Our Man in Basra Reports or "The Commodes of War"
In my travels from home to Norfolk to Fort Jackson to Ali al Salem to Baghdad and finally Basra, I’ve used a wide variety of bathrooms (i.e. “heads” in Navy language – which is another story!). Some were civilian-normal (like Norfolk, or last weekend’s trip to Arifjan), i.e. solid counters with recessed sinks, unlimited running water, mirrors, regular toilets, etc. Others less so, but at least American – the barracks in Fort Jackson, for example, was like a schools’ bathroom, open cinder-block bays and wall sinks with mirrors. But at least it had plenty of water.
At Ali al Salem everything was in Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) trailers, with different trailers for latrines (with actual porcelain urinals and seats!) and showers and laundry, nicely lit and clean, if occasionally suffering from a slight list if the trailer had settled in the dirt.
The Baghdad shower trailer was nicer, even in the transient camp, as it had wood framing around the sinks and showers with shelving and hooks and benches. Benches are very helpful, for otherwise one stands there pondering how to get your foot out of a flip-flop, into a pair of shorts and then back into the flip-flop without falling over or stepping into puddles of not the cleanest water.
I know these are not the deepest problems. The ancient Greeks would despise this essay – to them the body was the seat of weakness (the “fear engine” as it were), and was something to be conquered – but clearly I’m not as virtuous as a Spartan hoplite!
The latrines at Baghdad were either port-a-potties (if you were in a hurry) or, if you could find them, a modified shipping container. Basically, they put a door at one end, cut some windows, add an air conditioner and plumbing and voila, heads’ for all. In addition to sinks to wash your hands, they always put hand sanitizer out front, particularly at the port-a-potties, where there is no water.
Basra, despite being a British base, is much the same, with modified shipping
boxes for heads and showers. The notable difference here being a total lack of ground water, since there is no water treatment plant at the base it all has to be shipped in from off base.
To save water, there are no urinals here per se, just a trough (like an older baseball stadium in the States), though the stalls are relatively normal – the only problem being no air conditioning, so the seats are actually hot which is weird) given that all the windows are open. I suspect it will be murder come August!
The showers are ok, at least the stalls are separated by actual walls – whereas the tent city stalls simply had curtains on all sides – though they often tilt to one side or the other. Unfortunately the lack of water means “Navy showers” as I noted before, which means no hanging out under the hot water… (anyone who knows me will appreciate how painful that is, given my habit of staying in the shower until I turn into a prune!) I think that’s the most annoying thing about this whole business, as one can get used to using burnished metal for a mirror, or sinks without stoppers, or walking along a gravel path to the head or whatever, but the water limits, now those are a sacrifice!
All the signs in the bathrooms over here emphasize sanitation, with pictures of miserable people suffering from diarrhea, vomiting, etc., as a harsh reminder to “wash your bloody hands!”
This brings me to the second point of this essay, how messy this place is. Like a lot of places around the world, Iraq is full of garbage. I imagine this is what the States’ looked like in the 1960s before the no littering campaigns, just plastic bags, scrap metal and crap everywhere.
Inside the wire it is a different story, of course, but there is still dust and dirt everywhere. The camp is built on a dirt field, with gravel poured down to help with the dust. Paths are either gravel, or these clever rubber/plastic grids that keep your feet off the ground. All this helps keep the dirt tracked into your cube to a minimum level. One thing you can’t avoid, however, is the stink.
I think it is a combination of burnt petrochemicals, the sting of cleaning fluids, the sharp tang of DDT (they use DDT “smoke” projectors every day to kill insects throughout the camp) and the peculiar tang of sun baked sand. I notice it every morning, and taste it on my lips every evening.
Oh, and added to all this is the occasionally visible layer of crude oil smoke burned off from the well-heads and trapped in an inversion layer in the atmosphere.
Tonight I drove out to the airport to pick up a visitor and saw three, four, seven glowing lights on the horizon. I looked closer and realized they were oil flames, burning gases from oil wells or over-pressured pipes or something. Turns out the Iraqi’s, like most less Middle Eastern countries, never bothered to invest in gas trapping technology, so instead they burn the gas as waste.
And the fires are everywhere, sending burnt hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. Think about it. Burning gases sent into the sky, 24/7 and 365 days a year. It must be equal to tens of thousands of cars annually, and all a waste. It makes the Kyoto treaty a joke. Is it even recorded by anyone? Did the UN scold Saddam Hussein for pollution? It makes our hand wringing over 33 or 35 mpg CAFÉ standards look ridiculous in comparison.
No wonder people die young in developing countries.
Fair Winds (please! cough, cough) and Following Sands