Prof. reflects on summer of aid work in Karbala

by Jenn Buck | 11/12/03 6:00am

In the wake of the most recent military conflict on Iraqi soil, cautious civilians carry assault rifles and regard each other with concern. A driver packing a Russian-made automatic weapon may fire at his neighbor over an argument at a stoplight. And for Dartmouth religion professor Kevin Reinhart, that risk had to be weighed every morning of the three months last summer he spent in the Iraqi city of Karbala.

Reinhart grew up in a military family and spent two of his high school years living in Turkey. Following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, he knew that his fluent Arabic and his specialization in Islamic religious studies would be skills highly demanded by relief organizations. Rather than avoiding the dangerous post-conflict area, Reinhart dove right in.

In Karbala, a city of roughly half a million people located southwest of Baghdad, there are thousands of internally displaced persons, known to relief workers as IDPs. Reinhart's work through the International Rescue Committee involved working with these traumatized people, forced from their homes by the years of war under the violent regime of Saddam Hussein.

"Initially we thought there would be lots [of IDPs] due to the American invasion, but there were few, maybe 1000," Reinhart said. Most IDPs had been displaced by the 20 years of armed conflict in Iraq that began with Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1979.

One group of IDPs who relief workers saw were Marsh Arabs, who inhabited the hundreds of acres of swampy marshland outside Karbala for almost 4000 years.

"They were difficult [for Hussein] to control, so he drained the marshes," Reinhart said. The people, who had subsided for millennia by fishing, trapping birds and weaving reeds to make houses, were suddenly standing in a dry, salt-covered desert.

These people and thousands of others made their way into the city of Karbala, a holy city dedicated to the shrine of an Islamic martyr. Reinhart arrived there after training and briefings in Jordan, Baghdad and Najef.

Many residents lacked access to clean water, so Reinhart, upon setting up an IRC home office in a house in Karbala, went about organizing projects to bring good water in. Often this took the form of using compact water treatment units to purify water for drinking and cooking, but to effectuate permanent solutions, they would need to build.

Tapping into city water requires digging ditches and laying pipes, so Reinhart hired engineers, who in turn hired contractors to do the work. He pointed out that his job was not only to bring water to people, but also to model good business practices.

"We ordered sealed bids and opened them in front of people," he said, to show residents how to break out of the old business practices of nepotism and bribery. Teaching fair business dealings is a way to create long-term growth and help the people learn to help themselves, Reinhart indicated.

Another important project Reinhart named was the improvement of bathroom facilities in 85 schools.

"The toilets were located in outbuildings," Reinhart said, "and not taken care of. We rehabilitated hundreds of toilets." His team also brought community health workers into schools to teach children about clean and dirty water using microscopes and to promote personal hygiene.

The fact that relief work this basic is still a necessity may shock some people. When asked about humanitarian organizations in Iraq, Reinhart said there were upwards of 85 non-governmental organizations in Iraq at one time with the intent of doing relief work, but most proved ineffectual. The NGO organizers didn't have the skills and the background knowledge about working in a post-conflict zone to cut it, according to Reinhart.

"The U.N. workers were living in compounds, travelling in convoys," he said of the lack of security in post-war Iraq. "People were terrified to go anywhere."

Was Reinhart worried? "You had to pay attention," he said. "You felt wary."

Fluency in Arabic and a detailed knowledge of Sufi Islam served as a kind of cloak for the expatriate professor. He was not only able to better accomplish his relief work but to mix more easily with the general population. Reinhart conducted meetings everyday in Arabic, and often was taken for a Turk or a Persian, he said.

Still, "when I'm in my office, everybody knows it's an NGO," he said. "So [we're still] a target."

"If they recognize your car, they'll shoot at it. If you're a high-enough valued target, they'll bomb you."

But whence the terrorist threat? "Saddam Hussein was a truly wretched, evil human being," Reinhart said.

The professor said he would have "rejoiced" over any internationally-based, U.N.-led invasion of Iraq to depose the dictator any time after 1982. But the "unilateral, America-knows-best, let's make up a reason" campaign waged by President Bush has put the American people in a bad position, he said.

"Cheney is still repeating the line that Al-Qaida is linked to Iraq, and it's just a lie. And he knows it's a lie," Reinhart said.

"Where there was no link to Al-Qaida," he pointed out, now, after the U.S.-led invasion and the subsequent terrorist violence in Saudi Arabia, "there's an Al-Qaida base in Iraq. Great triumph of American policy."