|'You're late. What took you so long? God help you become victorious' |
'I want to say hello to Bush, to shake his hand'
James Meek in Safwan
Saturday March 22, 2003
Yesterday afternoon a truck drove down a side road in the Iraqi town of Safwan, laden with rugs and furniture. Booty or precious possessions? In a day of death, joy and looting, it was hard to know.
As the passengers spotted European faces, one boy grinned and put his thumb up. The other nervously waved a white flag. The mixed messages defined the moment: Thank you. We love you. Please don't kill us.
US marines took Safwan at about 8am yesterday. There was no rose-petal welcome, no cheering crowd, no stars and stripes.
Afraid that the US and Britain will abandon them, the people of Safwan did not touch the portraits and murals of Saddam Hussein hanging everywhere. It was left to the marines to tear them down. It did not mean there was not heartfelt gladness at the marines' arrival. Ajami Saadoun Khlis, whose son and brother were executed under the Saddam regime, sobbed like a child on the shoulder of the Guardian's Egyptian translator. He mopped the tears but they kept coming.
"You just arrived," he said. "You're late. What took you so long? God help you become victorious. I want to say hello to Bush, to shake his hand. We came out of the grave."
"For a long time we've been saying: 'Let them come'," his wife, Zahara, said. "Last night we were afraid, but we said: 'Never mind, as long as they get rid of him, as long as they overthrow him, no problem'." Their 29-year-old son was executed in July 2001, accused of harbouring warm feelings for Iran.
"He was a farmer, he had a car, he sold tomatoes, and we had a life that we were satis fied with," said Khlis. "He was in prison for a whole year, and I raised 75m dinars in bribes. It didn't work. The money was gone, and he was gone. They sent me a telegram. They gave me the body."
The marines rolled into the border town after a bombardment which left up to a dozen people dead. Residents gave different figures. A farmer, Haider, who knew one of the men killed, Sharif Badoun, said: "Killing some is worth it, to end the injustice and suffering." The men around him gave a collective hysterical laugh.
The injustice of tyranny was merged in their minds with the effects of sanctions. "Look at the way we're dressed!" said Haider, and scores of men held up their stained, holed clothes. "We are isolated from the rest of the world."
The marines took Safwan without loss, although a tank hit a mine. "They had to clear that route through. They found the way to punch through and about 10 Iraqi soldiers surrendered immediately," said Marine Sergeant Jason Lewis, from Denver, standing at a checkpoint at the entrance to the town where, minutes earlier, a comrade had folded a huge portrait of President Saddam and tucked it into his souvenir box.
The welcome, he admitted, had been cool. "At first they were a little hesitant," he said. "As you know, Saddam's a dictator, so we've got to reassure them we're here to stay _ We tore down the Saddam signs to show them we mean business.
"Hopefully this time we'll do it right, and give these Iraqis a chance of liberty."
But the marines' presence was light. They had not brought food, medicines, or even order. All day hundreds of armoured vehicles poured through the town. But they did not stop, and the looting continued. Every government establishment seemed to be fair game. People covered their faces in shame as they carried books out of a school. Tawfik Mohammed, the headmaster, initially denied his school had been looted, then admitted it. "This is the result of your entering," he said. "Whenever any army enters an area it becomes chaos. We are cautious about the future. We are very afraid."
Safwan yesterday was a place where people were constantly taking you aside to warn in veiled terms that it was necessary to be careful. Everywhere was the lingering fear that the revenge killings that swept the area in 1991 - a product of US encourage ment and then abandonment of the southern Iraqi revolt - could happen again.
"Now, we are afraid [Saddam's] government will come back," said Haider, as the Safwan Farmers' Cooperative was being looted behind him. "We don't trust the Americans any more. People made a revolution, and they didn't help us."
Safwan is a crumbling, dead-end place, full of poor, restless young men, and reliant on the tomato trade for its income. Farmers were panicking yesterday as they asked journalists, in lieu of anyone better, how they were supposed to sell their tomatoes.
A handful of soldiers, mainly US marines but with a few British, are struggling to cope with the chaos and the lack of health care or aid.
At a checkpoint just north of the town two British military policemen with paramedical training and a US doctor rushed to treat two Iraqi men brought in on the back of a beaten-up pick-up truck. Their legs were lacerated by shrapnel. The military policemen did their conscientious best, and may have saved their lives.