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Iraq anti-sanctions activist Bert Sacks speaks out
"What's going on is brutal"

August 23, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

BERT SACKS is a peace activist who had made eight trips to Iraq, bringing needed medicine and supplies in violation of--and in protest against--more than a decade of punishing economic sanctions.

Earlier this year, the U.S. government targeted Sacks, fining him $10,000 for taking medicine to Iraq in 1997. Sacks spoke with NAT GIBBONS about the toll of sanctions--and how he's responded to the U.S. government's attempt to silence him.

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CAN YOU describe the living conditions forpeople in Iraq?

I'VE SEEN women sleeping on the streets with their kids, and that was unheard of in this country. You see a lot of shoeshine kids--kids selling bubble gum and cigarettes when they should be in school.

A doctor's salary is maybe $15 a month. A teacher earns $4 a month. One kid I know, Rami, earns $3 or $4 a day--a lot more than the doctor.

We're keeping cash out of the hands of the government saying that we don't trust them, and we're callous about the consequences of that.

WHAT HAVE you learned from visiting Iraq?

IN NOVEMBER 1996, the head of the World Food Program, Holbrook Arthur, told us, "The oil-for-food program will not solve the humanitarian crisis in Iraq." It's taken me some years to understand what he knew immediately. Until you have a working economy, you can't solve the problem. And the oil-for-food program up through to "smart sanctions"--the latest revision of the UN embargo on Iraq--prevents that from happening.

In May--five and a half years after that first conversation with Arthur--the third head of the oil-for-food program, Tun Myat, told us that until the economy is functioning, there can't be a real end to the humanitarian crisis.

People need work, the economy needs to operate, people need to have money and not just food--not just a gigantic welfare state where you get food purchased with their own oil, but no money to pay doctors. That's just not workable.

Everyone there connected with the situation understands what's going on. What's going on is brutal--it's cruel on our part. We have been deliberately using the suffering and dying of the Iraqi people as a tool of coercion.

In fact, for the past 12 years, we've tried to use sanctions as a means of regime change. And that has contributed to 500,000 children dying, according to UNICEF.

WHAT HAS the U.S. role been in this?

THE OIL-for-food program is a public relations cover for the U.S., so we can maintain sanctions and say we are concerned with the Iraqi people.

The numbers show very clearly that the oil-for-food program expresses our desire to continue to punish the Iraqi people in the name of punishing Saddam Hussein.

When we first allowed that program to begin, we said that Iraq could have $2 billion every 180 days. Take out 30 percent for war reparations. Thirty cents out of every dollar they pump goes immediately to an account, which has allocated $16 billion to Kuwaiti oil--Kuwaiti Petroleum for example.

I don't mean to say that I'm opposed in principle to war reparations. What I'm opposed to is corporations getting paid 30 cents out of every dollar when a quarter of the children in Iraq are chronically malnourished.

When you finish the arithmetic, it's 33 cents per day per person for all of their needs--for food, for medicine, for safe water, for electricity, for sewage. To say that we're going to limit you to 33 cents a day is evidence of our continued desire to cause suffering and even death among the people to coerce the government.

The first evidence was our deliberate bombing of Iraq's civilian infrastructure during the Gulf War. The Pentagon planners, according to the Washington Post, said that we knew the effect this would have on water and sewage--and we did it anyway to "accelerate the effect of the sanctions."

That is an understatement. It kills especially young children--under 5 years old--with diarrhea and other waterborne diseases.

HOW HAVE the humanitarian trips affected the situation?

IRAQ USED to import 70 percent of its medicine and 70 percent of its food in 1990. So what that comes to for all the people of Iraq is about $1 million a day in medicine and $10 million a day in food.

We were able to bring $40,000 in medicine on one trip, and we thought that was good. Without question, this saved some lives, but it lasted the 20 million people of Iraq for 15 minutes. You can't bring the annual need of $4 billion worth of medicines and food in the form of humanitarian aid.

The entire budget of CARE USA, after it's been multiplied by U.S. donations of surplus food is $400 million--or one-tenth of that. So if CARE USA gave all of their money to just one country, it would meet just 10 percent of the need in Iraq.

HOW DO people in Iraq see the sanctions?

THERE IS certainly anti-American propaganda in Iraq, and I think most Iraqis blame their suffering on the U.S. government. Amazingly, they don't blame Americans, and we are almost always welcomed. Partly, this is Arab hospitality, and partly, it's a quite amazing discrimination between Americans and the government in America. So we're welcomed.

The minister of education told us, "Yes, that's the grown up people. But there are youngsters in this country who've known nothing but sanctions and nothing but bombing. How do we teach them to deal with their anger, with their hatred towards these conditions that are imposed on them? They've known nothing else."

That's a terrible thing--to have children growing up in an environment of anger and frustration and hatred. And we've been cultivating that for 12 years. I think that our government, especially today, wants to control the oil and will do whatever it takes.

DO IRAQIS want the U.S. to get rid of Saddam Hussein?

THAT'S NOT a question any of us could ask somebody in Iraq. The people over there remember what we don't seem to want to remember--that the last time we did a major regime change, we put the Shah of Iran into power, and the Iranians suffered for decades from the police state that the shah of Iran created.

That was done covertly. Now we're talking about doing something overtly, where the president has no shame in talking about assassination.

Of course, it's in self-defense, Bush says. It's impossible to believe that we would put in a leader out of concern for the Iraqi people. We put in a leader out of our concern for who can control the oil for us. And if that person is a brutal ruthless leader who would use poison gas against his own people, the historical evidence is that we would support such a leader if that serves our interests.

Why should anybody think that, with that kind of a track record, we have any kind of moral authority to tell countries around the world who they should have as their leader?

Aside from that, there's no international justification whatsoever for telling another sovereign country who their leaders can be. We're doing it, and we're supporting Israel's doing it. We're becoming the rogue country.

WHY DO you think that the government singled you out?

MAYBE BECAUSE I've been pretty outspoken. Maybe because I keep going back to Iraq. Another reason could be in a letter I wrote back to the Office of Foreign Assets Control in 1998. I began the letter with this: "I want to explain why I have done this act of civil disobedience: bringing medicines to Iraq."

I wrote that 150 years ago, the people that obeyed the law in this country took slaves that were runaways and brought them back to their owners. That was the law. Those who broke the law helped those slaves to escape to Canada. Which of those people do we respect and honor? The law-abiding citizens or those who broke the law? And what do we think of that kind of a law?

HOW ARE you responding to the fine?

VOICES IN the Wilderness and I have asked for a thousand people to each give $10 apiece--or more if they want. Not to pay any fine or any legal fees, but to purchase more medicine or to support actions to prevent further war in Iraq.

People have been very generous. Some guy in Seattle gave $2,000, and I have a letter from New Zealand with 10 New Zealand dollars in it. People have sent checks from all over.

For more information on Sacks' case, go to, or on the Web. Send donations to: Voices in the Wilderness, 1460 W. Carmen Ave., Chicago, IL 60640.

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