Mustafa Habib and Manar al-Zubaidi The village of Al Nawam may well be one of the most derelict towns in the province of Diwaniya. This once green and lively village, founded over a hundred years ago, has been claimed by desertification and drought and its inhabitants have left or died. Out of a population of around 1,500 only around 300 locals now remain here, living in the same primitive way their ancestors once did, without schools or health care, and wait for “God’s mercy” to save them. Sleeping is one of the only escapes for the people in this village. They do it to escape poverty and boredom, they explain. Al Nawam is located at a dusty crossroads between the three major cities of Diwaniya, Babel and Wasit. It lies on the outskirts of the town of Somar inside the southern-central province of Diwaniya. And somehow, this small, sleepy village, 156 kilometres south of Baghdad has been almost completely forgotten – by the state, by those who left and by other Iraqis. The Iraqi media usually doesn’t report on these kinds of countryside realities and most Iraqis don’t have any idea how some of their country people are living, as though they were back in the Middle Ages. Yet the story of Al Nawam is significant in what it tells about the country’s politics, economics and environment. Sooner or later, problems such as those the people of Al Nawam are facing will become problems for many other Iraqis, whether they know it or not. Most of the people here seem to spend much of their time sleeping, given that they no longer have any way to make a living. The livestock – sheep or cows – that used to provide food are also gone as the villagers were forced to sell their animals due to drought. Others of the animals died. Even though there are no paved roads leading here, this once-green village even used to have farms and orchards; wheat and barley were the main farming activity. But now the desert that surrounds this ramshackle collection of buildings is slowly claiming the land back. The village is around a century old and locals say that there used to be about 1,500 living here in 150 homes. Now there are only 30 houses left and 325 inhabitants. We all refuse to give up on this town, in which we grew up and in which our parents grew up, says Mohammed Abdel Khalil, one of the village elders. "Our farms dried up when the government built a highway bridge and a dam and our village was the only one that did not get water,” Khalil told NIQASH. “Now we have lost all hope. We are all unemployed. The only thing we can do is wait for some rain to fall, in the hopes that plants will grow and keep us going.” The men of the village often go to Diwaniya to see if they can find odd jobs but more often than not they come empty handed.
Visitors to Al Nawam will notice almost immediately that none of the dwellings here are made of brick or cement. All the houses are made of mud, supported by palm trees. Most of the homes are made up some shelter around an open yard that is used for everything. In one corner there are piles of firewood for cooking and blackened pots, along with small clay ovens for baking bread. The same space contains a bathroom area and in another part of the yard, the inhabitants pile up their belongings and clothes.
Some of the houses look abandoned. There is a flicker of movement behind the barred windows of other huts: women and children watching the strangers from the big city who have come to their hometown.
It took them a long time but eventually the villagers saved up enough money to pay for the erection of some power poles leading into their town. The nearest government power pole is 500 meters away. Yet they still only get five hours of electricity every day, thanks to the power cuts that affect all of the country daily. Unlike other Iraqis, the villagers cannot afford to buy or fuel a generator to make up for the missing hours of power.
Almost half of the village’s inhabitants are children under the age of eighteen. Females from this conservative area don’t even get the opportunity because the primary schools are mixed and they may not attend. Even if some of the village children do manage to get through primary school, the nearest secondary school is about 25 kilometres away and nobody can afford the monthly US$20 in transport costs to get the students there. So the children spend a lot of playing and sleeping or doing odd jobs around the village. There is no Internet her either.
“I’m sad that I can’t go to school anymore,” Abdallah Jamil, 11, told NIQASH. “But now I help my family collect wood and I do other housework too.”
The village from a distance
“We cook using firewood, our houses collapse if there is too much rain because the rooves are made of palm wood and the walls are mud,” Mayada Abdul-Wahida, 60, tells NIQASH. She was born here and it is likely she and her husband will die here. He has chronic kidney disease and depression and has been in bed for years. “We have a lot of water problems and we have to dig up wells with our own hands in order to get water,” Abdul-Wahida says, adding that people here still the same way their great grandparents did.
Hajah Maeda Abdul Wahid
Health care is extremely difficult to attain. “The pregnant women suffer a lot when they deliver their babies,” Abdul-Wahida notes. “It’s really difficult to get to the main road and there’s no transport in the village. There’s one pick-up truck and we think of that as our ambulance. But,” she adds wearily, “that is not always available because the car’s owner often goes into the city to look for work.”
There is some money coming into the village though. After any opportunity to do agricultural work dried up, some of the younger men in Al Nawam began to seek work further away.
Khaled Jabbar, 28, has three children to provide for so he has found work in a brick and cement factory a day’s drive away from the village.
“The salaries we get are barely enough to cover our transportation costs. So we stay in the factory for 21 days in order to save on driving, then we spend the other seven days in the month with our families,” he explains. Even so, he adds, “My daughter is two years old and I still don’t have enough money to buy her milk.”
Hajah Neriah Akmash
The old woman Nuria Akmash with her granddaughter talking inside her house about the suffering of her family and her only son who goes to work away from the village