A Smuggler's Tale

A Berkeley woman's efforts to deliver banned medicines and other goods to Iraq arouses federal ire

On the walls of Lubin's spacious office, next door to the T-shirt plant, are colorful paintings made by Palestinian children that portray Israeli soldiers shooting children. There are blown-up photos of a tank in front of the Dheishe camp and of a blasted school in Nablus -- both shot by Lubin. She says she is horrified by the tragedies wrought by Palestinian suicide bombers, but adds, "You cannot take away a people's land, culture, and food, and expect them to live as neighbors."

Lubin first visited Iraq right before the 1991 Gulf War. She returned there after American troops withdrew. The trip was harrowing. All of her group's water was carried in bottles bought in Jordan, since there was little or no potable water in Iraq. The people were infuriated at Americans. The Republican Guard stole much of their clothing. Everywhere Lubin went, dead and dying children were being pulled out of the rubble of the country's once-modern infrastructure. U.N. and humanitarian organizations in Iraq calculate that 1 million Iraqis have died -- including 500,000 children under age five -- as a result of the bombing of Iraq's water and electric utility systems, and the subsequent sanctions on pharmaceuticals and other goods.

If American troops invade Iraq again, Lubin fears, they will fatally disrupt the country's food-rationing program, upon which millions of Iraqis rely. She does not believe Iraq is capable of fighting back, and asserts that Saddam Hussein's army will fold even quicker than it did in the first war.

Lubin has taken dozens of people to Iraq, mostly to mule in sanctioned goods. It is not illegal for American citizens to travel to Iraq, but it is forbidden for them to spend money there or to deliver commodities without permission from the U.S. government and the U.N.

The Children's Alliance does obtain permission to ship tons of food, vitamins, and medicines to the Iraqi Red Crescent, which is equivalent to the Red Cross. But Lubin and other activists also smuggle banned supplies such as chemotherapy medicines containing radioactive isotopes and pencils made of graphite. U.N. and Washington officials fear Saddam Hussein will use these kinds of materials to make nuclear weapons. (Graphite is used in control rods in nuclear reactors.)

Lubin concedes that she doesn't know if such items actually can be turned into weapons of mass destruction. She says, however, that she insists on personally delivering the radioactive medicines to doctors at Iraq's pediatric hospitals, and the pencils to teachers at what is left of Iraq's elementary school system.

Lubin's friend, David Smith-Ferri, has traveled to Iraq twice. In October, Smith-Ferri flew to Jordan, where he bought medicines for less than their cost in the U.S. (Jordan trades freely with Iraq, ignoring the sanctions.) He ferried them across the desert in an SUV. In Baghdad and Basra, he walked around freely, but was shadowed by government agents.

"I do not go there to find out what people think about Saddam Hussein," Smith-Ferri says. "That is too dangerous. I talked to people about how they feel about the threat of war.

"An unemployed car salesman would not let go of my hand. 'Tell the American people we love them,' he said. 'We are not their enemies, but we must have our lives back.' The man was begging.

"I am not a radical," Smith-Ferri emphasizes, right before he shows his Iraq slides to an audience of 50 at a senior center in Healdsburg. "The strongest feeling I had there was a sense of powerlessness; it was so surreal to be there, with the people living their lives, preparing for war. We are as powerless as they are to stop it."

As America's military mobilizes to invade Iraq, Smith-Ferri and Lubin are focusing on anti-war activities. "I am angry when peace forces in America refuse to include the issue of Palestine and Israel as part of the call," Lubin says, grimacing. "But I will work with anybody [who] is for peace."

You can't avoid her haunting eyes. This energetic, very angry, very brave woman seems to be fighting a variety of demons, perhaps feelings of cynicism or despair, perhaps the familial complications of rejecting Zionism, maybe the pain of witnessing acts of violence and hate.

"When the World Trade Center attack occurred," she says, "my first thought was, 'What took them so long?' It looked like Baghdad after the U.S. bombing.

"We need to point the finger inward, at U.S. policies. The thought of invading Iraq is unbearable. What it means for our children: Nobody will be safe."

She tries to sum up what motivates her to work for causes that many people consider hopeless. "Allen Ginsberg was on our board. Right before he died [a few] years ago we went to dinner with him and people from City Lights Bookstore at Enrico's. We talked about Rwanda, Palestine, the horrors of the world. I said 'Where is the hope?'

"Al jumped up, food flying, 'Fuck hope,' he said. 'Fuck hope. It's not about hope. Hope is a luxury. It's about getting up in the morning and doing the right thing.'"

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