Working for UN in Iraq

2003 Iraq

I work occasionally for the UN World Food Program (WFP), which is by far the biggest UN agency, in the logistics area. At the end of the fighting in the 2003 Second Gulf War I found myself in Kuwait running 200 trucks into Iraq through Basrah and north almost to Baghdad.

Our mission was to supply food (mainly wheat and flour) to Iraq to overcome cessation of operation of Iraqi flour mills and general breakdown in the civilian food chain. As Um Qasr, Iraq’s only seaport was out of action, the only nearby port open was Kuwait and as the Kuwaitis hated the Iraqis with an insane passion they only “cooperated” because of the huge pressure put on by the Americans.

It was my job to get the trucks loaded each afternoon with bulk wheat (the infamous Australian Wheat Board kick-back wheat!) into semi-tippers and bags of flour onto flat-top trailers. The flour bags came from the Kuwait flour mill, using Australian Wheat while the tippers loaded from the silo near the off-loading ships. Most of the trucks were Kuwaiti owned but no Kuwaiti drives a truck so the drivers were of every nationality – Jordanian, Egyptian, Palestinian, Pakistani etc. 90% of the trucks were some model of Mercedes, ranging from brand new to 30 year old bangers and none had air conditioning.

I would leave at 0500 every morning and drive 200km to the Iraq border. It took about 90 minutes – no speed limit on the straight freeway across the desert although you could only use the outside lane because the inside lane was bumper to bumper with thousands of military and non-military trucks all heading for the border.

All my trucks would be waiting at the border, along with up to 700 trucks from various other agencies and military civil contractors (the military convoys went through their own gate about a kilometer along the fence line) all paperwork done.

At 0800 the Kuwaitis opened the gate to process the trucks one at a time. Because it was flat desert the trucks could drive anywhere so as soon as they were allowed to cross the security line nearly 1,000 semi trailers charged the hole in the fence.

It was a complete bloody shambles. Nobody, police, customs or military made any attempt to bring order. By 0830 there was a huge v-shaped bunch of trucks up to half a kilometer wide at the back coming in to a single truck at the gate! After the first couple of days when it took me until lunchtime to get all my boys through I sat down and developed a flying wedge system.

Making all the WFP trucks go as close to the gate as possible when they arrived during the night (the trucks were the drivers’ home and they had little kerosene stoves and mini kitchens in their under trailer boxes. They slept in 50 degree heat under the trailers) I had an organized pack ready when the gate opened. Instead of an individual rabble charging the gate I got about 15 of our guys, nose to tail, to dash at right angles straight across the road to block the rest and, with mirrors touching and often breaking, the whole herd swung right in a block to arrive first at the gate.

The first day cost a few mirrors, mudguards and bumpers but by the third day we had established our position particularly after I sacrificed a couple of trucks to drive in front of “chancers” trying to duck into a gap between our herd and push their bumpers up against the infiltrators. There is nothing more entertaining than listening to two guys screaming at the top of their lungs at each other in Arabic.

Once we got through the border the fun started with hijackings, beatings and murder.

Iraq Part Two

The conclusion of the fighting in Iraq resulted in some of the most stupid and incompetent decisions made in recent times. This post has a lot of philosophy but bear with me as it is background to the next chapters directly involved with trucking operations.

After WW2 General Patten was military governor of Bavaria and he was roundly criticized because he chose to leave all the key personnel (police, factory managers, public servants) in their positions, NAZI party members or not. As a result his area continued to run smoothly. As he said “We know where they are and when the time comes we will pull them in for investigation”. All the other areas turned into a complete shambles, particularly the Russian and French occupied zones where blind vengeance caused the total destruction of society by removing all organized management.

The Americans can be slow learners. Despite his ruthless regime Saddam Hussein had a well run country. Nobody starved, roads were good, universities and business thrived. On day one the “allies” totally disbanded the army and the police force!!!. We all remember saying “Look at those unruly Arabs looting and stripping everything, it is a good thing we have taken over to sort it out” It was this stupid decision that caused the universal looting, there was no looting before the Americans/British came. If you removed all the police from London, New York or Sydney, within 24 hours there would not be a single shop in the city with one item remaining!

Anyhow, this is background to my adventures once the trucks got through the gate into Iraq.

The southern part of Iraq was British controlled and between them and Baghdad was a US Marine Division. People fail to understand that an army is nothing more than a killing machine with the sole aim of killing more of them than they do of us. All the other stuff about security, disaster relief etc is secondary and often done very poorly because they are not trained for it and it is not their job. Occupying soldiers have NEVER made good policemen.

Right at the border there was a large village. The occupants saw millions of tons of food and supplies passing through their town with nothing being unloaded there. As a result they began to form a pack of 300-400 people at the gate to waylay the trucks as they came through. The British army sat back and did nothing.

Our flour trucks were prime targets and as they came through the gate one, by one (they formed up into groups once free of the village) the mob surged forward and although the drivers kept creeping along they threw rocks through the windscreen and cut the load ropes. As a result a lot of drivers were injured by rocks and tons of flour slipped off the trucks to be grabbed and spirited off into the distance.

After I yelled at the British MP commander to get his act together his small band would be half successful in pushing the mob back so the trucks could drive through. We came up with a scheme to have a no-go line for the villagers about 300 metres north of the gate and as the trucks came through they would flatten it and be up to probably 50kph by the time they hit the crowd. A number of people were hit and a number of successful rope slashings still happened but we started to get most trucks through, many with broken glass or drivers with blood streaming down their faces from rocks.

To demonstrate my theory about soldiers being bad policemen: A couple of weeks later the MP detachment was replaced by a full artillery battery (they had nothing to shoot at by this time). Over about 3 days, 100 soldiers and 5 officers, slowly allowed the mob to creep past the no-go line. I would go over every morning to talk to the British major, who was an incompetent fool, to try to get his boys to control the crowd. The boys grinned in the background as I described this officer’s parentage and personal attributes in a manner a soldier would never dare.

Giving up, I went to the MP’s, who were trained in police work, and they agreed to help. So one Landrover with 5 MP’s, including two girls, took control of the situation and made a passage for our trucks where 100 soldiers and 5 officers had failed.

Iraq Part 3

Once the trucks were through the gate and north of the border village, they would team up in groups to run to their various destinations. We were supplying the Iraq Food Board warehouses which had been running very efficiently until the war and still retained their Sadam era management. Here we would drop off flour, cooking oil, lentils and rice which was allocated to the local population on a per head per week basis – all very orderly. Not scenes like Sudan with people fighting at the food trucks but polite lines waiting their turn.

Desperate attempts to get the several flour mills back in operation were being made. Some of these had been damaged in the fighting and several were prevented from starting up by western advisers who demanded all sorts of OH & S changes – impossible in the circumstances. Where do they find these idiots? Our tippers would dump the bulk wheat at the silos but these delays in start-up, not conveyed to the UN until too late resulted in some mills with wheat piling up down the road and others in short supply.

I had to hit the road and chase the trucks around southern Iraq trying to sort out the mess. This meant spending 3 nights a week in Basrah which compared to my waterfront apartment in Kuwait was a hell-hole. There was only electricity for a few hours a day, water went off regularly and in the 30 year old one star hotel the air conditioning didn’t work. The UN had a 100% after dark curfew for their people.

When the electricity went off the whole city became silent except for the almost continuous sound of AK47’s blasting in to the quiet. Every house was allowed to keep one AK47 for protection and they were emptied at every possible excuse – arguments, celebrations or just for the sheer hell of it. I was always first to leave the hotel at first light and one day I though “Bloody typical!” when I had to step over the body of some poor bugger who had been either deliberately or accidently shot at the front door.

Very quickly we began to run into serious trouble with the trucks. First one then another would not return, having been hi-jacked on the highway. The upshot of this was, as the only person in the UN office apart from the security guys and demining team, with military service, I was “appointed” to sort this out in liaison with the military headquarters. Each morning I would attend the Joint Headquarters briefing to see what operations they had going in our area then try to get protection for our trucks.

What a fruitless job this was! I secured a lot of allies in the mid rank area but by the time I spoke to senior officers it was “Too busy”, “Too much on our plate” and was even told that they had no responsibility for what was basically a commercial operation.

Things got worse with the trucks and we had our first driver shot and a number badly beaten, one of whom I found in a distraught state at the side of the road with a broken arm and pulverized face.

What was happening was the bandit tribes (the military PR people tried to lie that they were Saddam supporters resisting) who had been robbing camel trains for centuries had decided to go into the trucking business. Two or three white Toyota Hilux’s with four armed men in the back would surround a truck on the highway. It did not matter if it was in convoy or not. They would threaten the driver who had to make a big decision. If he stopped straight away he would lose the truck and have to spend the rest of his life paying back the Kuwaiti owner but only be dragged out of the cab and maybe slapped around a bit.

If he pressed on, the gunmen would fire warning shots then they would fire into the load. If the driver lost his nerve here he would finish up with a serious beating, like the fellow I had picked up. Any other trucks in the convoy had no option but to drive around and flee.

If the driver was a real guts man and still continued, the bad guys would shoot the trailer tyres out. Now they were really mad! His chance of survival was only 50/50.

If the truck was a tipper they would just dump 25 tons of wheat on the highway and drive off into the desert. If it was carrying flour sometimes they would unhitch and just take the prime mover or sometimes we would find a pile of hundreds of flour sacks off the road.

Iraq trucks final

The hijacking started to get out of control. Every afternoon when I was in Kuwait I had to go to the flour mill and wheat silos to give the old football coach rev up to the drivers who by this time were understandably not too keen.

When I was not there my UN Logistics boss, a really practical Frenchman, took my place and alluded to how the military was going to give us protection today etc. I had a few words to him from time to time about the UN attitude towards the drivers – they really didn’t care so long as the food got through.

 I had to point out that the minority drivers who owned (more likely paying off) their own trucks would lose everything and be financially ruined for life in a hijacking. The majority who drove Kuwaiti owned trucks would be denied exit from the country until such time as they had paid back the owner. This meant that family men from Jordan, Syria, Egypt etc could find themselves trapped in Kuwait for 20 years trying to raise $100,000 and more on $100 a week wages.

We had 50,000 soldiers basically sitting on their arses in our area and we could not get a few Landrovers or Hummers to escort our trucks. I went and saw the British Brigadier, who wasn’t a bad bloke, but advised by cretins. The best I got was an escort through the border village to 2 km north. This was totally useless as we could only get about a dozen trucks gathered in the 300 metres before the waiting mob, we would block the gate for other trucks coming through and in any case the hijackings were happening between 50 and 200km north on the highway!

Next I went to the Americans. I had a very good hearing from the Marine General and the upshot was he asked me to organize a high level conference between the UN, the British and the Americans. That same day we had our 3rd driver shot dead.

For all their faults the Americans have an energy and enthusiasm that the British with individual notable exceptions had lost by the time Queen Victoria died. The Yanks are bouncing off the walls while the British at first seem totally calm and controlled but you don’t have to have much to do with them to realize the stiff upper lip is an excuse to do nothing. I compared the two armies to a western movie. Someone would come racing into the bar shouting “Form a posse!”  The Yanks would jump up, knocking over chairs, leap on their horse and gallop out of town only to crash at the first fence. The British wouldn’t even leave the bar.

The day before the conference I had my worst day in Iraq. Coming down the highway I was flagged down by group of our trucks and told a pack of white Hilux utes had cut one of our tippers out of the convoy that morning, like lions cutting a zebra out of the herd.

Getting a milepost I drove to the spot and saw the load of wheat dumped about 100 metres off the highway and tracks leading off into the desert. I was really geed up about these hijackings by this time so stupidly and against all UN and Aus aid rules about risky action (instant dismissal) I decided to follow the tracks.  I figured if I could get a fix on where they were taking the trucks I could get a military operation going.

This proved correct shortly afterwards when I got information from a kidnapped and released driver and the Yanks put in a night helicopter raid and got back 4 of our trucks from a desert hideout.

The desert was dead flat and you could see for miles and I would certainly have had enough head start on any white Hilux that appeared on the horizon. With all the stuffing around it was now 8 hours since the hijacking and the temperature was around 50 degrees. I had only gone about two kilometers when I found the driver. He had been taken with his truck, badly beaten and then had walked all day trying to get back to the road but had succumbed to his injuries and thirst only 2km short.

Going back to the road with the driver’s body I went to an American guard post. It was situated on a bridge over the freeway which went nowhere ie no road going from either end in to the desert – future expansion? It was only about 200 metres from where the hijacking took place. The sergeant had a Hummer with a heavy machine gun and 4 other blokes.

“Did you see that truck being hijacked”

“Yes, sir”

“Why didn’t you do anything?”

“We are here to guard the bridge sir”

After I restrained myself from punching his lights out and had a few uncomplimentary words to him he said,

“We just do our duty, sir”

Upshot of the meeting was I stood up and showed the military the page in the Geneva Convention which says the occupying power is responsible for feeding the civilian population. The UN was doing their job for them. This was a revelation because like all soldiers nobody had read the Geneva Convention. It is talked about constantly but nobody had ever actually read it. It is written in very simple language especially for the average person, it is short, clear and should be read by everyone, not just soldiers.

We agreed to bunch our trucks up more and they agreed to give us escorts on the high risk sections.

Before this went into action the UN headquarters in Baghdad was bombed killing and injuring many key people. The UN lost its nerve, closed shop in Kuwait to bring everything thousands of kilometers across the western desert from Aqabah in Jordan.

In the last 6 weeks I had 26 trucks hijacked, 4 drivers shot dead and two died of thirst in the desert after a hijacking and kidnap. We fed millions but a pretty expensive price to pay.

Lang Kidby