Cleanin’ up the neighborhood

Iraq’s Beautiful Trash

David Axe, a fellow contributor at Defense Tech, is in Iraq again. And he saw (get this) a garbage truck. Not exactly your typical Defense Tech fare, is it? But

In five trips to Iraq totalling five months, these are the first garbage trucks I’ve seen — and they’re the best evidence so far of the development of civil society — if not in all of Iraq, then at least here in Kurdistan.

And talk about “improvised explosive devices”:

The garbage is so dense in places that during hot summers, it spontaneously combusts, fueling putrid garbage fires that burn uncontrolled for days. The upside of garbage fires is that they keep down the populations of vicious wild dogs that live in the garbage, venturing into the cities at night to terrorize pedestrians and domestic animals.

This reminds me of a passage in Steven Vincent’s IN THE RED ZONE that I pointed out this past summer:

I first noticed it at a truck stop outside of Basra. Actually, I’d seen it happen all over Iraq, but hadn’t paid much attention before. Now, as people peeled bananas, unwrapped cigarette packages, finished soft drinks, then dropped their garbage where they stood, it dawned on me: littering is a way of life in this country. Not that this particular truck stop offered much in the way of trash receptacles beyond a rusty oil drum and soiled cardboard boxes. What happened to waste material was clear: about fifty feet to the right of the dingy tea house and accompanying vendor stalls stood a four-foot-tall heap of fly-infested refuse. A pair of dogs were rooting through the debris.

Meanwhile, across the oil-soaked gravel of the parking lot, hordes of teenagers washed, rinsed, and wiped down motorists’ SUVs, Chevrolet Caprices, Volkswagen Passats, and other cars until they glittered in the sun. “That’s Iraq for you’ grunted my traveling companion, Iraqi journalist Yahya Batat. “They turn the landscape into a trash heap, yet make sure their cars are clean.”

And not just their cars. Arriving in Basra later that day, I accompanied Yahya (pronounced ya-HEER) to his in-laws’ home, where, in true Arab custom, we were treated to a huge repast of fish, rice, salad, assorted condiments, and bread. Also in keeping with Arab mores, I noticed, the house was cool and comfortable, with immaculately clean interiors. Outside, on the street, it was a different matter. Down the block stretched small ridges of bottles, cans, rotting animal and vegetable matter, leading to a hillock of filth piled at the end of the road. Given the cleanliness of the house, the contrast was startling. Even more astonishing, people went about their business seemingly unconcerned with the trash laying about them slowly stewing in the sun.

It was the same across Basra–across Arab Iraq, in fact: spotless homes shielded by high concrete walls from the garbage that clotted the streets. (In Kurdish-dominated Kirkuk, the streets seemed cleaner; moreover, I saw several signs admonishing people not to litter, something unseen in the south.) The message conveyed by this environmental carelessness was clear: for average Iraqis, whatever happens beyond the borders of their personal property is not their concern.

Garbage trucks might not sound like much, but they’re one step on a long, tough journey.

And if you haven’t read IN THE RED ZONE by the late Steven Vincent, do yourself a favor and do so.


  1. Making a guess, in the past doing nothing that might draw attention- like cleaning up the neighborhood- was a hazard, whereas now they see a chance to clean up the place? Whatever the reason, concern for sanitation is definately a good thing.