By Richard Edwards
They lined the flooded streets of mud and waste, a thousand faces and smiles peering from every crevice, corner and crack in the wall.
These were scenes of joy and happiness, there were the laughs, screams and shouts of freedom.
Royal Marines entered the port of Umm Qasr last night with gifts to win the hearts and minds of the local people. They were received like kings and liberators.
Grey-bearded men wore guarded smiles and children sprinted barefoot through stinking puddles to reach the British troops.
Yellow packs of food and cartons of water were stacked high in the back of a trailer for them to collect. They were not there for long.
“We welcome you,” shouted one man. “We welcome freedom.” Umm Qasr, on Iraq’s southern coast, was once a thriving town, the largest port in a province known as the Venice of the East. Today it is a slum, a crumbling, featureless expanse of litter, dirt and desperate squalor.
“We have no electricity, no food, no water and no medicine,” said Mohammed, 24. “You must stay, you must stay and help.” HUGE families squeezed one-by-one out of doorways as curiosity rose. The women were wrapped in black chadoors, only their bright, dark eyes and grinning lips peeking through.
They waved, then blushed as troops waved back. The children, clothed in a colourful, patterned mix of jumpers, shirts and jackets, reached fever pitch, mugging every uniformed man. “Mister, Mister” they yelled as they prodded the soldiers and told them their names.
Chasing the “Britani” they then turned their thumbs down and uttered the dangerous word, “Saddam”.
Ali, a 33-year-old with four brothers and a multitude of children grabbing up at his green jacket, said the troops had their support. “Everyone here is one family and they need help,” he said. “We all want to thank Mr Blair and Mr Bush for being brave men to destroy this regime.
“We are so happy, so happy.”
Others were less forthcoming, warning danger still looms.
Joseph, an Arabic interpreter attached to 42 Commando carrying out the aid mission, said: “Many of the older men are still worried.
“Time is of the essence – we need to get out there with them fast. They love us, but they are scared.” The interpreter explained many of the older men are qualified doctors and surgeons who cannot work under the regime because they are Shia Muslims. They want desperately to help, but they have no equipment.
“All of them are asking for electricity, food, water and medicine,” said Joseph.
SOME of the children are sick, but the town is not at death’s door. Most people want cigarettes as much as something to eat.” In the desolate, colourless surrounds, one boy had found a bright purple flower. He took three attempts to summon up the bravery, then handed it to a Marine.
Another tiny dark-haired girl beamed a smile as she ran towards a soldier to gather a parcel. Then fear struck and she stopped, trapped in the headlights. Her father humbly hobbled past to receive the gift and return it to the girl, now jumping on the spot and clapping her hands.
She wrapped it in her arms, barely able to link her hands around it, and the yellow glow of the parcel lit up her pale face.
As the country starts to see life beyond the 23-year-reign of Saddam Hussein, so it smiles and grows in warmth.
Perhaps in 30 years time the little girl will remember the man with the gun and that bright yellow parcel as the beginning of a new dawn, a new joyful and vibrant Iraq.
© Western Daily Press