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Last Updated: Friday, 18 April, 2003, 04:09 GMT 05:09 UK
Kuwaiti volunteers deliver aid to Basra

By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online in Basra, Iraq

As Basra struggles to cope with the after effects of war, the local Red Crescent is handing out ration packs to the most needy citizens. The rations themselves are supplied by aid convoys from Kuwait.

It may not look like much, but to hundreds of broken people in Basra it is worth fighting for.

The ration pack handed out by the Red Crescent relief agency is a fairly minimal affair:

  • a tin each of oil and milk powder
  • a box of tea and packet of salt
  • eight cartons of fruit juice
  • a dozen packets of crisps
  • two bars of soap
  • and, most important of all, six bottles of water.

    The packs are enough to prompt a near riot outside the gates of the feeding station in Basra.

    The after effects of the war, coupled with the accumulated poverty from years of Saddam Hussein's rule, has made the city's people desperate.

    A crush of men and women push up against the iron railings of the compound as the time for making the hand-outs draws close.

    Some fix their hands tightly around the high fence as if to stake out their place at the front of the crowd, but others prefer to literally jump the queue by scaling the barrier.

    As often as not they are quickly spied by one of the British soldiers from 1st Battalion Irish Guards, who eject them with all the ceremony of a nightclub bouncer seeing off an over keen reveller.

    There is no doubt about the Army's presence here - a tank is parked at the gates of the compound, serving as a convenient block to most of the entrance.

    We have chosen the most vulnerable, people who have lost their homes, jobs and livelihoods in the war
    Hadi Abbas

    The ration hand-out has become a daily ritual at the Red Crescent centre since the start of this week. The centre itself is the only designated feeding station in the middle of town, according to man who runs it, Hadi Abbas.

    The operation hands out ration cards to those it sees as most needy. Every day it exchanges these for 250 ration packs.

    But those in need far out-number the supplies available and so these handouts are done on a "once only basis" for each eligible person.

    Although locals will tell you that Basra had more than its fair share of poverty before the British troops routed Saddam Hussein's regime, its problems have multiplied since.

    Electricity supplies, which were knocked out during the fighting, are starting to return. But there is still a shortage of drinkable water - what water there is dirty and very brackish.

    I have no job now and my four children - two boys and girls - have finished college but also have no work here
    Nassir Qassim Ali

    Mr Abbas said: "We cannot help and fulfil the needs of all the people of Basra because this city has 1.7 million people.

    "We have chosen the most vulnerable, people who have lost their homes, jobs and livelihoods in the war."

    The "most vulnerable" are not in the minority according to Mr Abbas. He estimates they account for about 60% of Basra's population.

    One such person is Nassir Qassim Ali, who lost his job of 30 years at a petrol station in the town. He is here to pick up his ration allocation.

    "Saddam parked his tanks near the petrol station so it became a target and was bombed. I was there at the time and have painful wounds," says the 52-year-old father of four.

    Shrapnel embedded in his right arm has rendered it almost useless - he can hardly grip with his hand.

    The Red Crescent issues ration packs to Basra’s most needy

    "I have no job now and my four children - two boys and girls - have finished college but also have no work here. So I must support my family."

    But while Basra's predicament is grim, the story behind the aid itself is more heartening. Supplied by the Kuwaiti Red Crescent, it is a mark of how many in the small but wealthy neighbouring Arab state are seeking to help those in Basra.

    The Iraqi city is, after all, only a half-hour drive from the Kuwaiti border and many Kuwaitis have relatives living there.

    A convoy of vehicles set out on Thursday morning from Kuwait City in what was their fourtth supply visit to the city since the end of the war.

    Among its load were 1,200 cases of water, each containing 12 1.5-litre (2.64-pint) bottles and six permanent water tanks, oxygen canisters and an ambulance for a hospital.

    The loading and unloading is the work of 40 mostly young volunteers who have given up a day of their weekend to help.

    It was not them that invaded our country, it was Saddam
    Muhammed Al-Momen

    Among them is Muhammed Al-Momen, who is more acquainted with the Georgian surroundings of Bristol than Basra. Mr Al-Momen is studying dentistry in the old English port city, but took a break to be with his family in Kuwait during the war.

    He holds no bitterness towards the Iraqis, despite their invasion of his country 12 years ago.

    "I am volunteering because I want to show the Iraqi people I have no hard feelings. It was not them that invaded our country, it was Saddam. They have suffered under him so I am doing my bit," he explains in precise English.

    But he knows it will take more than the good intentions of a handful of volunteers to get Basra back on its feet.

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