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El Salvador

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The ‘collateral’ damage
Just some of the people your government is planning to bomb.

In the war rooms of Washington and other Western capitals, Iraq appears as a series of images on strategic maps. No sound radiates from the electronic charts and no faces come into focus as officials adjust their sites and tap their grand designs into sophisticated computers with practised fingers. As they mark their electronically generated crosses of death on the doors of unknown Iraqis, they are cocooned in reassuring silence. They do not hear the voices in the towns and villages of Iraq that rise briefly before evaporating into the heavy air...

Profiles by Olivia Ward.

Photo: Olivia Ward
Reza Toma (centre): ‘Please spare our family.
Of what, then, are we guilty?’

REZA TOMA turns her palms up, showing the cracked skin, in which the dust and grey earth have engraved permanent patterns of toil. At 60, she is at a loss to know how to carry on.

One of two wives of tomato farmer Mohammed Taba, who died in September of a heart complaint, Reza is suddenly responsible for the small fly-blown plot a stone's throw from the Kuwait border - a piece of land already littered with bombs and mines from the Gulf War.

'They say there is to be another war,' she says, mopping her damp forehead, wrapped in the obligatory black Shi'a robes in spite of 40oC heat. 'But what can we do? We have no money for fuel to keep the generator going. We can't afford seed for the next crop, and we should be planting now. We can't do anything to prepare. If war comes, only Allah will save us.'

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War began, she says, Mohammed refused to leave. All the other families in the settlement packed up their homes and fled but she, second wife Fartanah and her two children had to remain. Mohammed feared looting more than bombs. But when the death-dealing barrages became too much they were forced to move to the nearest town.

'It was as he said,' Reza says with a wry smile. 'When we came back everything was gone. But then we had each other. Now. there is nothing.' She points at the mud hut behind her, furnished only with some threadbare rugs and cushions. And over her shoulder is the border, where some 12,000 American troops are practising the skills of invasion. She stares into the empty desert, as though seeing them in a mirage: 'Please spare our family. Of what, then, are we guilty?'

AMJAD MOHAMMED leans against the wall of his ramshackle house in the impoverished Djun Gmhra district of Basra, the main city of southern Iraq - a six-hour drive south of Baghdad. At 15, he's tall, slim, with a quick, shy smile and has learned the tricks of appearing like everybody else. But every day is a strain that often leaves him silent and tense. In the privacy of his tiny bedroom he allows himself to cry.

'I don't remember everything about that day,' he says, recalling the January morning in 1999 when an American bomb dropped outside his house during Operation Desert Fox, launched to punish Saddam for failing to co-operate with the UN weapons inspectors.

'I just remember a terrible noise, then I fell down in a faint,' Amjad says. 'When I woke up I was in hospital.' He bends his dark, crewcut head: just below the crown, a livid indentation. 'And I had a hole in my head.'

Since then he has suffered partial memory loss. 'When I try to play football or basketball I get dizzy and fall down,' he says, his voice wavering. 'Now I've given up trying. But I wish I could do better in school. I try to pay attention to the teacher but I just can't concentrate. When I do my lessons I can't see the pages properly, then I get bad headaches.'

Tears gather at the corners of his eyes, and he wipes them in embarrassment. 'I watch what everyone else does and I try to copy it. Sometimes it works. I can't remember what I used to feel like before this happened to me.'

As he speaks, an air-raid siren screams out. American and British planes are over southern Iraq, patrolling the 'no-fly zones' created to protect Iraq's Kurds and Shi'a people, and dropping bombs on military installations.

'We're told they're doing this to help us,' says Amjad. 'I don't understand that. They say there's going to be another war. We're all afraid here because we know what bombs can do.'

Photo: Olivia Ward
Areej Dawood: ‘What more is there in
life than good work, a good family and
peace of mind?’

AREEJ DAWOOD - a slender woman with elegantly chiseled features - manages an employment-training center for women in Baghdad. She is one of a small but growing number of single career women. 'You may think it's strange, but it makes me feel much freer to wear a scarf,' she says as she smiles at the seeming contradiction of an independent-minded woman who chooses to cover her hair according to Muslim custom.

'Before, I was always worrying about my appearance. Was the color of my hair right and was it nicely styled? I was a slave to vanity. Now I want everyone to look at me and concentrate on who I am, not what I look like.'

Dawood, single and 41, would once have been pitied or scorned. But because of Iraq's economic crash, many like her were forced to postpone marriage. When her hope of a 'normal life' collapsed, she joined a growing number of women who are a new force to be reckoned with in Iraqi society. Like many of them, she fell back on the basic values of home and faith to get her through what would have once been a blighted life.

'It's true that I'm somewhat dependent on my parents, because I live at home,' Dawood says, smiling. 'But if I were married these days I'd have to live with my in-laws which could be much worse. This way I'm my own person and I have the life I choose.'

True, the choices may appear limited: 'I wouldn't date a man unless I knew we would be married,' she admits. 'And I certainly wouldn't go out to a restaurant alone at night, even with female friends.'

But, she says, 'everything is done with the family and if you get on well with your parents and relatives as I do, you don't feel as though you're missing anything. What more is there in life than good work, a good family and peace of mind?'

Photo: Olivia Ward
Adil Kadahum Jawad: ‘Now – as then –
we’re struggling for survival.’

ADIL KADAHUM JAWAD retreats from the heat and chaos of Baghdad's Rashid Street book market when he enters a nearby bookshop - a mere hole in the wall lined with hundreds of crumbling

second-hand English-language volumes. One of Iraq's leading playwrights, 67-year-old Jawad has just completed an allegorical work on war crimes set in the archaic period of Noah's flood. Rehearsals are about to start a few blocks away in a small but bustling theatre.

'The themes are just as good today,' chuckles the small, grey-haired man. 'We are waiting for the deluge. Everything we do is done under a dark shadow.'

'It's not a good time for intellectuals,' he says. 'Many of us have left already. Those of us who stayed have to wonder about our sanity. But we have to fight the decline of learning in our country: a country which spread civilization to the rest of the world.' From Iraq's thinkers, he recalls, sprang the wheel and the first human writing. The 'city' was born here, along with the first inklings of mathematics and astronomy. The ancient Epic of Gilgamesh was the first-known discourse on human justice and humankind's quest for enlightenment in the face of death.

'Now - as then - we're struggling for survival,' Jawad says. 'The sanctions have ruined us. Once we were living comfortable lives. Now we shop in this market because we can't afford new books. When I write my plays, I have to fill every space in the notebook because it's too expensive to buy new ones. As for computers, they're out of the question.'

And, he smiles, 'perhaps we will end as we began. after all this, scrabbling in the dust, looking for a way of handing down our thoughts to the people who will survive and come after us in a better time.'

Olivia Ward is foreign correspondent of the Toronto Star.

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The following photos
are by Farah Nosh.
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Word corner

Caravans have a long history before the present motor-hauled vehicles of that name, going back to the Persian karvan (group of desert travellers). A caravanserai (from the Persian) is like a motel for camels and the people travelling with them, with a central courtyard often large enough to hold hundreds of camels. Serai means palace or inn. Seraglio, from the same root, is a harem, often in a palace. Haram is Arabic for ‘forbidden place’. The harmatan (the forbidden one) may often blow around the walls of a caravanserai, as it is a dry and dusty Saharan wind. More prosaically, a van, or small truck, is an abbreviation of caravan.

Susan Watkin

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Pay or die
Salvadoran healthcare workers
battle privatization


‘White Marches’ – health-care union
members voice their demands on the
streets of San Salvador.

For weeks at the end of last year, the streets of San Salvador - capital of El Salvador - were covered in white. In September 2002 doctors and medical workers in the country's social-security healthcare system went on strike to protest government moves to turn over services run at public facilities to private contractors. Demonstrations drew as many as 200,000 people who dressed to match the uniforms of doctors and nurses.

These escalating 'White Marches' forced a remarkable reversal of the economic agenda promoted by President Francisco Flores's ruling ARENA party. A new law passed on 14 November 2002 - Decree 1024 - guarantees the maintenance of national healthcare as part of the social-security system. Moreover, it effectively voids contracts with private businesses that the Government had rushed to put in place since the beginning of the strike.

Over the previous two months, healthcare union members shut down many of the country's largest hospitals. Yet even amidst the daily demonstrations, President Flores presented a new voucher plan proposing to transfer public money to private healthcare providers. Union leader Ricardo Monge dubbed the proposal 'Pay or Die'.

As the marches grew in size, doctors from other branches of the public healthcare system undertook one-day solidarity strikes in hospitals across the country. A thousand students occupied buildings at the National University that had been cleared for use in the Central American and Caribbean Games. And on 12 October, doctors and allies instituted 14 one-day bridge and highway blockades that brought traffic throughout the country to a standstill. Public outrage persuaded President Flores to withdraw his vouchers proposal, and the Legislative Assembly ratified the new anti-privatization laws.

The healthcare strike has prompted wider efforts to resist Plan Puebla Panamá (PPP) - an infrastructural development plan designed to prepare the region for the Central American Free Trade Agreement. On 12 November electricity workers union members began their own strike against the sale of public utilities. Legislators supporting the workers at least temporarily blocked a $40-million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank for a major PPP-related electrical superhighway.

Should resistance in El Salvador effectively force the country to withdraw from the regional development plan, it would provide a powerful example for other Latin American activists who oppose the US-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Just by passing Decree 1024, Salvadorans have defied the mandates of the IMF and presented a legislative agenda directly at odds with moves toward 'free market' integration.

The healthcare strikers are not resting on the laurels of their recent successes. Union members continue to demand that the Government reinstate fired workers with back pay and that an independent monitoring commission oversees negotiations for further reform. In December police arrested more than a dozen union leaders. Riot troops attacked several peaceful protests including a demonstration in front of San Salvador's maternity hospital. Moreover, activists have been the target of death threats and attacks from black-masked paramilitary gangs. While the ruling ARENA party was closely linked with death squads during the war, the Government denies any present connection. However it has failed to open investigations into any of the recent human-rights abuses.

The need for continued international support does not lessen the significance of the victories already achieved. Manuel Villanueva, National Program Director of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, explains that 'This strike was not about raising salaries for doctors or about getting better benefits. The strike was to defend the right to public healthcare - healthcare for all people - against those who want the market to decide who gets services.'

'Two economic models collided on the streets of San Salvador,' Villanueva says. The one in white won.

Mark Engler - [email protected]

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Big Bad World by Polyp.

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