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As the US Continues Bombing Iraq, Activist Is On Hunger Strike Protesting Economic Sanctions

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Western planes bombed Iraq yesterday for the second time this week amidst US accusations that Baghdad is rebuilding weapons destroyed by the US and British planes. Baghdad said that the planes had bombed civilian targets. [includes rush transcript]

Meanwhile, an international patrol enforcing UN sanctions against Iraq has decided to divert a Russian oil tanker to a holding area, and has charged that the ship’s owner is smuggling Iraqi oil in violation of the sanctions. Russia demanded that the tanker be released and said the ship was carrying legal Iranian fuel.

By UN estimates, more than 1 million Iraqis have died, directly or indirectly, because of economic sanctions imposed by the international community a decade ago. The latest figures say that about 4,500 Iraqi children die every month due to the sanctions.

Kathy Kelly, director of the group “Voices in the Wilderness,” has begun a hunger fast to protest the sanctions.


  • Kathy Kelly, from the group “Voices in the Wilderness” which frequently sends delegations to Iraq to record the effects of economic sanctions.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is definitely a strange scene, because I am sitting with Kathy Kelly, who is in the eighteenth day of a hunger fast, and we’re sitting in the local country kitchen in La Crosse, Wisconsin, having both been invited to Viterbo College, which is run by an order of nuns called the Nuns of Perpetual — I was saying “motion,” but — I think they are in perpetual motion, but they are the Nuns of Perpetual Adoration. And they have been praying around the clock since…


AMY GOODMAN: Eighteen — wait, tell me again, Sister Anita?

SISTER ANITA: Since 1878.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’ve never stopped your prayer. And where is the prayer taking place?

SISTER ANITA: The prayer takes place in our Chapel of Adoration. It’s a part of our chapel.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you praying for?

SISTER ANITA: We’re praying for the world, for the city, for whoever and whatever needs to be prayed for.

AMY GOODMAN: And Viterbo, what is Viterbo College named for?

SISTER ANITA: Viterbo College is named from a small city in Italy called Viterbo. The congregation of sisters that sponsor the college are the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and St. Rose of Viterbo is their motherhouse, St. Rose Convent, Viterbo College.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is a college of about 1,200 people. Also in the town of La Crosse is the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, where Democracy Now! is going to broadcast from.

But, Kathy Kelly, I am feeling guilty, because we’re sitting in country kitchen and you’re in the eighteenth day of your juice fast. But I’m glad you got a chance to get out of Washington for a few minutes, Washington, D.C., and talk to people who are involved in a conference — these students — for a number of days on confronting evil.

Kathy Kelly is the co-director of Voices in the Wilderness, which is a Chicago-based group that has been going to Iraq now since the Gulf War, protesting the sanctions against Iraq.

KATHY KELLY: Hi, Amy. Well, it’s certainly good to see you here and also to have heard the students and you tonight in an exchange that I really found riveting all the way through.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I’m amazed you could stay up, considering you haven’t eaten in eighteen days. But quite seriously, why are you on this fast?

KATHY KELLY: Well, you know, we’ve tried so many different means. The Voices in the Wilderness Campaign in 1996 started with going over to Iraq in open and public violation of the economic sanctions. And we know that the information we come back with about the suffering, the starvation, the harm being done to an entire generation of Iraqi children, is something that should be shouted out to the United States public.

We’ve gone on long marches. We’ve vigiled. We visited with congresspeople. We’ve given countless talks all across the country. We’ve been told that we’re in violation of the United States law. So we’ve tinkered with many different means of civil disobedience and non-violence, and, quite frankly, we decided to undertake this fast because we need to, in a sense, drop out of being comfortable within the rogue superpower.

We’re living right now in a country whose arrogance is sowing danger all around this world, and we’ve seen it firsthand in the way that it affects Iraqi children. And we want to drop out of business as usual, if you will. For these twenty-eights, days we want to take the time out to form a fasting community that will better identify with what it’s like for Iraqi people when they can’t make choices to eat or to sustain themselves the way that they need to and want to.

And it’s been a real privilege to be with six people in Washington, D.C., accompanied by six others in other parts of the United States, and to take time every morning to reflect, to think together, to read together certain books, and then to just try and hit Washington, D.C. by storm. We’re knocking on doors of congresspeople constantly, going to meet with State Department representatives, having panels with some of the people in various universities, and just trying to do everything we can to be voices on behalf of the people we’ve met in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: And who is the “we”?

KATHY KELLY: Well, “we” right now are Nick Arons and Burt Sachs, and they are both people who have been very instrumental in forming and developing Voices in the Wilderness. Nick, working closely with me in Chicago for the past year, and Burt has recently taken a delegation of doctors from Physicians for Social Responsibility over to Iraq. Also Raed Battah, an Iraqi person who is from Kentucky. It’s kind of unusual to hear this southern drawl from this big Kentucky guy, and he’s Iraqi. His email address is And Mark McGuire, who arranged my coming here earlier, he’s a farmer from here in La Crosse, probably the best red farmer. I just imagine him milking a cow with one hand and reading a book in the other, just an indefatigable scholar who is so touched by the plight of Iraqi people that he can’t seem to stay away from this issue and from increasing action.

And we also have Simon Harak, who just returned after being in Iraq for six weeks. And Simon and Nick, when they were in Iraq, came back with probably one of the hardest stories I’ve ever heard. They went to a school in northern Iraq, a school of children. And when they went inside, the kids inside the school were so petrified that Americans were in their building that they started to scream and cry, and three mothers had to come and take their kids home, because they were uncontrollably fearful. Well, just nine days earlier a U.S. bomb, a big huge bomb, had exploded so near the school that all the windows in the school had crashed in on the students, and they were covered with shrapnel and broken glass. So no wonder they were so terribly frightened.

So, these are the kinds of stories that we need to try to get forth, and really, the other night, it was very unusual. We watched the State of the Union address together, but we sandwiched that in between listening to tapes, videotapes, of Hans von Sponeck the director of food and medicine distribution in Iraq, telling about what his experience is. And he was so genuine, and he spoke from his heart, and he spoke without any notes, but he spoke about the plight of children and how bad the education is and how terrible it is that there’s a sort of an intellectual deprivation that’s going to make that country’s future so very, very difficult. And when you hear that contrasted with President Clinton, speaking also, I’m sure, out of a genuine desire to improve the lot of children here and make it safe for children here, but all the while he was reading from a prepared speech. I wish so much that we could have some just small notion of what it means for a person on the ground in Iraq to be trying to get the truth forth into the state of our union here.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain again who Hans von Sponeck is? We’ve have Dennis Halliday on Democracy Now!, who has been speaking around this country. He’s also teaching now, but is speaking nonstop about his experiences there as head of the program there, the Oil for Food program.

KATHY KELLY: And then, Dennis Halliday resigned, because he felt that he couldn’t any longer cooperate with what he terms “genocide” happening in Iraq. So as an act of conscience, he resigned, and his successor is Hans von Sponeck, who is from Germany. And when I first met him in November of 1998, I suppose I walked away in Baghdad feeling, oh, I don’t know if this person is going to ever speak out very vigorously. He said, “I am going to take time out to analyze and to interpret the data, and that is my job, and I’m not going to say anything more.”

Well, after a year in Iraq, he has now become an impassioned speaker calling for an end to the economic sanctions. He interprets the data, alright. He makes it patently clear that when there are problems with regard to distribution of food and medicine in Iraq, it ought not be attributed to malice on the part of the Iraqi government, but rather to the consequence of an infrastructure that is so destroyed and debilitated that the people, also loaded down with fatigue, simply can’t accomplish efficient distribution of food and medicine. He has made it very clear that the economic sanctions are hurting civilians and that they are also, in their humanitarian mission as U.N. workers, needing to investigate the consequences of the continual bombardment.

Because of that, the United States State Department has claimed that he’s not a credible source for information anymore. In fact, a State Department representative told us just the other day that it would be better for the Iraqi people if he were to resign his job. Now, I find this so amazing and incredible. Not one State Department person that we’ve spoken to has ever been to Iraq. They won’t take the United Nations reports. They selectively take reports that come from their unidentified people on the ground, who are apparently telling them that the Iraqi people want the bombing to continue. I’ve been over there ten times in the last three years. I’ve yet to hear anybody say that, would the United States please bomb them. This is — it seems to me a level of misinformation and manipulation of information that runs so contrary to democracy, that we really ought to be a bit frightened by it, but then not to run away from it, to confront it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Kathy Kelly, who is head of Voices in the Wilderness in Chicago. She has led numerous delegations to Iraq and is now in the midst of a twenty-eight-day hunger fast against the sanctions against Iraq and is spending most of her time in Washington, D.C., while she is drinking only juice, meeting with congress members and State Department officials. Now, what is it like to go to the State Department in your condition and given the condition of the people in Iraq right now, and how long it’s been?

KATHY KELLY: Well, we actually felt very — I want to use the word “empowered” by the meeting with the State Department official, because she really was not able to dispute any of the points that we raised. And we felt that it was pretty easy to refute most of the State Department claims that came out in a September 1999 report. And it seemed to me that if this encounter had been publicized, if it had gone public, it would have been very, very good for U.S. people to hear an exchange between people like us and people who are working now for the State Department.

And I actually wondered if forty years from now, if Hans von Sponeck might be right when he says people will look back at the way that the United States is conducted foreign policy toward Iraq as a perfect case study of exactly how not to do it. And perhaps she might sometime feel chagrin, that she’s being used in a policymaking situation which is forcing her to compromise herself.

And I had this same feeling when we talked with somebody who represents Middle East International, Mr. David Mack, who has been a consultant for oil companies since the beginning of the Gulf War. He’s been working closely with the State Department, and he was in a panel with Dennis Halliday and me and another person working for Senator Kerry, who is pro-sanctions. And when we were at Georgetown University together, I was very, very glad that there was a group of students present who could take a look at what was being said on both sides and evaluate it. And it was pretty clear that most people walked away feeling that the case for ending the economic sanctions against Iraq was a good one.

We’re going to hold a blood drive at Georgetown University and ask people to come and donate the blood locally, but do so in memory of Iraqi children who have died. And we hope some congresspeople will find some courage to come out and join us for that. We hope people in their districts will encourage them to go out and do that. It’s a very, very small step that they could take to at least allow Iraq to come onto the radar screen, to be mentioned, and to be mentioned not in the context of seeing only one person living in the country, their president Saddam Hussein, but seeing a whole nation of 22 million people who simply cannot be dismissed if there’s ever to be Middle East peace.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the children and the number of deaths. Can you just go through the figures again?

KATHY KELLY: They remain so horrifying. You know, the 500,000 figure was arrived at — derived from a report that was filed in December of 1995. And then, UNICEF had a press conference in October 1996, when Carol Bellamy said that 5,000 children were dying every month in Iraq. And then, more recently, the United Nations released a report in August of 1999, and in that report they used language that talked about an excess of 40,000 deaths just amongst the children under age five.

And as these statistics pile up, it seems to me as though — maybe one way to understand it is that it’s as though we’re holding these children hostage and saying to Iraq’s people, you either force your government to unconditionally surrender to every demand we make of it or we’ll slaughter these children. And if you don’t believe it, check your statistics. And that’s what the statistics say. Every single month, hundreds of thousands of innocent people, many of them children, dying as a direct result of U.S. policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes asked Madeleine Albright if it was worth the price — 500,000 children dead — and she said, yes, it was worth the price. Has she changed her view at all?

KATHY KELLY: Well, you know, in November of 1998, she said that the sanctions would never be lifted as long as Saddam Hussein is in power. And this is a very important line to contend with, because Iraq’s government then has no incentive to comply with United Nations mandates.

Now, in fact, the weapons inspectors say that Iraq is three-fourths of the way around the fifth and final lap, if you were to liken weapons inspection to a race. And Scott Ritter vehemently, emphatically says, “Does Iraq have chemical weapons? No. Do they have biological weapons? No. Do they have delivery systems? No.” And Scott Ritter thinks the economic sanctions should be lifted. He’s a former United Nations weapons inspector who resigned his job.

Now, Madeleine Albright says the sanctions won’t be lifted until Saddam Hussein is out of power. Well, in a way, this is telling the Iraqi government, no matter what you do, it won’t end the sanctions unless you self-destruct. Now, sovereign nations seldom do that. Madeleine Albright also said at another point before the bombing of Desert Fox, she said. “If we have to use force, we must. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further than other nations.” Now, this is an incredible level of arrogance, and I believe other nations around the world are not going to put up with it without beginning to wonder why ever in the world should they continue to organize themselves to be subordinate to the interests of the United States.

Hans von Sponeck, talking to congressional aides who had gone over to Iraq in August, said, using the pronoun “you,” second person, but meaning, really, all of us, he said, “You are overfed on the notion that you are the sole superpower and therefore every ultimatum you issue must be obeyed.” And he said, “Other nations will not listen. They resent this. They won’t respect you.” But it seems like this is a notion that’s very difficult for United States people to grasp, but I think we become very complacent with the idea that, yeah, we are the sole superpower and we dictate the way that other people trade with us, and if we want to take other people’s precious and irreplaceable resources at cut-rate prices, we can do this.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathy Kelly on the eighteenth day of her hunger fast, as we sit here in La Crosse, Wisconsin at a local country kitchen, but she’s ordered only tomato juice.

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