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‘I am blind with crying’: in the Kurdistan mountains

Wendell Steavenson
28 March 2003

Sulaimaniya, Kurdistan, Thursday 27 March, day 8 of the war

Thursday morning brought laughter in the midst of war, with the news that the Americans had parachuted into northern Iraq and ‘seized’ an airstrip. The locals had been re-surfacing two Saddam-era airstrips in Kurdistan for months; all their efforts to entice the Americans to land on them seemed in vain.

The Kurds, in short, have long awaited the Americans. ‘Seized’, then, seemed a little exaggerated. Everyone was all smiles now they had finally arrived, and somewhat more visibly than their Special Forces (catch them through blackout windows whooshing by on the roads, if you can).

A few hundred US parachutists began to entrench themselves around the completely safe airport. A northern front was mooted; light armour may be following on transport planes. All this on the morning after a night when journalists had sat around cans of Turkish beer, bemoaning the Turks’ self-interested intransigence and comfortingly predicting that nothing will move here until Baghdad falls.

Kurdistan is a rumour mill

In Kurdistan it feels like nothing is ever clear. The frontline beyond Sulaimaniya, at Chamchamal, had been silent for days. The US bombed Iraqi positions a few times on 26 March, producing more black smoke on the rainy horizon; the Iraqis lobbed a few mortars into the hills at the edge of the town, and three artillery shells ten kilometres at Tekia, further into Kurdistan. No one was injured.

At one moment, it seems absurd to contemplate driving a jeep through four divisions of Iraqis on the way to Kirkuk (especially as they are backed up with Mujahideen-i-Khalq, Iranian anti-Islamic Republic guerrillas who have found refuge under Saddam); the next minute all the peshmerga start talking about retaking their Arabised houses in Kirkuk from their usurpers.

The Kurds promise the Americans they won’t go into Mosul and Kirkuk; the Americans want to use the Kurds to go into Kirkuk and Mosul.

So it goes. Kurdistan is a rumour mill to beat them all.

The Kurds’ eternal flight

Kurds are well practiced at internally displacing themselves. In the last two weeks civilians have retreated en masse from the frontline. Families are sent out of the cities; everyone loads their cars, buses, tractors, a cousin’s Toyota pick-up with their possessions, and heads for the mountains, where there are villages, relatives, rooms.

Chamchamal is empty. We drove up the road out of the town that follows and then diverges from the Iraqi line on the ridge above. An area called Sangow has red earth and sparsely green overgrazed hills woven with sheep tracks. Spring was warm for a couple of days last week, but the weather has been terrible for the past four days, winter has come back and there is new snow on the mountains. It had been raining for days, it was cold, the wind was blowing and biting and damp and miserable. Mud fissures ran mud rivulets. The rivers were swollen and brown. The villages were few, low, mud built.

By the side of the road, windswept and bitter, twenty Kurdish families were camping among a cache of river rocks. They have been there for ten days and say they will stay until the war is over. They had no tents, very little kerosene, some oil, flour, rice from their oil-for-food rations. They had built small walls out of piled stones, shored up with the plentiful mud, and draped with wooden slats; a jerry rigged shelter, plastic sheeting.

The wind blew and the men wrapped their heads in their turbans; the children were barefoot inside plastic village shoes; these were very poor people. They had been displaced by the Anfal campaigns of the late 1980s, settled in the collective town next to Chamchamal, then fled to Iran after the 1991 uprising.

“It is very cold, too cold, especially for the children”, said Pshtwan Aziz. He had been married for twenty days and he introduced me to his wife, Halawa Akhmed. “We can’t sleep until the morning”, she told me. She was wearing the traditional red long shapeless velvet dress of Kurdish village women.

“It rains, it is cold. There are kerosene heaters but only one between two or three families, so they take turns for an hour each night”. Aziz’s mother, Mahrroub, was sitting inside the plastic sheeted space between two rocks. “We don’t have anything, we are waiting for tents, I don’t know if they will give us tents or not. The water comes in everywhere”. She pointed to the cracks between rocks and plastic sheet and underneath where they had spread sodden coverlets for a floor.

A mountain of fear

Several doctors from a Kurdish relief agency in white coats talked to the families. Dr. Goran Hama Amin said the children were suffering from diarrhoea; the adults from respiratory infections. He thought it was from the water, which was a running stream full of sediment.

The families had built their makeshift shelters between the rocks and crevices. They wore thin clothes. There was a television aerial hooked up to a television connected to a car battery, but the rain had broken it. Around the camp were piles of plates and tea glasses, bedding laid out on rocks to dry in the clammy daylight.

Dilshat Aziz and his wife and 2-year old daughter Derin had come from Kirkuk three days before the American attack that launched the war. Derin was sickly and her eyes watered from the wind. The doctors had brought her some cough syrup. Her mother said they did not have enough kerosene to boil water consistently. “Sometimes we boil it and sometimes not”, she said. “It has been raining for two nights, the water comes underneath our blankets. The wind tears the plastic sheeting; it is not strong, you can see”.

What were you frightened of in Kirkuk? Dilshat raised his hand to the hills in the distance. “The Ba’ath, the chemical attack”.

Fawzia Najmudin said she had left her husband behind in Chamchamal because he was too old and blind. She had hennaed fingernails and a blue tattoo dot on her chin. “I am afraid of Saddam”, she told me. She had a rough heavy worn face and rough hands. “I lived in Darbesera in the Shwan area. During the Anfal the Iraqi forces surrounded us and arrested us. They took us to Nuga Saman.

My husband, my ten children, we were imprisoned there for seven months. Every day they gave us one piece of bread, until the next morning there was nothing. I had a baby then. One of my sons and one of my daughters died of hunger there. There wasn’t a decision to release us. Only one day a soldier opened the door and told us to go.

We had flocks, we had sheep and goats, we had a house and a car. They took everything. When we came from prison, we didn’t even have clothes to wear. If we can go back to our village we will. If Kurdistan will be free. Let our children and this new generation live”.

Akhmed Latif had come three days before, from the town of Duz in the Iraqi-controlled Kurdish south. He had paid a soldier 100,000 Iraqi dinars to cross in the night. “They began to arrest people”, he said. “We are four brothers. I don’t know where my brothers are. They began to force people to enlist in the Jerusalem Army. They told every family they had to give one son. They gave everyone kalashnikovs to fight the Americans and put soldiers on the corner of every alley. Everyone is very afraid”.

Are they afraid of the Americans? “People are not afraid of Americans. They are afraid of the government of Iraq. Of chemical bombs and arrests. America is coming to liberate our country”.

An old woman with loose teeth and a face tattooed with faded blue dots and lines came up and began to weep. “Three days ago, my cousin was shot and killed. He was so handsome! They said he was a secret organiser. There have been shootings in Kirkuk. Only a few people can come through here on the roads, smugglers, they tell us these things”. She wrung her hands. The younger Kurds shifted uncomfortably around her, embarrassed. “In 1988 my son was killed because he was a peshmerga. My son, my property, my house. I am blind with crying”.

A devastated land

The town of Sangow stands at a crossroads. There is a view of a green-domed mosque with two loudspeakers attached. A market sells crates of yellow apples, tomatoes, onions, sacks of potatoes, tins of tomato paste, trays of eggs, sunflower oil, blocks of Turkish margarine, and a pile of dusty spinach leaves. A tractor is parked next to a line of plastic jerrycans filled with pink Iranian gasoline.

The town was Anfal-ed and bulldozed and the ruined rubble of its stone foundations lies in piles. There are new breezeblock houses, dark grey fresh concrete boxes, two rooms, a small kitchen, a yard and a flat roof. They are freeze in winter and bake in summer; there is not enough space for keeping animals. No one likes them much.

There are a few peshmerga at Sangow; more have arrived recently. The commander, Osman Haji Mohammed, sits in a concrete room beneath a machine carpet portrait of Jamal Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Between Sangow and Kirkuk is wide open land. “It is a devastated area”, he says. “The roads are empty, there are no villages and no people. There are only the camps of four Iraqi brigades over there”.

Have the Americans bombed their positions? “No”.

Has there been any movement of these positions over the past week? “Sometimes the Iraqis fire mortars in a scattered way around their positions. Around 500 or 600 Mujahideen-i-Khalq moved into the village of Zerda. In the last three days, we received information that four Scud missiles have been brought into this area also”.

All quiet on the northern front? Not for much longer.

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