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Unger aids Iraq's rebuilding efforts

June 24, 2003|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - West Virginia state Sen. John Unger is in the midst of the unrest in Iraq, where violence, dangerous living conditions and human suffering are part of everyday life.

Looting and other crimes are common in the lawless atmosphere, and public services like running water are spotty, Unger said in a telephone interview from Iraq Monday.

It's common to see grenades rolled into the road, Unger said, and one of the toughest things he has experienced is seeing children who have been injured by land mine explosions.

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But Unger said that hasn't deterred him from wanting to help rebuild Iraq.

"You just have to pray to the good Lord that he protects you," Unger said. "You just rough it."

Unger has been in Iraq since April, after U.S. and British forces pummeled the country to drive Saddam Hussein from power.

Unger, D-Berkeley, previously said he would be a paid staff member of Save the Children, one of a number of organizations helping to rebuild Iraq.

Save the Children has been involved in efforts such as food distribution, rebuilding schools and working on land mine safety issues, Unger said.

There are burned-out tanks, cannons, military equipment and land mines scattered around Iraq and they pose danger to children, Unger said. Youngsters have gone into the areas to play and have been killed or injured by land mines, Unger said.

Save the Children has been implementing an educational program that teaches children how to detect and avoid the dangerous areas, Unger said.

Unger said he oversees communications operations for Save the Children. He said he works with about 100 other people to forward information to Save the Children offices in London and Washington, which helps organization officials understand what is needed for the rebuilding efforts.

Unger said he has been working mostly in the areas of Basra, Najaf and Karbala.

Save the Children's goal is to get the rebuilding under way and then turn the efforts over to the Iraqi people, Unger said. Unger said he expects to return home to Martinsburg in early or mid-August. He said he hopes to be home for at least the last half of the Berkeley County Youth Fair to meet up with friends and catch up on local news.

Although most of Unger's job involves overseeing communication operations, he said he spends a lot of time in the field helping with efforts such as food distribution.

As the rebuilding efforts continue, there is increasing pressure on the U.S. administration to find weapons of mass destruction that officials said were hidden in Iraq. So far, little evidence of such weapons has been found.

Unger said he believes it is too early to call the hunt for the weapons unsuccessful. Unger said it is hard to believe U.S. forces will not find anything related to weapons of mass destruction.

"It's a big country. It's not just coming in and doing a sweep through a small territory," Unger said.

Unger said some people at home may ask why their senator should be spending time in Iraq.

Unger said some of the brightest minds in economic development are in Iraq, and he believes some of the approaches could be applied in the Eastern Panhandle.

"They are the most innovative ideas out there," Unger said.

Unger in the past has helped lead humanitarian efforts both in West Virginia and abroad, including a similar mission in northern Iraq following the Persian Gulf War.

After the Persian Gulf War, Unger helped set up refugee camps in northern Iraq to give Kurds the support they needed after the conflict.

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