The Ghosts of Safwan:
A Report from the Iraq/Kuwait Border
by Jeremy Scahill
February 27, 2003
SAFWAN, Iraq—A pack of wild dogs howl atop the sprawling manmade sand columns that separate Iraq and Kuwait. The mutts run freely between the small Iraqi and Kuwaiti border posts. On the Iraqi side, a border guard smiles and says, “They are Iraqi dogs, but they don’t need visas to go over there.”
The dogs undoubtedly see it all. They roam freely around the demilitarized zone between Iraq and Kuwait—the two borders separated by UNIKOM, the United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission. The DMZ extends 6 miles into Iraq and 3 into Kuwait. Beyond that lie the forces that will seek to conquer Iraq—the US military. If the chase of the dogs takes them much beyond the 3-mile point inside Kuwait, they will see the war games of Washington’s forces—the tanks, the Apache helicopters, the thousands of US soldiers.
“We watch the Americans and see everything that happens,” says an Iraqi soldier high atop Sinam Mountain, the highest point in the area, where Iraq has a small observation post. “We watch their maneuvers all the time.”
“It’s a clear thing,” says Iraqi Air Force Colonel Sabri Gaib. “We expect an attack from the Americans at any moment.” Sabri acknowledges that the Americans have a much more powerful arsenal of troops, weapons and technology than Iraq. But still, he repeats what most military men in Iraq say when confronted with this reality:
“The Iraqis will fight. In the 1920s, the British had more manpower, equipment, even technology you could say. We fought them with sticks and we kicked them out of Iraq. We are confident we can do the same to the Americans.”
A white UNIKOM land rover speeds along the road leading into Kuwait. It stops at the Iraqi border post. French Colonel Bernard Salabelle, the Chief Operations Officer of the UN Mission emerges, wearing desert camouflage fatigues and the blue beret of the UN forces. He has come from the main UNIKOM base to Safwan because a group of American activists with the Iraq Peace Team has set up a temporary camp there for 4 days to protest the massive US military build-up in Kuwait. “You shouldn’t stay too long,” he says. “It might not be safe here much longer.”
The bespectacled Col. Salabelle jokes with the Iraqis that he hasn’t had French wine or cheese in more than a month because he can’t get alcohol from the Kuwaiti side. He asks the Iraqis if they could bring him the wine from Baghdad. “In Shah Allah,” says an Iraqi official. If God wills it.
Col. Salabelle has headed up the military wing of UNIKOM for 5 months. These have perhaps been the 5 tensest months in the DMZ in almost a decade. He emphasizes that it is an unarmed mission, save for one, armed battalion for “self defense.” There are 200 UN observers in the DMZ from 32 nations, including 11 from the US. But “the British and American observers stay on the Kuwaiti side,” Salabelle says with a grin.
Regarding his mission in the DMZ, Col. Salabelle told Iraqjournal.org it is difficult “not to know your future. We don’t know if we will be evacuated next week or in one month. We don’t know. We hope to stay here but we don’t know in which kind of situation. I am just waiting for orders from my headquarters.”
Col. Salabelle says that if US forces begin an invasion “perhaps we will not be here. If the Security Council decides [to participate in an attack], it will withdraw its mission first. Without the Security Council, it’s a different thing.”
If you listen close enough you can hear the helicopters in the distance. You can hear a rooster crow. You can hear the children in the nearby Iraqi village laughing and playing. But mostly you hear the eerie silence of the horrors past and future. Safwan is a desolated area—the carcass of a former border crossing, now barely a skeleton of its past. The image left is of a Wild West ghost town waiting for the showdown at high noon. You can imagine the typical bustle of the small restaurant that once serviced travelers between Iraq and Kuwait, now a bullet-riddled shell of its former self. You can imagine the “Duty Free Shop,” the post office, the customs station. The traders and travelers, businessmen and tourists, they are no more. Just steel, concrete, bullet holes and history.
More than 12 years ago, Iraqi tanks, trucks and soldiers moved through the night on the road heading from Safwan into Kuwait. The rest, as they say, is history. But the ghosts of Safwan live on.
At the 6 mile point on the Iraqi side, is a sign that reads: “Attention all UN Personnel, You are now leaving the DMZ.” The next left turn takes you to what is simply known as “the graveyard”—a stretch of the Iraqi desert full of mangled, twisted vehicles, contaminated from direct hits from Washington’s depleted uranium munitions used during the 1991 Gulf War.
Over the last decade, Iraq has moved the tanks, cars, trucks and other undistinguishable vehicles to the Safwan desert to keep them away from populated areas. The tanks in particular tell the story of the power of the DU munitions—clean holes ripped in tanks like a big needle through fabric. After 10 minutes at the graveyard, the government minder gets uneasy and wants to go. There is a sandstorm and dust and sand are blowing everywhere.
But for the people less than a mile away, there is no van to get in and speed away. They live downwind from the DU-contaminated vehicles. Despite the remoteness of the location, locals occasionally take metal from the site. Perhaps they are unaware of the dangers of exposure; perhaps they are desperate. At the fork in the road near the graveyard, a small child plays with a stick, hitting a stone along the dirt and dust. An older man, perhaps his father or grandfather, sits smoking a cigarette in front of a small guard post. One is left simply to wonder what lies in their future or why they must sit there.
Statistics are hard to come by in Iraq, but over the last decade southern Iraq undoubtedly has seen a cancer epidemic. The hospitals are full of dying children, horrifying birth defects and misery. Ask any doctor or scientist and they’ll go into meticulous detail about the relationship between the cancer and birth defects and DU. In Basra’s hospitals, you meet many Iraqi Gulf War vets, sitting at the bedsides of their sick or deformed children. And you meet many people from Safwan. The uranium particles in the air and soil are part of it. But there is also the more hidden danger.
As you pass along the highway heading from Kuwait to Basra, there are dozens of fields covered with plastic tarps. They are protecting the harvest. Safwan was once famous for its tomatoes, but nowadays it is notorious. Foreigners visiting the south are customarily warned against eating the tomatoes, because they are grown at the epicenter of where the DU munitions were used.
After seeing the graveyard and its proximity to the tomato groves, the vegetable markets in Basra start to look like a series of tables with rat poison and grenades for sale.
Back at the DMZ, the sun begins to set over Safwan. A plane thunders in the distance; the dogs are again howling. A pack of them are chasing a small black and white mutt. Perhaps the mutt is a Kuwaiti dog that moved too close to the pack. Maybe it’s a dog that survives off of scraps from US soldiers. After a while, the dogs disappear over the mounds of sand separating Iraq from Kuwait. That eerie silence returns and the Iraqi border guards stand at their posts staring into the desert, knowing that someday soon the ghosts of Safwan will rise again.
Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist, who reports for the nationally syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He and filmmaker Jacquie Soohen are coordinating Iraqjournal.org, the only website providing regular independent reporting from the ground in Baghdad.