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An Interview with Greg Foster, a New Zealander working in Iraq.

By Jeremy Rose of ISMAG

 

On a recent trip into Iraq, Kiwi aid worker Greg Foster filled the petrol tank of his Nissan Patrol for just twenty cents. The following day in Baghdad he came across a family who had been forced to sell their house and furniture simply to buy the i/v fluid their sick child needed to stay alive.

 

The Waikato-born Foster, who with his wife Fay heads a Christian aid agency in Jordan, says that seven years of United Nation sanctions have "undeveloped" oil-rich Iraq to the worst of third world conditions.

"One bag of i/v solution costs over 10 months salary for the average worker. A sick child can need five to six bags a week," Foster says from Amman. "The average wage in Iraq is between three to five US dollars a month - a kilo of meat costs $US2."

Over the next three months Foster, as co-ordinator of the Mennonite Central Committee's Jordan office, will organise the delivery of more than $US2 million worth of grain, beans and medicine donated by North Americans concerned with the impact of the sanctions on ordinary Iraqis.

"Previously I have witnessed human misery and suffering through my experiences [as an aid worker] in Bangladesh but nothing has touched me like my time in Iraq," Foster says.

Particularly distressing to Foster is visiting Iraq's once high-tech hospitals where even basic medical supplies like suture thread are no longer available. "Only one out of every 100 light bulbs work. The first child I came across was Hussain.

"He was unconscious, with a drip going into his nose, attached by Sellotape (plasters are yet another casualty of the sanctions.) His parents had brought him 500km from his village because his doctor had suspected he had cancer but could not confirm it as he was unable to perform even the most basic of blood or lab tests due to the lack of needles or glass slides," Foster says.

 

Iraq has seen an unprecedented number of leukaemia cases since the end of the Gulf War. An increase that Foster, and others, attribute to the use of depleted uranium in armour piercing weapons used by the allies during the Desert Storm campaign.

The MCC has set up a medical programme that will see 50 children supplied with two year's worth of leukaemia drugs at a cost of $US100,000.

The doctors in the cancer wards initially argued that the drugs should be rationed equally among the hundreds of children needing them ­ despite this drastically reducing their effectiveness. But they finally agreed that as long as they personally didn't have to select which children would receive the drugs that it would be better to allocate them to just 50 children.

 

"It's better that we save at least some of the children than to have them all die," Foster says.

Foster, who has been based in Jordan for the last two years and travels into Iraq every two to three months, says no amount of aid will make up for the devastation caused by Gulf War and seven years of tough economic sanctions.

He says it's time the international community came to "grips with the fact that over 750,000 children have died as a result of the sanctions".

Foster is disappointed by New Zealand's Foreign Minister Don McKinnon recent statement that the "lifting of the sanctions is in Iraq's hands".

"After seven years of sanctions it is clear that the Iraqi Government will not step down from its current position," Foster says. "The UN itself would say 1.5 million have died because of the sanctions to date. When do we say enough is enough?"

 

Foster compares the Security Council's position on Iraq, which New Zealand supports, to shooting down a hijacked plane to punish the hijackers.

"We're punishing the children for the sins of the father," says Foster, whose own father, Jack, is a Presbyterian minister in Papakura. His brother, Ian, is a professional rugby player in Waikato and another brother is a Baptist minister in Gleneden.

"We are getting into mass genocide numbers here. It's mind boggling to think that the Western world has the capability of stopping this."

"The sanctions were originally imposed on Iraq [before the Gulf war] with idea that it would be all over in six months or a year maximum. No one every anticipated that they would be in place for seven years and that the effect of it would be so horrific on the Iraqi people. It's clear that the people in power are not suffering from the sanctions - it's ordinary Iraqi's who suffer," Foster says.

Foster is sceptical of claims by Don McKinnon that lifting the sanctions would not necessarily see any improvement in the lot of ordinary Iraqis.

"Iraq once had the best social welfare system in the Middle East, and it could have it again if the sanctions were lifted and it was allowed to sell its oil."

Foster is among a growing number of international aid workers questioning the sanctions. Britain's Independent newspaper reported earlier this month that the UN's Humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq, Denis Halliday, had resigned in protest at the continuation of the sanctions.

"We have estimated that $US10 billion is need to repair electricity alone," Halliday said. "We are putting in $US300 million."

 

A UNICEF survey in March of this year found that 58 percent of children under five suffer from malnutrition. Before the sanctions the main health problem facing Iraqi children was obesity.

"The 'oil-for-food' programme has not yet made a measurable difference to the young people of Iraq," the UNICEF report concluded.

Meanwhile, Don McKinnon says: "The sanctions must remain in place until the Security Council is satisfied that Iraq has met its UN obligations." That is until the UN is satifisfied that Iraq no longer has any weapons of mass destruction.

Foster questions the motives of the West in imposing the sanctions on Iraq. Why, he asks, if Britain and the United States are so concerned with eliminating the region of weapons of mass destruction have they not tackled the question of Israel's nuclear arsenal?

And why, if the security of the region is their major concern, have they sold $US300 billion worth of weapons into the Middle East since the end of the Gulf War?

"If the US and British want to address armaments issues they should have courage to say we won't sell arms in this region," Foster says.

 


· Greg Foster was interviewed in a 60 Minutes documentary on New Zealanders in Iraq, Sunday 16 August 1998.


 

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