Veteran-activist brings horrors in Iraq to attention of UH students

Naz Jafferi

Staff Writer

Part one of a two part series

In spite of her pain, Amena Lazem managed to sit up in the hospital bed and greet her American guest, who remembers her as being incredibly beautiful and resilient.

The 26-year-old girl underwent a kidney transplant without any anesthetics or sterilized equipment. The surgery would have been unnecessary if the hospital had a kidney dialysis machine.

"This could be my wife, this could be my girlfriend or even... me if I had the misfortune of being born in Iraq," the guest, also 26, recalls.

Lazem, who had a bachelors in Spanish from Spain, developed a critical infection after the surgery. She died two months later.

Lazem's story was one of many that Erik Gustafson, a Gulf war veteran turned activist, shared with University of Houston students on March 4 and 5.

"It took a month for me to use slides of Amena without breaking down in tears," he said. Gustafson, now 27, visited Iraq for the first time since the Gulf war in June 1997 as part of a Voices in The Wilderness delegation.

Voices, a Chicago-based group, delivers humanitarian relief and medicine into Iraq and is dedicated to ending the sanctions.

Gustafson's family has a long military tradition: His father fought in the Vietnam War; his uncles and grandfathers were in the army. He himself joined the army soon after graduating from high school in 1989. As part of his training, Gustafson learned the "Code of Conduct," which states that if an army occupies a land, it must provide for the people there.

Gustafson lived in Saudi Arabia for 8 months during the Gulf War as part of the 86th Engineering Battalion. At the time, he did not oppose the war.

"As a soldier, you're a tool of the government," he said. "You're not supposed to question orders, and you're certainly not supposed to defy those orders." However, he and most of his colleagues felt they were fighting for oil.

"I didn't feel like I was liberating a democracy; we were liberating our American interests."

Four days after the bombings had stopped, Gustafson visited Kuwait City and witnessed the "Highway of Death."

"It was hideous - the most dehumanizing thing I've ever seen," he said, referring to the rows of vehicles, both civilian and military, that were incinerated without discrimination. The "Highway of Death" confirmed Gustafson's previous reservations about the Gulf war.

In 1992, he left the military and enrolled as a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Gustafson did not introduce himself as a war veteran because he wanted to put that identity behind him. During his freshman year, he was a Latin American studies major, but he switched to education the following year.

The veteran's activism career began after he attended a seminar with Allan Nairn entitled "Genocide in East Timor." After learning about the horrendous human rights violations conducted by the Indonesian military, Gustafson became a member of the East Timor Action Network. Between 1994 and 1997, he was the leader of ETAN. He also protested against the military regime in Apartado, Colombia.

In March 1997, Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices, approached Gustafson to join a delegation to Iraq. After a month of debating, he agreed.

"The hardest thing for me was to reclaim that identity," he said. "To reclaim that responsibility of being a veteran in the Gulf war."

In spite of his initial reluctance, Gustafson said he did not fear traveling to Iraq.

"I feel more danger in walking the streets of New York or Chicago than I do walking the streets of Baghdad." Although the crime rate in Iraq has increased since the war, Gustafson said it is due to desperation.

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