November 28th - Rebuilding
29 Nov 2003
Modified: 22 Dec 2003
While Bechtel takes vast amounts of Iraq's money for poor patching up of the physical infrastructure, an Iraqi group is invoving citizens in the reconstruction of both infrastructure and civil society, on a much smaller budget.
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Emar is an Iraqi organization set up to involve Iraqi people in their own civil society and the reconstruction of the country. The name means ‘rebuild’ or ‘reconstruct’. There are teams of local volunteers in eight cities who identify needs, work out a plan and try to fulfil the need. In Nasariya the group has been helping to build a school in a marsh village outside the main town.

The vehicles skated through mud along the track into the village, over earth bridges across streams and rivers, between palms, vegetable plots, reed or mud houses and tribes of small children. The area is controlled by the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and we were obliged to take two of their members with us, cover our hair and not smile at them.

The almost-finished school is made of mud bricks covered with mud and straw plaster. The roof is woven straw. It’s cost $1500 to build and equip. The boys crowded around us as the volunteers proudly showed us the new schoolrooms. None of the kids there has ever been to school, so the first grade will include children aged from 6 to 14. The head of the school is from the village and teachers will come from other schools to teach in shifts.

Girls passed by a little way off carrying water and bundles of reeds. A stampede of shrieking boys fled the courtyard of a house, chased by a woman throwing clods of earth at them. She invited us in. Girls in bright clothes and patterned headscarves were leaning on the walls and looking after the youngest children.

The marshes were a centre of resistance to Saddam, offering a safe haven for fighters and activists because they were difficult for the troops to get into. This village wasn’t drained, as many were, but the diversion of water did, overall, have the desired effect of crushing the resistance.

Abbas, one of the volunteers, summed up the contrast between Emar’s projects and the contracts given out by the occupying powers. Contracts for school rehabilitation are commonly worth forty to fifty thousand dollars and they do almost nothing. The schools are still not fit for use. Bechtel has been one of the main beneficiaries. They immediately sub-contract the work for about $28,000 to a company which then contracts the work to another company for about $10,000. He has this information from a friend who works as an engineer in the Ministry of Education.

At one local school that was “rehabilitated” this way, the fence the contractors built was such poor quality that it collapsed, hurting two of the girls. Abbas said their lives are finished. Both girls suffered broken hips so they won’t be able to have children, so no one will want to marry them. His medical information is maybe a bit sketchy – they’re only 8 and it’s unlikely that broken hips now will stop them bearing babies, should they want to, in adulthood, but his take on the situation is indicative of the distress the accident must be causing the girls and families concerned.

Abbas runs a restaurant that his father and grandfather ran before him. Even his great grandfather worked there. The dish he serves is a traditional Iraqi one. Don’t read the next line if you’re squeamish. It’s the head and feet of a sheep, skinned, but with the brain and eyes, etc, still there.

He wasn’t active in local civil society before Emar, but now he devotes his spare time and energy to the group. The things that attracted him to Emar are its freedom from political and religious affiliations. Decision making is decentralized, by consensus within each local group without any form of hierarchy. Raed provides co-ordination, support and funding but everything is up to the teams. Individuals have the space to develop their own projects and it was the Nasariya group’s idea to take the project out of town and into the marshes to ask people there what they needed.

The building was damaged by the explosion at the nearby Italian Carabinieri headquarters. The doors were blown off and were found inside the building. Every window was shattered and glass fragments embedded into the inside walls. The walls and ceilings were badly cracked. People were killed in buildings the far side of the Emar house from the bombed HQ but luckily no one was hurt in Emar. The volunteers chose and equipped the building themselves, building some of the furniture. Since the explosion they’ve worked almost constantly to clean and repair the place, replacing the destroyed windows.

Just after it got dark some of the volunteers came back with food and the information that there was to be an infijar, an explosion, within the next few minutes, of some unexploded stuff nearby. We all trooped up to the roof to watch – it’s what people do here. Even though we were expecting it, it still made everyone jump. Abbas was involved in the armed uprising against Saddam in 1991 and said it was the same then – even when you were expecting a blast, they never stopped making you jump.

Ammar is a recent graduate from the technical institute, currently unemployed. He has just got married, on paper, to Safa, but before the marriage ceremony could take place their mothers fell out, followed by their entire families. The two are not allowed even to see each other at the moment.

Some of the volunteers are students at Nasariya University. Bassim is studying computing and Ali is a mathematician. They were keen to make links with universities outside Iraq who would work with them to rehabilitate their library. Part of Emar’s aim is to start open student discussions between the different ethnic, religious and political groups to increase understanding and reduce violence. The idea is that a student forum will widen to include the whole community. It’s as much about building civil society as the physical infrastructure.

They also distribute information about, for example, the dangers of shooting into the air, highlighted by the volunteers in Simawa, most of whom are doctors. They had 48 casualties in the hospital from shooting into the air during Eid celebrations.

On the drive back to Baghdad we crawled through the flooded streets of Najaf. Women in hijabs splashed across the road, black tights splattered with mud. Men hitched up their robes around their knees and waded. A car got stuck on the side of a lorry after they drove too close together, closing two thirds of the road. Every car was plastered with grime so thick the registration plates were illegible and the back windscreens were blacked out. The drains were irrelevant in the face of real rain. It seemed impossible that anything would ever be clean again, like it did after the sandstorm during the war.

A convoy with flashing lights led the way as we left Najaf, presumably carrying the SCIRI member of the governing council. At each intersection, a man hopped out of the rear car, ran to the traffic policeman in the middle to tell him to let them through and then made a flying leap back into the car as it passed.

But at least there was electricity when we got home.