Bert Sacks' life includes chapters in many places: Boston, Dartmouth College, Israel (where he became conversant in Hebrew), North Carolina, Seattle and 9 trips to Iraq between 1996 and 2004!
After the first Gulf War in 1991, studies by a Harvard Research Team and by the New England Journal of Medicine revealed the genocidal numbers of the deaths of Iraqi children as a result of US bombing and especially as a result of US Sanctions policy. The diseases that killed most of them were water-born and preventable.
- In 1991, our military bombed the sewage treatment plant in Baghdad beside the Tigris River.
-Open sewage ran into the river for years.
-The Tigris River is the only water source for many larger Iraqi cities downstream.
The documented numbers kept growing, until it was clear that our bombing compared with our sanctions policy resulted in the deaths of at least 500,000 Iraqi children from preventable diseases. We polluted their water. Then our sanctions policy prevented the export of medicines that also could have prevented the deaths.
In the early 90s, Bert had a solid career underway as an electrical engineer until he read the statistics. He had accepted a new job in Seattle. But he began to have trouble sleeping after hearing the statistics about Iraqi children.
So he began to talk to anyone who would listen: the Surgeon General, Senators, Members of Congress, and especially to journalists. Not many wanted to hear him. But he persisted, until this eventually became his new vocation and he left his work as an engineer.
In 1996 he traveled to Iraq for the first time in open violation of U.S. Sanctions law. His crime was, and I quote, “taking medicine to hospitals in Iraq without prior government approval.”
After that first trip, Bert would lead 8 more delegations to Iraq and inspired additional delegations by journalists, medical organizations and members of Congress.
I was very privileged to be a member of Bert’s second delegation in 1997 and to work beside him for 5 years. Of all the delegations ours was chosen as the one on which our government would press charges. All 4 of us were notified that we were being fined $10,000 and faced up to 10 years in prison. We notified the government that we would not consent to pay any fine.
For the 3 of us besides Bert, the statute of limitations took us out of trouble within 2 years, but Bert persisted. He went to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the agency in charge.
He begged them to arrest him.
He wanted to get this conversation into a courtroom.
He kept talking to the media and writing. He began to speak on local tv and radio and to groups in a number of states. The Seattle P-I, one oft daily papers there, listened, and eventually sent their own foreign editor and a photographer to Iraq and published an 8 page, award-winning insert in their paper.
Regular meetings were held which grew in number and influence of Citizens Concerned for the People of Iraq which later became the Interfaith Network of Concern for the People of Iraq.
Bert became a notorious dissident and a hero and role model to many of us in Seattle.
And when a large law firm offered Bert pro-bono representation, he promptly accepted and filed suit against the federal government for genocide, a crime forbidden by international law under the Geneva Conventions. So after being charged and fined by the government, Bert made the government into a defendant.
Of course, he did not win that case. But he did keep this important conversation going for many years and now over 20 years later it is still going in a number of places.
Sharon and I were privileged to be in the courtroom on the last day of that trial in federal court. When the judge announced the ruling he asked Bert if he had anything to say to those present. So Bert stood and made his convincing case one more time. It was clear to me and to all in that courtroom I think, how much respect that judge and everyone in the room had for Bert Sacks.
One more thing about Bert I would like to share: Somehow Bert has been able to keep a spirit of gentleness, a sense of humor and practice face to face nonviolence throughout all of this, including in interviews with rude and testy broadcast journalists.
There is much more to the story, but I hope it is clear how very much in commons Bert’s life and work have with the Lynching Sites Project. We are so very together in the work of uncovering truth and history that remains so covered-up, so buried.
By Randall Mullins