Inside Umm Qasr
Straits Times correspondent Derwin Pereira files from Iraqi territory. The first city to be taken by coalition forces is a bleak landscape of abject poverty and physical ruin where hospitals are virtual morgues UMM QASR (Iraq) – The southern port city of Umm Qasr in Iraq is only a three-hour drive from Kuwait. Yet when I went there on Monday, making my first visit to Iraq since the war began, I entered not just another country, but another world.
I went from Kuwait City’s shining shopping centres to dusty streets where children fix you with dull stares of hunger.
Umm Qasr was the first city to be taken by coalition forces, 12 days into the war. Its rehabilitation is considered a high-profile showcase to win over Iraqis.
Sure, the ‘liberators’ have been quick to restore electricity to most of this deep-sea port town of 40,000 people.
But while the lights may be on, there is not enough for people to eat and drink.
Abject poverty is everywhere.
Houses are neglected and tumble-down. Hospitals are like virtual morgues for children with leukaemia and other diseases, many of which are the result of Washington’s use of depleted uranium munitions in 1991.
The trip to get to the Iraqi border from Kuwait involves passing through 200 km of rocks, saltbush and grey earth, far from the picturesque rolling sand-hills one normally associates with deserts.
Kuwaiti troops check our passes as four US Special Forces personnel carrying hand revolvers and wearing designer sand-goggles – and one in a Star Trek T-shirt – stand by their Ford cars at the military checkpoint.
It is another world on the other side of the border – one with even more grit, dirt and sand. It looks like Mad Max territory. And there’s a touch of George Orwell’s Big Brother. The craggy, moustachioed visage of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is frowning at us from a huge mosaic. It has been defaced, as have been most other pictures of him.
Hungry children run up to our bus, extending skinny arms and shouting for water and food. Many weave in and out of the convoys rolling through their town.
‘Mister, mister, give, give, we love you’, is an English phrase many have quickly mastered. An adult motions to his mouth.
The children beat against the bus and try to get in. One gesture means water. Another one means food. They also want cigarettes.
The desperation of the people of Umm Qasr is matched by the rundown condition of the city.
It is clear that it has been neglected for years – ironic given that Umm Qasr is just 30 minutes away from Basra, site of Iraq’s most productive oil fields.
The United Nation’s oil-for-food programme had been generating around US$50 million (S$90 million) a day, based on Iraq’s oil exports in the months before the war.
Not that Umm Qasr seems to have seen much of this.
Next to most houses are oil drums containing dirty, stagnant liquid, which is the only water store for the entire family.
It costs 250 Iraqi dinars (13 Singapore cents) for 20 litres of water these days.
In Umm Qasr, the average salary is 1,000 Iraqi dinars a month.
The standard humanitarian quota for water in emergency situations is a minimum of 20 litres per person each day.
Food is also desperately short. British soldiers, who are doing a much better job than their US counterparts in trying to win over the locals, occasionally fill the pockets of children with biscuits and sweets.
Humanitarian aid flows in through the port’s warehouses, but not everyone is getting it.
Trucks have disappeared from the streets. Train engines have mysteriously vanished.
Mr Waled Faleh Abdul Jabar, 46, one of 100 Iraqis working the port now, said: ‘I have no money, no chomp, chomp. Help me, help my children, please.’
He said that his three daughters and a son – all under five years old – live on a meal a day of mainly rice and vegetables.
He is clearly relieved, however, that the US-led troops have secured this small town even if they do not have enough to eat yet.
Mr Waled, whose father was murdered by Mr Saddam’s thugs and whose brother has been a political prisoner for the past five years, said: ‘America, good, good. Saddam give no money, no chomp chomp. Only bomb, bomb, bomb.’
But others are not so certain.
Some are angry that their movements on their own soil are being restricted by foreigners. Many ask: ‘What’s America doing here? Are you trying to steal our oil? Why did you take over our country?’
Many are also wary of talking openly about their lives because Saddam loyalists are still suspected to be in the town.
At one of the food handouts, a young man covered his face. Asked why, he said in reference to Mr Saddam’s ruling party: ‘Because Baathists are everywhere. They will kill me.’