The Compass Edge

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  • Iraq

    Posted by Brian Jones

    15 October 2003 – The US and the UK attacked Iraq whilst I was still in Sudan and I spent a week holed up in a hotel in Khartoum whilst various violent protests took place in the city. I viewed the attack with the horror and incredulity that most sane individuals did and so it was strange to be told that I was being deployed there in May.

    The idea was that the organisation was doing a water and sanitation reponse but that the issue of livelihoods (which is what the crux of what I do) had been highlighted as critical and needing further work. I was sent to do a livelihood survey in the south of the country and found that the the impending humanitarian disaster that everyone had feared was going to occur, had NOT occured. There were very profound needs but the critical point was that the needs were chronic in nature. They were the result of years of sanctions and a number of wars (8 years of Iran-Iraq war) that had systematically destroyed infrastructure and people's ability to eke out what could be deemed an adequate living.

    Iraq, is flat. The absence of any form of topography above about 5 meters came as a complete shock to me. I had visions of mountains (there are in the north so I'm told) and rolling hills, much like you see in Palestine. They dont exist. Rather there are endless expanses of desert laced with a complex network of waterways and roads. It's a vastly ancient landscape and one that can lay claim to some of the oldest civillisations known, certainly it is one of the earliest sites for agriculture and I suppose I had expected it to be, well, greener :-).

    I entered through Kuwait, driving past vast convoys of American hardware, convoys that gave the impression of stretching far into the distance and beyond. The amount of tanks, trucks and troop carriers was beyond my imagination and it was frankly daunting to be driving past them, to be tracked by machine gun toting grunts 'on point' from Humvees at the front and rear. Helicopters and jets did groaned overhead and the overall feeling was not really too good.

    First impressions, beyond the American armour, was the road. I would not be exagerating if I said that it was some degrees better than most roads I've seen in Europe or North America. Parts of it were built to international airport standard, the idea being that if you ever needed to land your jumbo in the area you just had to convince someone to pull up the central reservation. In view of the obvious risk this posed in the face of the invasion, someone had thoughtfully littered the central reservation with car carcasses in an attempt to decrease the use of the road as a runaway.

    My destination was Nassariyeh, which is a town in the south of the country about an hour and a half from Basrah. It was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting and the place had taken a long time to 'fall'. I wasnt at all sure what to expect and so it was with considerable interest that I watched the tiny dot on the horison grow larger until I could make out a series of buildings and water towers. The entry to the town from the south is exactly where the fighting took place and the damage was pretty extensive. Burned out tanks littered the areas to either side of the road and there was evidence of heavy fire fights wherever you looked. How to make sense of that? It was very odd to be driving into this with the idea of doing a humanitarian programme when we would so obviously be associated with the people who had poured so much fire power into the city.

    The first stop was the hotel, which was busily being rebuilt and renovated after suffering a direct bomb hit which appeared to have had a pretty disastrous effect to rooms on one side of the building. The rate at which the hotel was subsequently rebuilt was a great indicator of how fast people 'adjusted' to the current situation, shrugged off the war and just got on with things as they had before.

    It was incredibly difficult to get things done for so many reasons but the most important was the incredible heat. We had an average temperature of 53 degrees and one day when the temperature reached 57 degrees centigrade. In the face of this onslaught the only sane thing was to sit inside and do nothing. We compromised by radically reworking the work hours to give a long period of rest during the heat of the afternoon to return in the early evening and work through until 7.00 or 8.00 ish.

    The big frustration was the difficulty to define exactly what we could realistically do. Much of the observed needs were at the level of huge infrastructural change which were totally beyond the abilities of any but the largest of companies with a government level remitt. I wanted to get outside the city into the villages and see what was going on and how people in rural areas differed, if at all, in terms of their vulnerability to livelihood security. Working outside the city was just plane difficult because everyone was a bit edgy about security and there was a fear that we might be targetted. The south has always had a slightly edgy reputation linked to banditry and people hiding in the marshes that used to cover large areas of the south. Large white vehicles bristling with antenas and full of potential money were obvious targets for banditry and so it was with some difficulty that we managed to get out at all.

    I did get out, mostly with another food security person from the central team who came down to do the assessments with me. We chose our areas and would head off each morning in a couple of vehicles and enter villages, town halls, mosques, departments of Agriculture and Veterinary hospitals in an attempt to interview a large range of people and get some sort of consensus of what was going on to peoples livelihoods.

    Everyone was incredibly hospitable and my enduring memory of Iraq (strangely I admitt) will be the sound of tea, served hot, densley, inkily black and sweet being stirred in tiny waisted glassed. I must have drunk gallons of the stuff. Our findings were simple. The situation was bad but stable. People had developed intricate coping mechanisms and had done so years ago. The most important point to communicate to those interested in livelihoods was that although bad, the situation had NOT deteriorated as a result of the war and therefore the expected acute humanitarian had not worsened. It was somehow counter intuitive but there you are.

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