The car had a man behind the wheel and four little boys in the back. It was an old thing with a cracked windshield and a rubber-band engine, but it kept pace with two trucks that lumbered into southern Iraq this afternoon. The trucks carried 1,500 boxes of food and water, and when they pulled to the side of the road a few miles north of the border town of Safwan, the man was among the first of hundreds of people rushing toward the rear doors.
Stay put, he told the boys. They did. The car was parked off the road, in the sand, perpendicular to the trucks. The back window was coated with dust, except for a corner where one of the boys had traced a happy face, and it was through that window that the boys now watched this place where their father had brought them on day nine of the war.
They saw cloudless blue skies -- perfect weather that invited bombing runs the length of Iraq. They saw two helicopters fly low and fast almost directly over their car and disappear in the direction of Basra, 30 miles to the north, where people were reportedly starting to flee and Iraqi soldiers were reportedly firing on them. And they saw their father get in a long line of thin, dusty, impatient men, all waiting for the Kuwait Red Crescent Society, which had organized this relief convoy, to open the truck doors and hand them a box of food.
Two days before, the Red Crescent had tried this just south of Safwan, and the result was screaming, fighting and a storming of the trucks. In contrast, the sight of men forming a line suggested this attempt would go better. "Organize yourselves! Get in line! Don't take too much!" directed a Red Crescent Society doctor named Mohammed Kandari.
Then the first door swung open, revealing stacks of white boxes. And with that another day of humanitarian aid at its most brutal was underway.
"Organize yourselves in one line! Otherwise no supplies!" Kandari shouted as everyone rushed the truck.
"We cannot!" a man yelled back at him. "It is our nature! We will grab everything from inside!"
"In line!" Kandari shouted, and now the man came at him, hands raised and arms swinging, until his friends grabbed him and dragged him away.
"Getting a bit dodgy," said one of the British military police officers guarding the convoy.
"There is not enough for us," a man whose face was wrapped in a scarf said. "Seven days we've been without medicine. Without food for our children. We don't have water to bathe. Our neighbor has been shot in the leg, and no one comes to help him."
He wrapped the scarf tighter, explaining: "I am afraid of the Iraqi government. I don't want them to know me." He scanned the crowd to see if anyone was watching him. At the relief effort two days before, members of Saddam Hussein's paramilitary group were said to be watching from the edges, noting who took what and, more importantly, who joined the chants for Hussein.
Everyone knew who the paramilitary fighters were -- they were the ones in clean shirts, the ones who went to the trucks and took a large number of boxes without objection and disappeared with them in the direction of the war.
So perhaps they were here this day, too, a day when a story was circulating about a young man from Safwan who had been shown on TV soon after the war began, smashing one of his sandals against a portrait of Hussein. He was killed a few hours later, according to the story, and several days later, after his mother was seen on TV cursing Hussein and saying in her grief that she didn't care if she died, she was killed, too.
"Most of us, we are not believing Saddam will get out. We need to see it with our own eyes to believe it," the man from the car said. He moved toward the crowd, which now had grown larger and included one of the four boys.
Where was he? The three boys still in the car didn't know. One leaned out the window, chewing on his right thumb. Another banged on the side of the car with his hand. Another, wedged into a corner, wore torn orange pants that had the words High Fashion running down the leg. All three watched as the crowd pressed tighter and tighter against the back of the trucks. Boxes were dropping toward waiting hands. Men were carrying them away with death grips so they wouldn't be ripped free. Maybe the boy was somewhere in there.
"They're a little desperate," said a British military police captain, Joe Murray, as Kandari approached him.
"If they're not in lines, they will die," Kandari implored, needing help.
Murray was there to guard, not help. He carried an automatic rifle. He wore body armor. This wasn't a military operation, or a military-sanctioned operation. The British operation this day was to get one of its navy ships, the Sir Galahad, which had been stocked with 230 tons of aid, into the port city of Umm Qasr.
Still, Murray tried to help direct about 50 of the men to the far side of the road. The men grumbled. A few shouted as Kandari tried once again to line them up. And then, once again, a man was coming at him screaming that the trucks must be taken by force, and again arms were raised, and again Kandari did his best to hold his ground, and again the line dissolved into a racing mob.
Now someone on the truck was kicking at people who were trying to climb in.
Now Kandari was trying a new tactic: handing out yellow notes stamped with the Red Crescent logo and telling people this would guarantee them a box.
Now people were grabbing for the notepad and Kandari was forced to retreat.
Now two men were wrestling over a box that had come flying out of the back of the truck.
"What can we do? Somebody will die," another Red Crescent volunteer said as a man in the middle of the crowd was pushed to the ground. "Look at them. They are not educated people. They don't listen. There's plenty of food on the trucks. They are savages."
A few feet away from him, two men were now squaring off to fight.
"Some kids, they almost died," the volunteer continued. "When we opened the doors, they were getting crushed."
The fight began. One man swung at the other and missed. The other swung back and caught a cheek, which exploded in blood.
"We try to do good," the volunteer said, watching, shaking his head. He said something more, but his words were lost in the noise of more helicopters passing overhead. "I said, 'But it turns out very bad.' " And maybe it was the noise, or the afternoon heat that was so strong it was causing Kandari to wipe perspiration off the top of his head and his neck and out of his ears, but he gave up at this point.
The truck was stormed and invaded, and Kandari stopped hollering about the need for order and lines, instead explaining in a quiet voice that each box contained enough rice and lentils and cooking oil and water and grain to feed a family of five for a week.
"It's a very hard situation," he said. "We are dealing with almost 500 people now, I think."
A pickup gunned its engine and pulled away with 10 boxes. A man on a bicycle rode off with one box strapped to the fender. A woman with three children trailing her walked toward Safwan with a box balanced on her head.
And in the car parked perpendicular to the trucks, the fourth boy was back, watching his father approach from out of the crowd, empty-handed.
"I came because my kids need water," the man said. He stood next to the car. He wore a gray robe and a scarf that obscured most of his face. He said he didn't want to give his name because he was afraid. He said his family consisted of 25 people. For the time being, there was plenty of food, he said, but the water was gone. So he followed the trucks.
"Very bad," he said of what had happened here. "People were stampeding."
He reached into the car, got a screwdriver and began fiddling with the lock to the trunk. There was something in there he wanted to show. But the trunk wouldn't open. He kept trying. Soon one of the boys came out -- the one who had disobeyed and gone into the crowd. He took the screwdriver from his father, put it in the lock, turned it, and the trunk sprung open.
And there, resting on top of a worn spare tire, was a white box.
"I didn't get it," the father said, looking at the boy. "He did."
The boy smiled and used the screwdriver to clean his fingernails until his father motioned him into the car. The father closed the trunk, got in and put the screwdriver in the ignition, and soon the sound of rubber bands was in the air.
"It's amazing these cars still work," Rob Nunn, a military policeman said as he watched the car pull away. "I've been to Kosovo, and I've been to Afghanistan, so I've seen things, but this?"
The car reached the road. Left was Safwan, population perhaps 4,000.
Right was Basra, population perhaps 1.3 million. The car turned to the left, while Nunn looked to the right.
"Can you imagine what will happen in Basra?" he said. "Can you imagine this on a larger scale?"