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January 2003 • Vol 3, No. 1 •

Of Teddy Bears and Toys and ‘Coffee’ in a Cage

By George Capaccio

The new year approaches. I am finishing my second week in Baghdad as a member of the Iraq Peace Team, an international, non-governmental group of peace activists. Our mission is simple: to be with the people of Iraq no matter what comes to pass in the weeks and months ahead. In my hotel one of the managers keeps a monkey. The monkey’s name is Coffee. He is still quite young. His home is a cage that is moved at various times during the day from the reception area to a corner by the window. I have seen Coffee’s owner holding him and feeding him formula from a dropper. The man is not unkind and seems to have won Coffee’s trust and affection. When the monkey has drunk his fill, he gently pushes the dropper away with his deft little hands.

If a stranger, hoping to attract Coffee’s attention, puts his fingers a tad too close to the cage, Coffee will instantly dart his arm between the bars and attempt to nab the intruder. Then, infuriated perhaps or just frustrated by his repeated failures, Coffee will bite his own feet and hands, or seize the wooden slats of his seat and shake them with all the might his heart can command.

When I first met Coffee, he had nothing inside his cage other than a container for water and two seats for sitting on or sleeping. No toys, no blankets, no food, and of course no companions. No room in which to swing, to hang upside down if that is what he so desired, to leap about in monkey-mad delirium and delight. Coffee’s environment could not have been more stark, more lacking in all the things a living, sentient being needs in order not merely to survive but to flourish.

With the owner’s permission, I gave Coffee a small, brown teddy bear. One week has passed since then and still he has not destroyed the bear. I have seen him holding it with the utmost gentleness or playing with it as if it were indeed a companion of sorts, one he would never want to lose or willingly hurt.

Something about this little monkey’s life has touched me. I want him to stop hurting himself. I want him to have all the things to which he is entitled. I want to rip open his cage with my bare hands and set him free. But I am not in Baghdad to sympathize with the plight of captive primates. I am here to stand with the people of Iraq as they continue to struggle with the effects of sanctions and now face the threat of cataclysmic war.

Oddly enough, the plight of Coffee in a cage leads me to the plight of children in Iraq, one of the richest countries in the world. Despite its vast oil resources, Iraq has declined from material prosperity to third-world poverty. UN comprehensive economic sanctions, in force since 1990, are primarily responsible for this decline. One significant indicator of Iraq’s overall economic health is its infant mortality rate. A UNICEF report published in 2001 noted that over the past decade the infant mortality rate in Iraq has increased by 160%. This increase is the highest among all the countries surveyed in the 2001 report.

For the poor children of Iraq, even the essentials of life are too often lacking, to say nothing of toys and teddy bears. Over their lives, we in the West have placed a cage. We allow these children to have just what they need to survive but no more. We decide what goes between the bars and into their barren hands.

In the public hospitals of Iraq, despite the benefits derived from the Oil for Food program, doctors continue to struggle with life-threatening shortages of drugs and equipment. In Basrah, shortly before Christmas, two fellow members of the Iraq Peace Team visited the pediatric wards of the city’s major hospital. There they witnessed the death of a six-year-old girl from leukemia. The drugs she needed were not available. Not available in one of the richest countries on earth. Not available because the entire sanctions regime, imposed by the UN but maintained and enforced by the United States and Great Britain, severely restricts what Iraq can and cannot import.

At Baghdad University, I had an opportunity to meet with students and to visit the library for the Department of English. Undergraduate and graduate students alike are eager to pursue their studies and master their particular disciplines, whether the 19th century British novel or plays by contemporary writers. But the books they need, works of modern scholarship, are largely not available. There are 10 computers on one server for over 200 students. Internet access is slow and unreliable due to frequent power failures. In the one-room library most of the texts are from the seventies. Many are much, much older. Bookcases lean precariously under the weight of moldy, forgotten volumes.

The books are unavailable because someone in New York or Washington, adhering to official sanctions guidelines, has declared them to be non-essential. Non-essential to a people who thrive on learning and literature, who gave the world the written word and the myth of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest stories humanity possesses.

Coffee the monkey may be satisfied, at least temporarily, with a teddy bear. But what of the children and young people of Iraq? If they are to achieve the full measure of their humanity and become responsible, caring citizens not only of their own country but indeed of the world, then the cage that confines them must be removed. It is not enough to give them only government food rations purchased through oil revenues. It is not enough to allow them to have only some of the medicine they need, or to provide them with Internet access but deny them books.

Far from removing the cage or granting the children of Iraq the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the West, in particular the United States and Great Britain, is now moving its weapons into place and preparing to launch a massive assault that will no doubt kill thousands of innocent Iraqi children, lay waste to their cities and towns, pollute their rivers and streams, destroy their homes and any possibility they might have had for a secure future.

It is not too late to prevent this from happening. To believe otherwise is almost more than I can bear, especially when I hold in my arms the children of families I have grown to love through my years of coming here. I give them little presents from home. I take them to their favorite places. But now, as the bombers are prepared, the only gift that has any meaning is the blessing of life. Life in its fullest, deepest, wildest being. Life and nothing less. Life forever more.

George Capaccio is a teacher and poet from Arlington, Massachusetts. He is currently in Iraq with the Voices in the Wilderness Iraq Peace Team and can be reached at: info@vitw.org

Common Dreams, December 30, 2002





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