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Monday March 1, 2004


By Judith Martin, Defence Reporter

“It had to happen,” sighs Lt Andrew Mercer, a New Zealand Army engineering officer overseeing the New Zealand Defence Force's reconstruction efforts in war-ravaged southern Iraq.

“Over-laden trucks and weakened bridges- they just don't mix…”

He has just returned from inspecting Cullingworth Bridge in northern Basra, which supports most of the area's heavy traffic. It was a vital link, but is now lying on the riverbed, 14 metres under water. The nearby Al Tannumah bridge is now the only link across the Shatt Al Arab river which dissects the town.

“A truck, laden with everything you could think of, drove onto the bridge, causing one of the pontoons to submerge. The weight of the submerged pontoon started to pull the adjacent pontoons down, and before long half the bridge was under water. Our engineers tried to recover it but the tide was working against them, so they decided to cut the bridge before the remaining half was lost as well.”

Lt Mercer, however, is undeterred by the setback. “Things seldom go exactly to plan, especially in a place which has suffered like this place has. It is really just a matter of being patient and getting the message across to the locals.”

The newly-formed Iraqi Traffic Police department is responsible for controlling traffic flow across the bridges, but there have been, says Lt Mercer, “ a few teething problems.”

Teething problems aside, the Kiwis, it seems, are steadily making their mark in a wide area across the dusty brown plains where they are based. There are 61 of them in Basra, most of them field engineers, but also carpenters, plumbers, electricians, plant operators, fire fighters, mechanics, cooks, medics and communicators. They are there to provide humanitarian aid, and help rebuild the city. Next month the first contingent returns home to New Zealand, their projects in Iraq to be taken over by another group of Army engineers.

The Royal Engineers built the Cullingworth and Al Tannumah bridges, which join Basra city to the northeast bank. Providing the main trade routes between the outlying rural villages and Basra's bustling markets, the bridges are vital to the local economy and the well being of Iraqi civilians. The New Zealanders worked alongside the UK engineers to build the bridges when they first arrived in Iraq in October 2003.

Both Bailey pontoons, they are built from kitset steel parts, and the design is vulnerable to stress after prolonged use or abuse. The importance of the link though cannot be underestimated in helping Basra get back on its feet, says Lt Mercer.

“Since October last year the markets in Basra have begun to flourish again, as the temperatures cool and the Iraqis have the courage and the freedom to venture back out onto the streets. But the rapid increase in vehicles on the road has put a bit too much pressure on the bridges. Plans are being prepared for the construction of a new bridge at the Cullingworth site.”

Some of the Kiwis, says Lt Mercer, are away from New Zealand for the first time. The deployment is proving enlightening for them, especially as they get stuck into refurbishing schools throughout the southern part of Basra.

The area is poor, and most of the locals live in small multi-level concrete apartments reminiscent of an inner-city ghetto. The streets are flooded with a mixture of storm water and raw sewerage, and the footpaths and road verges are used as a generic rubbish tip. The dissecting canals are “a toxic shade of green”, says Lt Mercer.

Sergeant Thomas Donald and Sergeant Thomas Raxworthy both from Upper Hutt at Al Oroba School, south of Basra. The school sustained a lot of damage during and after the war.“No, it's not an appealing area, but it's got 10 schools in one small area. Most of the windows in one of schools, Al Oroba, had been smashed, and almost all of the classrooms lacked power or lighting. The toilets were broken and the drains blocked and the ground floor had flooded.”

Al Oroba is in a “tough” neighbourhood, and at first the local children delighted in biffing rocks at the soldiers who came to sort out what repair work was required so the children could resume their schooling.

“Once they realised what the Kiwi sappers were there for they became a bit friendlier. The sappers soon got to know the kids, and even made friends with some of them. Soon they had to get the help of local wardens to keep the ever-enthusiastic kids at bay so they could get on with the work.”

Image caption: Sergeant Thomas Donald and Sergeant Thomas Raxworthy both from Upper Hutt at Al Oroba School, south of Basra. The school sustained a lot of damage during and after the war.

The engineers have stripped out the school, and are completely rewiring it, as well as installing new lights and ceiling fans, refurbishing the toilets, and improving the water supply. Local civilian contractors are helping with plastering, painting, and re-glazing, and the roof has been resealed and the playground landscaped.

Lieutenant Andrew Mercer at the Water Osmosis Plant, Basra. The Kiwis have built a reverse osmosis water treatment plant at the village Al Tannumah, providing fresh drinking water to more than 200,000 people. They are working through local schools, too, proving water points in each one to allow children access, often for the first time, to clean, fresh water.

Lt Mercer and the other Kiwis have noticed a change in the attitude of locals since they first arrived in Basra, and there has been a “huge increase” in local construction as new houses and commercial buildings are erected.

“We're not here to do the work for the Iraqis – we're giving them a hand up where they tell us they need it. The size of our contingent is relatively small in the scheme of things, but local leaders have told us the impact we are making is far from small. The locals have pointed out that it is not what we have constructed, but simply the act of trying to make a difference that has inspired the Iraqi people to start to rebuild and improve their own lives. And that is where the real effect is achieved.”


Lieutenant Andrew Mercer at the Water Osmosis Plant, Basra.

For further information please contact Commander Sandra McKie, RNZN
Defence Press Officer, Ph: (04) 4960299

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