Published February 15, 2003
The following article ran as part of a thirteen-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 23-February 15, 2003.
If the sentiments of this Euphrates River city are any gauge, those planning the U.S. war on Iraq had best gird for hard times ahead, not just in Iraq itself but in the region beyond.
In this city of 50,000 people on the Iraq-Syria border, 180 miles northwest of Baghdad, almost everyone has a personal link to Iraq - and almost no one has anything good to say about the United States government.
Not long after they arrived on one of Albukamal's muddy, unpaved streets, two Post-Dispatch journalists and their van were surrounded by angry local residents eager to unload on the first Americans they've met.
A group of shopkeepers say the economy here has never recovered from America's first war with Iraq, in 1991, and that a U.S. invasion now would only make things worse.
They recall the "black rain" that fell for two days after the U.S. bombed a chemical plant just across the border, using weapons tipped with depleted uranium that officials here associate with a surge in cases of leukemia, birth defects and miscarriages.
They reject out of hand a reporter's suggestion that the United States is confronting Iraq to disarm a dangerous dictator and to liberate a long-oppressed Iraqi people.
"This war is about two things only: oil and Israel," one merchant says. "Everyone here knows that."
A group of children and teenagers, egged on by an adult with a megaphone, are more direct. They crowd around a Post-Dispatch photographer, chanting "Viva Iraq!" The chants continue and the crowd surges, more than 100 strong - slapping the sides of the van and throwing rocks as the journalists retreat.
"You're late," says the head man at the border crossing just outside Albukamal. "We expected you at 6."
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad's ascendancy to the presidency after the death of his father, Hafez, three years ago was supposed to mark a turn in Syria toward a less autocratic, more open society. There has been some movement, political and economic, yet a visit to Albukamal is a reminder that no one will confuse Syria with Missouri anytime soon.
On the first evening of a two-day visit a nervous businessman concludes an interview by insisting on taking the visiting journalists, immediately, to the city's security chief.
The chief, his well-turned-out double-breasted brown suit underscoring his local status, treats his visitors to a 45-minute lecture, punctuated by coffee and tea, on the merits of Syrian democracy. His promise of a hospitable welcome turns out to be full-time surveillance, including a motorcycle-and-jeep escort for much of the following day.
The border guards reject requests to photograph the site and limit access to half an hour. Aside from overbearing security, the scene appears routine, with long-haul truckers warming themselves over kerosene stoves and brewing early-morning tea.
A convoy of some 60 Iraqi trucks was waiting for permission to enter Iraq. The Iraqi drivers had been held up four days, they said, because border authorities would not let them proceed without a Syrian escort - and the Syrians assigned to them had gone off to visit relatives for the four-day Eid al-Adha festival that concluded Friday.
These trucks come to Syria empty, the drivers said, and return with the basic staples - sugar, grain and food oil - that Iraq is allowed to purchase under the United Nations oil-for-food program. A war would disrupt supplies; U.S. officials say plans are in place to assure no lengthy interruptions of key civilian needs in the event of war.
In 1991, Syria worked with international relief organizations, building tent camps here and elsewhere along the border to serve Iraqi refugees. There are no visible signs of such preparation today; Syrian officials say it is too soon to take such steps. Traffic by individuals across the border remains light, local officials say, with no more than 20 cars a day crossing in either direction.
The truck drivers, several of whom say they are army reservists, have but one question - "Why does America want to invade Iraq?" - and a quick rejoinder to a summary of U.S. aims.
"But Israel has far more sophisticated weapons and it's a danger to every country in the region," one driver says. "Even as ordinary citizens we know that. So why isn't the United States aligned with us, against Israel?"
The driver wears a red-and-white checked headscarf and a weathered camel's hair overcoat with his long cotton robe. His smile reveals two gold-capped teeth.
"Give my regards to America," he says. "Tell them we will fight, and fight well."
Just a half dozen miles down the Euphrates is the Iraqi town of al-Qaim, site of a chemical plant that was bombed during the 1991 Gulf War. For two days afterward, "the rain was black" in Albukamal, says Faisal Jassim, a surgeon at the local public hospital.
Faisal recalls that residents with asthma were the immediate victims. But he said that in subsequent years the town began to experience sharp increases in miscarriages, birth defects and forms of cancer that previously had been rare or nonexistent.
The U.S. military has acknowledged using depleted uranium to harden the tips on "tank-busting" munitions and other ammunition during the war but denies allegations of any adverse health effects. Preliminary studies by the World Health Organization and the U.N. Environmental Program have discounted reports of public-health consequences by non-government public interest organizations.
Faisal, who lost his twin baby brothers and a cousin to leukemia, is convinced that there is a link.
"The people here are vulnerable already," says Faisal, standing in a squalid corridor of the hospital. The bathrooms here are covered in filth; the sinks backed up. In the birthing room the dirty foam mattress on a bed has burst its plastic cover; a bedpan on the delivery table still contains drops of drying blood from the previous birth.
Faisal said that in a country as poor as Syria, with a per capita income of about $1,000 - significantly less in backwater cities like Albukamal - poor nutrition, poor sanitation and rudimentary health care are the norm. In that environment, he believes, the introduction of chemical contaminants such as depleted uranium can tip the balance.
Families who have lost children to new diseases say they aren't specialists and can't be sure of the cause. All they know for sure is the loss they bear.
Noraldin Othman shows a photograph of his son, Izadin, who died in December 2000 at the age of 8. He had been treated for leukemia since 1994, including five years when the family made the seven-hour drive to Damascus weekly for radiation.
Noraldin, a tailor, ticks off the names of six other families nearby who had lost children to leukemia since 1991, and two whose children have the disease today.
"These were the first cases ever in Albukamal," he says. "We had never seen this before, which is why my boy was treated for something else first. It was something new, something strange, that had never happened before."
Another of the leukemia victims was Abdul Rahman, who died in October 1999 at the age of 5. His mother, Hiam al Ali, holds a photograph that shows the earnest face of her son, a plaid-shirted boy who "loved football most of all," she says, "and was loved by all." He died after nearly two years of treatment in the hospitals of Aleppo and Damascus.
Adnan Tabus, a factory worker, cradles his son Mohamed in his arms. The boy was born in March 2001 with a hole in his back and his head nearly twice the normal size, the result of spinal fluid leaking into his brain. Surgery closed the opening but has left Mohamed paralyzed from the waist down. He clings to his father with strong hands and a searching gaze.
"I have two neighbors whose children were born with the same deformity, and both of them died," Adnan says. "The daughter of another neighbor has the same, and is still alive."
Faisal, the surgeon at the hospital, says that a month ago Albukamal received its first visit from foreigners - a team from a Japanese humanitarian agency - seeking to help with the medical aftermath of the 1991 war. Faisal says he wonders why no one from America, which talks so much about its concern for this region's people, has come to investigate the medical mystery of Albukamal.
The people of Albukamal may disagree violently with U.S. policies, but that difference proves no barrier to traditional Arab hospitality.
In this generally poor city, residents are quick to invite two strangers into their homes, to lounge on floor cushions and discuss the looming war over strong coffee and heavily sweetened herbal tea. A woman baking bread on the roadside refuses payment - "It is my honor," she says - for a couple of loaves still steaming from the heat of her adobe brick oven.
Two of the merchants who had excoriated U.S. policies when the journalists first arrived promptly invited them to their home, where the extended family was in the midst of celebrating the Eid al-Adha festival that marks the end of each year's pilgrimage to Mecca.
The holiday was the occasion for a visit home by Sufian al-Alao, an engineer who grew up in Albukamal and has gone on to a successful career in Damascus. He is now the government's deputy minister for electricity, a position that has brought with it a Mercedes automobile, the wherewithal to send two of his sons to the United Kingdom for medical training and the opportunity to treat his own heart failure with a double-bypass operation performed at the Cleveland Clinic.
All in all, Sufian says, he prefers the run-down streets and dilapidated shops of Albukamal. "Here you can go anywhere, anytime, and feel perfectly safe," he says. "In Cleveland you couldn't even go in many neighborhoods. The entire time I was there I was afraid of being killed."
American analysts talk of impressionable Arabs, easily subject to manipulation by corrupt dictators and fanatics like Osama bin Laden. Sufian turns the issue around, noting the way U.S. officials have demonized figures like bin Laden and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, both of whom enjoyed lavish American support at earlier stages in their careers.
"Who created al-Qaida?" he asks, referring to U.S. support for bin Laden when he joined Arab mujahedeen "holy warriors" that the U.S. recruited to battle the former Soviet Union during the 1980s in Afghanistan. "You take a dog, you feed it and feed it, and after a while it becomes so big that you can no longer control it."
In Albukamal local residents hailed bin Laden's purported statement last week voicing solidarity with the Iraqi people. Sufian said the great majority of Arabs had reacted initially to the attacks of Sept. 11 with horror and shame. That attitudes are changing reflects U.S. policies over the past two years, he says.
"That people are sympathizing with bin Laden now is simply the result of your own actions," he said. "If you continue down this road, you'll make him a global hero."
To Syrians like Sufian, the U.S. intervention in the Middle East is just a reprise of imperialism past, most notably the efforts by the British and French to carve up the Ottoman Empire after its collapse during World War I. The "lines in the sand" they drew created the artificial divisions among Arab states that have bedeviled the region in the decades since.
He insists that the hidden goal of the impending intervention is the old rule of divide and conquer, to strengthen Israel's regional hand by breaking up countries like Iraq into fractious smaller parts. The American people don't perceive what to Arabs appears as obvious fact, he says, because they have long enjoyed a level of security - unique in the world - that has allowed them to ignore the complicated realities of global politics.
"The American people are ignorant of what their government is doing," Sufian said. He blames the U.S. media for "constantly supporting this extreme action, and for magnifying the idea that Saddam Hussein is endangering them - as if this weak country, under siege for 12 years, could threaten the most powerful nation in the world."
"You should tell your readers this," he adds, "that blood is not cheap. There is a price to be paid when the merchants of war insist on unjustified killings. The Iraqis, and the Arabs, will get their revenge, no matter how long it takes.
"Let this war come," he concludes. "Our history is long. We know that other wars will follow."