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Aid fails to reach those who need it most

Hospitals desperately need medicine, yet boxes remain piled up in an Iraqi warehouse.

Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 8, 2003

BASRA, Iraq - Hospitals here need drugs. Children here need food.

In a big warehouse, there is plenty of both. So why aren't they getting to the people in need?

The answers - at least those given by the warehouse director - are vague and contradictory. And they raise even more questions about whether the sluggish, corruption-riddled bureaucracy of the old Iraqi government will carry over into the new.

"A system that essentially grew out of a corrupt dictatorship means people are going to take advantage of it," said Capt. Hugo Guthrie, a British doctor. "That's one of our roles in coming around and following up ourselves."

Since British soldiers entered Basra in April, hospitals in this city of 1.3-million have been critically short of drugs and medical equipment. One director said his hospital had received nothing but water, despite large amounts of humanitarian aid being shipped in from Kuwait and other countries.

"We need life-saving drugs," Dr. Akram Hamodi of Basra Teaching Hospital said this week. "We just have promises - no help from the outside."

Much of the aid sits in a big building that used to be the local distribution site for Iraq's Ministry of Health. Drugs and health care equipment would be sent to this central location and then distributed to Basra's three civilian hospitals.

After Saddam Hussein's government fell, the building became a storage facility for aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross and other organizations.

At 1 p.m. on a recent day, huge cartons marked "DRUGS" were clearly visible just inside the open doors of the warehouse.

The warehouse director, Abde Ubaset, seemed reluctant to talk when two American journalists asked to speak to him. He insisted that supplies are distributed to hospitals on a routine basis.

"We have a good distribution system," he said. "We continue every day."

A few minutes later, Capt. Guthrie arrived.

"Hospitals don't seem to be getting their supplies," he told Ubaset. "I know we've given you a lot of aid and yet nothing seems to have arrived at the hospitals."

Ubaset then acknowledged that none of the drugs - $20-million worth - had been delivered.

"You have no transport?" Guthrie asked. He looked around at several trucks in the parking lot and at least 15 men standing idly nearby.

Ubaset said his employees were afraid to go out because of the "security situation" in Basra.

As they continued to talk, Guthrie discovered that the warehouse also contained at least three new incubators for premature babies.

"The children's hospital has 12 incubators," he said, "and only two work."

The men struck an agreement. At least initially, the hospitals would send someone twice a week under military escort to pick up drugs at the warehouse. The Basra Maternity and Pediatric Hospital would also get its incubators.

"But I would like to go back to you distributing supplies, maybe with an escort," Guthrie told Ubaset. "Hospitals obviously need drugs and they're no good to them here."

By now it was 2 p.m., official quitting time. Ubaset got in his car and left. But the warehouse doors were still open and Guthrie wanted to take a look inside.

The men who had been standing around pointed to their watches.

"Hungry," they said in English. Then they locked the doors.

"The whole . . . country shuts down at 2," the normally mild-mannered captain said in exasperation.

Guthrie's main concern was medicine, but other humanitarian items appeared to be going undelivered.

On the loading dock and scattered around the parking lot were hundreds of cartons stamped "UNICEF" - United Nations Children's Fund - that each contained 20 packs of high-protein biscuits. Basra, like the rest of Iraq, has a serious problem with childhood malnutrition that is being aggravated by wartime food shortages.

Why hadn't the biscuits gone to Basra's thousands of hungry children?

Ubaset, the warehouse director, said the Italian-made biscuits had arrived before the war under a U.N. program that allowed Iraq to sell oil to buy food. Samples had been sent to Baghdad for testing, he said, and revealed some of the biscuits were "not good."

But lettering on the unopened cartons showed that the biscuits were made in January. The expiration date is not until January 2005.

Kathryn Irwin, communications officer for UNICEF in Basra, said neither Ubaset nor the old Iraqi government nor anyone else had ever complained about the biscuits.

"I haven't heard of any problems," she said. "In fact the doctors are asking for more biscuits."

- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

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