Baghdad to Babylon

- and water infrastructure and Bechtel, Bechtel, Bechtel

The last two days found me traveling to the south to collect data on a report on the water infrastructure, as well as an attempt to visit Babylon. My traveling companion was an American photographer Max Whittaker, and ever-trusted Hamoudi, our ace driver and interpreter.

Driving south we pass several destroyed Iraqi tanks. We stop to photograph them, and two Iraqi men are hammering off scraps of the metal. We tell them they have been hit with Depleted Uranium and are very poisonous, but the men continue with their work anyhow.

We stopped in several villages along the way en route to Hilla, Najaf, and Diwaniyah to check on people’s drinking water situation, as these all lie within the area Bechtel is responsible for improving the water situation.

Most of the water information I obtained will come out later in a report, so only bits will be included here. This is basically a diary of a frenetic two day road-trip. But this first little village just outside of Hilla, found us amidst fields and palm trees, and people asking us for help. This set the tone of the entire trip.

An old man with a weathered face shows us his scrappy water pump, sitting lifeless with an empty container nearby as there was no electricity. What water they did have was loaded with salt from the region, and was making everyone sick with nausea, diarrhea, kidney stones, cramps, and cholera. This too would be a steady trend for the villages we visited.

Aside from the desperate water situation, the man asks us if we can help him find his cousin. He pleads to us, "He was in the Iraqi Army and has been missing since the invasion. We just want to know if he's dead, so we can bury the body. Can you help us?"

We give him information for an NGO that may be able to help him in Baghdad, and then found our way to occupied Babylon. We failed to meet up with Jo Wilding and her traveling circus, who were going to let us be their photographers so as to get into Babylon. See, it's now the Polish base, as well as other countries. So the cradle of civilization is not encircled with spiraling razor wire, sandbags, guard towards, and heavily fortified checkpoints.

As we are entering a convoy of 10 Kuwaiti fuel trucks driven by overweight Anglo men wearing flack jackets and helmets passes us. They are escorted by two Humvees. Each truck has a sign on it that says, 'KBR owned asset’. Another of the trucks pulling a tank of petrol has a sign on it that says, 'First Kuwaiti Construction Company.’ The last word I got was that these truck drivers started out making $125,000 US per year. They won't hire Iraqis because they don't trust them.

After not finding our friends, we go on in to check out the press conference for the new Polish general taking the reigns of this area, Major General Miecyslaw Bieniak. Inside a large tent with cookies and cakes, we listen to the usual prattle about how they "are here to help the Iraqi people," and to please stay out of the way of the convoys.

Just yesterday an Iraqi family was killed by getting in the way of a convoy. When asked about this, one of the Polish soldiers said, and I quote, "Accidents happen.” When the general was asked about having free elections in Iraq, he looked down and had the body language of someone who was punched in the stomach. He paused and then gave the usual answer of when security permits, when the UN thinks it is best, when the CPA feels it is best, and more of the usual lines. He continually went out of his way to say, 'This is not a military operation, it is a political mission first, THEN a military operation.'

Hamoudi was pissed because the general didn't even pronounce Iraq properly.

Needless to say, we weren't allowed to visit Babylon. So close but so far. You have to pre-arrange it with a military escort-which entails driving to the camp, putting your name on a list, and then coming back at that time and 'maybe' you'll get in.

Why is this historically significant area now an ugly military camp?

As per most other areas in Iraq, one of Saddam's palaces on a hill overlooking the area is now being used by the military.

A large explosion is heard in the distance as we walk back to the brand new Tacoma we were driven in with. It sites amongst a parking lot full of Humvees, and other brand new Suburbans and Tacoma's, each with signs on the windshields that say 'KBR vehicle numbers', as if it wasn't obvious.

We pull out of the parking area and pass a small tent with a sign that reads, 'ATT&T Salutes the Armed Forces. Call home now!' Chevy, Ford, AT&T, KBR, Halliburton, Bechtel, and how many other countless multi-nationals are cashing in on the destruction of Iraq?

Back out the razor wire and weaving past the suicide bomber barriers, past the Iraqi man with the badge that says, 'KBR-HCR Subcontract Labor', and a Polish soldier sitting behind a bunker with an RPG.

Hamoudi tells us just two months ago there was only one checkpoint outside the base, now there are three. But I never got searched.

We carry on towards Najaf, passing several Humvees full of soldiers from El Salvador, while Max and I give Hamoudi the quick rundown of the irony of having Central American soldiers in Iraq 'helping' the US, after what the US government has done to so many countries in Central America, primarily in the 1980's.

The rest of our trip was comprised of a frenetic tour of stopping by villages both near and inside the city limits of Hilla, Najaf, and Diwaniya. Hilla, right near Babylon, has a water treatment plant and distribution center that is managed by Salmam Hassan Kadel, who is also the Chief Engineer. The wastewater project here, like in Najaf and Diwaniya, is specifically named on Bechtel's contract as one that they are responsible for rehabilitating.

Mr. Kadel informed me that he has received help from UNICEF, Red Cross and several others. He told me that even during the war they had running water in every house, and just had the normal problems of needing to replace old pipes and pumps. Now, they are supplying 50% of the water they need for the people of Hilla. The villages have no water, and they don't have the pipes they need to get the work done.

And they have had no contact from Bechtel or a subcontractor of said. He tells of massive numbers of people with cholera, diarrhea, nausea, and kidney stones.

Mr. Kadel says, "Bechtel is spending all of their money without any studies. We give our NGO's all of our information before they do the work, and they know what to do. Bechtel is painting buildings, but this doesn't give clean water to the people who have died from drinking contaminated water. We ask of them that instead of painting buildings, they give us one water pump and we'll use it to give water service to more people. We have had no change since the American's came here. We know Bechtel is wasting money, but we can't prove it."

Just outside of Hilla I speak with several men of a small village. It's the usual story-no running water, maybe 2-4 hours of electricity per day to run their feeble pumps to pull in contaminated water for them to use.

An old man, Hussin Hamsa Nagem, tells me, "This is just like Saddam's time. In fact, it is worse. We have less water now than before. We are all sick with stomach problems and kidney stones. Our crops are dying."

At another small village between Hilla and Najaf, 1500 people are drinking water from a dirty stream which slowly trickles near the homes. Everyone has dysentery, many with kidney stones, a huge number with cholera. One of the men, holding a sick child, tells me, "It was much better before the invasion. We had 24 hours running water then. Now we are drinking this garbage because it is all we have."

A little further down the road at a village of 6000 homes called Abu Hidari, it is more of the same. Here, Saddam was rebuilding the pipes, but this ceased during the invasion and has yet to be resumed. The women are carrying water from a nearby dirty creek into their homes, because again, they have no other option.

After a night in Najaf, the next morning finds me at yet another village on the outskirts of Najaf, which falls under the responsibility of Najaf's water center. Here the people had been pro-active in collecting funds from each house to install new pipes. But due to lack of electricity and lack of water from the Najaf water treatment center, they are suffering.

A large hole is dug into the ground where they tapped into already existing pipes to siphon water. It fills the dirty hole in the night, when water is collected. This morning, children stand around it as women collect what little bit of dirty water which stands in the bottom of the hole.

Dysentery, cholera, nausea, diarrhea, kidney stones. Everyone is suffering from some water-born illness here, like the rest. 8 children from the village have been killed when attempting to cross the busy highway to a nearby factory in order to retrieve clean water.

Women are walking 1 km down to a stream, which dries up in the summer, to collect water for their homes. In the same stream other people are washing their dishes and doing laundry. I am told that many children from the village have drowned in this stream while collecting water.

After translating for upwards of several hundred men from at least 10 different villages in this region south of Baghdad, at one point Hamoudi, with a tired and sad look on his face, said,” I cannot do this work. They are desperate. They are asking me to help, and I can do nothing for these people. I'm very tired."

Mr. Mehdi is an engineer and Assistant Manager at the Najaf water distribution center. With help from Red Cross and the Spanish Army, they are doing some of the rebuilding on their own. He tells me Bechtel has begun working on the Arzaga Water Project to help bring water into the city center of Najaf. He says that Bechtel started one month ago; painting buildings, cleaning and repairing storage tanks and repairing and replacing sand filters.

This is the only project he knows of that Bechtel has been working on in Najaf. There has been no work on desalinization, which is critical in this area, or other purification processes.

He states, "Bechtel is repairing some water facilities, but not improving the electricity any, which is their responsibility. Their work has not produced any more clean water than what we already had. Bechtel has not spoken with us, or promised us to do anything else."

I ask him if he thinks Bechtel can meet their contractual obligation of restoring potable water supply in all of the urban centers of Iraq by April 17th, and he laughs.

I ask him, "How successful has Bechtel been in restoring electrical service to your water facility which depends on electricity to operate?" He tells me at least 30% of Najaf doesn't have clean water simply because of lack of electricity.

In Diwaniya, and each of the 5 other villages I visited the story is the same. Change the names of the people and the names of the city/village, and we find cholera, dysentery, diarrhea, nausea, less than 8 hours of electricity per day, contaminated water (or no water), and everyone is suffering.

All of these people are Shi'ite Muslims, those the US hopes to gain the support of. Those who have been promised the most, and had the most hope for a better life now that they are no longer living in the shadow of Saddam Hussein. These are the people who suffered the most from his regime.

I am here to state, unequivocally, that 100% of the people I spoke with in this area south of Baghdad have stated that their living conditions are worse now than when Saddam was in power.

Mr. Hassan Mehdi Mohammed lives in a small village with his wife and 8 children, about an hour drive south of Baghdad. His village has 80% unemployment. He tells me, "The American's have come and taken everything but have given us nothing. It is worse than before. We were hoping it would be better than before, but now it is worse. The IGC has forgotten to take care of the Iraqi people."

I ask him what he thinks needs to occur to improve their situation.

"First, we need security. But the American's aren't even safe themselves. They are killed everyday. We like to hear that companies are coming here and we can work for them, but the IGC is always disagreeing amongst themselves. They have done nothing to help. We need free elections; this would be good for the people and give them hope. But we know Mr. Bremer will cheat us with those."

I ask him what he thinks will happen here in the near future.

"If we don't get our elections, there will be a bloody war. I fear a civilian war.” More of his children come sit with us as we drink chai and talk. He continues,” I think the American's came here because they want something, not just because they love the Iraqi people. If they really came to help, then they should leave quickly. Now we are waiting for the next 6 months. The longer we wait, the more we see their promises are not being kept."

He takes a sip of chai, thinks for a moment, and says,” No occupation ever makes things good for the people. All the people in the world must know the American's are here just to help Mr. Bush win this next election. The same people who benefited under Saddam are benefiting more now. And the same people, who suffered under Saddam, are suffering even more now."

His brother-in-law, Saduk al Abid, who has joined the discussion, says,” Iraqi people now have no trust in the American's or the IGC. They have given us one empty promise after another. We can feel the emptiness of all of their promises now."

Both of these men fought in the Intifada against Saddam Hussein in 1991. Now they both lack jobs and are suffering worse than before. Mr. Abid says, "During Saddam's time we could at least find a job and bring home some money. Now, we cannot."

We drive the rest of the way back to Baghdad and listen to the news of a bus being exploded by an IED on the Dora Highway, and three US soldiers missing near Mosul. More Iraqi Police are killed in this incident as well.

Last night we hear a couple of loud explosions, then listen to the warning sirens wailing from the CPA headquarters in Baghdad as it was once again attacked with rockets. Several Bradley fighting vehicles rumble down the street under my window, and helicopters fly across Baghdad in different directions.

(Dahr Jamail is an independent freelance journalist from Anchorage, Alaska. He came to Iraq to bear witness and document the effects of the occupation on the Iraqi people because he feels that the US media has, in large part, failed to do so.)