Desperate Iraqis scuffle for aid packages


SAFWAN, Iraq - The barefoot boy, maybe 5 years old, was named Jan if he understood the question put to him yesterday, the day this one small child on this one small patch of blood-dampened desert scrambled for some benefit from war, a tiny benefit, but something.

Food arrived here yesterday in southernmost Iraq. Water did, too. To meet it came this little boy: dirty, thirsty, hungry, desperate, dressed in ragged clothing that just 54 miles to the south, in Kuwait City, would not be used to wipe down a car.

And with the boy came many other boys and many men and a few women and the chaos to be expected when three 18-wheel tractor-trailers filled with supplies arrive at a town in which people have been scooping rain from dirt puddles to wash and to drink.

The scene was a slice of war that has nothing to do with victory or defeat but with survival.

Journalists were there just before the arrival of the first supply trucks. About 150 reporters and cameramen had been corralled by the Kuwait Ministry of Information, packed into four buses and driven to the demilitarized zone that buffers Iraq and Kuwait, where the trucks had been waiting for them before heading into town.

When the reporters arrived, the supply trucks followed. The residents of Safwan first saw the journalists - hard to mistake with all the television cameras sprouting from the buses - and about 300 young men and boys raced about 400 yards from the gates of the city to a large flat area of desert ground the consistency of hot-chocolate mix.

No one outside Iraq had paid much attention to this town since 1991, when an American general and an Iraqi general met in a tent here, signed an agreement, and proclaimed to reporters an end to the Persian Gulf war - the first gulf war. Now that there's a second, the soldiers and the reporters were back.

Yesterday, the young Iraqis used the media to show - or at least feign - support for Saddam Hussein; the Kuwaiti government used the media and young Iraqis to demonstrate its concern for its neighbors; the journalists used the whole scene for their story of the day, dutifully recording the event designed to appear as if it had sprung spontaneously from the desert.

When the journalists poured out of their vehicles, the young Iraqis clustered into a solid circle, jumped pogo-style on one leg and chanted, "With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice for you Saddam!"

These were not the pictures the Kuwaiti government, nor the U.S. government, had hoped for, but the trucks with the food and water - adorned with giant signs that said, "A gift from the people of Kuwait to the people of Iraq" - were lagging behind and did not arrive until the Iraqis were already in a made-for-television frenzy.

When the trucks did arrive, about a minute later, the chants ended mid-sentence. The oaths of sacrifice of blood and soul gave way to the need for food and water.

Personal appeal for food

Jan, the little boy, ran from the crowd and the trucks and instead approached soldiers and reporters and begged for food, arching his back to thrust his belly forward, rubbing it in big circles in cartoon fashion, pulling an empty hand from an empty pocket, moving it to an empty mouth and pretending to chew. He seemed to sense the fight for the gifts would get ugly.

He was right.

The Iraqis swarmed to the back of the trucks. The longest arms grabbed at handles and swung giant doors open. Inside, boxes were stacked like small treasure chests. The long arms pulled the care packages to the ground.

Larger and stronger men pushed and pulled their way past smaller and weaker men and hoisted themselves up and onto the floors of the trailers. They tossed boxes to the scuffling people below, some of whom raised their arms as if providing goalposts for the hurlers.

As the boxes flew, as the trailers were emptying, more room was created on their floors. More men hoisted themselves up. Soon the trucks had more men than boxes in them, the trailers more packed than when they arrived, a mass of arms and legs and headdresses and robes and dirty clothes.

"This crazy," said Saad Juber-Sabah, a 17-year-old who was content with his one box of supplies and sat on it as if protecting a nest and watched the journalists watching the throng. "I am embarrassed."

Five weeks of food

According to aid workers, nobody is starving here, which does not mean that nobody is hungry. They estimate that food already available here will hold out for five weeks - longer as more supplies come in.

The situation is said to be the same in Basra and in Umm Qasr, which also received its first shipment of food, water and medicine yesterday.

Water is the real problem.

The war has knocked out water supplies to much of southern Iraq, including here in Safwan, and for the past several days residents have been dipping into puddles, wherever they can find them.

That has raised concerns of illness sweeping through the region, populated by a great number of people already malnourished.

In all, five trucks were sent into southern Iraq yesterday, loaded with 45,000 boxes filled with food, according to the Red Crescent Society. Plans had been to bring in supplies earlier, but fighting in the south continued longer than expected.

People in this part of Iraq were hungry before the war began, nearly all of them dependent on food handouts. The supplies delivered yesterday would provide one meal for each of the 17,000 residents if it were doled out equally. It was not.

Good will and mistrust

British soldiers were on hand to keep order, and they stood in a large half-circle, far from the desperate fingers and the big men who stacked boxes in front of them and the weaker young men and boys who grasped as much as they could, which meant they left with nothing or very little.

One soldier who had positioned himself on top of one of the trailers, with photographers snapping down at the crowd, abandoned that post when the crowd surged and real violence seemed possible.

There had been ambushes against troops from the United States and Britain on the road near this town earlier in the week. They were by Iraqis loyal to Saddam Hussein, who have taken to dressing just like these desperate people.

The soldiers on hand yesterday did not want to get too close because they were concerned that one of the people might be more interested in tossing a grenade their way than getting at the food and water.

"We'd like to help but it would be foolish to trust anybody," said one soldier, a man who identified himself only by his last name, Eppey, from Uxbridge, England.

"We're keen on staying alive."

The pro-Saddam chants did not bother him, he said. He understood the history of this place.

Hussein has long oppressed this area of Shiite Muslims, and most of the jumping and promises of loyalty were most likely for the cameras on hand, a show performed out of fear that Hussein could still somehow harm them.

He did just that after residents in the south of Iraq staged an uprising in 1991, the year of the first gulf war, at the urging of the United States and its allies. The residents fought but the war was over, at least for the allied forces, and many people here were killed by members of the fedayeen, Hussein's henchmen.

So, people interviewed here were reluctant to speak out against Hussein. Walid Al-Khalma, a 17-year-old deeply apologetic for not speaking better English - "No school 10 years," he said - had nothing bad to say about the Iraqi president. When pressed about him, though, he looked around a bit nervously to see who might be listening.

"Bad man," he said and pointed a thumb to the ground.

Who knows what Jan thinks of Hussein? Probably nothing.

Most likely, he was merely feeling fortunate 45 minutes after the trucks arrived. Somehow, maybe by scrambling through the tangle of legs, he walked across the small patch of desert with a tiny victory, some food wedged under his arms.

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