Years of wandering in the land of Iraq
“When the Americans came so did al-Qaeda waving the banner of religion. They made a few military operations against the Americans to gain people’s trust and support, but then started slaughtering them. Either you supported them or they killed you. Meanwhile, they wore shorts in the evening and played sports with the Americans to convince them that they were not terrorists.”
This is how Najm remembers his hometown of al-Sadiya. He continues:
“The area turned into a battleground for all the different militias: al-Qaeda, the Army, Peshmerga, and People’s Mobilization Forces. It was total chaos. Around 2007, some of our men joined the Iraqi Army. Immediately al-Qaeda kidnapped five men from our tribe to intimidate the other recruits and scare everyone else away from making the same choice. We took our weapons and attacked the village where the kidnappers were. It took three days to get our men back. A few days later the Army came and seized our weapons charging us with ‘terrorism.’ We were not part of the military back then and we still hoped for the best from the government. One night, bombs poured down on us like rain, ninety shells to be precise. Then the Army’s warnings came: beware the IEDs. So we stopped guarding the houses and started guarding the streets.
28/04/15. Awbar Village, Darbandikhan area, Iraq. — Saif prepares a sheep for clipping.
We stayed like that until 2010, having no idea where or how death would surprise us. There was one time when about forty people were gathered together outside for a few moments. The heavens must have had mercy on them because five minutes after they all went back to work the place where they were standing exploded. Only four of them had stayed behind; two were wounded, and the other two were killed.”
– Did you know those four?
“They were all my relatives. My brother was one of the one’s who died.”
Najm had a big herd and a lot of agricultural land, but he wasn’t able to do as much with them as he should have because of the drought. He had to sell a portion of his herd to dig a well. The project failed because the water was briny. Afterwards came the fighting that killed some of his cattle and made others sick. Everyone started leaving al-Sadiya except those who couldn’t leave and others who preferred to die at home.
16/05/15. Awbar Village, Darbandikhan area, Iraq. — The mountains around Awbar village.
Najm arrived in Jalawla with his family and together they worked in the fields for almost two years, but their income wasn’t enough to feed them. To make matters worse, they were still within reach of al-Qaeda. They moved to Kalar and continued to do agricultural work. Soon though, they faced a new problem: They were in a disputed area between the Kurds and the Central Government in Baghdad. Najm tells me, “As Arabs we weren’t welcome, so we returned home, to al-Sadiya.”
Speaking of home, I ask him about his beautiful memories, his longing for Lake Hamrin and the Qader Al Abbasi coffee house. He says that he doesn’t go to coffee houses. He works too hard. If he doesn’t work, his wife doesn’t have anything to cook. “Al-Sadiya became worse than before. Even so, I managed to spend a year there. Nothing but murder, ISIS from one side, and People’s Mobilization Forces from the other,” he says. “ISIS didn’t bomb a single house, to be honest. They only put their flag on the houses for the Mobilization forces to blow them up. Meaningless murder, at its best, happens because of some piece of gossip. One night, five people were killed, nobody knew why. So we had to leave our home, this time for good.”
He sent the family to Sarqal’a township while he took care of sixty head of cattle. “We walked eighty kilometers in three days. Our guide Abu Abbud had already made us an official cattle transport letter and another letter stating that he was our sponsor in the Kurdistan Region. He had a herd and we agreed to tend it for him.”
But on May 23rd that year, Abu Abbud was killed so Najm decided to leave the township to save his family. It cost 600,000 dinars ($500 USD) and took three separate trips, but the family arrived–with the cattle–in Awbar.
Dashti is a young man who owns fifty head of cattle in Awbar. He had asked Najm to come to the village and tend to the herd for 150,000 dinars ($100) a month. He made a sponsorship letter for Najm’s family and gave them a house he claimed had drinkable water and a functioning generator. But it didn’t, so the family was forced to drink straight from the Sirwan River.
They all fell ill.
Dashti’s herd grew to one hundred and fifty, but Najm didn’t get a pay raise. “He broke the agreement so I decided to quit working for him. But he didn’t let me. He told he’d cancel the sponsorship and force me to return home. He said, ‘Find someone else to allow you to come back!’” Najm was patient. Without quitting his work with Dashti, he started looking after someone else’s herd: 300 animals for 500,000 dinars ($400) and a house on the edge of the village. “This January the house was finished so we moved in.”
The road to Awbar is choked with oil tankers heading to Iran and you can see remnants of accidents scattered along the shoulder. You relax when you stop in a layby full of fountains and look over at Darbandikhan Lake. You’re surprised because you associate fountains with life and greenness, but despite a few bushes, the yellow farms, mud houses, straw, cowsheds and colored clothing, this place wears one color, that of dust. In the vast pastures you hear only silence. Sheep don’t bleat here. Dogs don’t bark. Even grasshoppers are silent. You think you hear a bird, but maybe you don’t. In any case you can’t see it.
Hills surround you and your vision. On one of these hills, Najm’s two sons spent last winter in a small room that was nothing like a home. One of them says, “When it rained or snowed, the water would come through the ceiling so we went and slept in the small nylon-covered cowshed. Our father tried to bring us food and water by car, but because of the mud, my brother and I used to take turns going by foot to bring supplies.”
His brother continues: “The village cultivates winter crops, mainly wheat, so we bring the sheep to eat a little from the ground here, but mainly we use feed that we have to bring ourselves. In the summer after harvesting, we rent the fields to graze our cattle.”
28/04/15. Awbar Village, Darbandikhan area, Iraq. — Faisal and the herd on the mountains around Awbar in the morning.
– And this is what you do every winter?
“Only with a part of the herd. My brothers take the other part to the village across the road. We have an agreement with the people over there who allow us to tend sheep there in the winter, and then they bring their sheep here in the summer.”
One of Najm’s sons did not become a shepherd. He works in a stone quarry. There are numerous stone quarries here because of the rocky mountains. Work injuries are common and his son has witnessed horrible injuries like the young man whose face was caved in by a piece of rock or another who lost his fingers to a power saw. The work isn’t just dangerous and poorly paid, it’s also very infrequent. He works one day for every ten.
– Why haven’t you looked for another job?
“My boss would cancel his sponsorship if I quit or worked somewhere else. If you don’t have sponsorship you have to leave the Kurdish region.”
“That boy thinks he’s enslaved us with this sponsorship,” says Najm with an irritated tone.
– The car parked outside, is it yours?
“Yes, it’s vital for us and our job. I bought it a month ago in installments.”
– Then everything is fine
They laugh, nod, and mumble “Alhamdulillah.”
Then we sit in a circle for dinner.
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