Thursday, January 1, 2009

An Inspiring Journey to Basra - Khaleej Times

ONE early, wintry morning, the usually dozing Terminal 2 of Dubai International Airport was abuzz. A number of us were heading to Iraq on a pilgrimage to the holy cities.

I was going alone because doing ziyarat (pilgrimage) is a very personal experience. I have always been inspired by the land of Iraq and its Muslim-related heritage.

We boarded the 160-seater Jupiter Airlines to Basra, which was chartered especially for the group. I began the trip with a short prayer and as the journey progressed everyone became friendly. One shared with me how she came to take this pilgrimage. Another revealed whom she was praying for. Some reminisced about past pilgrimages while I wondered what this expedition had in store for me. Spending two weeks with five million Muslims from far flung countries converging in war-torn Iraq definitely appealed to me as a journalist!

Basra airport definitely takes on an appearance of a civilian airport. Built in 1989, on the lines of the Baghdad airport, its terminal is clad in wall-to-wall marble. During the 2003 invasion, the bombing damaged only the air control tower while the rest of the airport survived. Though the region is said to be under Iraqi control, British military personnel were seen moving around the airport in tandem.

After a fairly long wait, my turn came to get the immigration stamp. “Welcome to Basra,” said the Iraqi immigration officer. “You are an Indian?” he questioned and nodded in approval. “Your name is Arabic. I like it!” he said as he handed over my documents. My first dose of Iraqi hospitality left me thrilled. For Ali, who has been working at the airport for a few years now, his day begins at 8 am when the airport opens. He gets to overlook the cleaning and sanitation of the arrival lounge for the passenger airways. Until last year, he used to clean the separate entrance to the terminal for the military which included 70 Squadron Iraqi Airforce and its 10 planes, which have now retreated to the other side of the airfield.

“Before the war and sanctions, Basra was the most important city in Iraq because of oil. We had many hotels and tourists visiting shrines. The city turned bloody two years back, but now, Alhamdullillah, lots of tourists are coming from the region. We need it to happen for Basra, but security needs to come first,” he said.

The long, cold road north from Basra to Najaf is a journey through the poverty of Iraq. The Kurds whose plight has captured the attention of the world has left the Iraqi Shias completely neglected, despite making up 60 per cent of the country’s population and a ruling coalition government comprising Shias.

This frontline town in southern Iraq has suffered severe damage. It was flattened by air raids during the various wars fought in Iraq and ravaged by civil war, not forgetting Saddam’s brutal repression for 24 years from 1979 to 2003. The weary population in this town lives in fear of health concerns. Hospitals lack basic amenities and depend mostly on humanitarian aid. The scrappy little settlements on the dusty outskirts of Basra are few and far between. The sun rises over the highway north. The army is on the move, making its rusty way to and from Baghdad. There are makeshift resting facilities and barbed wire as soldiers pause for a moment before resuming their duties. I was excited. This was my first security checkpoint. The excitement definitely ebbed as it became tiresome along the way.

A woman British officer got into the bus and examined our passports. An SA80 was slung across her shoulder. Out of the blue, I heard an excited “Hi.” Looking up, surprised I noticed it was not directed at me, but my neighbour who is a British national!

Basra is rich in oil. There is at least one oil field at every 100 kilometres. No wonder the British regiment has plonked itself in the region despite handing it over to the Iraqis.

But it is not war alone that has ravaged Basra and the Shia south. It has a port and a bubbling oil industry, but the south did not share the material benefits of Saddam’s programmes including road building, industrial investment, irrigation projects, and farming improvisation.

There is a network of bridges across the water and canals along the Shatt Al-Arab waterway — the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This is the port from which Sinbad the Sailor embarked. But everything is destroyed. A lone car or lorry crawls alongside with puffs of cigarette smoke emerging from its window.

The road stretches ahead of me in a long straight line with barren land on either side. The only sign of life is the odd Bedouin herding his sheep.

We speed past concrete barriers and sleeping soldiers at checkpoints and a number of military convoys. It is a journey of around 370 kilometres to Najaf. I feel exhausted and my neighbour is nodding off beside me.

See the article on the Khaleej Times here

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