Saturday, April 03, 2004

March 31st

Basra starts suddenly, as you approach from Samawa. On one side of the railway tracks there is nothing but desert, immense trails of oil tankers oozing along the highway, similar sized hordes of camels traipsing the other way, the Japanese troop carriers on the way out of Samawa giving way to British ones further south.

On the other side are houses, densely packed, expanding to fill all available space, washing and children and bricks erupting out of them and the cars slicing through, its central reservation, pavements and part of the road covered with stuff for sale, old kitchen ware, old clothes, old electrical goods, like a giant drive-through car boot sale without the car boots. After a while, stalls selling new goods start to intersperse and in a while you reach the centre of the city.

Security is getting worse in Basra, people say, as unemployment rises, electricity remains erratic, on for eight or nine hours a day but cutting out at unpredictable intervals, and power struggles drag on. There have been a few attacks on British troops in recent days as frustration and the heat intensify. The soldiers used to walk the streets, much less under fire than the ruder Americans, but have stopped since the sniper incidents started.

Explosions, people say, are daily now and the BBC doesn’t report the killings of individual soldiers. Kidnappings of contractors are on the increase. Security firms are making things worse by calling themselves NGOs because they think it’s safer for them. They travel armed and create uncertainty about what it means to be an NGO, exposing organisations to increased risk.

Rehab just wants to leave. She lived in Cardiff for ten years while her dad was studying for a PhD in civil engineering. What’s wrong with Iraq, I asked, for her point of view more than because I didn’t know. She pointed at the headscarf on my lap. “That’s one thing,” she said. “I don’t wear it. I won’t.” in Samawa women have been threatened for not covering their hair. Not here, Rehab said. “They just whisper and point, but I am defiant. I drive a car as well.”

A computer engineer from a Shia family, she wants to get a scholarship for a post graduate degree in the UK and escape from Iraq for a while. Her dad would let her leave if it was to take up a scholarship, she thinks. He wouldn’t go back himself though: “He says he likes being able to say hello to everyone in the street.”

The first show had to be cancelled. The newly opened play space set up by Intersos is suffering the effects of the wranglings over power. The sheikh who lives and rules near the centre thinks he ought to have control over everything and has tried to get all his friends and relations jobs in the centre, to have the teachers fired, has forced the centre to do without a theatre and a music room, such as the centre in Bayaa, in Baghdad, has got.

Instead our first Basra performance was in a school for deaf and dumb children. Rehabilitated by Save the Children after a comprehensive post war looting, the school caters for 119 children altogether. From the show in the deaf school in Samawa, we learnt that though they can’t hear, the kids still recognise and respond to noise and to variations in noise, so we made lots.

Luis’s didgeridoo was a big favourite again and instead of communal shouting, they signed approval and disapproval in unison, very politely suggesting that I on my stilts ought to give back Luis’s hat when he started to howl. A little girl called Hanaan was the star translator, signing for the kids less adept at lip reading. The headmistress told us at the end that she’d never seen the kids so animated.

In the old days, Ali said, deaf people were singled out for special persecution because they were harder to control. Using sign language, they couldn’t be listened to the way everyone else could and the security police couldn’t tell whether they were up to something or not. They weren’t allowed to wear hearing aids because Saddam thought they might be secret communication devices and people shunned them, even taxi drivers wouldn’t stop for them, for fear of being implicated by association. In times of war they were tortured to make sure they couldn’t scream properly, to make sure they really were deaf and mute.

Zaid's brother-in-law is deaf and has worn a hearing aid since he was a small child. "No one has ever told him you cannot wear it," Zaid said. Vehemently against Saddam, and unequivocally happy that he was removed, still he said, "None of this happened to him. Perhaps it was only in the south, or in the north."

The next new challenge was a show for blind children and orphans in the Ministry of Social Affairs. One of the women working in the Ministry showed me a booklet of phrases and quotations which formed an exercise for teaching English, including a line about how it’s possible to look without seeing, to listen without hearing. It reminded me that the reverse is also true: the deaf kids heard us through some other sense. We didn’t know how the blind children would see us, how they used other senses to compensate, so we did exactly the same show we always do.

A boy of about twelve with a scarred face looked intently into the top corner of the room. His friend beside him had one eye which hardly opened at all and another which was fixed, the pupil rolled back so it was barely visible. The two sat with an arm around each other’s shoulders, laughing frequently and turning sometimes to hug one another. Two little girls whispered in each other’s ears for the entire show, giggling.

It was different. They loved the boomchuckas at the beginning and the didgeridoo. They could understand the music box routine and enjoyed it. The juggling was a little lost on them, but the presence of the kids who could see, from the orphanage, was helpful because their excitement infused the whole atmosphere. Again their teachers said they could hardly believe the effect the show had on them.

When they left the children walked in clusters, arms around each other’s shoulders, the almost-blind leading the blind. Not one of them had so much as a stick to guide them. Eman said the kids at the corresponding institution in Baghdad have sticks but here there is nothing. There is a little teaching and a new project to teach them some gymnastics, but no real resources.

Outside, Rafaa watched her boy, Abdullah, laughing at Fisheye’s magic tricks. In English she told me his father was dead. “They cut off his head,” she said. “Saddam cut off his head.” It was in 1991, after the uprising, when Abdullah was a baby. She has brought the kids up alone since then.

One of the men outside wanted to talk about the British troops. I was curious, because in Baghdad they believe that the British troops are much better than the US ones, much more polite, fairer. “Noss oo noss,” was his opinion: so-so. The Spanish and Japanese soldiers were good, he thought, in Samawa and elsewhere in the south. “The Americans,” he made a brushing away gesture with his hands. “No. No good.” He said he was glad Saddam was gone, but were things better now, he asked himself. Human rights were not respected and the soldiers still caused many problems.

Basra has thousands of displaced people living in camps. The bombing in 1991 destroyed countless houses. In the mid 1990s a movement formed to overthrow Saddam. The young men were arrested and killed, their homes burned in punishment. The latest bombing made still more people homeless. The biggest city outside Baghdad, Basra has also seen an influx from the smaller and poorer towns and cities in the south.

Abeer works in the logistics department at Save the Children. She used to work in the community participation programme but left because she believes that one of her superiors was misappropriating funds. Before that she was in the IDP [Internally Displaced People} team at Save the Children but the programme came to an end when its funding stopped. As with IDPs throughout the country, no one is responsible for them and noone has funding to look after them. There are moves to evict them from a lot of the squats and compounds where they’re living without services but no real alternative housing on offer.

Like Samawa, Basra’s so-called ‘youth centre’ is in fact a sports club for boys with a theatre for religious lectures. Two girls came in, hidden behind the abayas of mothers who work there as cleaners. When I sat down to take off my stilts, Abeer came to bring me a message. “There is a little girl there who was really happy to see you. She told me to tell you she loves you, but she was too shy to come and say it.” In the end, though, Suha did come for a photo with me and a chat.

Abeer says life is better for women in Basra than elsewhere in the south. A bigger city, close to the border with Kuwait and to Iraq’s only port, it has been more influenced by the people passing through and women are freer, safer to walk about, though she still couldn’t smoke a narghila in public, and it’s easier for them to find work, but still since the war she and her friends are more afraid to walk outside, more afraid of kidnapping, violence, robbery. Like everywhere, “security” is the first concern, the first word on every woman’s lips.

Abeer is clever, funny, gorgeous, cheeky. She, her sister and another woman run an organisation called Women for Peace and Democracy. “I don’t like the word democracy in the name but my sister insisted,” Abeer explained. Her sister said you get more money for projects with the word ‘democracy’ in the title and it’s true. Their funding so far has come from different sources including the CPA. They don’t like it but don’t have much choice.

They’ve been running computer classes, first for housewives and then for women in unskilled jobs with little education, to improve their prospects. Later they started English and literacy classes as well as providing clothes and abayas for poor women in rural areas, which helps them feel more able to go out. The classes were full immediately they were advertised. “You couldn’t do that in Nasariya or Amara,” Abeer said. “The women would want to go but they wouldn’t be allowed and you would find the classroom empty every week.”

They do it quite quietly, but these women set the world on fire, Abeer and Rehab and Maha. And then it was over and we were driving back to Baghdad, the time in Basra far too short.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

March 29th

At sunset swallows dive among the washing lines and satellite dishes on the flat rooves across the town of Samawa, about 120km north of Nasariya, and the market comes to life, dead chickens lying in trays, the insides of half sheep hanging in doorways, pungent fish and bags of sour yoghurt and cheese curd, cages of pigeons, fruit and vegetables, a tea stall here and there between clusters of stalls or shops all selling the same thing, a whole row of trays of eggs, a few selling buckets and hoses, a few selling stationery.

The taxis are the same as everywhere, white with orange panels, and the fire engines with “Sides” printed on the sides so you wonder if they came in self assembly kits until you realise it says the same on the front and back. All the women are in black from head to foot, yet there are headscarves of every colour in the market. I stopped to buy a couple and talked to the man in the shop about what we’re up to. I don’t bother to bargain any more, just tell the shopkeeper about the circus and wait for the foreigner tax to be cut.

Peat got one of the black things that wraps around the head to hold the kaffiyeh, the men’s head covering. It only led to trouble though because when he and Luis went for a narghila later, they got arrested and dragged away by four police men with guns. Apparently someone reported that there were funny looking foreigners in town, one of them wearing his kaffiyeh like a terrorist.

Ali and I went to get them out of the police station, where there was also a big bucket of cold beers seized from “Ali Baba”, and he promised to show Peat how to wear the kaffiyeh the non-terrorist way. How considerate of the terrorists to adopt a different way of dressing so as to protect other people from suspicion.

It was the second time today that the police had come to take us away, the first being outside the Department of Youth and Sport, which has organised some shows for us. They took Peat and Fisheye because they wanted to watch the film on Fisheye’s camera, drove them to the police station, gave them tea, didn’t notice that Fisheye was still filming and let them go again. They have to check up on all the foreigners, find out who they are and what they’re doing.

Apparently kidnapping people is something of a habit with the police down here though. They once picked up three of the Dutch soldiers and kept them in the cells overnight. It’s impossible to imagine the Baghdad police doing the same with an unsuspecting group of US soldiers.

The Dutch soldiers walk around otherwise unmolested in small groups on patrol. The Japanese soldiers I’ve only seen in vehicles. Saad said as they passed, “They are afraid of the Iraqi people.” In Nasariya, the first guess on nationality is Italian. Here people ask if you’re Japanese or Dutch. In Baghdad, for some reason, the first assumption is that you’re Russian, then American. Either way, it feels much safer here than Baghdad, much quieter. There are no bombs here. A bit of gunfire earlier had everyone looking out of their front doors.

Our street is sectioned by ditches of dirty water, the kids hopping over them, the cars slowing down to bounce through. A footbridge across the Euphrates is partly collapsed and people pick their way carefully across. The main urban centre in Muthanna province, Samawa has only about half a million people, mostly Shia, as is the case throughout the south, and you’re quickly out of town.

On the road to the rural youth centres we’ve been to each afternoon are small groups of men carrying vivid green, red and black flags. They are walking to Kerbala from all over the south for the end of the mourning for the Imam Hussein. Tents of all sizes, surrounded by the same colours, offer food and rest for the pilgrims. Cars hoot in support as they pass. Mr Abu Zina tutted at the continued playing of the devotional music in Salam’s car on the way to a school: “Ashura is over,” he pointed out, apparently tired of the chanting and crashing of cymbals to mark the time for chest beating.

The youth centres are each used by about a hundred boys and no girls, with no facilities for anything except sport. Today about three girls, yesterday about nine, made little rows at the back of the theatre. A family of swallows had made its nest at the front of the theatre and a pile of turd on the stage, swooping in and out of the absent windows. The day before that there was no theatre, only a improbably hot tarmac games court with boys playing basketball barefoot and a crowd of non participants leaning in the shade.

There were coaches for basketball, volleyball, handball and football, one of them the sports teacher from the boys’ school, who volunteered the information that his father had died a month ago. The manager, one of three albino men I’ve seen in as many days in Samawa, who must suffer agonies in the heat of summer, looked shocked at my asking whether any girls used the centres.

The girls are in the fields either side of the road with the women, picking stuff in rows, carrying it down the dirt tracks. It was notable for its rarity when two women came into the internet and talked to Fisheye after he did some magic tricks while he was outside smoking a cigarette. Conservatism and fear mix thickly.

Yesterday’s first show was supposed to be in the big sports hall on the edge of town but there were no kids. The head of the Department of Youth and Sport in Samawa insisted that the heads of the schools knew about the show, but the heads said there was no way they could take their children there: they were too scared for the kids’ safety if they walked them through the streets.

Instead we went to them, to a girls’ school with about six hundred pupils. Through the gates, as we got ready in the headmistress’s office, came a constant stream of boys, two by two, holding hands, until the original crowd had doubled, the visitors packed into the balconies around the inside so it looked like the kids were all crammed into shelves around the yard. There were far too many of them, all edging forward as the ones at the back pushed to be able to see, like at Sadr City, so we had to keep stopping for the teachers to coax them all back again and make room for us to perform in, which makes it all a bit chaotic, but the kids loved it.

This morning we finally managed to do the stadium show, with a school full of girls’ packed into the stands. The headmistress told them before the show to be quiet and keep still. It lasted a couple of minutes before we got them shouting and laughing, all leaning forward together when they yelled.

Much quieter, in fact our quietest show yet, was the school for deaf and dumb children. We left out the ‘boomchucka’s but the advantage of a show that’s not based on language is that it’s quite easy to adapt for people who can’t hear you. They can still laugh out loud though and do the gasp of amazement when Fisheye shows them the multicoloured pictures that have magically appeared in the colouring book.

There are 71 pupils aged up to twelve, after which there’s nothing for them in Samawa, studying the same primary school curriculum as all Iraqi schools teach, using lip reading and sign language. The headmistress is keen to communicate with teachers of deaf children outside Iraq to improve their methods of working with the kids.

There are no other activities or arts, although the school’s in a better state than a lot we’ve been in, with pictures on the walls, running water and carpet. The Dutch military have embarked on a lot of school rehabilitation, but there are still no facilities for making food or for sick kids, which means there are a lot of deaf kids in the area who aren’t coming to the school because they can’t be looked after enough.

Saad has had four contracts from the Dutch military for school rehabilitation. He doesn’t have much time for the likes of Bechtel who take contracts at inflated prices and just siphon off the money and don’t do the work properly but he’s more irritated still with the translators working for the Dutch army, who are diverting the contracts to their own relatives and friends, he said.

Yesterday a contract worth $91,000 was given to the brother of the translator, a nineteen year old with no experience as a building contractor or engineer. The money is good on these contracts and the translators know they can get away with securing them for their own families, even when they’re not professionals. As a civil engineer with twenty years of experience, Saad felt aggrieved and decided to go and challenge the decision in court.

I was dubious that there were any processes through which he could challenge it, any system of judicial review for procedural impropriety, any appeals process. Sure enough, when I saw him later, he said nothing happened in court because the translator was a friend of the Dutch military.

But Saad says that everything is better now Saddam is gone. He doesn’t care how long foreign troops stay or what they take, he says, as long as the Baathists are gone. It doesn’t matter to him who runs the country so long as it’s not the Baathists. He spent four months in the jail in the security police headquarters in 1994, showed us the scar on his ankle where a cigarette was put out. He pointed out the jail where he was held. “I burnt it with my own hands, “ he said, miming striking a match. Bush, he said, is a gentleman.

The men and women in jail now without charge, trial, lawyers, without their families knowing where they are, he insists, are all from Falluja, Ramadi or Tikrit. Nothing will convince him that there are detainees from anywhere else in Iraq, nor that merely to be from those places is not a valid reason for internment. Everyone from the three towns was directly oppressing the people of the south, he says, every one, including the children.

Sometimes reconciliation seems a long way off.

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