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Issue Date:  November 19, 2004

From the Editor's Desk

Humanitarian gestures

An Associated Press story on Nov. 8 reported that 50 boxes of medical books and journals were being sent to Iraq “in a humanitarian effort that grew out of one soldier’s concern that doctors in that war-torn country have inadequate reference material.”

Interesting, I thought, that an occupying army could make arrangements for humanitarian gestures but that non-occupying civilians who made similar gestures in the pre-war era are now facing tens of thousands of dollars in fines and, potentially, jail time, for violating U.S. State Department rules. For years the group Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based organization that opposed the decade of sanctions against Iraq as well as the current occupation, delivered token amounts of humanitarian aid to Iraq.

The United States is prosecuting the group for taking medicines and educational items into the country.

I accompanied one of the Voices delegations in April 1999. The last people I interviewed before leaving Iraq were a sister and brother. Both had been educated in England. Both parents were educators. The daughter was studying for a master’s degree in English literature, and begged help in finding current books. The son was a doctor and wanted to study thoracic surgery but was unwilling to do it in Iraq because the only medicine being performed there was primitive. As a result of the sanctions -- the most severe ever placed on a country -- no medicines or supplies had come into the Iraq for more than eight years. He had not seen a current medical publication in years.

I have wondered often about those two young people. Much has been made recently about corruption in the oil-for-food program, often with the suggestion that if the money had been properly spent Iraqis would not have suffered such misery.

What is missing from that logic, however, is the real piece of history that Iraq suffered six long years under the sanctions regime before that program was put in place. Nothing came into the country, not parts for fixing the electrical system or the water and sewage system, not computers or medicine, not books, not even pencils and crayons.

Everything fell apart.

Then we invaded. At the moment of this writing we’re taking apart Fallujah.

Any humanitarian gesture will do, I suppose.

~ ~ ~

Marking Graham Greene’s centenary brought to memory the obituary NCR ran in 1991 by his longtime friend, writer Gloria Emerson, who died recently in New York.

Emerson captured some of Greene’s complexity and personality in the lines: “What bored him with visitors was any discussion about which of his characters had gone to heaven, hell or purgatory. … And it was also said of him, not entirely facetiously, that he spent his life looking for hell and found it again in each new novel. What was often forgotten was that it was a hell with real prisons, real diseases and real fear. He was, after all, a scrupulous and unerring reporter whose research surpassed that of most journalists.”

~ ~ ~

We have had to contend with some sad news recently. Washington correspondent Joe Feuerherd’s father, Victor E. Feuerherd, died Nov. 9. He lived in New York. It has been a difficult year for the Feuerherd family. Joe’s mother, Lillian C. Feuerherd, died last Dec. 5. Those who read Word from Rome also know that John Allen’s grandfather, Raymond Frazier, 92, died in late October. He lived in Kansas.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 2004

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