Troops trying to meet needs of small Iraq neighborhoods
Stars and Stripes June 1, 2003
GARAWE, Iraq — Sewage water runs through the streets of this northern Iraqi mountain village, but the nearly 500 inhabitants have access to well water, electricity, school and mosque.
While poor and in dire need of running water, Garawe is one of the fairer-conditioned villages that pepper the Safeen mountain range visited Saturday by troops of the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion, a group of activated reservists from various parts of the United States.
“Seeing these villages, you get the sense that these people don’t have nearly as much as the people who are the worst off in our country have,” said Spc. Charles Peters, 20. “It makes you feel really lucky to be born in the United States.
“I definitely prefer this than to storming into Baghdad and shooting people,” Peters said. “I feel like I’m part of helping people.”
The 404th Battalion, out of Fort Dix, N.J., is a team of problem-solvers — assessing what needs exist and working to meet those needs, said Maj. James Bullion, the battalion executive officer.
Its members also to identify “internally displaced persons,” victims of former President Saddam Hussein’s “Arabization” in Kurdistan, the northern region of Iraq where he evicted mostly Kurds from houses and forced in Arabs. Now, returning Kurds want to repossess their homes, and civil affairs units have the arduous process of identifying rightful owners.
Along Saturday’s roughly six-hour drive, team leader Maj. Christopher Schrieks, 36, stopped to mark on a global positioning satellite system roads and tiny villages not marked on the Army-supplied map.
“This way, we know where they are when we need to come back,” said Schrieks, a police captain in Lodi, N.J., who was promoted the day before he was activated.
Along the way, children and adults flocked to the dirt roads to wave hello and offer thumbs up and victory signs to the four-man survey team. In villages, men and boys congregated to peek at the hullabaloo, get their picture taken or meekly suggest a soccer field for the children. Women and girls peeked from behind walls, some giggling when a soldier waved hello.
Village leaders accompanied the soldiers, showing them the elementary school, in good condition though without running water, and the one-room medical clinic with limited medical supplies.
“We have made a house into a clinic, but it’s not proper,” Garawe Mayor Mohamad Mustafa said through a translator. “We need a hospital.”
Summer brings in about 10 to 15 patients a day, mostly children suffering from diarrhea, and the winter causes respiratory problems such as bronchitis, said physician’s assistant Yasin Majeed Abdella. The medication and supplies brought in every 70 days by various nongovernmental organizations are barely enough to last two weeks, Abdella said.
“Are you really here to help us?” asked one villager.
“We’re here to do everything we can, but I don’t have the checkbook,” Schrieks responded.
The headquarters is authorized to spend up to $25,000 per project, but also coordinates with various NGOs to get fun projects, said Bullion, the executive officer.
Three days ago, the same team visited Bastora, a larger village of some 5,000 residents, and determined the elementary school is in dire need of a new water tank to replace the rooftop contraption that has rusted. On Saturday, the troops revisited the village, letting Mayor Salih Younis know his plea has not been forgotten.
Sgt. Chris Howe, 34, in country for two months, spent most of that time working behind the scenes in operations.
“Now I’m in the field, and I get to meet people and do the meat of the work, and I prefer that,” said the truck driver who hauls building supplies in Rhode Island. “In one village, we saw a third of the kids had no sandals, their teeth were unbrushed, they were dirty and poor, and I felt bad, really bad.
“It’s humbling. I went home that night with a heavy heart.”