Creativity Under Siege
(Editor's note: The following is the third of a series of reports from a four-person team of Voices in the Wilderness, an organization which actively seeks an end to the sanctions against Iraq. The team has been living with families in Basra's Jumuhriya neighborhood since July 12 and will remain until September, insha' Allah. You can visit their website at http://www.nonviolence.org/vitw/)
It is 7:00 a.m. in Basra and sweat is already pouring out of our bodies. This may be our hottest day yet. I am writing from the roof where my host family and I sleep on thin mats, benefiting from occasional Gulf breezes. Nadra, my new Mom and Arabic coach, stated with frightening conviction that today would indeed be hot and "rotubah" - humid. It's 7:00 and already 120 in the shade ...
No strangers to the heat of a Basra summer, the women wear both the hijab and abia, so they show only their hands and faces. Still it is we who are sweating profusely, even with our heads uncovered! We cut up our wash cloths, turning them into sweat rags, and dream of tank tops.
The intensity of the sun and heat prompts an afternoon shut-down of business. A nap is traditional between 2 and 4 p.m. When business resumes, our team is still unable to fax our reports, or phone the U.S. media - the lines are down. There are only a few hours per day when international calls can get out. Internet service is non-existent for the public in most of Iraq,** and certainly in Basra.
All of Iraq's power grid (and most of its water treatment system) was targeted and bombed during the Gulf War. And now, ten years later, replacement parts are still being held up by the UN's "Committee 661" as "dual use." So the government here has to ration electricity and even water - with less and less available every day as the plants progressively degenerate. The sanctions are making sure that the devastation begun with the bombing inexorably, increasingly, kills the people here.
Basra has a few factories which receive priority for electricity during the day, and power is restored to our streets for just a few hours most evenings.
These families we stay with cannot afford air coolers, even where there is power to run them. But the daily power outage deprives them even of fans. And other things. Children get heat rash routinely. Food spoils. People have to adapt to life in the dark. But we also see how children play in these streets when the TV cuts out. We witness tremendous creativity under seige.
Midway through our Arabic lesson each morning, when the ceiling fan slows to a halt, and power goes, we let out a collective gasp, and begin to sweat - if possible - even more profusely. We should have taken our pre-Basra weights to measure our shedding under the sanctions! [Kathy Kelly: "I'm drenched after 30 minutes in the kitchen, preparing lunch!"]
We eat only the contents of the United Nations "oil-for-food" family ration, which means lentils, rice, salt, sugar, flour and some weak tea. We drink the "chai," and make chubuz - the flat bread - with hosts who are unfailingly gracious. Our group did come armed with our privilege: packets of "Emergen-C" to keep ourselves fortified in this heat. Yet we see how easily children become ill, subsisting on the deficient ration. Immunities are lowered, and that means death in streets filled with garbage and raw sewage.
We are constantly invited to homes to drink chai, try a creative new cake (made with the flour ration), and take a shower. Women try to take my sweaty clothes to wash them for me. Only occasionally am I asked an exasperated, "Why does the U.S. want to kill our children?"
We talk of a decade of sanctions that has followed a decade of war with Iran. There is no doubt among Basrans as to who is responsible for the sanctions. The remind us that China and Russia have expressed disapproval of the U.S. - led policy in the Security Council. They know well that the U.S. and U.K. manipulate their daily life. And so, to their questions of "Why ..." I am ashamed, and can only answer with my shared outrage and resolve to voice their stories in the U.S.
We think of the perseverance of parents like Majid and Carema who have lost all their material possessions to the sanctions, but retain their dignity. While we visiting their one-room home with their 6 children, they do not complain. We see glimpses of despair and humiliation, but mostly we see courage and creativity.
Well, now the power is off again. And now we have only our humor to offer. And just now, we have all given a salute in unison, looking up at the fan ...