Report from Iraq

Just north of Hilla, some 80 km south of Baghdad, the roads pass tiny dusty villages. Situated between much larger towns and cities, these khaki colored hovels seem to flow out of the ground, quite literally in fact. The local industry is the thousands-year old art of brick making, so naturally the surrounding homes are built out of the very sand and clay they sit upon. While the people here celebrate the end of the Saddam regime, there is little notable change in the near-medieval living standards.


In the scope of Iraqi history, Khinfara village is relatively young. Built around its resident brick factory, which was privately founded in 1953, it has been sustained by a very simple and time-tested industry. Apart from the machinery used to cut the soft sand and clay into individual bricks, the aptly named as-Salaam (the Peace) factory and its environs look no different than they may have thousands of years before.


The process is simple. From mounds of sand and other base materials piled nearby, quantities are mixed with water to form large slabs of essentially wet mud. This is then cut by a massive industrial age machine into a semi-standard brick shape. These are subsequently piled en masse for a few days of drying in the sun. The location, next to a few stagnant ponds, isn’t ideal in terms of Iraq‘s more arid environs, but makes the mixing process much more convenient.


After the drying period, the bricks are loaded onto donkey carts by hand and moved to the large furnace. The furnace is a long brick and mortar built structure about 100m in length, culminating in a large smoke stack. On one side, flames are fueled to reach an intense heat. On either end of the building, fresh bricks are stacked in the heat to cook for about a week. Then they are loaded back on to donkey carts which move the finished product to several flat bed trucks for transport to sale in the regional cities.


The factory produces about 32,000 bricks per day, and operates year round. Demand seems consistent enough to make it a stable industry. However, despite the numerous jolts to Iraq‘s economy, and the recent influx of American money and construction, income has hardly changed. The wages for the 100 or so workforce vary from 2,500 to 10,000 dinar ($2-8) per six-day work week. Work begins as early as 3 am to meet quotas for the morning markets, and extends until usually 1 or 2 in the afternoon.


“I have no other choice but to work here,” explains Abbas Abadi. He is only 21, but his stained gray hair and dark face worn with deep skin lines denotes the fact that he has spent over two-thirds of his life working here. He made it through primary school, but then began working at the factory as much as he could, never fully completing his studies. His main complaint is a familiar one: he doesn’t make enough to support his wife and only child with this one job. But he has no where else to go.


Talib Abud has an even larger family to feed. The sullen faced 33-year old truck driver struggles to feed his family of five and is eager for his two eldest sons to be old enough to work. His daily wage is insufficient to buy a simple shish kebab dinner for one in Baghdad, so he feeds his family off the simple staples such as rice and potatoes. When asked if things have improved since the war, he merely shakes his head with a blunt, “No.”


Others are a little more grateful the Ba’ath regime has ended. Haider, another truck driver who transports the bricks to the markets, spent twelve years of his life in Saddam’s most notorious prison, Abu Gharib, after deserting the army in 1990. Though released in a general amnesty in 2002, the toll on his body has limited his ability to work. He shows the scars on his wrists where he was constantly hung from the ceiling with his hands bound behind his back, dislodging his shoulders. His emaciated face cracks as he shows off each mark on his body from the torture. “Here. Here. And Here.” He also is quick to point to his toes. “Here they pulled off my nails,” he explains. He has been eager to start a family now, but understands that life will be difficult.


Hatred of Saddam in this Shia area runs deep. Donkeys are nicknamed after the former president and whacked with pvc tubes. But inside the factory, where the heat mixes with the dry taste of ash and dust, little has changed. Shafts of light penetrate the gray clouds that swirl about in heat vortexes as workers shovel broken bricks to the side. Empty donkey carts are driven in and loaded with finished bricks, baked yellow by the fire. On the other end, new bricks to cook are unloaded and stacked high to the ceiling.


Beady white eyes permeate through the dust and a torrent of complaints follows. “We have trouble breathing, many of us suffer from asthma!” Ali Hadi seems pleased to finally have a way to speak out. “We have also never had clean water. We get it from the river and have to drink it straight. There is no plumbing here.” Indeed, the Tigris‘ waters are quite laden with years of pollution and a neglected of environmental care. But Ali blames the former Iraqi regime for these problems.


“We are Shia and Saddam did not care for us,” Ali explains. “That is why we have no clean water.” He says that things will have to improve soon – so long as Saddam remains in prison, he is quick to point out. When asked if he thinks the former President should be executed he shakes his head dismissively, “No, that is only for God to decide.”


Rural industries such as the As-Salaam factory have one other ubiquitous feature: the reliance on child labor. Some 15-20 children work at the brick factory, depending on the season mainly as the drivers of the donkey carts. More of course work during the summer when school is not in session, but a couple dozen stay throughout the year supporting their families instead of attending school. The children work the same hours as the adults, some times almost ten hours per day.


Jassim, 15, doesn’t seem to mind missing out on an education. “I like it here,” he asserts while struggling to keep his donkey from wandering away. His father also works at the factory and the family dearly needs the money. He wears his two years of work experience on his face; his smile cracking through encrusted layers of dust and ash.


Some children at the factory are only half of Jassim’s age. No one is quite sure how old Saddam Ali (everyone mocks his name) is, but they presume he is eight years old. He sports a matching black sweat pants and shirt and wears a wool-knit head covering to protect his shiny black hair from the soot. The Saddam regime managed to affect him in ways too, in a boyish naivety. When asked to meet a foreign journalist, he cowers and asks, “Is he here to execute me?”


Amazingly, at such a young age, Saddam has already been helping out at the brick factory for three years, guiding the donkeys along their monotonous path to pick up newly dried bricks and take them to the oven. Its a simple task, but one he repeats perhaps a few hundred times in a day for the meager sum of 4000 dinar per week ($3). He has never had a day of schooling in his life, as he had to begin helping out his family once his father retired early due to illness.


Since the inception of the As-Salaam factory, many regimes in Iraq have risen and fallen. Yet little has changed for the impoverished little village surrounding the plant. The workers don’t expect much to change, especially as little reconstruction for Iraq actually relies on brick and mortar. An upgrade in the infrastructure would be nice, but no one expects a rise in living standards. Abbas Abadi is dismissive that life will improve any time soon. “I am sure that my children will end up working here just as I do,” he says.



Ben Granby sent this report from Baghdad.



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