Wendell Steavenson
11 June 2003

Yesterday Omer sent me, in an email attachment, some of the pictures he took with the digital camera I gave him. They were from the road between Kirkuk and Baghdad; pictures he’d taken as we drove down it about ten days after Baghdad fell. A long straight road through the flat, beige landscape, through low mean mud villages; quiet or empty, past Arab shepherds with their faces swathed in red and white checked headscarves and abandoned Iraqi positions, dry dust trenches like scars; burnt out APCs like weals.

There were no Americans. The only way to tell if the road was safe was to check there was traffic coming in the other direction; and hearsay. An hour south of Kirkuk was a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) checkpoint: two Kurds in baggy pantaloons, kalashnikovs over their shoulders and PUK graffiti in spray paint scrawled on the side of a concrete hut.

What the hell were the PUK doing so far south? In any case, we asked them how the road was up ahead and they smiled and said, good road, only MKO checkpoint, no problem.

Omer and I looked at each other: MKO checkpoint no problem? The Mujahideen e-Khalq are the Iranian militia given refuge for twenty years under Saddam, revolutionary outcasts, marginalised ex-terrorists. We had always heard that the MKO were the worst, that they were foreign and they would have nowhere to go when Saddam fell and that they would fight.

So with some trepidation we drove through the MKO checkpoint. Surreally Iranian officers, in neat pressed beige uniforms, with balding heads and glasses that made them look like bank managers, waved us through.

‘Two APC’s’ I said, looking out the window.
‘And a tank’ said Omer.
‘Guess they’re not disarmed yet then.’
‘Deal with the Americans? Ceasefire.’
‘I’m sure the Americans can find a use for their anti-Iranian mullah regime credentials.’
And then we realised how bizarre it was to be driving through an MKO checkpoint and we laughed.

The time of liberation

Some of the pictures Omer sent were of a burnt Iraqi tank outside of Baghdad. There were many burnt tanks lining the road. This one was interesting because the turret had been blown off and had impaled its own carcass.

Other pictures were of a tiled picture of Saddam covered in graffiti. It was a particularly good example of smashed-up Saddam. Usually, his face was raked with bullets, daubed in paint and burnt; but in this one, someone with a sense of humour had painted red devil horns on his heads, large ears with dangly earrings, and encircled his neck with a chain.

Omer wrote that the situation in Baghdad is alright, but people are complaining. I wrote back that I was glad they were able to complain again.

Omer is a Kurd. Before the war, in Sulaimaniya, in free Kurdistan, I asked him where he came from. He said ‘Kirkuk’ and his eyes blazed. When Kirkuk fell he was jubilant, like all the Kurds; the first thing he did after the statue of Saddam was toppled was to go and visit the grave of his father.

‘I stood there,’ he told me afterwards when we were drinking whisky and eating American army rations in a dingy hotel room in Kirkuk, ‘and I was so happy. I told him that everything that I am I did for him, in his memory.’

Omer’s father had been a secret organiser for the PUK inside Kirkuk. He was arrested in 1981 and executed two years later.

Lives in pieces

I remember things now like pictures, isolated instances, people, conversations, without narrative traction.

When Kirkuk fell we journalists, holed up in Kurdistan for months, found ourselves at the edge of the broad expanse of Iraq proper in front of us. Ahead lay undefended, wide-open deserted roads threaded by rumour. On the way to Tikrit, where I saw two Kurdish peshmerga usher an elderly Arab and his black-covered wife out of their battered car; the Arab couple seemed to be worried and nervous, but did not remonstrate. Where on earth were they going on the day that Tikrit fell and no one was on the roads because the fedayeen were still scattering? And why did we do nothing to stop the Kurds stealing their car?

I remember trying to find a cup of tea on the day after Kirkuk fell. Everything was shuttered, the supermarket was still burning soft clouds of smoke, the cotton warehouses were on fire and people were hauling away bales that they had managed to rescue.

We went to investigate a new plume of black smoke on the outskirts of the city and found an oil tank in an abandoned military camp that had exploded.

In the empty shopping quarter there was one chaikhana (tea house) open with a bench on the street in front of it. We stopped the car; a group of ten or fifteen young men appeared, and surrounded us – with friendly, inquisitive, strange faces, some burnt black like Nubians, some dark red with Semitic noses, wearing a collection of mufti, long floppy dishdashes (hardly ever seen in the north) as well as Kurdish pantaloons and jeans.

They were the Iraqi soldiers who had deserted the day before, sleeping rough, in garages or in hospitable homes, they told me. Their faces crowded each other; they were worried. ‘How can we get home?’ ‘Do you know how the road is to Baghdad?’ And I asked them where they were from: ‘Nasiriya, Basra, Hawija.’ There were no buses and the taxi depot was empty of taxis.

What else?

A well-made shattered boy in a hospital bed: he was 19 years old with an unfortunate birthday. He had been called into the army as the war had begun; sat in a trench for five days without a rifle because he had no rifle training. ‘And then a B52 came and chopped my leg and arm off.’ His stumps still ached. His mother and father sat beside his bed and begged for new limbs for him. And because the war had been over for three days and there was still optimism and people were thanking Bush and Blair, I told them I was sure it would be alright and that the west would send NGOs with new fancy prosthetics and that he was a young strong boy and he would be fine.

I don’t know why I remember him more than the shrapnelled babies. More than the Kurd who had been shot in the head the night Kirkuk fell and the next morning lay unconscious heaving chest with a ragged death rattle on a bloody gurney. His friend held his hand as he died.

The truth of the situation began to unravel as the uncertainty set in. In Kirkuk I went to talk to Arab families, called the “10,000s”, because they took 10,000 dinars from Saddam to move to the north and Arabise the Kurdish areas that were being cleansed. They were fearful of Kurdish reprisals, and there were indeed some, but often a midnight ‘expulsion’ turned out to be a visit, and an abandoned house was because the family had fled the bombing before the war.

Some people said they had been living there for twenty years, others said they would never go home to the south because they had nothing there to return to, then they would say that they thought most of the Arabs would leave over the next few months. In the villages, the Kurds were giving families forty-eight hours to clear out of Arabised Kurdish houses.

First steps in a new world

My Kurdish driver found himself ill at ease in an Arab-speaking world he could not understand. He upbraided me for having lunch with some elderly Assyrians in Kirkuk. ‘You don’t know these people’ he told me afterwards. And he had eaten very little of the tuna salad they had so graciously prepared for us.

For a few days I drove about Kirkuk with a half-Turcoman half-English man called Ralph (or Raif). His mother came from Potters Bar, near London, and had lived in Iraq for thirty years raising her family. She said they were all ‘very relieved, thanks be to god,’ wringing her hands and offering me more tea; ‘the bombs were not too bad.’ Ralph was initially happy because his bedroom window had overlooked the police station and he could never open his curtains; but now the PUK had moved in and he still couldn’t open his curtains.

Ralph was a curious thing: an Iraqi with English sensibilities. His brothers had become doctors like their esteemed father and married nice Iraqi girls; Ralph wanted to get out. He didn’t think Iraq was up to much; he had no idea when the veterinary college in Baghdad where he was studying would re-open.

But with him I had a glimpse of the tightness of life under Saddam, the intense circumspection, everything curtailed, especially inquiry. One day we drove down to the market where stallholders were beginning to re-open, despite the fact they did not have much to sell. The Kurds were all very happy because they were able to put on their pantaloons for the first time in thirty years. ‘You know there are a lot of Kurds around today’, said Ralph watching them all, ‘usually you don’t see so many of them.’

He paused for a moment. ‘You know I never learnt Kurdish, I feel like I should have now.’ Ralph and Soren, the Kurdish driver, had an odd sort of relationship, a combination of potted Arabic and unease.

One of Ralph’s neighbours was an old ceramicist who had made all the tiled portraits of Saddam in Kirkuk. ‘Until the more modern light boxes began to be used,’ said Ralph. I asked him if he minded that all his handiwork was now being razed. His son answered for him that he did not mind, but that it was sad for his father that freedom to work had come too late for him to realise his artistic potential.

People told you odd things, they lied, they didn’t want to speak at all or they had a complaint they wanted you to understand very clearly. Ralph’s uncle had been a brigadier in the army. ‘It was very difficult for him during the 1991 uprisings’, said Ralph; ‘no, I don’t think he will talk to you, he is staying in his house.’

One of Ralph’s family friends had begun to get involved with a Turcoman party, but when I asked him about this he said he was not a member. In the neat Ba’ath party suburbs where the oil managers lived, most of the houses were empty, the people gone altogether.

People seemed to be waiting. Ralph’s brother said he was not going to work at the hospital because he did not know what was happening there, ‘who will pay us?’ At the hospital my Assyrian friend who was a university professor bumped into a colleague who had not gone home for three days because he was a member of the Ba’ath party and he didn’t know if it was alright yet.

In Baghdad a taxi driver who was a relative of my translator said he could not take the taxi out because there was no petrol. When I said you could get petrol without too many problems from people selling it on street corners, he said he did not want to buy it because he knew it was stolen.

A vacuum of trust

I stayed in Iraq about three weeks after Baghdad fell. There was confusion and the longer it went on, the more insecure and frightened everyone became. It seemed that invective turned against each other as much as it turned against the Americans. No one was frightened of the Americans, but in Baghdad the Sunnis were frightened of the Shi’a marches, and in Mosul there was Arab-Kurdish violence.

Omer said to me once, watching the Shi’a demonstrations on television, ‘why do they walk to Karbala on their knees? It is ridiculous!’ No one knew anything about each other, except that they were other and that in anarchy each would take care of their own.

Mixed up in this were odd bits of remembered propaganda: people did not really want Saddam back or lament his disappearance, but they thought that perhaps only a strong man could control a disparate Iraq, that the Americans were only interested in her oil, that whatever was decided by ‘them’ would prevail.

People wanted to be told what to do; but they did not want to be told.

I remember most an incident outside the governorate building in Kirkuk not more than three days after the Ba’ath officials had left it. The Kurds were having a meeting with various ethnic representatives and the few Americans who were in the area. Outside a crowd gathered, among them, my Assyrian professor.

‘What have you come here for?’ I asked him. He showed me a piece of paper, ‘It’s my driving registration,’ he explained, ‘I have a government car and I don’t know if I can drive it on the street.’

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