TOPICS > Nation

Aid Crisis in Southern Iraq

March 28, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Mark Santora, welcome.

MARC SANTORA: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: You went on the aid convoy into Safwan today. From the footage we got in, it looked pretty chaotic. What was it like being there?

MARC SANTORA: That’s right. It was chaotic. You come across the border there and it’s like you enter a different world. When we got across and we came through the town of Safwan, instead of stopping in the town of Safwan– because they had one of these deliveries a couple days ago and the scene turned into just a mob scene, people climbing on the truck getting what they wanted– so they thought this time they could bring the aid a little bit outside of town and sort of cut down on that.

But what happened was you cross in, and little kids, barefoot kids running, chasing these trucks, teenagers hopping in pickup trucks, everyone running to just keep up with this truck. And by the time it stopped, they tried to have this orderly system of handing out tickets, which lasted for about a minute, and then people just swarmed on it because they’re absolutely starving.

And the thing is, they have been without water for seven days now, too, which is actually the more critical element than the food. They had a bit of rationing given to them by Saddam Hussein before the end of the Oil for Food program, but the water pipe busted between Umm Qasr and there that have fed that town, so it’s so the water that’s put them in the more dire straits. It’s really just a very sad, sad scene.

MARGARET WARNER: And were you also delivering water? Or rather, you were with the British military, I gather. Were they delivering water as well?

MARC SANTORA: No, the British military… the military hasn’t really been able to get aid to these people. It’s… the non-governmental organizations haven’t been allowed in yet. It’s too dangerous. The Kuwaitis are actually the only ones who have actually physically gotten aid to these people.

The military has handed out little things here and there, but as you know, probably, they had their big ship come in today, the “Sir Galahad,” which is loaded with stuff, but it’s just considered too unsafe to get that stuff distributed northward towards Basra and the outlying areas.

MARGARET WARNER: There have been wire reports quoting, aid workers, professional aid workers who have looked at the footage of what happened in Safwan and saying there was an awful lot of young men there fighting over this food. Do the people who are delivering this aid have any idea whether it’s really getting to the hungry families that need it?

MARC SANTORA: No, it’s hard. I mean, they’re trying to do something at least, the Kuwaitis, but no, it’s the strongest who get the most. And it’s, you know, just sort of the rule of survival there. I mean, if you go across the border, it’s a totally lawless environment right now — cars driving every which way, people running, doing what they want. And at night it’s so dangerous that unless you’re with the military, you can’t really find a place to be, because it’s just a completely chaotic and lawless place right now.

MARGARET WARNER: So while were you there, I know you took your translator with you, did have you a chance to talk to people there?

MARC SANTORA: I did. I actually had a chance to talk to several people. There’s… I think the question that we’re trying to get at the bottom of is sort of what the mood is there. One, why are they not showing at least visibly more support in some ways? Two, why is there not a repeat of the uprisings that we saw in ’91. And it’s a complicated answer.

I mean, part of it, a big part of it is this idea of fear, which the administration has talked about and which seems to be very true. One young man I talked to who had seen the uprisings in ’91 said, you know, we’re not going to be caught on the wrong side of that again. And he said, you know, these Fedayeen and these other loyalists to Saddam are still around and still causing trouble. So they’re very hesitant to voice an opinion.

And I found rather striking too that they’re not quite sure that the U.S. is going to win this. They want to see who wins this fight. And several people I spoke to said Saddam’s got strong armies in Baghdad and he’s going to win. And so until they’re sure they’re on the winning side of this, I think you’re going to see a lot of people waiting to make their bets.

MARGARET WARNER: What was their feeling about the United States? How do they actually feel about this military action?

MARC SANTORA: Well, it’s hard to know, because one, have you people afraid to talk, and two, you have a lot of young people who grew up and know only an Iraq under sanctions, which is an interesting problem. I mean, they blame America for the harshness of their life as much as they do Saddam Hussein sometimes — the young people I’m talking about, who don’t know an Iraq before these sanctions.

And Saddam Hussein has a very good propaganda machine where he has convinced a lot of people that their suffering is due to these sanctions put in place by America. So it’s hard to know. I think a big part of it is the fear, but there is this younger crowd, and what they’re going to feel, it’s just — it’s — we haven’t been around these people long enough to know how it’s going to turn out.

MARGARET WARNER: So finally, what’s next on the aid front in southern Iraq? I mean, we know that this big ship came into Umm Qasr, but do they have a plan for distributing it?

MARC SANTORA: Yeah, I mean I know they would like to get aid moving. It is in their interest to get aid moving, but the problem is the situation on the ground just doesn’t allow it. And from all things I could see today, it’s not going to allow it in the very near future.

I mean, the whole idea of the military’s move was to speed up to Baghdad as fast as possible, blowing by a lot of these outlying towns. Now, to get the manpower to establish some sort of order in them to get this aid moving, well, there is money coming forward and aid starting to flow, but to get it to them is going to take… is going to take some time.

MARGARET WARNER: Marc Santora, thanks a lot.

MARC SANTORA: Thank you.