09/09/2004, 00.00
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NGOs in Iraq: staying put to rebuild country and coexistence

by Bernardo Cervellera

Rome – Baghdad (AsiaNews) – One is Italian and Christian; the other is Muslim and Iraqi, but for Arturo Alberti, president of AVSI (Association of Volunteers in International Service), an Italian-based NGO operating in Iraq since 1991, and Wahid Atrushi, director of a mixed Christian-Muslim school in Iraq's Kurdish region, those who abducted Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, two Italian women humanitarian workers, are bent on the destruction of Iraq, its development and Muslim-Christian coexistence. In a phone interview with AsiaNews both think the kidnappers plan the country's ruin.

Profoundly saddened by the turn of events, Mr Wahid said: "These abductions are the fruit of what Saddam sowed for 35 years. He was the first to preach hatred against foreigners calling them enemies of Iraq. The Sunni community with its Ba'athist base of support, so closely aligned to him, is still unwilling to deal with the outside world. What do they want? All they do is destroy, kill, seize . . . The foreigners who came with the NGOs are here to help us rebuild the country. If things go on as they are, rebuilding will become even harder. I guess that is what they want: destruction. An Iraq that is not free".

Mr Wahid has been working for French NGO Mission Enfance and with many others for at least 10 years. "After the first Gulf war," he said, "I worked for foreign NGOs. Relations between us and the foreigners were always good. Together, we built 50 schools, brought water to 60 villages, opened another 50 health clinics. My French, British, American and Japanese friends call on me at home and we treat them like brothers. Instead, Sunni Ba'athists are close-minded. To them foreigners have no God and must be eliminated. Still, we must keep building a democratic Iraq, otherwise we have no future."

Frenchman Jean Dominique Bunel, NGOs coordinator in Baghdad, warned yesterday that NGOs are prepared to leave "because the security situation does not permit to stay in Iraq". But Arturo Alberti remains cautious. "I understand why people would want to leave. It takes people who are highly idealistic, motivated and willing to make great sacrifices to stay. And not everyone is able to do it."

Stakes are very high for Alberti. "Abducting Simona Torretta and Simona Pari from 'A bridge for Baghdad' represents a qualitative shift in the strategy of those behind the violence," he said. Everyone now knows that one's function cannot protect you anymore. The two women were clearly known as humanitarian workers; that they were peace activists was no secret. Their abduction in a climate of senseless violence is likely to push everyone except the military out of Iraq."

Mr Alberti is also concerned that the violence is likely to reduce the number of Christians in Iraq. "Unfortunately, we have the impression that there is a concerted Islamic plan against the presence of Christians in the Middle East," he said. "Beside well-publicised crimes like the kidnapping of the two women, there are small scale crimes, largely unreported, which affect local Christians. Christian children and mothers are taken for ransoms that can reach US,000. The net effect is that Christians leave, often for far away places.

AVSI has already inaugurated eight new schools in the last year and plans to open 20 new schools and childcare centres. "Schools," said Mr Alberti, "can help Christians stay rooted in the land and not flee. In helping Christians we help others develop and be free, too." He stressed that "it is not a question of defending an enclave, but rather of guaranteeing everyone's freedom by ensuring the freedom of the Church. It is in school that children learn to coexist. Furthermore, our goal is not only promoting education but also enhancing a person's human dignity. The Madrid bombers told the world loud and clear that they loved death more than life. We are telling the children of Baghdad that life is God's gift and as such must be tended and nourished. Whatever one's ideological or partisan motives, no one has the right to take it. And someone who loves life will be stronger and more likely to help develop his country."

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