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Margaret Hassan: friend of Iraqis

October 21, 2004

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MARGARET: Margaret Hassan? She who said to me that soon - very soon - "there will be more than one lost generation" in Iraq. Kidnapped on her way to work where she runs Care International's Iraq operation? Is there no end to the kidnappers' targets? Margaret Hassan was the enemy of UN sanctions on Iraq, she is the symbol of all those who believe that Iraq, a real, free, unoccupied Iraq, has a future; and all we can be told is that she, too, has joined the legion of the unpersons, the 'disappeared', the list of those who, because of their language or the colour of their eyes or their nationality, have slipped into Iraq's dark hole.

The ultimate disgrace was to hear British diplomats who supported those deadly sanctions weeping their crocodile tears for "Margaret". Tony Blair rushed to say that Britain will do all that it can to secure her release.

"There is really a limit at this stage what I can say to you, but obviously we will do whatever we can," he said while standing beside U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in London.

"It shows the kind of people we are up against that they are prepared to kidnap somebody like this. We do not know which group it is." But Tony Blair fully supported the sanctions which Margaret Hassan loathed.

I met her when The Independent had exposed the use by the Americans and British of depleted uranium munitions in the 1991 Gulf War and the explosion of cancers and leukaemia's that afflicted Iraqi children in the years that followed. Readers of The Independent had donated $250,000 for medicines, and CARE - for which Margaret worked - undertook to distribute the vaccines around the hospitals of Iraq. Margaret, and her Dublin colleague Judy Morgan, found the trucks to take these vital medicines across Iraq to try to save the small creatures in the children's 'wards of death'. I watched Margaret cajole the truck drivers, plead with the hospitals, bargain with the air-conditioning moguls to deliver vinchristine and other fluids to the children's hospitals in the October heat.

She is a driven woman. Every week, every day, every hour, the evidence of human tragedy on a massive scale - a UN sanctions disaster which they could do little or nothing to alleviate - mounted on their desks in the CARE office in a fly-blown estate of Baghdad.

I go back to an old blue-covered notebook and an interview with Margaret. It is dated Oct 5, 1998. In the margin, I have written of her: "she doesn't shout when she speaks, but her indignation - uttered above her office's hissing air-conditioner - comes across as a cry, angry and frustrated, from someone who is tired of listening to platitudes." These were black days. "This is a man-made disaster," she said, banging her right hand into the palm of her left. "Yes, some people have benefited from what we have done. But we can't solve the problem of Iraq. It's got no economy. We can't replace this with aid."

Margaret Hassan pulled a thick file across her desk back in 1998. "What use can we be here?" she asks. "Now if this was a Third World country, we could bring in some water pumps at a cost of a few hundred pounds and they could save thousands of lives. But Iraq was not a Third World country before the (1991) war - and you can't run a developed society on aid. What is wrong with the water system here is the result of breakdown and damage to complex and very expensive water purification plants. And this eats up hundreds of thousands of pounds in repairs - for just one region of the country.

"The doctors here are excellent - many were trained in Europe as well as Iraq - but because of sanctions, they haven't had access to a medical journal for eight years. And in the sciences, what does this mean?"

Margaret Hassan suspected that westerners had somehow divorced themselves from ordinary Iraqis during the 13 years of UN sanctions. "I don't think we see them as people," she told me. "If you see someone suffering - if you have a grain of humanity in you - you have to respond to that. Sanctions are inhuman and what we are doing cannot redress that inhumanity.

"They are contrary to the UN charter which enshrines the rights of the individual. It's a contradiction, a hypocrisy - it's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

"UN sanctions are contravening the very individual rights in the UN charter. Anybody who looks at this objectively has got to say these things."

I remember one afternoon, after she had sent our medicines to the doomed cancer babies of Baghdad, when Margaret Hassan seemed defeated. "The people here are really, really suffering," she said. "Do people know what it's like for a mother to wake up each morning not knowing how to feed her children? I don't think westerners see Iraqis as ordinary people."

It is the ultimate irony that a woman who was brave and good and decent enough to oppose the shameful sanctions with which we chose to purge the Iraqi people should now be taken by kidnappers in Baghdad. If ever there was a true friend of Iraqis, it is Margaret Hassan. Brave, outspoken, steadfast, she is a heroine. Her captors should be humbled that they can speak to so fine a lady. -By arrangement with The Independent