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Iraq: No life Without a home

Since the attack on the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra on 22 February, involuntary population movements in Iraq have been on the increase. The Iraqi Red Crescent assists displaced families, providing them with relief, food and tents. One of its staff shares his personal impressions of a visit in May to the Nahrawan camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Baghdad.

I know what my mission is and am well prepared, promising myself that I will accomplish it without further delay. The Iraqi Red Crescent vehicle takes off at speed, the driver clearly anxious to get us safely to our destination and back. On the way, as we chat about this and that, from power cuts to traffic jams, our driver suddenly interjects bitterly: “This is no life... Even a mouthful of bread here tastes of blood.” Neither of us reacts; we are accustomed to such outbursts.

My colleague, a Red Crescent volunteer, asks me point-blank: “Have you ever been to a camp for displaced people before?” My answer is no. “You’ll see and judge for yourself,” is all he says. I am puzzled by his words.

The car comes to a halt, and the driver unloads the crates of food and other assistance. My colleague and I head for the nearest tent where a tall woman is standing. “We will never forget what you have done for us,” she says in greeting. At that moment, I see her world in a different light and wonder to myself: how can this woman live day after day in a tent?


Iraqi Red Crescent staff works in the front line throughout the whole country.

 




I am overcome by almost irrational sensations. The suffering is palpable, intense, visible not only in the faces around me but, curiously, also in the objects. As the woman raises her eyes to look at the sun, I can feel the dryness of her lips. She stumbles, recovers and, turning away from the light, exclaims angrily: “What can be more depressing than this setting sun?!” All of a sudden, I feel dizzy, at a loss for words. Noticing my unease, my colleague taps me on the shoulder. We go over to a child, his head deep in a book. The boy stops reading, stares at me for a moment in silence and then says gently: “Don’t worry, it will all be alright.” He is the one comforting me!

Coordination first

In order to provide humanitarian services throughout the country, the Iraqi Red Crescent Society works closely with the ICRC, the International Federation and neighbouring National Societies. The main areas of cooperation between the ICRC and the Iraqi Red Crescent are:
Emergency relief
Supporting conflict victims while strengthening the operational and logistical capacities of the Iraqi Red Crescent is the central goal of this partnership. A project to pre-position food and non-food items for 30,000 families, including displaced people, is under way and a revolving stock of emergency supplies has been established in Baghdad and four other regional locations.
Tracing
The ‘restoring family links’ programme is a precious lifeline in Iraq. The ICRC and Iraqi Red Crescent have strengthened their cooperation to ensure an effective and timely service. The Red Crescent has collected 5,318 Red Cross messages from civilians and distributed 5,868. It has also handled 3,522 requests for certificates of detention from former prisoners of war/detainees/internees.
Dissemination
Iraqi Red Crescent dissemination and information programmes are a crucial element in ensuring that all parties to the conflict understand the basic principles of Red Cross Red Crescent action in Iraq.

A teenager strolls up and greets us politely. My colleague enquires about his studies. The youngster mumbles something unintelligible, then continues more audibly: “I would have liked my essay to have been on forced displacement. Then I could have written everything that is in my heart and in my head. It’ll soon be the school holidays, but I don’t get to see any of my friends. The sight of these tents scares me. I keep thinking about my house and it makes me cry. I am sure that in some way it is suffering too, but I don’t see it.”

I take in the lines of tents and the piles of containers, blankets, bags of fl our, bottles of oil and cooking utensils. Even the ground beneath all these odds and ends appears haggard and confused as if it were asking: “Who are these people? What are they doing here? What is going on?” The pitiful clothes strung on thin lines between the tents add a further air of desolation, while women trudge back and forth to fetch water from a distant tank.

The crowd around us is growing by the minute. A young man hurries over saying: “Good will prevail. I mean it when I say that the Red Crescent is proof of this. We are living a tragedy that is swallowing us whole and spitting out the remains.” Clearly, he needs to talk, to share his plight. He closes his eyes for a moment and then carries on: “Over there, in the distance, I have a date plantation. The dates are hanging in clusters and will soon be ready to pick. All I can see around me is coffins, adding each day to my torment.”

Is this a nightmare? I am about to explode. My colleague senses it and realizes it is time to leave. We hand out the items we brought with us and head back in silence. I know that soon I will be home, whereas the people we have just seen no longer have a ‘home’.

On the way back, 1,000 questions assail me and I can not banish from my mind the image of those eyes brimming with unshed tears.

 

 


A camp for displaced people set up by the Iraqi Red Crescent.

Naji Mutaab Mohammed
Editor of the Iraqi Red Crescent magazine, Baghdad.

 


In front of Al-Karrada office, Baghdad, which provides services to some 5,000 households.

Al-Karrada office, Baghdad

The Al-Karrada office, opened in January 2005, is one of 85 run by the Baghdad branch of the Iraqi Red Crescent. Headed by the dynamic Mohammed Kamil Hassan, the office has seven staff members and 50 volunteers and covers an area of 5,000 households.

From the outset, the office has been active in providing relief to people affected by the hostilities. Last winter, 250 destitute families received blankets, stoves, kerosene heaters, kitchen sets and jerrycans. Tents were made available for the homeless or for those whose houses were destroyed during military operations, as were wheelchairs for disabled people. On the anniversary of the killing of Imam Hussein, a temporary medical centre was set up on the road between Baghdad and Kerbala.

Ibn Inaya House, a home for elderly people run by the Iraqi Red Crescent, is well known and has featured in local and regional media reports. Of its 20 residents, 19 are disabled women picked out by Iraqi Red Crescent volunteers. “These people were left on their own and unable to fend for themselves. We immediately gave them food and collected donations from people living in the neighbourhood,” says Hassan. The Iraqi Red Crescent is also focusing on children’s health, supporting a programme for malnourished children benefi ting 150 families. It is also planning to hold a festival in solidarity with orphaned, disabled and mentally handicapped children.

As for the increasingly worrying issue of displaced people, Hassan says that more than 500 families, mainly from the Dora neighbourhood in Baghdad, have sought refuge in Al-Karrada. The Iraqi Red Crescent has provided them with basic relief items and food and set up 20 fully equipped tents for them in residential areas of Al-Karrada.

Interview by Nameer Hussein
Employee of the Baghdad branch of the
Iraqi Red Crescent Society


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