Saturday, December 20, 2003

Back from Basrah

Got back the day before yesterday. We spent two days there and we should be back next monday. Basrah is truly wonderful and unlike anything I expected. The weather is warm, electric power is available 24/7, mobile phones have already flourished, clean streets, IP everywhere, very little traffic jams, no endless queues at petrol stations, and most importantly the security situation is much stable. I didn't hear a single gunshot during my two days stay, whereas in Baghdad gunfire and sudden explosions have become the background of everyday activity. It was almost as if we had left Iraq and visited another country.

We started the journey from Al-Nahdha garage in central Baghdad. We chose to rent a '91 Caprice (nicknamed dolphin by Iraqis) and took the Baghdad-Kut-Ammarah-Basrah road. the whole trip took 7 hours counting several stops en route for lunch and refueling.

In itself the road the was really interesting albeit exhaustive. For me it was the first time to visit the south, I've been to Karbala and Hilla and have also visited most of northern Iraq. So the prospect was a bit exciting as we were going to see new places.

First thing we witnessed was the extent of damage the power grid has sustained. We drived by hundreds and hundreds of fallen towers or poles carrying high tension cables between Baghdad and Basrah. Miles over miles of discontinuation in power lines. I took several pictures of these. As you can see there are small tents beneath undamaged towers, these are for guards recruited by the ministry of electricity to protect the power lines from saboteurs and looters. It was an ugly sight and I got depressed pondering the amount of time and money to fix all this mess.

Another thing which caught my attention was the sheer poverty many people along the road were living in, particularly in both the Wasit (Kut) and the Maysan (Ammarah) governorates. Villages were composed of scattered mud huts surrounded by vast wastelands. Even their schools were built of mud. Interesting though that you would find some of these with satellite dishes on their roofs. I'm thinking of moving into one of these mud huts myself just for the luxury of continous electricity and the peace and quiet.

We also passed through about 20 IP checkpoints between Baghdad and Basrah (good), but very few coalition soldiers were to be seen. I saw what looked like Polish or Ukrainian soldiers near Kut and a few convoys of Brits in both the Maysan and Basrah governorates.

It was a bit depressing to realize that all the postwar problems and much of the violence were concentrated in the capital. The farther we went from Baghdad, the more we felt secure and safer. Life in Basrah looked pretty normal. British soldiers wandered freely around town with very little protection. The Brits use Land Rovers for patrolling and soldiers don't wear bullet-proof vests. It was obvious that they were facing less troubles there than American troops in the northern and central Iraq.

The taxi driver who took us to the hotel looked bewildered when we were telling him about the situation in Baghdad. He was whining about the electricity situation and said that during some days they would experience 2 or 3 hours of outages due to maintenance. When we enlightened him that we were suffering from 16 hours of outage a day in Baghdad he almost cried out of pity for us.

Basrawis are a very simple and friendly people. They bore the brunt of all of the wars Iraq had gone through over the last two decades. And it isn't hard to understand why they fervently hate Saddam and the Ba'ath. It was very evident from the slogans and graffiti all over town. Basrah residents are mostly Shi'a, but there are Sunni families and a sizeable Christian community as well.

Another thing we noticed was the absence of road blocks and concrete barriers which have infested Baghdad. IP stations were unprotected, and you would find only barbed wire surounding British military camps.

Of course we didn't have much free time to tour the whole city, but I guess we will after having settled down in our next visit. There is much to see. We encountered some problems at the Basrah Health Directorate. The person who was supposed to assign us to a dental center turned out to be a grumpy rude man. He said that they didn't need any additional dentists in Basrah and that they had enough already. When we handed him the ministerial order he almost told us to shove it up our *. He reverted after a while and took it telling us to return on tuesday. Luckily we found an influential acquaintance in Basrah who promised that he would look into the matter and get us a good dental center there.

You can check out some pictures of Basrah and from the road in the Basrah album on the sidebar under Photo blogs. I also arranged the albums of last weeks demonstrations since many newcomers are having a hard time finding them.