Life in Basra: 'The masked men have vanished, but we're still trapped'

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The Independent Online

The people of Basra ventured outside for the first time in a week yesterday as the ceasefire declared by the Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr began to take hold.

We heard about the truce on the radio, and there was much less fighting yesterday. At last I began to hope that I can return to my home in Nassariyah from my brother's house in Basra, where I have been trapped since last Tuesday.

One of my nephews, Safa, had begun vomiting a lot, but there was no point in trying to take him to the hospital, all the doctors were very busy. Yesterday Jalil, my brother, took 11-year-old Safa to a doctor who lives about two miles away. I went to see the family of Khalid Hussein, an electrician friend who I grew up with in Basra. He is in hospital and one of his legs has bad shrapnel wounds, he is terrified of losing it.

We heard that Um Hassina, our neighbour's sister, was injured when a rocket hit her home.

A neighbour brought round wheat and some vegetables and there is talk of food distribution, as the shops reopen. But nobody knows if it is just a brief lull in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's attempt to tame the Mehdi Army of Mr Sadr. The imams in the mosques blamed the government for starting the fight within the Shia community.

The first we knew about fighting was when we were woken by explosions to the north of my brother's house about 4.30am last Tuesday.

I had been supposed to return to Nassariyah and I set off about 11am. But there were so many police and army roadblocks that I turned back. At first, my three young nephews in the house were excited by the noise from the fighting but then they all became scared, and my niece Haniya burst into tears at the explosions.

By the next day, with fighting raging, Dr Haidar who works at the general hospital, said they could not take any more patients. He said 11 people had died after being brought to the hospital and they were mainly civilians. He also said they were running out of medicine. By yesterday, the death toll in the city had risen to more than 210, and people went out to bury their dead.

There was also a lot of mortar and rocket fire. One police station near us was hit by two rockets and some police were injured. We saw armoured cars and tanks on the street. I managed to call my wife in Nassariyah on my satellite telephone to say I was all right but she was very, very nervous and said she could not sleep at night.

Then they brought in a curfew from about 10pm on Thursday but no one went out much and most of the shops were shut. We started to worry about shortages of food, but we had bread and meat and vegetable stew, and some fruit.

We kept as much as possible for the children, while adults survived on bread and tomato paste. But the main worry was the disappearance of clean water, and we had to boil tap water, even though it came out of the tap quite dirty.

The bombing raids by American or British planes began last Friday. We heard three deafening explosions, and I could see big clouds of smoke in the air.

The curfew was lifted for a few hours. I went out, but there was a lot of firing and I could not go very far. I saw a lot of damage, many houses which had been hit. I saw one row of cars with every single one burned out. There was blood and broken glass on the streets.

There were masked men with guns on the street. One of the Shia militiamen put his AK against my chest and shouted "go home, just go home". I did not argue.

The next day, there were more air raids. There were a lot of helicopters, and there were reports about foreign troops in the city, but the firing seemed to be less intense. I spoke to my wife again. She said my children were crying, and then she started crying herself.

On Sunday, we were told they had flown food in, and the curfew was lifted so people could collect provisions. But two mortar rounds landed a few streets away, setting fire to some cars.

Now, the masked men have vanished from the streets. Today, I will try to return to Nassariyah again.