Allies' next task: Save the war's millions of victims

Perdita Huston

April 02, 1991|By Perdita Huston

AS THE human and ecological consequences of the gulf storms begin to emerge, one wonders if it is possible to create a just new order out of the suffering inflicted on the people of the Persian Gulf.

The human consequences of Saddam Hussein's invasion, followed by the massive military response devised to liberate Kuwait, followed by the civil war in Iraq are of catastrophic proportions.

It began when nearly a million people fled Kuwait. Expatriate workers far from home had been reduced to instant poverty. Many among them supported extended families of six or seven people, raising the human suffering toll far into the millions.

Jordan did its best to provide food, shelter and assistance to an influx equal to one-third its population. The government appealed for international assistance to meet the crisis. It was slow in coming. It wasn't until the scale of the exodus and refugees' needs were visible to us, via television, that the world community rushed aid to Jordan.

Under the title "Jordanian Children in the Eye of the Storm," a recent UNICEF report tells of the war's toll on the Jordanian people, saying that malnutrition and ill-health now threaten over a quarter of a million children under the age of 12. Jordan, it says, is the victim of "instant and widespread economic devastation, rising poverty, the threat of impending hunger and hardship and health setbacks at the family level." One Jordanian official says the influx of evacuees and the United Nations trade embargo have undermined the social and economic achievements for which his country has struggled for the past 20 years.

In Iraq, the crisis continues and deepens. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi families attempt to survive in appallingly wretched circumstances. We do not know how many were made homeless by allied bombing or by the firepower of the Iraqi Republican Guards, but a joint report on Iraq by the World Health Organization and UNICEF says, "The quality of the foods now available on the market is low and deteriorating . . . the ration of 750 to 1,000 calories available at present is less than half the daily requirement of a 5-year-old child, or less than one-third of the requirement for a pregnant woman."

That was some six weeks ago, before the civil war and before Saddam's ruthless attempts to put down Kurdish and other rebels. Refugees now reaching Iran are warning of widespread starvation.

In Oxford, England, recently, a symposium on the nutritional crisis of refugees was convened by the prestigious Refugee Studies Program. Half of the world's 15 million refugees are children, subject to varying degrees of malnutrition ranging from insufficient caloric intake to anemia, pellagra, scurvy and beriberi. Food is inadequate in nutritional value and quantity in many refugee settlements. The idea of the symposium was to call attention to the silent tragedy of the dispossessed. Responses seem to come only when people are shocked by visible suffering. It was true in the Sahel drought of 1984, and so it was in Jordan last September.

Are we now going to wait until we see films of starving Iraqi children before we act, before we plan, allocate and deliver humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people, regardless of whose victims they might be? Are we going to sit back while a generation of Jordanian children fall prey to stunted growth and ill health?

A United Nations-sanctioned coalition organized the most formidable war machine ever in its mandate to liberate Kuwait. Honor now requires that it organize an equally formidable humanitarian effort for those who suffer the consequences of that conflict.

Food and medicines must be delivered immediately through the United Nations to those who live in the eye of the storm. Without such an effort, any new world order will truly ring hollow.

Not long ago dozens of heads of state met in New York and pledged to protect the well-being of all children. Let them keep their word now.

Perdita Huston is a free-lance writer based in London. 9

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