21| Gravesites: Environmental Ruin in Iraq (excerpt)

The chain of death created by the Gulf War is an awesome thing. But the really scary part comes later—now—when we find that things which looked alive are really dead or doomed.

Barbara Nimri Aziz

It was a sunny spring afternoon in North Iraq in 1996. I stood on a gently sloping verge overlooking meadows of what was supposed to be young wheat. A cover of green tinged with a soft yellow extended as far as one could see in all directions and, from a distance, it appeared to be an undisturbed pastoral setting. On the surface, it looked serene.

Had I traveled four hundred kilometers just to escape the ugliness of Baghdad and the constant sight of beggars there? Did I come to this green landscape to shut out those endless complaints about food prices, and the now tedious questions put to me as a visiting journalist about when the UN sanctions might end? As much as I could, I had addressed those issues. Now I was pursuing my own agenda—to investigate agricultural production.

Why should the United Nations economic sanctions, imposed in August 1990 and still strictly enforced, hamper local food production? I wanted to know. So I travelled to the northern wheat-growing area around Mosul, as well as to small family farms both north and south of Baghdad.

With me on that tour in the north were agronomists from the agricultural office in Mosul. This was the administrative center for the entire northern governate. This region was Iraq's breadbasket—a grain-growing center for the country of nineteen million people. The Iraqis were to show me the farms, and when we pulled off the road and walked up the slope, I waited for them to lead me to fields where wheat grew. Yet the men did not move beyond where we stood when I asked to see the wheat.

"This is it," said the officer quietly, looking at the ground. "This is the crop."

I looked down at the growth at my feet, then around the hill, and finally at my Iraqi hosts. I was confused.

"I do not believe this is a wheat field."

I was stunned that I had blurted this out; I felt embarrassed. It was as if I had accused the men of deception.

Mohammed Sheet is chief plant protection officer for Mosul, a trained agronomist. Neither he nor his assistants responded to my observation. What were they to reply?

I broke into the awful silence and asked if we could move deeper into the field, as if our proximity to the road somehow was responsible for the sickly growth around us. They obliged and we walked five hundred meters up the slope. It was the same. I said nothing. "Yes, this is also wheat," said the official. It was no different from what grew at the first site. Now all of us were silent, gazing at the ground, as if standing on a grave.

Recovering from the shock, I apologized. I knew what ripe, healthy grain fields look like and I could recognize young stands of wheat. Elsewhere in the world, I had witnessed bad crops, too, places where seventy percent was lost due to drought, and I had observed thin fields planted with bad seed or crops eaten back by pests. But I had never seen anything as bad as this.

I asked Mr. Sheet to point out which was the wheat plant. He bent down and touched some of the grass shoots visible among the growth. Hardly more than shreds had reached the surface. The grass was just no more than four inches high, whereas a normal crop should be eighteen inches by this time of the year. Low yield is one thing. But this wheat was so badly infested, it was virtually destroyed. Moreover, this tragedy seemed to be no accident.


The full text of this chapter is available in the book, Metal of Dishonor. Link here for order information.




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