Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which helps enforce United Nations economic sanctions against Iraq. It was the trio's third trip in the past year, and they have now received a second warning letter instructing them to refrain from "unauthorised transactions related to the exportation of medical supplies and travel to Iraq" in breach of US law. OFAC has advised them: "Criminal penalties for violating the regulations range up to 12 years in prison and $1 million in fines. Civil penalties of up to $250,000 per violation may be imposed administratively by OFAC." Goods taken by Kathleen Kelly, George Capaccio and Chuck Quilty included teddy bears, balloons and sweets. They also took glove puppets which they used to give shows to entertain children - many of whom were on the verge of death. Up to 750,000 children are estimated to have died as a result of strict sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait. The medical system has collapsed, and disease and malnutrition have spread on a vast scale. Kelly, a 44-year-old theology graduate, peace activist and educator, formed Voice in the Wilderness after witnessing some of the horrors of the 1991 Gulf War, which she had been protesting against. She recalls crying outside a US-bombed air-raid shelter in Baghdad in which hundreds of women and children had died. "Then I felt a tiny arm at my waist and a child was smiling up at me. 'Welcome', she said. Two women approached and I stammered 'Ana Amrikyaah ana asifa' ('I'm American and I'm sorry'). They said 'No, no, no, you are not your government, you would never do this to us.' Both had lost family members in the raid. Never in my lifetime do I expect to experience such forgiveness." She is now lending her voice to humanitarian pressure to lift the sanctions. "When one scratches beneath the surface, Iraq is literally dying under the weight of the embargo," she says. "Malnutrition is endemic, reaching 50 to 60 per cent of the population outside Baghdad. More than half the country [drinks water] infected with typhoid, cholera and E-coli bacteria." On their previous visit last December, the group had gathered case histories of desperately sick children so they could return with the specific medicines needed. Cancer treatment is vital, say aid agencies, as cancers have increased five-fold since the Gulf War. On their latest visit, they discovered that many of the children they had seen earlier had died. They toured several hospitals, visiting child patients. Quilty, a social worker from Rock Island, Illinois, says: "I forced myself to do my job, blow up balloons, pass out tootsie pops, make the children laugh, if only for a moment. I raced round all the children, talked to mothers. I am really trying to kill my grief." Capaccio, 55, an actor, poet and writer, took his glove puppets and glitter-filled wands wherever he went. He made even the sickest children smile, creating a brief escape from suffering. "Yet, somehow, I found myself feeling like a fool in a concentration camp," he said, "behaving as if, somehow, his antics could transform the horror around him." He left one puppet with little Haitham, dying of leukaemia in Baghdad; the other with 12-year-old Ward, dying in Basra. They both smiled. Critics of the international sanctions point out that the recent UN agreement allowing Baghdad to sell $2 billion worth of oil every six months to pay for emergency food and medical supplies is doing little to revive the devastated country. Much of the money is being channelled to the UN to pay for war reparations and other costs. After several false starts, the oil-for-food deal began in December. But in April, Iraqi officials complained to the UN about the slow pace of food distribution, and blamed the US for blocking some of the contracts. The Voices in the Wilderness trio are unrepentant about sanctions-busting. In response to the threat of punishment, Kelly says: "If we have added 12 years to the life of one of those suffering children, there's no question - a 12-year prison sentence would be worth the price." She adds that before they left on their latest trip "we wrote to the US Attorney General, Janet Reno, in her capacity as guardian of justice and in her concern for children and requested that she join us in demanding that the US government lift the embargo against Iraq. We declared our intention, out of paramount concern, to violate the US/UN blockade by providing such comfort as we could. It included giving universally-loved teddy bears to as many children as we could." - GEMINI NEWS About the Author: FELICITY ARBUTHNOT is a freelance journalist based in London, specialising in social and environmental issues.

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