Basra is a town of 2 million souls just south and east of the Cradle of Civilization in Iraq.
I have taken vacation time to come here with my partner, the founder of a fire and rescue outfit that does work overseas. It is a volunteer position for me, something I do when this rescue team needs someone to buy equipment and set up logistics in places most people don’t know exist. We have come at the invitation of Great Britain’s Ministry of Defense to assess the fire services and suggest a program to train Iraqi firemen. We are in an armored Suburban heading for the center of Basra.
There is little to distinguish highway traffic from the burnt-out British armor littering the road. The trucks, especially, are rusted, decrepit hulks that bully their way through knots of cars and sometimes reverse directions unexpectedly, often driving the wrong way into oncoming traffic in potentially deadly games of chicken. The traffic and the trucks in Basra are a metaphor for this war zone’s confusion.
The security guys, our drivers, take us to a fire station that sits among the rubble of an entire city block that in America would be called a “vacant lot.” In Basra it is called “home” by dozens of people. The entire city is a mix of rubble and slum. “Beirut wasn’t this bad,” my friend says. An Aussie with us says, “Probably not. You can buy an AK for $20 on the corner. You can get a hand grenade for a buck and a half.”
Inside the firehouse sits a Mercedes fire truck. The fire trucks here, unlike nearly all other vehicles except for the Rolls Royces and Mercedes of the supremely wealthy, are new. They are eight speeds with top of the line Mercedes power. But they are fire trucks in name only. Many lack even hoses, and many never leave the firehouse unless it is a fire convenient enough to warrant stirring the men inside.
Traffic is heavy in town, and people seem to want the same space as the cars and donkey wagons. It would be impossible to prevent someone from walking up to the truck and drawing a pistol. That’s why there are armored vehicles. The Brits never travel in less than two of them, and they have two marines with their version of our M-16 standing up through a hole in the roof of each car. “Top cover,” they call it. They travel far enough apart to make it hard to get both vehicles at once, close enough to give and get maximum coverage. Foot traffic is heavy. A woman, her face, her entire being, covered in black, squats in the median.
There are plenty of Iraqis working in the compound. And there are two truck drivers sitting with two loaded wagons they have just pulled in. They don’t speak English, or indicate they don’t. Their truck has fewer wheels than it should, one axle having no wheels at all on one side. That is the least of its problems.
For two days we attend meetings and ride through the back streets of Basra. Swarms of
children mob the trucks. There is the feeling of being an invader, a feeling of claustrophobia, as if I might suffocate in the tide of a hostile people. I keep thinking about the places I do not want to take a bullet. My lower spine begins to sweat.
We have been asked for our proposal by the next day, and we deliver it on time. Outside the coalition force headquarters building the two Iraqi truck drivers keep on waiting. They are still waiting two days later when we get a ride to the airport on our way back to the UK. It does not seem to bother them, as if this was standard procedure.
The two drivers, showing no signs that they might get unloaded soon, smile through their broken and blackened teeth when I hold up my camera. They wrap their scarves in dashing fashion around their heads and necks and pose proudly in front of the scrap heap they call a truck.
All that was two months ago. No word from the men inside the building. If they have anything to do with getting that truck unloaded, those two Iraqi truck drivers may still be waiting. For them, there is no use calling dispatch.