Our Starving, ‘Psychotic’ Allies


The Coalition of the Willing now numbers 46 countries, but it’s hard to find much evidence of their help in Iraq. There were 250,000 U.S. troops, 40,000 British, and 2,000 Australian. In addition, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria sent chemical- and biological-defense units. That’s about it. Other nations allowed the U.S. to land planes, assemble troops, or fly over their territory, among other gestures. Estonia, for example, offered its moral support, and a spokesman said Monday the small nation would have been happy to contribute something more, but wasn’t asked. It gave $300,000 to the Red Cross.

While the neocons and hawks sneer at the French for their odd way of doing things, we are fast finding out our new partners have their own problems. Take Georgia. Among our most stalwart allies is this little country, Stalin’s homeland, whose army is key to protecting oil pipeline interests. Unfortunately, the Georgian army is starving. Hospitals are crammed with malnourished soldiers suffering from ulcers and other gastrointestinal disorders, reports the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which runs an excellent news service out of the region. Food consists of a bowl of oatmeal or some cabbage for breakfast, followed by a watery soup of breakfast leftovers at noon and more of that delicious oatmeal or cabbage at dinnertime. Meat, if it ever comes, is rotten. Fish? Only the heads are edible, if that—an entire unit got sick eating putrid fish. Most of the decent food sent to the army is instead diverted to markets where the drivers sell it and pocket the profit.

“I found myself thinking about food 24 hours a day,” recalled former soldier Vakhtang Mosiashvili, who was discharged from military service five years ago. “Sometimes we managed to steal some butter or cheese from the company storeroom. This helped stave off hunger for a while, but thoughts about food kept on tormenting us.”

The army is without decent shoes and bedsheets, let alone medical supplies. Hunger leads to high desertion rates, some 2,500 a year, so the army gets about half its members from a draft. Georgians can also buy their way out for about $100. Knowing their soldiers are sickly and can’t fight, military commanders don’t bother to train them. Irakly Sesiashvili, director of the independent Rights and Freedom organization, points out that the military brass just doesn’t see the point of bothering.

The Georgian government insists that the situation is getting better. Dodo Turkoshvili, head of the sanitation and epidemic control service of the defense ministry, told IWPR, “We are now more concerned with soldiers’ health and what they eat. The food has really improved and diversified in the last two years. We haven’t had a single case of mass food poisoning. Soldiers never complain about anything.”

Then there’s Uzbekistan. This weekend its capital, Tashkent, will be hosting the annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. This is a nation where a small group of human rights activists have been protesting in front of government buildings. Elena Urlaeva, one of the leaders, was promptly arrested and taken to the police station, where the deputy chief promised to send her not to prison, but to a mental hospital. “You are wrong in the head,” he told her.

This wasn’t the first time Urlaeva was threatened with psychiatric prison. Twice before, she was flung into a locked ward and given a cocktail of drugs to help alleviate her supposed mental condition. “A return to the Soviet nut house as a way of dealing with dissidents,” was the way the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan put it. She was released after international human rights groups protested. On another occasion last year, she was sent to the mental hospital and endured 400 doses of drugs. After she got out, the local prosecutor sought a court order finding her mentally unsound, thus making it possible to lock her up forever. A panel of Uzbek judges found that Urlaeva was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and said she “represented a danger to herself and the people around her.”

At her most recent arrest, a police officer asked her, “Why do you stick your nose in where it’s not needed? Don’t you want Uzbekistan to get investments?”

Additional reporting: Phoebe St John and Joanna Khenkine

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 29, 2003

Archive Highlights