At the chicken farm
An entire village lives in limbo after being uprooted and dumped on the edge of the Kurdish region
The chicken farm stands amid an expanse of wheat fields at the end of a long dirt road several kilometers from the nearest village. It was lush and green when the 47 Sunni Arab families from Jarallah arrived and the ripening wheat stalks rippled in the wind. Now the harvest is over and the parched golden stubble gives up clouds of dust when the wind blows.
Somewhere in the disputed territory between federal Iraq and the autonomous Kurdistan region a village sits empty. Its inhabitants miss it painfully.
Perhaps their fondness of memory is sharpened by nostalgia now, but the villagers remember Jarallah as a bucolic idyll, a garden of Eden. They lived peaceful lives, were happy and loved each other. They were their own landlords and had everything one could want — work, cattle, electricity, a place to pray, a tractor to harvest the grain. Their chickens laid many eggs, their fields were fertile, their sheep fecund. Occasionally their men went off to war — against Iraq or Kuwait — or were stationed in the military elsewhere in Iraq. But until last summer war never came to Jarallah.
On August 8th, 2014, the ISIS fighters arrived. Initially things stayed the same, except the militants gave a hard time to the men for smoking cigarettes and those who had been in the army or the police stopped working and stayed home. Other work dried up soon, leaving fewer with jobs. Then there was no electricity. After that no water, no gas, and everything in the shops became more expensive. Muhammad Jassim — who once owned his own tractor — tears up at the memory of this time.
Fifty days of fighting came next. The Peshmerga were on one side, ISIS on the other, and Jarallah in between. It was a desperate and miserable siege. The villagers ate plants which were not meant for eating. Planes overhead dropped bombs near the village. Wesal Ali Ibrahim saw them with her own eyes. Bullets hit their homes and they cowered in fear.
On a stormy winter night they were taken away from their homes and transplanted to live among the scorpions of a chicken farm. It was January 19th and the Peshmerga took them to a place some 20 kilometers behind the front lines. It was raining and damp and the building stank of poultry. That night the villagers went to bed without dinner — 260 people: girls, boys, men and women together in one building. “Everyone was crying and weeping and we are still crying today,” says Wesal, the wife of Sultan, the imam of Jarallah.
04/07/2015 — Dibaga-Makhmur-, Iraq — An aquaculture, where IDPs from Jarallah village can farm fish to sell in Dibaga. The aquaculture belongs to the owner of the farm who has given it to the IDPs to look after.
The villagers turned the chicken farm into a home. They are eternally grateful to the Kurdish farmer, their savior who doesn’t want publicity and declines to be interviewed. Not only did he let them stay, but since then he has tried to attend to their needs; bringing them ice to keep their food cool and diesel fuel to keep his generator running when the electricity cuts out.
Inside the building the villagers have divided the space by hanging tarpaulins so that each family can have a little privacy. They made one of the outbuildings into a mosque. They have a pen for sheep and small gardens to grow salad greens. The young men play volleyball in the evening. The villagers don’t mind the isolation or the rusticity. They are simple adaptable people. They mind their own business and manage their own affairs. “We’re used to this kind of living,” says Muhammed Jassim. “It is appropriate for us.”
04/07/2015 — Dibaga-Makhmur-, Iraq — Young displaced boys sit in the courtyard of the chicken farm where they have been living since January 2015, after that their village fell into the hands of ISIS.
The 52 year-old farmer pines for his wheat fields though and wishes the villagers could be left alone to live together in peace. “We don’t want to get involved in other peoples’ lives and we don’t want others to interfere in ours.”
For some of the villagers, interference came anyway. Wesal, the wife of Sultan, could handle the loss of her store — 12 by 12 metres, stocking everything you could think of — even if it was hard being reduced from someone who managed their own business to someone who had to beg for food for her eight children. But when they took Sultan away her heart broke. His brother Latif had been arrested earlier, in Jarallah, and then in February they took Sultan. He had gone to the mosque for evening prayers. “He was washing his hands when they arrested him,” Wesal says. “They even handcuffed him.” It was the Kurdish Asayish security forces; they suspected the brothers of supporting ISIS. That was in February and they haven’t heard from him since. Living apart from her husband for the first time in 25 years, Wesal cries over his memory, just as she cries for the loss of their village.
23/06/2015 — Dibaga-Makhmur-, Iraq — Muhammad Jasim 52 Y.O. and Mona Ibrahim Hussein 70 y.o. from Jarallah sit in their new home at the chicken farm in Dibaga. Mona Ibrahim Hussein, who lost her nose from an infection, has seen two of her sons taken into custody by the Kurdish Security forces on suspicion of being affiliated to ISIS.
Wesal’s mother-in-law Mona Ibrahim Hussein has lost more than most in her 70 years (she could be older, she’s not sure what year she was born). The pain of each loss is etched in the wrinkles on her face alongside ancient tattoos marking her forehead and chin. She lost her nose from an infection and the surgery to repair it was unsuccessful. She lost her first sons in infancy — Khaled and Muhammad. Then her son Mahmoud — the martyr — was killed in the Iran war. Sultan and Latif are her last two living sons. Mona believes suspicion was cast upon her sons because of their half-brother. Mona’s husband divorced her 25 years ago. He had a second wife and they had a son Adnan, who Mona says joined the militants. “Adnan is with ISIS. It doesn’t mean we all are. Sultan told the whole village that he has nothing to do with Adnan, the relationship was cut long ago.”
04/07/2015 — Dibaga-Makhmur-, Iraq — A group of displaced men from Jarallah pray before Iftar during the holy month of Ramadan inside a room which was turned into a mosque, at the chicken farm in Dibaga.
Life continues though. It’s summer and the holy month of Ramadan. The days are long and hot and the villagers fast from dawn until sunset. During the heat of the day they wile away the hours in the shade, hoping that the electricity to run the fans holds out. The women continue their household chores, for even if a floor is made of mud it must still be swept. The men spend hours in the mosque, reading the Koran, languidly flicking their worry beads, talking and snoozing.
In the evening the heat dissipates and many of the families break their fast on mats outside. As the children run around and play together in the deepening gloom, the women put out plates of salad, rice, bread and soup, and the men take long sips of cold water.
04/07/2015 — Dibaga-Makhmur-, Iraq — A young girl, displaced from Jarallah village carries a jerry can filled with water back to the chicken farm where she has been living since January 2015 along with 260 people from the same village. Like the other villagers, she was uprooted by her hometown last winter after a siege of 50 days during which Peshmerga and ISIS fighters confronted each other in and around the village.
Tonight after eating, some of the men will pile onto an old pickup truck to drive half an hour to gather straw under the light of the moon for which they’ll earn about IQD 10,000 [$8] each. Later some of the women and young ones have work too. They will gather potatoes from the fields starting at about 3 in the morning. But for now there is a moment for repose.
Muhammed Jassim sits back on his mat, enjoying his first glass of tea for the day. Somewhere off on the horizon there is an orange glow where someone is burning straw. As the first stars appear overhead, Jupiter and Venus pass each other. And if he lets his gaze soften just a little, it’s almost as if he were home again.
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THE EXEMPLARY SCHOOL OF SITAK
Isn’t this the story of every mosque, house and city in the Middle East? A mosque is built over the ruins of a church which has been built over the ruins of a synagogue which has been built on the ruins of an ancient temple; and someone comes to ruin it all over again. Ruins inherit ruins, and generations follow generations. They rise from the ashes and restore everything, a long feverish struggle for survival. We cannot call it a war because it isn’t, regardless of the fact that we are all fighting for a dream.
TWO RELIGIONS ONE ROOF
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