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Railway village delighted with water

PUBLISHED: 14:00 07 April 2003 | UPDATED: 13:42 03 March 2010

ENGABASHIR, as the military interpreter uncertainly called it, was a town in the midst of the western desert so small it appeared on no military maps.

Royal Engineers from 16 Air Assault Brigade's 23 Regiment literally stumbled across it as they searched the railway line that cuts through the brigade area of the Rumaila oilfields and into the desert wastes.

ENGABASHIR, as the military interpreter uncertainly called it, was a town in the midst of the western desert so small it appeared on no military maps.

Royal Engineers from 16 Air Assault Brigade's 23 Regiment literally stumbled across it as they searched the railway line that cuts through the brigade area of the Rumaila oilfields and into the desert wastes.

But whatever its insignificance to the outside world, all 200 or so of its inhabitants had turned out in temperatures nudging 40 degrees on the promise of free drinking water from the civil affairs team – or CIMICs as the civilian and military co-ordinators are known.

The stationmaster was Majid, who wore a pink Aladdin t-shirt, and he performed a magical feat of organising the assembled throng into melee more orderly than you would expect from people who were forced to rely on a trickle of supplies of fresh water and food that could be carted on the back of the couple of pick-ups which rust just about allowed to be driveable.

He was left stranded a fortnight ago by the outbreak of war in this town which amounted to nothing more than a the all important station platform, a station house, a few mud huts and a school abandoned by teachers who fled to their homes in nearby Nasiriyah when the shooting started.

For the two hours we were there I was unable to speak to him, much as I would have liked to, if only for the way he barked orders as if he was redirecting trains, swatting away anyone who made an uncalled for lunge towards the precious plastic bottles, time after time dismissing them as that most famous of Arabic thieves "Oi…Ali Baba…Ali Baba."

Unperturbed by the row, the man who called himself the emir, stood serenely in front of the 'mudhif' – a traditional guesthouse woven out of reeds as ornately as a downsized Gothic cathedral.

Mesmerising to look at, inside where a row of cushions and brass teapots were arrayed to welcome guests, it was as cool as a flag-stoned cloister.

A line of five women we understood to be the emir's wives giggled as they made faces at him behind his back

For the townspeople, clothed in dish dashas and shemaghs, this was a special day but they had expected more.

An elderly woman whose eyes set deep in the furrows of her leathered face were marbled with glaucoma waved her hands and black robes at me.

A man pointed to his head, shaking it, lowered his eyes and wrung his hands. A headache? Another, a very tall man in a white dish dasha called Dhowad, proffered his prescription for blood pressure tablets, smiling crazily. All these imprecations to me, a helpless journalist, were futile.

The doctor had scarpered when the war began and the CIMICs had brought no medical staff with them, although they said they planned to in the near future.

Some of the townsfolk were fisherman who trawled on reed canoes the nearby cobalt waters of the canal, a concreted offshoot of the Euphrates bridged by a railway crossing which had fortunately suffered only slight damage.

But most worked on the railway, which from its hub at Basra helped service the market towns that fed the network of communities who have been isolated by the lack of trains since the conflict started. The local Marsh Arabs fresh fruit and veg has had nowhere to go.

The teeming mass of children, who hungrily demanded only that our group of journos take an endless stream of pictures they could then instantly inspect on the digital viewfinders were unforgettably Iraq's Railway Children. Their beaming, infectious smiles seemed to me to be the red flags for the war to stop.

Like an Eminem track with teeth, Hussein, a gregarious teenager, introduced all his friends in the same comical, rudimentary English learnt before lessons had stopped, pointing at them one by one.

"My name is Mustafa…My name is Ahmet…My name is Mohammed…"

According to Captain Fiona Steele, part of the brigade's civil affairs team usually based in another railway town of Colchester (mind that war has yet to stop Anglia's service) said that these people were in no desperate state and they had been left unaffected by the outrages elsewhere of Saddam's regime. "But they are anti-regime," she said somewhat incongruously, recovering by adding they locals referred to Saddam in disdain, slicing at their throat.

"She was right. They did when I asked what they thought of him – but keep grinning. Smiling in spite of it all."


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