ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Sustaining Life: Iraqi Relief

The Gulf War left thousands of Iraqi people hungry, homeless and desperate. How did CNEWA respond?

Pictures televised from the Gulf War looked like video games: black-and-white shots of enemy targets, “smart bombs” and small explosions. Clean, easy and bloodless.

A year and a half later, other pictures from the Gulf War are seen on our television screens and in our newspapers, although less frequently: burned children, starving families, impoverished refugees and destroyed villages. Perhaps the “smart bombs” were not as smart as we thought.

Although the Iraqi regime responsible for the invasion of Kuwait remains in power, the war, the civil strife that followed and the United Nations’ embargo have resulted in severe shortages of food, drinking water, baby formula, medicines and other basics essential to survival.

Immediately following the end of hostilities, many relief agencies sent representatives to assess the humanitarian needs in Iraq.

Sister Mary Bridget Kennedy, FMDM, the head of the Franciscan Sisters’ mission in Jordan, began a tour of several towns around the northern city of Mosul.

These villages, mainly inhabited by Assyrian Christians and Chaldean Catholics, fed and sheltered thousands of refugees who fled the constant bombing of Baghdad and other cities.

During the war, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine (a Chaldean order) served these people with material and moral assistance. After the war, their convents became the distribution centers for what is now known as the Iraq Relief Line (IRL).

The IRL was a united effort. The Pontifical Mission for Palestine (PMP, Amman), The Franciscan Sisters (FMDM), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the Gulf Relief Execution Committee (GEREC – a Japanese Catholic consortium), and the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine all pitched in – providing brain, money and muscle.

On May 3, 1991, four trucks loaded with flour, beans, milk, chick peas, canned meat, water, sugar, coffee, tea, blankets and medicines left Jordan for Iraq.

Late that first night, the trucks arrived in Mosul. Fortunately, there was electricity. More than a hundred volunteer workers emptied the four, 20-ton trucks in less than two hours, storing the supplies in a very large room in the convent.

Within hours, these provisions were delivered to more than 700 families. The supplies were then carried in pick-up trucks and cars to those in the bombed areas. Not wanting to embarrass a proud people, the IRL team did this at night.

Bottled water (Iraq’s water purification system was virtually destroyed), baby food and some medicines were then given to Mosul’s general hospital. The hospital staff prepared a list of much-needed medical supplies for the next convoy.

In less than 48 hours, 8,372 families – about 44,000 people – received the necessities of life.

The next two convoys, dispatched May 28 and June 23, proceeded as the first – with little difficulty. The fourth, however, did not.

When this fleet of six trucks arrived in Baghdad on July 28, the IRL team was informed that the convoy was to be appropriated by the Red Crescent of Iraq.

After three days of bartering, the trucks were allowed to travel to Mosul, provided they reported to the Red Crescent once there.

This fleet of goodwill was welcomed by a government official who told the team that the foodstuffs would have to be tested. This would take three days. Since the trucks would have to be opened – the seals broken – the IRL team felt this could cause riots and looting.

The Iraqi officials indicated they were the experts on the poor of Iraq – they believed the Christians were given more food than the others.

The officials then asked to see the list of beneficiaries. The team gave them the report from the third convoy. This report showed that most of the aid was given to poor Muslim and Yazidi villages.

Hours later, the IRL team was allowed to distribute supplies to the designated villages. The government committee, however, gave large Red Crescent banners to the team; they were to be placed on the IRL trucks during distribution.

In the Kurdish town of Akkra, armed local Kurds arrived in the middle of the night. They knew this was the aid promised by the “foreign church people.” They then took the 94 sacks of rice and 150 cartons of oil and distributed them. The team was assured that the aid was distributed to the poor north of the village, the group already listed as recipients.

In Mosul, the IRL team was told by the government that all aid for Iraq must come under Red Crescent control. The team was also told that under an agreement between the Chaldean patriarch, the Middle East Council of Churches and the Iraqi government, all assistance was to be distributed on a 20 percent to 80 percent (20 percent Christian) arrangement.

The IRL team did not accept the percentage agreement. It was discriminatory; the IRL did not come under any of the above arrangements, nor could anyone sign in its name.

In the end, it was agreed that the team could distribute the goods and monitor the process to guarantee that the poorest of the population received the aid, without discrimination of religion or race.

The Iraq Relief Line achieved and surpassed its objectives. Desperately needed supplies were sent to over a quarter of a million people in the north of Iraq. Throughout the project, the IRL team controlled all supplies and ensured that these goods were delivered within three days of entering Iraq.

Efforts to mobilize Iraq Relief Line 2 have been hampered by visa problems – obtaining them from Iraq – and the lack of funds.

Michael La Civita is the editor of Catholic Near East.

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