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Iraq Roadtrip: Caught In The DMZ

Thanks to Rick Rozoff.

The 'evil axis.' best, f.

February 18, 2002

Iraq Roadtrip:
Caught in the DMZ
By Ramzi Kysia

The drive from Basra to Safwan, Iraq, is eerily
apocalyptic. In the Demilitarised Zone, the Iraqi
desert is an odd mix of greenhouse farms competing for
space with decrepit and bombed-out concrete factories
and mills. To the east run a series of rebuilt
plastics factories whose stackfires bellow acrid,
black smoke over the whole landscape. Burned, rusting
cars dot the sides of the road on this, the northern
tip of the infamous "highway of death". This is the
road along which the US massacred thousands of
retreating Iraqi soldiers after an armistice had been
signed at the end of "Desert Storm".

A stone's throw from the Kuwaiti border, Safwan was
once a large farming town that traded with the whole
Gulf. Today, the sight of strangers is enough to bring
out seemingly every child for miles around to chase
after our car and beg for money. Throughout Iraq, war
and drought and sanctions have resulted in a 30 per
cent drop in crop production. After the destruction of
Iraq's vaccine facilities by UN weapons inspectors,
hoof and mouth disease ran rampant, killing over 1
million cattle.

Since 1980, half the date trees - over 15 million
trees - have died. There are 14 new crop diseases,
and, since 1998, the screw worm parasite, which is not
native to the Middle East, has suddenly appeared in
Iraq to devastate the remaining farms.

Mohason Mehsen's home and farm in Safwan could almost
be beautiful. His courtyard boasts a garden surrounded
by old brickwork standing under a huge and stunning
sky. But the bricks are patched with cheap concrete,
and Mohason is an angry and depressed man. His wife
refuses to leave the house, and spends her days

Their son, Nadham, is dying.

Born just after "Desert Storm," Nadham has been
seriously ill since he was a year old. It could have
been exposure to war pollutants or depleted uranium
while he was in the womb. It may simply be bad luck.

Nadham's been diagnosed with Xeroderma Pigmentosum, a
rare genetic disease that causes extreme sensitivity
to the UV radiation in sunlight. He only has partial
vision left in one eye. His face is a pockmarked ruin
of open, bloody sores. His nose has rotted away. When
he comes out of the house, he must hide from the sun
under the black robes of his grandmother's abaya.

Nadham's condition is treatable, but not in Safwan.

There is medication that can help, but the family
cannot afford it. Mohason has been to the Iraqi
Ministry of Health, the Red Cross, ICRC, UNIKOM,
UNOHCI, and others, but to no avail. Nadham's story
has been told on Iraqi and French TV. NBC did a
segment on him for American viewers. No help came.

Mohason has no message to take to the rest of the
world. He made no plea to me. Through our translator,
he told me: "What are you going to do? Nothing.
There's no help in America. There's no help anywhere.
We are Muslim. We believe in God more than American
people, more than European people. Only God can help

As we left the Mehsen's home, their neighbour Hussein
Sultan ran to our car carrying his baby daughter,
Barah. She has a heart defect. She needs corrective
surgery. When we told him we weren't doctors, his face

"Can't you help my child?" he quietly asked us.

Our driver grimly informed us as we drove back to
Basra that he was certain whatever homes we visited in
Safwan, every one of them would have a Nadham, a

Once, once upon a time, there was and was not a people
on whom catastrophe after catastrophe were driven, and
no help came.

Ramzi Kysia is a Muslim-American peace activist who
serves on the board of directors for the Education for
Peace in Iraq Centre. He recently spent two months in
Iraq as part of a Voices in the Wilderness peace
mission trying to stop the war.

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