| A family runs past a destroyed Iraqi tank after a mortar attack on British army positions in Basra on Friday. (Reuters)
Safwan, Southern Iraq, March 28: Ten metres, just 10 metres to go, the Iraqi urchins and youth hang desperately to the container of the Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society on the trailer as the driver releases the accelerator to take a right turn, the doors swing wildly, a trench, a gate, the no-man’s land, a couple of mangy dogs, a watchtower and Iraq will end and Kuwait will begin.
Then the gunshots. Three at first, five, then nine.
The trailer is across the border, the buses in which journalists have been taken from Kuwait City are into Kuwait. Who fired: the British troops, the Kuwaiti army'
The sliver of Iraq across the sand shelf that demarcates the border was the first to be “liberated” when the military machine of the coalition forces rolled in a little over a week ago. At Safwan, the closest Iraqi town on the border, two container-loads of aid from the Kuwait Red Crescent Society are at Junine village.
At first the Iraqis come in a trickle, it builds up to a crowd in minutes and suddenly into a mob. The mangy dogs are looking for morsels. Ela Salah Waheli, a woman in purdah, has come to ask for medicine. Her diabetic husband is short of insulin. She cannot even get near the container. Ela has a family of six. Syed Hammdi, 11, who used to go to the Fayat Hammdi Madarsa, displays an Iraqi dinar with Saddam Hussein’s portrait. He is displaying the picture, not the currency note.
Hediya, who says her name means “gift”, raises her forefinger and cries insistently: “Just one, just one carton, please”. She is elderly, cannot push her way through. Just three in her family. The Red Crescent volunteers are dumping the cartons, the cartons are snatched, grabbed, torn apart. Inside there are tetrapacks of whole milk, bread, some grain.
On the far side, the coalition military machine rolls. Trailers, armoured personnel carriers, trucks with machine gunners and fuel for them. Farther east, a column of smoke rises from a wellhead in the Rumaila oilfields.
Fuel for a war over fuel.
“Are you Arabic'” Abdul Aziz comes up and asks. He knows a smattering of English.
“No, Indian. Do you live here'”
“I do. You Muslim'”
“Oh, all India Muslim.”
“Does that matter'”
“I no follow. Saddam salaam.”
“You don’t need food.”
“No. I have food for two months.” His Datsun half-truck is being used by others to load the cartons. The mob has raised a little dust storm. All around, there is frenetic shouting, hands reach out, pull down others near the containers.
Then there is a scream. Fellow traveller Yolanda Monge of the Spanish newspaper El Pais runs across to a bus, some 10, 15 youth chase her. She jumps into the bus, the driver, a Bangladeshi, Shaheen, speeds away.
Then the mob explodes. Abdul Aziz was distracting me as a boy unzipped my backpack and put his hand inside. Run, flee. All around, the others are doing the same. The bus screeches to a halt in front of a machine-gunner’s nest. British troops.
“I say,” bellows the sergeant. “We have a situation here, will you please get your asses off here'” It is a situation. How many times in India is relief “distributed” to the hungry after cyclones, droughts, wars'
This is supposed to be a publicity exercise for Kuwait, that it is concerned for the Iraqi people. Somebody has made a snatch at the cameras, somebody’s mobile phone is missing.
Junine, the village, doesn’t give a damn. This is the first village in liberated Iraq. The war is “young”, but this is where it is oldest. This is also southern Iraq, where a popular revolt by Shias was to aid the coalition military. No sign of it yet.
Safwan, Iraq’s tomato-growing town-cum-village, has about 23,000 people. Roughly half are Sunni, half Shia. Ravaged by war, denigrated as a people, Safwan can barely conceal its desperation.
The containers leave, earlier than scheduled, still some cartons inside them that the desperate youth snatch for, the buses follow and the gunshots.
Miraculously, the mangy dogs are across the border, too.