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Caught in the DMZ

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 crying.

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 us.”

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 fell.

“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 Barah.

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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