Little has been said of the U.S. sanctions against Iraq, or of the devastation that it has caused since the onset in 1991. Never were the tales of Iraqi women’s loss heard by the primetime news programs of this country. Nor did the tiny cancer-stricken bodies of Iraqi children ever appear on the front pages of national newspapers, despite the sharp rise in cancer in the years after the nuclear bombardment. But for Iraqi-born filmmaker Amira Elias, the injustices suffered by the Iraqi people were too grave to ignore.
“My devastation with the situation compelled me, I had to do something,” says Elias. She remembers how she sat clenched in fear in front of the television, while the US launched its attack on Iraq in 1991. While images of cheering American pilots flashed onto the screen, Elias imagined the worst for her loved ones still in Iraq.
In 1994 Elias returned to Iraq, terrified as to what she might find there. She learned that whatever the depleted uranium nuclear weapons didn’t destroy, the U.S. sanctions against Iraq would. During her month-long stay, she experienced firsthand the poverty and suffering of the women and children of Iraq.
Upon returning to Montreal, she made several requests to local television stations to take a camera crew back to Iraq with her the following year. All stations rejected her requests. Finally she received a grant from the National Film Board’s Filmmaker Assistance Program, which allowed her to return to Iraq in 1996 and 2000 to make her documentary.
She completed the film in 2001.
The presentation of the film Iraq Then and Now: the Unheard Voices of Iraqi Women, screened last week at Concordia, was sponsored by the Muslim Students Association. The film begins with the droning voice of former US President Bill Clinton declaring his support for sanctions against Iraq.
“There are those who call for the lifting of sanctions, I am not among them,” Clinton intones. Over the course of the film, Elias effectively demonstrates how the U.S. sanctions, which were meant to keep Iraq from expanding its weaponry, are now preventing much-needed medical supplies and income from getting into the country. The sanctions have prevented Iraq from rebuilding its damaged infrastructure and economy. The documentary is filled with tragic heroes. The most startling tale is that of a woman who lost all nine members of her family, including her two young children, in the bombing of an emergency shelter. Khansaa Al-Amiryia leads the camera crew on a tour of the site where 1,500 women and children burned alive during a grisly bombing. She now lives in a small hut near the bombed shelter, having sworn to die in the same place as her children, sister and brother.
Khansaa Al-Amiryia’s name is the historical one for a heroine who lost all of her children in battle, but kept her courage.
“They call her this now because she remains a strong woman, although she has gone through a great deal of hardship,” says Elias.
During the course of the film, Elias takes viewers to nuclear treatment centres, hospitals and shelters where she meets dozens of chronically ill children. A number of the children have leukemia and other forms of cancer. Others suffer from water-born diseases, which have claimed the lives of approximately a million children. According to Voices of Conscience, an organization dedicated to ending the sanctions against Iraq, 5,000 Iraqi children die each month”?most deaths could have been prevented by access to clean water.
As a native Iraqi, Elias feels that she was able to speak to people on a very personal level without raising suspicion about her intentions.
“People were very comfortable with me because I come from Iraq and I was able to speak the language with them,” she says. “They felt safe in telling me their stories.” After viewing the film one can be left feeling disempowered and betrayed, but Elias reminds viewers that silence is compliance.
“I would like people to protest, to raise their voices and not to allow the Canadian government to spend $35 million every four months [by means of military support] to impose sanctions,” she says. “Instead we would like them to become a leader in calling to lift the sanctions which are hurting innocent people. The people of Iraq have no choice in the leader, but they are being punished because the politician [Saddam Hussein] is being punished.”
Although Elias hopes that the film will be shown across Canada, she said that recognition was not her goal in making the documentary.
“The purpose is not to have the film shown, but to help the Iraqi children, their access to medication and their right to life,” she says.
Amira Elias is a member of both Voices of Conscience and Canadian Voice of Women for Peace. She has spoken at numerous conferences on behalf of Iraqi children and the effects US sanctions have had on them. She currently lives and works in Montreal. Iraq Then and Now: The Unheard Voices of Iraqi Women airs on February 17 at 10am (EST) on CTV.
For further information about the film or for bookings, contact Amira Elias at: firstname.lastname@example.org