Iraqi children were excited to see the Salvation Army assessment team, as can be seen in this photograph, taken through a car window
A destroyed Iraqi Government building in Basra
A defaced picture of Saddam Hussein
Coalition troops on patrol
Street vendors with old gas bottles
Save the Children warehouse staff unload gas bottles taken to Umm Qasr by The Salvation Army
A group of children watches with interest as gas bottles are distributed in Umm Qasr
Photos by Major Mike Olsen and Major Bill Barthau
Major Cedric Hills is International Emergency Services Coordinator at The Salvation Army’s International Headquarters
Iraq: The Right Place at the Right Time
by Major Cedric Hills
Life seems such a rush these days. Everyone needs things doing yesterday – no one waits a minute longer than necessary. Signs behind the counter at one of London’s famous fast-food restaurants promise your order will be delivered in 55 seconds – or you receive your meal free of charge. That really is fast food!
As I pen this article it is less than 70 days since I sat with four Salvation Army officer-colleagues in a caretaker’s house in Santiago, Chile, to watch the evening broadcast of President George W. Bush in which he declared that conflict with Iraq was to begin. True to his word, the ‘shock and awe’ tactics commenced within days.
War is far from pretty. Instantaneous broadcasts of falling bombs, even those designed to explode with pinpoint accuracy, do not make positive or palatable viewing. Whether you stood in the camp of staunch supporter or outright opponent of the war, these were scenes no one wanted to see happening time and time again. There was an urgency to bring things to an end.
Just a few weeks later I watched the final fall of the regime, marked by the televised toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein, in a hotel room in Kuwait, not far from the Iraqi border. Along with Emergency Services Consultant Major Mike Olsen I had travelled to Kuwait to set up an advance base for Salvation Army emergency relief operations. Just a couple of months earlier we had been making plans to set up this base in Iran. The prediction among those who ‘knew’ was that around a million refugees would probably flee Iraq and cross the eastern border into Iran. The Iranian government had identified a number of sites on which huge refugee camps would be erected.
We expected that The Salvation Army would play a role in assisting refugees. But things didn’t work out for us and we could not secure visas to enter Iran so our plans were frustrated. I look back now and see that, despite our frustration, God’s hand was at work. Amazingly, the anticipated exodus never happened. No refugees entered Iran and the camps were never needed.
I’m not used to making advance plans – floods and earthquakes are generally unpredictable and those of us engaged in emergency ministry usually find ourselves rushing to respond, hastily assembling equipment, resources and teams of personnel. The situation in Iraq was different. I lost count of the times the statement, ‘War is not inevitable,’ was used in speeches and news releases. This was an emergency that we were warned of some months ago – how could we not be ready?
As the International Coordinator for The Salvation Army’s Emergency Services I carried the burden of bringing those plans together – and as we struggled to put advance plans in place that burden rested very uneasily.
My opposite numbers in other agencies had the ‘luxury’ of having a working experience within the region. Some had been working there for many years. I learned of stockpiles of aid supplies that had been assembled within Iraq, ready for immediate deployment. Sadly, their advance plans reaped scant reward as looters broke into warehouses in the frenzy of stealing that happened once internal law and order collapsed. Emergency stockpiles just disappeared overnight.
Aid agencies were powerless to prevent it as staff teams had been withdrawn when conflict commenced and team leaders refused to return until a measure of personal safety for staff and colleagues could be guaranteed. Rapid response plans evaporated as quickly as the stockpiled goods.
Having our base in Kuwait meant that Mike and I could attend the daily briefings at the Humanitarian Operations Centre (HOC). Facilitated by the Government of Kuwait, this centre became the focal point for United Nations agencies and for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). Coalition troops provided daily updates on security, accessibility into the country and progress on identifying humanitarian requirements. UN agencies provided input based on their own assessments.
The southern town of Umm Qasr was quickly secured by coalition troops and personnel started sending back needs assessment reports. Attention was focused on getting supplies of potable water and securing the port in order that aid shipments could begin. Aid workers were anxious to get into Iraq as soon as possible and it seemed like an age before the town was declared ‘permissive’ (accessible). But even when this declaration came the stringent conditions applied to any visitors prevented most NGOs from crossing the border and making their own assessments.
With a population of only 35,000 people, Umm Qasr was hardly a major city yet, for a while, it seemed the whole humanitarian relief world was focusing on this small community. Weighed down by the burden of immediate expectations and desperate to begin our work, this was the only town available to us. As the days ticked by we sensed a frustration that more was not being done. As coalition tankers ferried water each day from Kuwait, reports started filtering through that families urgently needed gas with which to fuel their cooking stoves. These reports became regular news in the daily briefings, along with the alarming comment that the few trees dotting the desert landscape were being felled and burned as firewood.
There seemed to be no response to this plea and Mike and I felt this was something The Salvation Army could quickly address. We made our offer to assist and the United Nations World Food Programme gratefully acknowledged this. We learned that the Government of Kuwait wished to donate various fuels – one of which was LPG (liquid petroleum gas) cooking fuel.
The pieces of the jigsaw could not easily be made to fit but, after considerable networking and heartache, Major Mike Olsen led one of the first convoys of humanitarian aid (sponsored by an NGO) from Kuwait City across the border and into Umm Qasr. Our trucks carried 4,300 filled gas bottles, weighing around 120 tonnes. Working through our colleagues and friends at the Save the Children warehouse, the gas was distributed to vulnerable families.
We didn’t fully appreciate the significance of this convoy at the time, but it marked the start of a very positive working relationship with the WFP.
The credibility earned by Mike’s doggedness in fulfilling our promise to get gas to this needy town did not go unnoticed and the WFP asked The Salvation Army to assist with a major venture.
Prior to the conflict, almost three-quarters of the Iraqi population required food assistance. Food rations were distributed from regional warehouses through a huge network of 1,400 local distribution agents. When conflict began, this system collapsed. It was seen as being vital to rebuild this network as soon as possible.
Until a local economy can be reconstructed families are dependent on food aid. Without it they will not survive. Many of the agents have disappeared (killed, fled or simply gone underground). It would be foolish to ‘reinvent the wheel’ or create a parallel system, so the WFP is attempting to bring this distribution system back to life. Its personnel were withdrawn some months ago, so they need trusted helpers to act as their eyes and ears at the regional warehouses. To this end The Salvation Army has been contracted to provide a pair of workers at each of the eight southern warehouses to work as the link between the World Food Programme and the local distribution agent. These warehouses will be located in each of the major cities, from Kabala (just 68 miles south of Baghdad) to Nassiriyah in the south of Iraq.
Captain Mike McKee (USA Central Territory) and Major Bill Barthau (Canada and Bermuda Territory) bravely entered Iraq to secure a base from which our work could be coordinated. A house in Basra has been rented. It looks quite luxurious, but the lack of running water or electricity means that living conditions are pretty basic. From this base they travelled extensively throughout Iraq, building a network of contacts in the major cities, identifying potential accommodation and support staff. This has been no mean feat and they have depended on God’s guiding to find the right places and the right people.
As I write, the first four of our teams of two people are in place and beginning their work. The remaining four pairs are in the process of travelling to the region and being trained and equipped prior to deployment. They are part of a large team (23 persons) but will be living and working as pairs in isolated situations.
Communication is limited. Short emails sent via a satellite telephone will be almost their only link with their work colleagues and families back home. Their presence in each community attracts attention and inquisitive locals surround them every time they leave their accommodation. But through this network of staff The Salvation Army reaches out across the whole of southern Iraq.
When these bases of accommodation are established they will provide other opportunities for service and experienced staff will be making visits to local communities to assess if there are other needs that we can assist with as the rebuilding of the Iraqi nation begins.
Sadly, the media seem to have a short attention span. People want to apply a ‘fast food’ mentality to a rebuilding process that could take years. We all know the phrase ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ – and neither will the new Iraq be. As the process slowly begins The Salvation Army is there, at the heart of community, working alongside others – helping the Iraqi people to ‘help themselves’.
By our presence we ‘serve suffering humanity’ and through our people we believe God’s presence is felt.