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.
Read next story
GRAND BAGHDAD HOTEL
I can’t remember my experience in the Grand Baghdad Hotel just by merely thinking of the name because this place looks nothing like a hotel nor does it have anything to do with the glamorous name it bears. Instead, I think of the charming film The Grand Budapest Hotel where cinema beautifies tragedy and where protagonists die smiling or in the middle of a romantic kiss.
The Kurds in northern Iraq were suffering under the burden of a long frontier war with the Islamic State (ISIS), a financial crisis and the arrival of more than one million people displaced by war, altering the ethnic balance of their proto state. Shaqlawa, once a popular holiday destination had become a shelter for thousands of Iraqi Arabs fleeing the grinding war further south who now outnumbered the local Kurdish population.
THE ORPHANS OF ALQOSH
One evening late in the summer of 2014 people from five villages in the province of Nineveh streamed onto the roads along with the orphans from Alqosh. Between their cars and ISIS stood only burning pyres of rubbish and an emptying no man’s land. Milad Hani, 9, and his brother Wissam, 11, were part of the exodus.
OIL AND BLOOD
Zaidoon’s seventeen year-old cousin, Jamal, darts through the refinery’s enormous storage drums. He is trying to fill a jerry can with gasoline for one of the truck drivers who’s pulled up in an empty tanker. Jamal runs over to the huge drum that holds the gasoline and throws open the spigot at the bottom. A jet of black liquid shoots out which then turns clear. Jamal cups his hand and catches some of it, bringing it up to his face as if he’s about to take a sip.
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.
THE BUTCHER OF KHALAKAN
Thirteen year-old Ali fled the violence in Salahaddin and found refuge in the remote Kurdish village of Khalakan where he works as a butcher.
AT THE CHICKEN FARM
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.
The air is thick with dust and the smell of sewage in Chermo camp where a cluster of prefabricated cabins house 196 members of the Shabak minority. Brittle fencing draped in freshly-washed clothes separates the makeshift homes from a busy highway; a linear strip of hot tarmac that runs from the town of Chamchamal to the city of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The barren piece of land was lent to the families cost-free by a wealthy Kurdish tribe.
In the camp one morning a plane passes overhead and Awatif, Adam’s wife looks up with a start. Marwan doesn’t hear the noise and continues to cut hair in his make shift shop. For Sulaiman returning home seems a long way off after news of the killings. Stuck between different factions in Iraq and trailed with suspicion, Adam, Marwan and Sulaiman must build their lives again at edge of Kirkuk.
TWO RELIGIONS ONE ROOF
Maysun Yalda and Widad Fadill sit opposite each other, sipping tea under a brightly coloured rug. “It’s Jesus,” says Maysun, pointing towards the male figure sewn into the heavy tapestry hanging from her kitchen wall. 44-year-old Maysun is a Christian from Tel Kaif in Nineveh, some 400km north of 47-year-old Widad’s hometown of Fallujah in Anbar, a Sunni stronghold.
On August 3rd 2014, ISIS insurgents attacked the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar in an attempt to expand their so-called ‘caliphate.’ During the weeks following the fall of the city, the Sunni militants who see the Yazidi people as devil worshippers carried out a genocidal campaign, killing tens of thousands of people and kidnapping over 5,000 women who they later sold into sexual slavery.