The problem today is that the hospital needs water. The problem today is that the hospital has none.
"He gave me his word," Capt. Jim Becker, of the Army Reserves' 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion, is saying about Amair, an Iraqi man who was hired to deliver water around town. "He said that last night he would go to the hospital and fill up its tanks. But he did not."
It is morning in Umm Qasr, population 30,000, the only city in Iraq said to be under full control of U.S. and British forces. But problems continue: daily explosions from Iraqi artillery in Basra and missiles in the Faw peninsula; occasional firefights in the streets; and water. Three days ago, the emergency room doctor splashed water on his hands and face after seeing a patient, and that was the end of it at the hospital.
With Baghdad facing attack, the delivery of one tanker truck of water to one hospital may seem a small step. But it is an indicator of what is to come, when one day the war ends and the battle over recovery begins. One problem, in one place, in search of a solution.
"I think the mood here is decidedly better than it has been," Becker says as his Humvee moves away from the site where the 402nd is encamped, a onetime hotel that has been stripped by looters of every bed, chair, sink, toilet, light, light switch, wall plug and circuit breaker. "More people smiling. Less people yelling," he said.
"People are moving around more. Kids are out playing. Young females have begun coming out of their houses" says Sgt. Randy Beutel, the driver, who is steering his way past dozens of children running in bare feet toward the Humvee, waving and yelling the word "mister."
"This is what I love. Kids happy," Beutel says.
"Mister," they keep calling.
"They all want something," Beutel explains.
"Gimme, gimme, gimme," Beutel says.
"Food. Water. Cigarettes," Beutel says.
The plastic windows of the Humvees are unzipped. Only a few days ago, that wouldn't have happened. Umm Qasr was thirsty. People were panicking. Whenever a water tanker was spotted coming toward town, people would come running, with men pushing aside anyone in their way, even the black-robed matriarchs of Umm Qasr and the dust-covered small girls. Then came the completion of a pipeline extended from northern Kuwait into the U.N. compound on the Iraqi side of the border, and the donation by Kuwait of up to 1.5 million liters of drinkable water a day, and bit by bit, Umm Qasr has been calming down.
That pipeline is where Becker and Beutel are headed. They need to find a driver who will take his load of water to the hospital rather than sell it to people in town. "If we find a tanker who's cooperative and nice and goes to the hospital without any guff, give him a pack of smokes," says Becker, a reservist who a few months ago was a drug counselor in upstate New York.
"Yes sir," says Beutel, who travels with a list in his vest pocket of how to say certain things in Arabic, such as, "Hello," and "We are Americans," and "Answer the question!" and "Do not resist!" and "Follow our order!" and "Give me your weapon," and "Are there any dead?" and "Don't be frightened," and "Don't cry," and "Don't shoot us."
They pass a portrait of Saddam Hussein, in tiles, which in the past several days has been vandalized with three large Xs and a splash of red that makes him appear to be badly wounded and dripping blood. They pass coils of barbed wire and more children with outstretched hands yelling, "Mister," and enter an armed compound where a tanker driver is awaiting his turn at the water pipeline.
They approach the driver with their interpreter, named Ahmed, who deserted the Iraqi army during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, made his way to Saudi Arabia, stayed for awhile in a refugee camp, was granted U.S. asylum and has been living in the United States until the Army brought him back to Iraq as an interpreter. He explains the proposed deal to the driver, who thinks about it before answering.
"He says he wants you to know that after he goes to the hospital, he will save a little bit for his own family," Ahmed says to Becker.
"No problem," says Becker.
"He's also complaining that people have knives. Big knives. They want to hurt him because he asks for money. They threaten his life."
"Tell him I'll talk to my boss and we'll see what we can do," Becker says. "Tell him if he fears for his safety, drive away. I don't want him to be put in danger."
"He says when he tries to do that, they stand in front of his truck," Ahmed says after telling the driver what Becker said. "With their knives."
"Well, I'll see what I can do about that," Becker says, and with that the deal is struck. Ahmed the driver brings his truck under the pipeline, and with the push of a valve, water begins flowing into the truck's tank, great gushes of water, so clear the blue sky can be seen through it to those on the ground watching.
It's hot. Summer is coming, when people will need to drink water all day. Back in the Humvee, Becker takes a long drink from his canteen as he and Beutel follow the tanker to the hospital. "We keep telling the truck drivers they need to fill the hospital," Becker says.
"The problem is, people have been coming to the hospital and stealing the water."
"Mister!" a voice interrupts.
"I hear it in my sleep," Beutel says. "It's all they yell."
"Mister! Mister!" yells a boy riding a bicycle that has two empty containers for water dangling from the handlebars and one strapped to the back fender.
"See 'em all?" Beutel asks. Perhaps 20 children are running his way. "It broke my heart the first time I saw it."
"Mister!" This time the voice is a little girl's.
"Hey, there's that cutie-pie," Beutel says, looking at her as she gets closer. She keeps running. "She was getting pushed around at the water pump one day, and I couldn't take it anymore," he says. "I pushed everybody out of the way and let her go up to the head of the line. First. I don't care. She's such a sweetie. I gave them a taste of good old American culture."
"Mister," she keeps calling, then veers away, trying to catch the truck, but it is accelerating. Water is leaking out of a back pipe with a slightly opened valve, and now the water is spraying across the road and forming every so often into rainbows, and now the truck is entering a parking area and Becker is ordering, "Close the gate! Close the gate!"
The gate begins to close. People come running up with empty containers.
One boy gets in before the gate locks and rushes over to the leaking water, catching what he can and bringing it to his face again and again until the front of his shirt is soaked.
They have arrived at the hospital.
This is where 30 people wounded in the fighting for Umm Qasr were brought with injuries and where five of them died; where one of the injured remains along with his worried family; where the other three patients are a woman with acute appendicitis and two children who need blood transfusions; and where the head doctor, Mohammed Mansoury, who is out front smoking a cigarette, sees the truck and breaks into the smallest of smiles.
"There is no water for four days," he explains, as a hose is run from the truck to a 1,000-liter water tank on the roof. "And we need water for everything. Washing. Cleaning. Well. You know, it's a hospital."
On a typical day, he says, 250 people come for outpatient and emergency treatment, but now he can treat none of them because the tubes for urine samples need to be washed and sterilized, and the tubes for blood need to be washed and sterilized, and the hands of the doctors need to be washed and sterilized, "and they give us only enough water for one small tank, and the people come and take it." And even as he says this, people are climbing the wall surrounding the hospital and running with empty containers toward the truck.
"We heard about the pipeline," they holler to Ahmed, the interpreter.
"We don't get any of it."
"We want water."
The crowd is now 50 people as one end of a hose is attached to the truck's leaking pipe and the other is handed up to a doctor on the roof, next to the water tank. A valve is loosened. The hose thickens. The water tank on the roof begins to fill, while on the ground, a man catches enough runoff from the end of the hose attached to the truck to throw into his mouth and brush around with a dirty forefinger.
"We will do this American-style," Ahmed yells to the crowd. "Line up! No fighting! No screaming!"
The water will come, he says, but only after the tanks are filled, and only after they stay in line, and so a line forms of dusty sandals and containers of every type -- oil containers and antifreeze containers and round drink coolers and rusting barrels in wheelbarrows.
"Stay in line. The water will come," Ahmed says as the truck moves around the back of the hospital to a second tank, but when the truck moves again, this time toward a third tank near the front of the hospital, the line stops being an "American" line. Perhaps 100 people rush to fill their containers before the clear, cool stream of water runs out.
"Mister!" they keep yelling at Ahmed and Becker and Beutel, and meanwhile, inside the hospital, the chief physician is saying: "Many, many problems. Especially water. But others, too."
He starts to explain what happened last night, when soldiers he says were American showed up with weapons and told him to open all of the doors.
Maybe they thought he was hiding Saddam Hussein loyalists, he says. He is in his office. There is a desk. There is a portrait of Hussein, recently taken off the wall but not yet put away. There is a window, through which drifts a chorus from the people outside.
"I don't have the keys," he says he told the soldiers, to which they said that he'd better find them. He says he told them he didn't know where they were, at which point they raised their weapons and said he had five minutes to find them or they would shoot the doors open.
Maybe they thought the man with the bandaged leg who lives on the edge of town and was wounded when artillery shells exploded near his house was a soldier. Maybe they thought the woman with appendicitis was a spy, he says, and who knows, maybe she was -- but that wasn't the point. "I said to them, 'This is a hospital,' " he says.
"Mister," someone is saying now. "Give me your pants."
"Mister. I love you, mister."
"Many, many problems," the doctor repeats.
But at least he has water, so he prepares to treat the people inside his hospital, leaving those outside to the care of the 402nd Battalion, where Ahmed is saying, over and over, "One at a time."
And they are saying:
"Mister. Give me water."
They say this until the valve is closed. They say this until the hose is spooled, the gate opens and the truck begins to move forward.
And then new people come rushing in with empty containers.
"Mister," they say.
"Empty," the driver yells, pausing so he doesn't run over them.
"Mister," they say again.
"Empty," the driver yells again, and this time it's enough to part them, but not enough to keep them from following as he drives away from the hospital.