Our second patrol from FOB Justice took us to see the after effects of war and economic ruin. Iraq’s economy is booming, but unemployment remains a major problem, and a major wedge for the various insurgencies that plague the country.
The displaced Shia we meet on this drivealong have ended up in makeshift slums that have popped up all over Baghdad where the loss of jobs has driven people from their homes. Across the highway from this city of cinder blocks, called Skut, there are homes and shops and schools like any normal neighborhood, but on this side, the homes are made of whatever the refugees could cobble together. The one vendor shop looks like a squared off pile of garbage.
Officially, these slums don’t exist. Unofficially, they’re a source of recruits for JAM and other militias. That’s one of several reasons they need to be cleaned up, and the best way to do that is for the Iraqi government to stop pretending that they don’t exist and for the adults here to find jobs. The first will help make the second possible. School for the kids can come once these places have security and aren’t breeding grounds for Moqtada al-Sadr to exploit. And once the rockpiles have been replaced by real homes.
Even though it could be argued that Iraqi’s economic collapse is an after effect of the ouster of Saddam and the subsequent collapse of basic law and order, the slum dwellers we talked to were pretty happy to see the Americans pull up. To many Iraqis, the Americans are the one group that actually picks up the phone and at least tries to do something about their problems. The government tends to turn a deaf ear. The militias want too much quid pro quo. Al Qaeda and the true insurgents are just remorseless killers.
The UN’s Oil-For-Food program was supposed to prevent Iraq’s weakest from just this sort of calamity. Instead OFF cash went to build palaces like Al Faw, near Baghdad Airport, and the unfinished Victory Over America palace. Iraq was a failed state before 2003; the world just didn’t know it yet. It took an invasion to find out.
Looming over the slum is a sort of monument to Benan Sevan and Kofi Annan: An Oil-For-Food warehouse. Captain Stacy Bare, civil affairs officer at Forward Operating Base Justice near here, describes Oil-For-Food as “the worst thing the UN could have done” for Iraq. I’d say it’s the second worst, the worst being the UN’s failure to enforce its own resolutions against Saddam. But I won’t argue with Bare’s assessment of OFF. It was a travesty that fueled a tragedy.
So we pull up on the edge of Skut and dismount from our Hummers. Kids approach us with ready grins while the adults hang back a little bit. When one of our officers pulls a stack of blankets out of the trunk of one of the convoy’s Hummers to give to a few families, smiles break out and widen. Soon everyone is greeting the Americans, and our interpreters (or “terps” in milspeak) are overworked with conversation. I bring out my video camera to document the interaction, and kids from 3 or 4 to early teens swarm me trying to get me to take their picture. A few times I flip the viewscreen around so the kids could see themselves in it. You’ve never seen more silly mugging for the camera in your life. When you have nothing and live in a house made from whatever, the least little novelty can keep you and your friends amused indefinitely.
Or maybe a little less than indefinitely. The kids kept coming up to me and yelling what to my untrained ear sounded like “tomba, tomba!” I had no idea what they were asking me until one of our interpreters explained that they were saying “ball.” Pretty soon I heard one kid say “fut bol” and then it clicked–they want soccer balls. These kids have nothing. No PS3. No Wii or Nintendo DS (though a few do have pirated satellite dishes, and televisions powered by illegally tapping into the power lines overhead. MacGyver would be proud of the ingenuity on display here). They just want a ball to kick around in the dirt and chase around with their friends. It just about broke my heart to explain that I didn’t have a soccer ball to give them. Not that they understood a word I was saying. They just kept mugging for the camera.
They’re beautiful kids. To look at them away from Skut if you could, you might not even think that they’re dirt poor. They look healthy, they’re perfectly groomed and they have that boundless energy that all kids have and all adults wish they had. When you see them you’ll want to adopt half of them and make sure the other half get a good home with a solid family. But the truth is, they have good families and they’re living with them. They are just the unfortunate and innocent victims of tyranny and war. Their parents need jobs and money and security from terrorists, insurgents and the militias and death squads. The kids need a chance to get educations and get on the path to better lives out of the slums. They’re free of Saddam’s hated rule now, but they’re trapped by centuries of culture and decades under a madman’s bloody boot.
Iraq could be prosperous, stable and free, and sooner than most people think. But to get there its people will have to get over their sectarian differences and see themselves as Iraqis first. Or better yet, as humans first. Can they? In time, maybe. But not tomorrow or next week. It’s going to take time to cool things down. It’s going to take the presence of a benevolent outside power to give them that time.
The Iraqis say they need 15 years of peace before they’ll be a normal nation again. Iraq hasn’t known 15 years of peace in forever, it has barely known 15 minutes of peace, and it’s in the wrong neighborhood to expect more than a year or two of peace in a run. Then again, for the past 35 years Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was the fountainhead for much of the region’s unrest, and he’s gone. So maybe a few years of peace aren’t too much to hope for. Eventually.
Iraq’s next generation just wants to play a little soccer. What might the next few decades look like if their soccer balls bore a stamp saying “Gift of the United States of America”?
Correction: I erroneously called the slum “Rasul.” It’s name is in fact Skut, so I’ve changed the text to reflect that.