The Gulf War ended over 11 years ago, but to this day sanctions are still in place against Iraq that cause enormous suffering.
A touchy subject at the best of times, the Iraqi plight has been further overshadowed by the terrorist attacks in America on September 11.
"This is a time when people are going to be upset," said Chris Shannon, an activist with the Canadian Network to End Sanctions in Iraq. "This is a time when there's going to be controversy, and people want to wait until things blow over. But I think people in this group are taking the exact opposite approach by bringing the anger to the surface and challenging it."
CANESI is a network of organizations and individuals in Canada who believe the sanctions against Iraq must end. The sanctions were first imposed after the Gulf War by the United States and their allies as retribution against Iraq.
On Sept. 26 and 27 CANESI came to the University of Calgary, the fifth stop of a 31 city tour. Over
two nights, repre-sentatives showed documentaries on the medical crisis in Iraq followed by discussions on the role of the sanctions in producing the social and health crises. The presentations featured speakers who had been to Iraq and shared their observations of changes that had taken place since the Gulf War.
Dr. David Swan, president of the Calgary chapter of CANESI and a professor of Medicine at U of C, spoke both nights of his personal experiences as a doctor who first travelled to Iraq with the group Physicians for Global Survival. Swan described the impact of derelict water treatment systems on the population.
"When [people] are malnourished, as 30 per cent of Iraqi children are, to be exposed to the hazards of untreated water is a major risk," he said. "There's a very high mortality rate. Common childhood diseases like measles and polio are recurring and these are all vaccine preventable, but [vaccines] have not been available to the population for the last 11 years."
Swan explained that the water systems cannot be repaired due to sanctions on the necessary materials and pointed out that the means to help were in the government's hands.
"Very fundamentally, we are simply calling on our governments to look at the root causes of terrorism, and be a part of the solution, not the ones that contribute to the problem," he stated.
Discussion points from the audience were diverse. One Iraqi attendee, who asked to not be identified, made an emotional statement.
"Iraqi people have nothing to do with Saddam's terrorists," he said. "I think everybody, even Americans, know that the Iraqi people are innocent and they have no power too change. They can't even have a meeting like we are having today. Where is the justice?"
Another audience member expressed an opposite viewpoint.
"It's impossible to make a difference," he said. "We shouldn't even bother trying to protest or change what's happening."
The evening discussions were held at the Heritage Medical Center the first night and the MacEwan Hall Ballroom the other. Both were underattended due to unexpected obstacles in promoting the event. Swan opened both sessions by thanking the audience members for attending.
"I applaud you for attending," he said. "It's a very challenging act in regards to your personal security. The Dean of the Medical school refused to post my posters announcing this meeting because he didn't want any incidents."
Dean of Medicine Dr. Grant Gall explained his reasons for disallowing promotion of the event.
"The posters took a specific political position about Iraq, Britain and the United States," he said. "I made the decision that given what is happening around the world right now, I wasn't comfortable with them being posted in the Faculty of Medicine."
Gall emphasized that his actions were in disrespect of CANESI but were undertaken out of consideration for all members of the faculty.
"We as doctors, as teachers and as academics are supportive of discussions about how to make the world a more safe and humane place to live," he said. "My decision was based on respecting and honouring the diversity of students, faculty and staff in the Faculty of Medicine."
The CANESI Caravan tour will travel across Canada and conclude in Halifax.