Near the Kuwait-Iraq border, March 25: From the vantage point somewhere in this Arabian desert vastness, the horizon to the northeast is marked by plumes of smoke that are sometimes faint and sometimes prominent.
That is where Iraq’s Umm Qasr and then on Basra are. Battles still rage there because an all but defeated army has rolled itself up into little knots of resistance in the face of the coalition military might.
From where those columns of smoke rise, there is a people waiting for water, food and shelter. From where we stand, those columns of smoke might as well have been from smouldering ruins of the United Nations.
We are at a point that should otherwise have been part of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) monitored by the United Nations Iraq Kuwait Observer Mission (Unikom).
Staffed by handpicked soldiers and officers from the world’s militaries, Unikom’s mandate has since been suspended. Its officers have withdrawn to safer havens, in the Kheitan support centre near Kuwait City, its other staff to Brindisi in Italy and Dhaka in Bangladesh.
Yesterday, Iraqi officers in Baghdad called UN secretary general Kofi Annan names, called him a “salaried employee of America”. The UN has not been able to prevent the war and now it is unable to enforce peace, they have alleged.
We cannot go beyond the point where we are. There is a crew from Latvian State Television with me. We have been warned, of course, that we go at our own risk and in any case we simply cannot make it to the border without military escort. We just wanted to check that out and here we are being turned back at a check post of the Kuwaiti Army. There is no question of resisting.
On the way, we have seen camps of the coalition forces from a distance, rows and rows of armoured vehicles, huge, sophisticated trucks and trailers.
In one camp we can make out the shapes of helicopters of different kinds — the Chinooks with their double rotors are easily identifiable — that take off and land in clouds of dust. The dust gets into everything, shoes, in the folds of clothes and in the ears, into the M4 rifles that the soldiers carry.
This is what used to be the “demilitarised zone”. It used to be to our right and to our left and even on the water.
Three roads lead into Iraq from Kuwait. The main road is “Route 80” or the Abdaly road. Abdaly is the last point on the border with Iraq along Route 80.
On the Iraqi side, the town facing Abdaly is Safwan. Safwan was overrun by the coalition forces in a blitz on Day 1 of the war.
Till two weeks ago, 4x4s of the Unikom, each with an officer and a soldier in the front seat, patrolled the Kuwait-Iraq border. The land border Unikom monitored was 200 km long, the maritime boundary, to our right, 45 km.
On its width, the DMZ used to stretch from 10 km inside Iraq to 5 km inside Kuwait. Umm Qasr, where Unikom was headquartered, lies on the far east of the border. That is also where the navigable Khwar Abdaly Waterway was used by the peacekeepers for maritime supervision.
The DMZ was divided into three sectors — the maritime with three Patrol Observation Bases (POBs), the northern with 8 POBs and the southern with 8 POBs. One of the maritime POBs was in Al Faw Peninsula that has been taken by the British Royal Commandos.
Unikom’s chief of staff, Brigadier Upinder Clair, a dashing-despite-his-age officer from the armoured corps of the Indian army, drove from POB to POB, in his 4X4, flying a white flag, a soldier or another officer by his side.
“We drove ourselves,” says Clair. “And we sent daily situation reports. We carried out aerial surveys by two choppers. We had boats and radars.”
In many ways, Unikom was a unique outfit even by UN standards. It was staffed by military observers from 31 countries, including representatives from all five permanent members of the Security Council. It had a battalion and a helicopter unit from Bangladesh and the Malteser German Medical Unit. Unikom’s commander is Major General Francziek Gagor of Poland.
Five days before the war began, Unikom noted breaches in the berms — walls of desert sand and stone — that determine the border. Closer to the 19th, the number of breaches increased. Unikom POBs in the isolated sectors began withdrawing from the 14th and on the night of 17th and 18th Unikom got orders to pull out.
For Brigadier Clair, it has afforded him the opportunity to meet his wife flying home to India from the US via Kuwait.
For Kofi Annan and the United Nations, there is no meeting ground on the Kuwait-Iraq frontier anymore.