Left: children from Al Kharba hold banners thanking God, The Salvation Army and UNHCR|
Captain Bruce Coffey meets an Iraqi villager
In the home of one of the families who have benefited from The Salvation Army’s work
Villagers show their appreciation to The Salvation Army
One of the water pumps
Bruce Coffey tests a water pump and washes his hands
A village boy takes a closer look
Bruce with village children outside a typical home in Al Jifjafa
A new school constructed through The Salvation Army in Al Jifjafa
A date palm plantation outside Al Kharba
Boys from Al Jifjafa who will benefit from the new infrastructure put in place through The Salvation Army
When not on secondment to International Emergency Services, Captain Bruce Coffey works in The Salvation Army’s New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory
Back to Iraq
by Captain Bruce Coffey
Emergency relief work can be very rewarding but it isn’t for the faint-hearted, as Captain Bruce Coffey discovered when he paid a flying visit to southern Iraq to see how the local team of Iraqis was implementing the plans put in place by The Salvation Army. Non-Iraqi staff members were moved out to Kuwait in early 2004 and the captain’s visit was the first from a member of the Salvation Army Emergency Services team since then. Security was tight but, as Captain Coffey reports, the programmes were well worth seeing.
Things had been very quiet in southern Iraq for some weeks so the decision was made for me to go and see at first hand what had been done there in the name of The Salvation Army. The security situation has meant that humanitarian aid workers have been targeted and, even though I had been assured all necessary precautions had been taken, I was wary of venturing into Iraq.
I was met at the Kuwait-Iraq border by our Iraqi team leader, Muntajab Ibraheem, along with armed guards. We travelled in close convoy, moving quickly, although we regularly had to stop at the many checkpoints along the way.
After about three hours I transferred into a four-wheel drive vehicle about 80 kilometres north of Al Amarah – the Iraq Salvation Army team’s home base. We turned off the tar-sealed road onto track and spent the next 40 minutes slipping and sliding our way along the only access road to our first village. The Salvation Army – as implementing partners working on behalf of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) – has been working with returnees to Iraq since May 2004 but this was my first opportunity to go and see at first hand what has been achieved.
After eight kilometres we came across the village of Al Kharba, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. All the village men and the male children were waiting patiently for us to arrive. The children were holding banners that I was told thanked God, The Salvation Army and UNHCR for showing them such kindness.
I was greeted by the village leader, who was very complimentary about the work of The Salvation Army. The dignity of the people, poor as they were, was very obvious and humbling for me, especially in light of just how little they have.
The warm welcome was followed by a tour through the village to see the newly-built, traditional-style mud-brick houses (each with its own water tank), the six-classroom school, the water treatment and pumping station, the health clinic, the agriculture workshop, a mechanical repair shop, an animal dipping facility and the community sewing centre.
It was wonderful to be told that the women now have access to clean water, on tap, near their homes and that they no longer have to trek a number of kilometres to the nearest regular – but unhygienic – water source. The water treatment and pumping facility runs for three two-hour periods a day which allows water tanks to be kept filled. A small building provided as part of the water pump station construction houses the operator, who is also responsible for the security of the plant.
Arab people are generous hosts and it was with great disappointment that their offer to put on a feast for me had to be declined. However, as their custom obliges them to provide guests with food the village leader prevailed on me to take some with me. Not wanting to offend their generosity I agreed and so we left with a live sheep safely stowed in the back of our vehicle.
We travelled on to the even more remote Al Mozan village, arriving just before dusk. Again a very warm welcome was accorded us. The oldest man in the village, a frail 100-year-old, insisted on waiting with the rest of the villagers to greet me. His hands were very cold but his handshake reflected the true warmth of his appreciation. Again it was humbling to be the focus of so much gratitude. Together we jointly thanked God for his kindness to us all.
Al Mozan is a desperately poor village. A look round the bleak landscape revealed not one tree between the village and the horizon. The villagers survive only through the monthly food ration that is still issued throughout Iraq and some small-scale agricultural activities. It is difficult for these people to participate in a cash economy so it was encouraging to learn that the beneficiaries of the new traditional dwellings were paid US$200 for providing the mud bricks and labour to erect these houses, as part of the building contract. This has been an added bonus for these dignified people who proudly worked for their pay.
Al Mozan village benefited from the same package of facilities and services – such as the water treatment facility – that the people of Al Kharba were enjoying. One hundred date palms have been planted and allocated at five per family. Others received 10 chickens, a hen house and feed for six months. These activities will improve nutrition as well as allowing any excess to be sold in the market. In this village one young boy told me he will now be able to get an education as the village at last has a school.
After spending a restful night in Al Amarah – watched over by armed guards – a trip to Al Jifjafa village completed the visit. Again the people were extremely welcoming and expressed their genuine appreciation for what The Salvation Army has been able to provide for them. The same range of services and facilities has been provided and the same benefits are being enjoyed by this community as I saw in the other two villages.
All the residents of Al Kharba, Al Mozan and Al Jifjafa are recent returnees to the region, having fled to Iran or to other parts of Iraq to escape the cruelties of the previous regime. They came back to find that everything they left had been destroyed, but they are determined to re-establish their lives in their traditional homelands. The opportunity for me to be involved, even in a small way, with such a positive venture has been a great privilege.
All the Iraqi people I have met just want stability so they can go about their business and raise their families in peace. The assistance from UNHCR via this Salvation Army-led project has gone a long way to helping many people reach that goal sooner than they would otherwise have anticipated.
None of the work that has been done would have been possible without the wonderful commitment of our more than 25 Iraqi staff. They have consulted with the community leaders, designed the structures, allocated contracts, paid contractors and been thoroughly professional in their approach to the whole project. But more than that, they see their role as part of a greater mission to help their fellow countrymen and women enjoy the benefits of a new-found freedom.
The lasting impression of my quick visit to Iraq is that the people we have helped have maintained their dignity despite their severe situation.
They show immense respect and gratitude and wonder why a New Zealander like me would come all that way just to help them. I, like all the other Salvation Army international staff who have worked with the Iraq project over the past 18 months, make no secret of the fact that the reason we do this is our love for Jesus and our strong desire to reach out to others in his name.