Villagers eke out existence with Coalition help

Story by Staff David Bennett
367th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

Nov. 22, 2003 TIKRIT, Iraq — The children waited until the American soldiers were well out of sight before they scampered to retrieve the hundreds of bottles of water piled in the schoolyard.

Shy in comparison to other Iraqi children who revel in the company of American soldiers, these youths are part of 260 Bedouin families ousted from their homes in Kirkuk earlier this year by the Kurdish. Now, they are seeking a new life in a newly formed village in Tikrit, and are supported primarily by soldiers of the 64th Corps Support Group.

The group, based in Fort Hood, Texas, has been instrumental in helping the 1,200 Bedouins settle in a former military compound that, since April, has afforded them a temporary home. Bordered by Highway 1 and the Tigris Valley, the village, which was once a training compound for Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, has been reduced to a rolling mass of stripped down buildings devoid of doors, windows or fixtures.

"The place looks like it's been abandoned for 30 years, but the looters have taken everything," said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Sahli, equal opportunity noncommissioned officer for the 64th and a resident of Killeen, Texas.

However, through the work of some soldiers attached to the 64th, there is a primary school on the site now, as well as a steady supply of provisions that the Bedouin tribe members wouldn't otherwise have. As improvements have occurred, other displaced Iraqis are calling the village home as well.

"It keeps growing because more people keep showing up," said Maj. Howard Geck, the civil affairs officer for the 64th.

Geck assessed early on that the makeshift village possessed few resources. The nearest water supply is located on a far side of the compound, which makes it difficult on many villagers who have to travel on foot to retrieve water. Because of this, soldiers attached to the support group routinely deliver drinking water to those most dependent.

Three months ago, the native of Albuquerque, N.M. hired a local contractor to convert an existing structure into a primary school, where 70 girls and 105 boys now attend.

The government of the Salah Ad Din province, where the community is located, gave the camp official status recently by declaring it a village.

Though the village is meager to others outside Tikrit, residents of the village trust that things will continue to improve.

Klulf Sahan is a sheik at the Bedouin village. A farmer in Kirkuk for the last 35 years, Sahan lost his house and most of his possessions when he relocated his family to the camp. Still, he said the Bedouin are grateful to have a place to stay as well as the Coalition's support.

"This is very good," Sahan said through an interpreter. "There is water and oil. (The villagers) are very happy."

Geck said there is still work to improve life in the village. For example, sites are being tested now to determine suitability for water wells.

"As civil affairs guys, the sooner we work ourselves out of one job, the sooner we can move onto the next project," Geck said.

(Staff Sgt. David Bennett is a member of the 367th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, an Army Reserve unit from Columbus, Ohio. He is currently deployed to Southwest Asia with the 4th Infantry Division in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom)