The Magazine

Down and Out in Umm Qasr

The fighting is over; the struggle continues.

Apr 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 31 • By MATT LABASH
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Umm Qasr, Iraq

THE ROAD FROM KUWAIT TO UMM QASR is straight T.E. Lawrence with a postmodern twist. Camels leisurely clip-clop across the asphalt highway, while lonely shrubs sprout in the desert in stubborn defiance of the dead earth beneath them. Convoying reporters pop out of buses, clicking "happy snappy's" of bedouins tending their livestock from the cockpits of Japanese-made pick-up trucks.

The ranks of unembedded journalists who make this standard day trip under the sponsorship of the military, Kuwaitis, or humanitarian organizations have various names for it: The Milk Run, The Trip to The Science Fair, The Prop-Op (as in, propaganda operations). They look at it as a great way to dip into Iraq and escape their Kuwaiti hotels while searching for reliable interpreters and extra gas cans to plot their journeys to much sexier Baghdad. "As a story, Umm Qasr is so over," one newspaper reporter recently said, of the place that just two weeks ago was the hottest ticket in Kuwait City. In fact, the story's being over for these stone-broke southern Iraqis who hug the borderlands of civilization is precisely what worries them.

Last week, two days before the unofficial fall of Baghdad, a group of us roll into Camp Khor, a Kuwaiti outpost near the border that is shared with the British Army. Until recently, it was also a U.N. compound, and the walls are still dotted with "Hello Bangladesh!" tourism posters, left over from the mostly Bangladeshi U.N. employees who hightailed it out of here before the shooting began. "They couldn't run fast enough," one British soldier says, "though they'll probably try to come back now that it's bloody well safe." Inside the compound, a British Army spokesman outlines the dire state of humanitarian affairs in the place where we're headed.

The rampant looting now underway in Iraq (which my optimistic colleague P.J. O'Rourke assures me "will eventually evolve into shopping") is its own sort of entertainment. There's something deeply, seriously satisfying about watching the Iraqi hoi polloi walk off with Tariq Aziz's good china and DVD collection. But otherwise, what has made excellent television has wreaked havoc on medical care in Iraq, where hospitals have been looted. In Baghdad, scores of people have been hospitalized with gunshot wounds sustained in looting fracases, and health care facilities have been relieved of everything from wheeled beds to ambulances.

After the briefing, a Kuwaiti Ministry of Information official encourages me to go up and meet their minister of health, under whose auspices we are traveling for the purpose of dropping off medical supplies in Umm Qasr. He tells me that I'd better do it quickly, since the minister will have to peel off before crossing the border. "He has to be invited by the Iraqi government," he says, for reasons of sovereignty. "They don't have a government," I reply. "They will soon," the official says with a grudge-settling smile.

At the last stop before Kuwait turns into Iraq, the checkpoint is dotted with warning signs such as "Accident blackspot" and "Warning, You Are Approaching the Border of Iraq." The most curious one is mounted to a steel girder near a sand berm, and says "Please do not feed the kids." On an Umm Qasr trip the day before this one, a colleague and I asked an Australian public affairs officer why we were forbidden from feeding children. "Maybe they bite," he said. As our bus crossed over, and we saw lean and leathery kids running alongside us, we ignored the sign. I reached into my swag bag for some gum, and handed three sticks to a colleague to shower on young supplicants outside his window. He did so, and a kid who looked to be six years old picked the sticks off the ground. An older boy ran over to him, and cracked him in the skull, taking the gum. "I guess that's why we're not supposed to feed them," my colleague deduced.

Today as we drive through, it's the same crowd, only there are lots more of them. It's as if the circus is in town, and it's us--which is perhaps not surprising in a city that features nothing but run-down shacks and trash-strewn lots. The only noticeable signs of urban planning are the scores of Saddam murals, freshly defaced. There are so many of them that soldiers frequently use them to give directions: Take a right by the Saddam with the three blood-red X's on his face, then a left by the Saddam with the bullet hole in his forehead.