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Right to Heal: Iraqi Civilians Join U.S. Veterans in New Effort to Recover from War’s Devastation

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On the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, we look at how U.S. military veterans and Iraqi civilians have come together to launch the “Right to Heal” campaign for those who continue to struggle with the war’s aftermath. We’re joined by U.S. Army Sergeant Maggie Martin, who was part of the invading force in March 2003 and is now director of organizing for Iraq Veterans Against the War. We are also joined by Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, who describes how the condition of women has deteriorated in Iraq, with many young women and orphans pushed into sex trafficking. Mohammed’s organization has also documented the toxic legacy of the U.S. military’s munitions in Iraq by interviewing Iraqi mothers who face an epidemic of birth defects. [includes rush transcript]

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On this 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, we turn now to look at how U.S. military veterans and Iraqi civilians are joining together to focus on the “Right to Heal.” That’s the title of their new campaign, which was launched Tuesday in front of the White House. This is Iraq Veterans Against the War member Joyce Wagner.

JOYCE WAGNER: In the U.S. military, it is estimated that one in three women will be raped during their time in service. I am one of three. Many servicewomen who report rape to their commands face disbelief, retaliation and various forms of humiliation that some have described as being as bad, if not worse, than the initial assault.

Although most occupying troops have exited Iraq, the occupation has resulted in lasting struggles for Iraqi women. While I am unable to escape my own nightmares, I am able to live in relative physical comfort, unlikely to experience many of the things that are inescapable to those still living in Iraq. And while the Department of Defense and the VA have done an insufficient job at compensating and caring for U.S. servicemembers victimized by their fellow servicemembers in acts of sexual violence, they have done absolutely nothing to make reparation to victims of sexual violence in Iraq. How can I ask for justice for myself without first demanding justice for the many women in Iraq who were raped and otherwise abused in an occupation in which I participated?

Today, as a part of the Right to Heal campaign, we demand acknowledgment, accountability and reparation, and we will keep demanding these things until women on all sides of this conflict have had their justice and the world at large understands that sexual violence in the military and by the military is not an occupational hazard, it’s a violation of human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Iraq War veteran, against the war, Joyce Wagner, speaking in front of the White House Tuesday. The group has just launched the Right to Heal campaign for Iraqi civilians and U.S. veterans who continue to struggle with the war’s aftermath.

For more, we’re joined by two women helping to lead this effort. Yanar Mohammed is president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, and Maggie Martin is director of organizing with Iraq Veterans Against the War. She deployed to Kuwait before the war and twice to Iraq in 2003 and ’05, left the military with an honorable discharge in 2006.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I want to start by asking where you each were on that day when the U.S. invaded—March 19th in the United States, March 20th in Iraq. Maggie, where were you?

MAGGIE MARTIN: I was in Kuwait waiting to cross the border into Iraq.


YANAR MOHAMMED: I had left Iraq after the first Gulf War and saw the attack on CNN and decided to go back, because the wars on Iraq will never end by the U.S.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And how much time have you spent in Iraq since then? You live between Baghdad and Toronto, is that right?

YANAR MOHAMMED: Since 2003, I’m continuously in Iraq, but because many of us Iraqis have our families abroad, I go back and forth all the time.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what do you see has happened in Iraq in these last 10 years?

YANAR MOHAMMED: It’s just getting worse. We are again in a police state. We have armies, police and all kinds of intelligence institutions around us. We have SWAT. We have anti-riot. It’s all kinds of security institutions around us.

And on top of that, I see the women in my country getting much weaker. I see an epidemic rise in certain kinds of birth defects. And when we try to organize women—we sent women from my organization to a town in Haweeja. We were surprised to see hundreds of children that had birth disabilities. We see things in Iraq that we’ve never seen in our lives.

I also see young women, orphans of war, female orphans of war, that are being trafficked. And the state absolutely has no obligation towards them. The young women who are being trafficked come to our organization and to our shelters. They don’t even have the right to citizenship in Iraq. We are speaking here about tens of thousands of orphans of war who are absolutely not being taken care of. Neither the Iraqi government nor the U.S. experts in Iraq do anything about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Maggie, talk about the Right to Heal campaign.

MAGGIE MARTIN: It’s really U.S. soldiers coming together with people from Iraq, civil society from Iraq, to say the struggle is connected. It’s really a natural relationship for us to join together because we’re dealing with the aftermath of the same invasion and long occupation. And I think that it’s only right for U.S. servicemembers to acknowledge the people of Iraq and Afghanistan as we’re demanding our right to heal.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, how did your perception of the war change from the time that you first deployed to when you became involved in this campaign?

MAGGIE MARTIN: It really shifted dramatically just based on my interactions with the people in Iraq. Going there initially, I guess I believed the hype in the draw-up to the war and felt like we were doing something that was necessary for the safety of our country. And then, hearing the story shift from weapons of mass destruction to liberation of the Iraqi people, that wasn’t what I was seeing there. That’s not what I was experiencing. And it really made me question the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Were other soldiers questioning the war?

MAGGIE MARTIN: Absolutely. And I think soldiers just don’t necessarily feel like they have an outlet for that frustration, so spend a lot of time talking to each other about the situation, wondering why are we here, why are we making these sacrifices. The people in Iraq don’t want us here. But I don’t think they necessarily feel empowered to speak out publicly.

AMY GOODMAN: Maggie, we just saw one of the other women in Iraq Veterans Against the War speaking about rape and sexual abuse. Can you talk more about that personally?

MAGGIE MARTIN: Yeah, I mean, I experienced sexual assault from my now ex-husband about two days after coming home from my last deployment to Iraq. And I didn’t report it. I didn’t do anything about it, because I didn’t have any community outside of the military. And my community in the military, the people I worked for and I worked with, I didn’t trust them. I didn’t—I didn’t believe that I could get help. And I had also heard stories and rumors about other women who were raped, and the talk was always that it was their fault, that they were somehow in the wrong. And I just didn’t feel like I fit into that category, so I was really in denial about the sexual assault.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you talk a little bit more about some of the issues that women, in particular, face, both serving in the military and then as veterans?

MAGGIE MARTIN: Yeah, I mean, I think the—not being seen as veterans. For instance, last night I went to a different show with one of my male counterparts, Alex, and we were both talking about the work that we do. And the man in the green room asked Alex, “Oh, are you actually a veteran?” But he didn’t ask me. And I said, “Oh, well, just so you know, I am, too.” And so, I think not acknowledging that, I think that not acknowledging the PTSD that comes from military sexual trauma, and then everyday, you know, sexism and misogyny in the military is very strong.

AMY GOODMAN: Yanar Mohammed, what does Right to Heal mean to you as an Iraqi woman, as you work together with U.S. soldiers like Maggie?

YANAR MOHAMMED: When Maggie is sent to Iraq or Kuwait and told to kill Iraqi people, or the original mission is about that, and we are there to receive the killings, we understand that the orders came from somewhere and that she is as much as a victim as us Iraqis. And as—in the same situation, in the same token that we were put together and set as enemies against each other, we decide now that both of us are victims, and we’re going to both put hand in hand and try to heal from the sufferings that we had in the last decades. It’s not only just one decade. But the Iraqi people, our lives, our futures have been devastated, and there is no compensation nor reparation in the Iraqi government or in the U.S. government. So our alternative now is to work together.

We came back to—they brought me back to the U.S., and we’re trying to work together as to holding the U.S. government responsible, accountable for what they did in Iraq and what they did to the Iraq Veterans Against War—I mean, the veterans when they were in Iraq, and also to pay reparations to Iraq, just like they forced the Iraqi government to pay reparations to Kuwait. There, the U.S. government needs to be held accountable for the thousands of children who have come to life with no organs, with no limbs that are working, with a brain that is underdeveloped. The mothers—I met a mother in the town of Haweeja who has four disabled children. Who’s going to be responsible for her for the rest of her life?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But as you mentioned, Yanar, your organization, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, has been documenting the toxic legacy of the U.S. military’s presence in your country. I want to play a comment from a young mother in Haweeja named Sawsan. She describes how she spends much of her time caring for her young child, Mohammed, who is unable to use his limbs.

YANAR MOHAMMED: [translated] How old are you, Sawsan?

SAWSAN: [translated] My age is maybe 25, because I was born in ’83.

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Now you became 29, because I was born in ’83.

SAWSAN: [translated] Oh, yes.

YANAR MOHAMMED: [translated] And your son, what is his name, and what does he have?

SAWSAN: [translated] Mohammed Mihad. He has a brain problem. His four limbs, they all have the same problem. I’m always carrying him. My back is tired.

YANAR MOHAMMED: [translated] Who treats you?

SAWSAN: [translated] I’ve let myself go.

YANAR MOHAMMED: [translated] Who takes care of you?

SAWSAN: [translated] Nobody takes care of me. He is four years old now, and I’m not becoming pregnant so that I can take care of him.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yanar Mohammed, can you talk a little bit about the situation in Haweeja? Locate it for us in the country, and tell us how common this experience is elsewhere in the country, as well.

YANAR MOHAMMED: The town of Haweeja is right next to a U.S. military base, what used to be a U.S. military base. And these people live only a few miles away from the field where there was daily ammunition training. And now we understand there’s something called DU. And it was released in the air, and the mothers were breathing it. In a town that has a population of 100,000, 109,000, we found 600 children who have the same birth defect. And some of the families who come from, let’s say, religious backgrounds have decided that they cannot have children anymore. They’re abstaining from getting children because they are living a big crisis, and they have no solution for it.

And the Iraqi government does not pay any social insurance for handicapped or disabled baby, because our law, which was written in Saddam’s time, says a child has to be over 12 years old to be paid any social insurance. And all these children are less than 10 years old. They were born in the times when there was ammunition training in that U.S. military base. So the mothers, hundreds of mothers in Haweeja, absolutely have nobody to refer to, nobody to be responsible of them. And the children, some of them not only have lost their limbs and their brain, but they also lost their parents in the battles between the U.S. and the local people. So, a kid who was called Ahmed, and he is in one of the pictures in the Right to Heal campaign—you can see it on the website. You will see that he had not only lost his limbs and his arms, he has nobody to take care of him. Both parents were killed. This is the legacy of the U.S. occupation on Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Maggie and Yanar, are you both planning to go to Iraq together? And what—for people who listen and watch this right now, what do you want them to do?

MAGGIE MARTIN: Well, I hope that eventually I and other folks will be able to go to Iraq and work closely with our partners. I think that we’re looking for public support to raise this issue and demand accountability to the U.S. government. People can visit our website. It’s righttoheal.org. Veterans should visit ivaw.org, Iraq Veterans Against the War.


YANAR MOHAMMED: I feel that people need to support Iraqi people’s right to reparation. The thousands of families who have the birth defects in their children and the women who have been trafficked with no right to citizenship now, all of that needs to be addressed. And I also need—as an organization, we did this fact-finding mission, and now the Iraqi government has set us some conditions to be registered for our legality. They tell us, “You cannot shelter women. You cannot have political work.” So this is the kind of democracy we have in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Yanar Mohammed and Maggie Martin, I want to thank you both so much for being with us. Yanar is with the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, Maggie Martin with Iraq Veterans Against the War. Together they’re part of the Right to Heal campaign.

And that does it for this segment. Nermeen, I want to wish you good luck as you head off today to Hungary.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thank you so much. Yes, that’s right. I’ll be going to Hungary to give a TED Talk in Budapest a day after tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: And your subject?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’m talking about some of the assumptions that we have about our political system and why perhaps now is the time to question them.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to link to your speech as soon as they post it online. Have a very good talk in Budapest, Hungary.

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