Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

Living With Oil

Sending back this dispatch from inside Baghdad, Jo Wilding considers the lives and deaths of a community living next to an Iraqi oil refinery.

7th March 2003

It means horrendous air pollution, especially days like yesterday when the wind blows up a sandstorm and the thick air holds the petrol fumes and plasters the stink of it to your skin. It means devastation of swathes of marine ecosystems. In Britain it means road building and the loss of woodland ecosystems, open space and fresh air and the tearing through of communities. It means war and power and refugees in countries all over the world: Iraq, Sudan, Cyprus, Nigeria. At Mosfa Daura it means a living, a community.

There are about 70 houses in the small company town which extends out of the Daura Oil Refinery, plus a school, a kindergarten, a playground and a few shops for the oil workers and their families. It's not the most attractive neighbourhood in the world but the kids all play safely in the street and everyone knows each other.

Zainab, Shems (Sun) and Israa are 21-year-old students of biology, computer science and maths respectively at Baghdad University. Zainab's dad is the town's dentist; Shems' and Israa's are engineers in the refinery. They conferred in Arabic for the right English words and taught me a few Arabic phrases and we exchanged plans. Zainab wants to work in a hospital laboratory when her degree is finished. Shems is planning to work in a computer programming office.

Zainab pointed out the house, across the street from where we were standing, where she used to live. During the last war the refinery was hit. She made a gesture, trying to find the words - stinging eyes, choking air. "Smoke?" I suggested. "Yes, yes. Smoky." She shook her head at the memory: "We live closer to the road now."

A stranger is a novelty and hordes of kids wanted to know my name and have me write them messages in little notebooks or on scraps of paper. One boy asked if I liked football, a ball was fetched and a few of us spent a happy while heading the ball at one another. We invented a game which involved us all crouching on the ground in a neo-circular arrangement with our hands together, then all shouting and jumping up.

There was one child with eyes even more stunning than the rest: almost black, yet almost see-through, piercing, sparkling, haunting, magical eyes, and I wanted to take a picture of her, but it was impossible to take a picture of just one child, because they all cluster together, jostling and pushing each other, shuffling closer and closer to the camera even as you're moving back from them so as to get them into the shot.

Oil is the life and death of this city, the wealth and the poverty, the currency that bought infrastructural investment and a high standard of living and the curse that brought down the gluttonous attention of the most powerful countries in the world.

Mosfa Daura isn't just an oil refinery. It's a whole community. It's young women with names and dreams and brothers and sisters and it's happy, playful kids and homes and all the rest of it. It's wrong and it's illegal, under the Fourth Geneva Convention on protection of civilians in time of war, to attack civilian populations notwithstanding the presence of a military target within that population.

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