Letters from Iraq- Dec. 11. What Have We Done To the Garden of Eden?

What Have We Done To the Garden of Eden?

What have we done to the earth?
What have we done to our fair sister?
Ravaged, and plundered, and ripped her and bit her,
stuck her with knives in the side of her dawn,
tied her with fences, and dragged her down.
- Jim Morrison (The Doors), The End

The town now situated at the reputed site of the Garden of Eden lies amidst decay and desolation. A group of boys and young men play soccer on a bare patch of dirt, many in bare feet, just a couple of hundred yards from the two dysfunctional water treatment plants for the town of Qurnah. One draws its water from the legendary Euphrates River, the other from the equally famous, Tigris. We are in the "cradle of civilization" as we rush to snap photos of the sun going down, silhouetting the palm trees, some which have lost their fronds from the percussion of the bombings and shelling over the past 22 years. We are just north of Basrah, a city of 1.7 million.

The sediment tanks are full of mud from the intake from the river. The chemical mixing motor is broken. The chlorine, closely monitored by the UN because it is "dual use", and the alum are now added by hand, the operator explains. The pumps are leaking, needing new valves and gaskets, not to mention, new motors. The sand and gravel filtering tanks desperately need new filters. Without clean water, many young children will succumb to diarrhea, dysentery, or other water-borne diseases.

In the midst of grinding poverty, there are two signs of hope. We travel with Tom Satar, a Vietnam War Vet and member of Vets for Peace. This group is working in partnership with Life for Food and Development, the only non-profit organization recognized and accepted by the US, UN, and Iraq. The are working together to rebuild, one-by-one, the water treatment plants that we, in some cases, deliberately destroyed during the Gulf War, or, more frequently, crippled during the past 12 years of economic sanctions. Tom has traveled to Iraq four times, learning about these critical infrastructure plants. He is here to "inspect" these facilities and make recommendations to Vets for Peace and LIFE personnel back in the US and Canada to get the needed parts. We are also accompanied by Amil, a bright, young graduate student who works with LIFE to improve this deadly problem. These two plants will, hopefully, be next on the list for rehab if the needed funds can be raised. The group has spent over $250,000 USD to repair a much larger plant in a southern part of Basrah, and about $35,000 for each of several smaller plants we are scheduled to visit this morning.

The other sign of hope is the children. As they are let of the school across the street, they see this strange group of 5 Americans (one of us Japanese-born), 2 Australians, and 5 Iraqis gathered up on the platform that holds the sediment tanks and broken chemical mixers. They see our cameras and want to pose for pictures, scrambling, like most 6-12 year old boys, to get closest to the camera, some daring to begin to climb the metal staircase leading to our position. When I take their pictures, they are fascinated when they see their image appear on the digital screen. More and more kids arrive as word magically gets out about the visitors to their town. Yasko and Amira have wisely brought some balloons for the kids and Tom has a stash of M&Ms and other small chocolates to distribute before the temperature, in the mid-60s, melts them. Few girls are in sight as seems to be the custom in Iraq where many women have disappeared from public view. Those women we have seen in public in this southern city and more conservatively dressed than the few women we see on the streets in Baghdad. Here in the south, virtually all the women and most of the young girls have their heads covered. Black is definitely the dominate color for the older women, a few colors creeping in for the younger-set.

After driving around the corner to visit the second treatment plant, this one across the street from the banks of the Tigris, the kids follow closely behind, running to keep pace with us. Additional friends have now joined them as more classes have been let out. Older boys in their early and mid teens gather round, some holding their English class text book. (All secondary school students learn English as well as Arabic, Amira informs me.) We exchange names, shake hands, and I teach them the word "Peace", showing them the two-fingered salute of the fingers raised in a V. The younger boys understand when I say "Salaam" and practice this new English word. They do a better job than I do in pronouncing their names. They ask me to pronounce other English words, printed on their clothing, delighted to hear my pronunciation of the words: Calvin Klein, Reebok, Nike, Authentic Quality, leather. An older boy brought his bicycle so I use that word and we talk about brakes- front and rear, the seat, tires, pedals. More and more questions implying "how do you pronounce this?".

One older boy wants to trade pens with me but I'm unwilling to pick one boy out of the more than 50 to decide who would get what. The camera and the digital pictures have already created enough jealousy and competition. Some of the words on the brand-name clothing knock-offs are badly miss-spelled, including the word boldly printed above "Authentic Quality" which is a mis-mash of consonants that is impossible to pronounce as an English word - something like "Ptontpntpal".

The joy and laughter, the eagerness to learn, the life and vigor are a wonderful elixir for us. It is just what we needed when our previous visit before lunch was at the Basrah Children's Hospital where a young Pediatric Oncologist took us to meet five of his patients, all young girls from 4-15 years old, in terminal stages of cancer and other diseases suspected to have originated from the radiation of the depleted uranium weapons used in this area by the US Army and Air Force in 1991.

Each girl lies on her bed with her black-covered mother grieving along-side. The mothers essentially live at the hospital when their child is here. The doctors plead with us to try to provide up-to-date textbooks and medical journals which the US has denied them under the sanctions regime. Amira, a beautiful, middle-aged woman, born and raised in Babylon, is our guide and interpreter and knows we need to experience some signs of life after this sobering hospital visit, thus scheduling the next visit to the water treatment plant that is nearby a school.

Yet, in the midst of the stark reality of the increasing cancers, grotesque deformities, grinding poverty, contaminated water, and machinery gradually decaying and dying, a much larger threat looms over the Garden of Eden. My President, my nation, wants to use these vulnerable kids in a macabre game of "chicken" with the old ally-turned-adversary of his father. Threats of an impending war that no one else around the world wants (except for Israel, Britain, and the Military-Industrial Complex), place the Garden of Eden in jeopardy again. As if the crippling economic sanctions were not enough. They already are warfare-by-attrition and the results are just as deadly. They are a "neutron bomb" that leaves the building standing but gutted of all life.

The Crosby, Stills, and Nash song drifts through my head- "We've got to get ourselves, back to the Garden ...". Yes we do. We've got to get ourselves back to this Garden with medicines, tools, supplies, and love - not bombs and bullets laced with deadly radioactive material. With understanding and compassion, not with the arrogance of a world-class bully.

The electrical power was off for more than 1/2 hour last night and again this morning for the past hour. These water treatment plants, even if Tom and others are able to secure the needed parts and filters and can bring them in-country, by-passing the sanctions, still need electricity to pump the water. The electrical facilities, too, were bombed last time by US warplanes. What happens on the cancer wards when the lights go out? Will the lights go out all over "the Cradle of Civilization"? Can we call ourselves a civilization if we continue to respond to each other with mindless violence? We need answers soon!

- Steve Clemens
Basra, Iraq.
Dec. 12, 2002. 5:30 AM

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