In Iraq, false rumor of plenty

Umm Qasr: Despite official reports to the contrary, a southern city lacks food, water and medical care.

War In Iraq

April 10, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

UMM QASR, Iraq - This is the place, just several miles from the Kuwaiti border, that American and British officials say is doing best among Iraq's southern cities, the place where water is most plentiful, where there are no problems with food and where medical care is available for those who need it.

Perhaps it is doing better than other cities, but Umm Qasr is not doing well at all. A lot of people are sick, old people and babies, especially. Sewage bakes on streets. Garbage steams in the air.

Even as Baghdad was being looted yesterday, as Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein appeared to be falling like his statues, and as this place had a right to finally feel free, people had other things on their mind - finding the drinking water, food and medical care that was supposed to be so plentiful.

The situation here appeared dire yesterday, far worse than described by military officials over the past three weeks, when most journalists were kept away.

Young boys and girls stand along almost every road, then dart toward passing military vehicles, the cars and trucks of journalists, anything that looks as though it might have clean water or food inside, and they yell the few English words they know: "I love you! I love you! Water? Water?" Sometimes they put in extra effort, giving a salute or, more often, a thumbs-up.

They stand barefoot in a sun that heats rocks like coals. Every breeze carries with it a fresh layer of choking dust. Their hands pick through steaming garbage strewn across blocklong patches of desert. They compete with shaggy goats that nibble at the same scraps. Fleas are everywhere and bite like dogs.

In the only hospital here, women wearing chadors hold sick toddlers. Large groups of women, and a few men, crowd the door of the hospital's only doctor, begging him to please, please see their child next. The hospital bathrooms are no more than smelly holes dug into dirt floors.

Pictures of Hussein are splotched with red paint. At one site, which resembled an outdoor altar, his likeness had been torn away. Scratched in the place where his face had been was a heart. But for various reasons, people here still did not feel entirely free.

"Freedom is not here, because there is no water, no food, no news, no radio, no television," said Halid al-Edan, ticking off each "no" on the fingers of his left hand with the pointer of his right. "Where is the UNICEF? Where are the foreign countries to help us?"

Aid groups such as UNICEF and the Red Cross, among others, have poked inside here in recent days, assessing what is needed and trying to structure a distribution system that will not favor the strong and aggressive at the expense of those who need help most.

It will take them days to move supplies here, days more to achieve any substantial relief. And this is a small city, with 45,000 people or so. Basra, slightly to the north and by accounts in the same miserable shape, is a city of more than 1.5 million.

Most of the misery did not come suddenly, born of a 3-week-old war, though there was more water here before the fighting than yesterday. Rather, this is misery built over more than 30 years of Hussein's rule, a calculated oppression that has kept the people poor.

In three hours yesterday, from 8 in the morning until 11, the doctor at Umm Qasr's hospital saw 350 people or so, by his count.

In a hospital room in the back, a woman named Nadia Ahmad begged a nurse, please, could she get her father to a hospital in Kuwait?

He lay on a piece of foam covered with a white sheet that was smeared with red where his right arm rested, a tube stuck in it to replace the blood he was losing through a deep wound in his leg, which spilled lower on the sheet. Bandages will not stop the bleeding, because a bomb destroyed a softball-size piece of flesh.

On the walls around him, white dust from falling plaster mixed with the brown dust from rising desert and faded, peeling yellow paint.

"The bomb came 12 days ago," she said. "Still there is no help."

Faris Adnan, a medical student in Basra, was looking after the man. Though he is not yet a doctor, Adnan has had plenty of experience in the past three weeks.

"I am not ready to be a doctor, but they are ready for me to be a doctor," he said. "So I try."

Down the hall, a boy about 8 years old was walked into the emergency room by his father, who brought him to the hospital on the back of a bicycle. The boy's face was covered with gauze, from just under the bill of his baseball cap to his chin, and he walked as if blind, with a hand on his father's elbow.

A nurse removed the gauze. The skin of the boy's brown face was partly burned off, leaving it pink and glazed, and there was a small cut on his cheek. His lips were swollen. But he could see, and he did not make a sound and shed no tears. His father told the nurse the boy was injured when he played with some sort of bomb that exploded when he picked it up.

"The children of Iraq are not afraid of anything," said the nurse, Wisam Abdul-Sijad. "That is a problem."

The market in town was open yesterday. Small wooden shacks lined two or three roads, and some owners sold grain, and others sold nuts, and most everyone at booths outside the market sold cigarettes. One man sold, or was trying to sell, small electrical parts. That is not easy in a place with no electricity.

British soldiers walked the streets and received thumbs-up signs from most people. Children trailed them like tin cans on a wedding limousine, bouncing behind them, noisy.

Pvt. Benjamin Keegan said the city has calmed considerably in the past few days, allowing aid workers in to assess. He was relaxed enough to let a young man peer through his rifle scope, but said there were tense moments the night before.

"We had to root a couple of people out of houses," he said, because they were suspected of having weapons. "Not fun."

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