Team One in Iraq
Below is a brief report of our activities, along with a summary, of our activities of the Labbani Team One of the Veterans for Peace Iraq Water Project. This project achieved it's goals of beginning the work of the renovation of a water treatment plant in the village of Labbani, SE of Basrah in the Abul Khasib valley of Iraq. All team members arrived home safely, and plans are underway for the 2nd team to participate in the renovation of three small plants in 2001.
Our delegation of seventeen persons gathered in Amman, Jordan, on October 4th. We were met at the airport by representatives of our host organization, LIFE for Relief and Development. During our stay in Iraq we were accompanied by Ms Vicki Robb, Dr. Yarub Al-Shiarida, Mohammed Ibraheem Al-Azawi and Dr. Idam, which all work for LIFE. Three of them are Iraqis and helped us with translations. Our group was completed by two drivers and a representative of the Iraqi Foreign Ministery, Abdul Rahman.
On the 6th, because of the ban on flying still enforced we had to pile into four rented Chevy Suburban for the long drive across the deserts of Jordan and Iraq, arriving safely in Baghdad, late.
Our first day's program in Baghdad included a visit to the Iraqi Museum of History and was preceded by a briefing with Dr. Abdul Razak, President of the Peace and Friendship Society. Dr. Razak was very informative in his presentation. Click here for excerpt.
In the afternoon we visited the Amiriya Bomb Shelter. This is the infamous shelter next to a school in Baghdad that was deliberately bombed by Allied planes in February of 1991. The museums guide told us that at least 408 mostly women and children were killed.
The next day in Baghdad, the 8th, we were at the Baghdad University for a lecture on the 'Environmental impact of the War and Sanctions' by Dr. Souad Al-Azzawi (Env.Eng.Dept., College of Engineering, University of Baghdad). Click here for data.
We followed this lecture with a visit to the Al-Mansour Children's Hospital for a brief introduction and tour of the hospital. Dr. Mahmoud Mkai was very gracious, under the circumstances. Click here for excerpt of his briefing. The suffering at this hospital was heartbreaking, and it was difficult for us to observe the situation.
On Monday, the 9th, we departed for Basrah in an air-conditioned Mercedes tour bus. Upon arrival in Basrah, we checked into the Basrah Sheraton, a previous 5 star that had seen better days. Our accommodations looked out over the Shatt-al-Arab waterway.
The following day we traveled 45 minutes south of Basrah to the Abul Khasib valley. The Labanni Water Treatment plant that we were to renovate appeared much larger than we had anticipated. Due to war and sanctions this plant is barely operating. Our job, with the Iraq Water Project, was to put the original plant back in operating order. After repairing the roof over the main pump house, our job was to begin the work of rebuilding one of the four pumps, repair the water filtration tanks, and get the chlorinator working and mixing again properly. With a budget of only $35,000 USD, we were amazed at the ambitious plan for the renovation. In the US, such a plant remodel would cost upwards of a quarter million USD.
Our team worked very hard the first day in the heat, and truly impressed the government authorities, our LIFE representatives, and the contractor and workmen on the site. They all did not fully realize that our team was serious in wanting to do actual physical work on the work site. Working alongside the Iraqis was an experience we had wanted to share, and we all learned much about the obstacles facing the ordinary people on the ground.
In the evening, at sunset, we were invited to a boat ride in two small tour boats. We departed the dock near the Sheraton, and traveled upriver some four or five miles. We were able to observe several overturned ships still laying in ruins along the banks of the wonderful Shatt-Al-Arab waterway.
On Wednesday, part of our team continued to work at the Labbani site. The other part visited other LIFE projects in Basrah. LIFE provided funding for the renovation and maintenance of altogether 14 schools, among them the three grammar schools and the orphanage we visited. In the schools we distributed school knapsacks including books, pencils and writing tablets to the children.
In the evening, we had the honor to be invited by the Governor of Basrah, General Ahmad Ibraheem Hammash. We listened attentively to his briefing, and were allowed a 45-minute question and answer period. It turned out that the Governor was commander of the opposing forces that had fought against one of our Gulf Vets. It was a memorable meeting, and the Governor was polite and warm. Our briefing was a measure of the importance to which the Iraqi Government sees our project and it's potential to affect the sanctions.
On Thursday, the 12th, our last day in Basrah, some of us continued working on the site, while the rest of us visited the Basrah Maternity and Children's Hospital and were briefed by a Dr. Faisal and another Obstetrician on the situation of many birth defects in proportion to the general population elsewhere. This hospital visit was very moving, emotional and informative. We observed a room with more than one hundred large color photographs of babies born at this hospital with severe birth defects. Though the hospital administrators were careful in their statements about the causes of these birth defects ( DU, malnutrition, other ), it was clear that the numbers significantly increased since the war. It was at this hospital, that we delivered some ten boxes of donated medical supplies that were gathered by our friends at MEDIC of Illinois, and mailed to our delegates for transportation to Basrah. These supplies were greatly appreciated, inventoried, and distributed. Many thanks to Jeanne Lang and MEDIC for their support. We also delivered some supplies donated by Phelps Community Hospital in Garberville, CA.
After returning to the Labanni work site, we arranged our VFP banners in several spots and took our publicity and group photos. Team member Barry Riesch presided over a ceremony to bless this water treatment plant, and to protect the people in this area. It was a quiet and moving celebration. We left the plant with the knowledge that the work we started will be completed within the next months and there would be clean water when we return. Current plans are that Team Two will visit this plant for a dedication and opening inspection.
In the afternoon, we visited the water plant at Abu Floos, one of the three plants we are contracted to renovate on the second team, Team Two. At Abu Floos, we walked through the village and observed some damage from a bombing attack in 1998 that had killed 17 and wounded numerous others. We will make it a point to rebuild this plant, located behind the school, as soon as possible. The plant manager happened to be a wounded veteran of the war with Iran. We also visited another one of the three plants we will be rebuilding at Hamden Jissir.
On Friday, the 13th, our delegation packed up and headed for Baghdad. Along the way, we had a chance to visit Qurna, the village located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and the beginning of the Shatt-Al-Arab waterway. This is the location of the famous "Garden of Eden". We asked Dr Yarub of LIFE to make a preliminary inquiry to the status of a run-down and inoperable water plant at this village location.
On Saturday, we saw one of LIFE's projects in Baghdad. Our delegation visited a Islamic Youth Center supported by our hosts LIFE for Relief and Development. They have several computer school labs with up to date equipment, more than 30 computers, divided into three labs for beginner to advanced. The complex also included a room of sewing machines to learn making clothes.
Afterwards, we visited the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon. We were impressed with the museum and the quality of the restoration work being undertaken at this location. Later in the afternoon, we visited the town of Kerbala, a major city South of Baghdad with some famous mosques.
The next was already our last day in Iraq. We went to an old market and other significant sites. Another museum, more shopping, an afternoon lunch at a Baghdad version of fast food, and then a visit up to the top floor of Saddam Center, a spire and restaurant 34 floors high. The view of Baghdad was stupendous, and awe inspiring. The evening was punctuated by the sounds and sights of clebratory fireworks over the Tigris River, as the day was the anniversary of Saddam's re-election in 1995.
Monday, the 16th, we loaded up in the four Chevy Suburban for the long trip through the desert back to Amman. All of our delegates arrived home safely.