Freedom, Light and Dark

KIRKUK, Iraq—An Iraqi soldier with an abdominal injury groaned. His name was Salar Halit Saleh, he said; he told me he’d been shot by Kurdish peshmerga as he threw down his weapon and retreated. After six years in the army, Salar considered himself a patriot. “Saddam Hussein is our president,” he told me from his bed in the hospital in Kirkuk. “If he is dead, that’s the end. If he’s alive, I’m with him.”

Saddam was a good president; Salar had seen no better, though he admitted his military salary had been small. He had even deserted once for six months, to get a job and help his family. “I know Saddam was building palaces,” he said. “But he is the president and I am an ordinary person; I cannot compare myself to him.”

In another ward lay Mohaymen Mohammed Fakhra Fareed, 19. Mohaymen has an unlucky birthday—March 10—and the Iraqis conscripted him as soon as the war began. He’d been a soldier for only five days, stuck in a foxhole without a rifle because he’d had no training. An American bomb had blown off his left arm and his left leg. “Chopped by a B-52,” he said. He had no opinion of what had happened to him. He only wanted his pain to cease. News from the rest of the country struck him as scattershot rumor. “I can’t understand who will govern us,” he said.

In a ward of leg injuries lay a young Turkman shot in the leg by peshmerga for no apparent reason. His parents stood next to his bedside. I asked them how they felt, and they shrugged and looked down at their son. “God knows.” Nearby, a peshmerga fighter held the hand of his dying friend who had been shot in the head the night before while guarding cars from looters. The doctor said he needed brain surgery, but he couldn’t be moved.

Since Kirkuk fell on Thursday, we’ve seen two days of interim low-grade anarchy. The looters have pulled apart everything, doors and window frames, bits of industrial plant, pipes, stuffed furniture. On Friday, I saw a red fire engine carrying dozens of brand-new gas canisters drive right past a burning supermarket. The PUK commandos had begun to set up roadblocks to confiscate looted items from overloaded pickup trucks. There were scuffles, arguments, finger-jabbing. Locals formed vigilante roadblocks: Men and boys with sticks attacked loaded cars heading back to Sulaymaniyah. Drivers who resisted were pulled out of their cars and dragged by their collars. We couldn’t drive through the bottleneck; a bus and a car were wedged in front of us. There were shadows and clumps of fighting.

Looters streamed along the road past the abandoned Iraqi positions. Some had seized whole cement trucks. Others were hauling artillery pieces and garbage trucks. Still others were dragging machinery behind buses, scraping the road and creating iron sparks. Red flares arced like tracers. Back axles bumped along. Cars broke down. Trucks ran into ditches and were instantly stripped. Packs of men trudged home with Kalashnikovs across their backs. Some boys on bikes had TV sets strapped precariously across the baskets. On Friday night, after dusk, a mortar exploded and killed three people. Gunfire continued from unknown corners.

The looting went on all the next day. Buildings burned. The cotton warehouses were set on fire as people rushed to rescue bales and push them home in handcarts. Men hauled gasoline out of a tanker in old cooking-oil cans. Two hours later, the tanker exploded and burnt up, filling the sky with black smoke. Every government building was smashed open, the floors turned to rubble, broken glass, bits of rag, and torn pictures of Saddam Hussein. The Khalid military camp is nothing more than stripped concrete huts decorated with suddenly archaic slogans. No America! No Jews! Yes for Saddam! Saddam is the glory of our country! Life without Saddam is like life without air! PUK now graffiti covers the city. “Thanks you USA. Thanks you Bosh and Blear.”

In the bazaar, some shops opened. We went to buy dry biscuits, and Jeyyed Ali Pekhaderi, the Kurdish yogurt seller from the next door, came in to the bakery.

“For 11 years I couldn’t wear my Kurdish clothes,” he said, indicating his baggy overalls. “These are brand new. I never dared to wear them before. Once I put them on for a feast day and the police took me to the Amin office. They broke my teeth with a cable,”he said—and pulled back his lips to show me dirty, broken teeth. “They strung me from the ceiling. I was in prison for 17 days, and I had to borrow $300 from my family to get out.”

Another Kurd came into the shop and shook the yogurt-seller’s hand. “Congratulations,” he said to the old man. “It’s a nice life, eh?”

“Once in my life I can feel free. I can even feel the fresh air. I didn’t even dream about being free in a democratic country,” continued Jeyyed, growing suddenly uncertain. “I am 39 years old, and I don’t even know what freedom is. Is it light or dark?”

In a grand old courtyard that used to be a coffee shop, I found a group of Turkmen bazaari: a saucepan seller, a tailor, and a butcher. They spoke in a chorus.

“We weren’t afraid of the bombs or the bullets,” they said. “Because we are used to them. We knew the government was going to fall and the gunfire was for our sake. Our only hope was to get rid of that man.”

“Are you afraid of the Kurds?” I asked.

“Why!? There’s been enough fear!”

They didn’t mind the Kurds, but they didn’t like the Arabs.

“They are all bad people. They have low morals and no manners. They brought corruption to the city. If there was theft, the Arabs did it, and we were all forced to be Arabs on our passports. The Arabs hurt our honor; they took our shops and gave them to Arabs. We could not even use Turkmen names for our children.”

I walked up to a Chaldean Christian church that sits on a hill opposite a mosque. I found a Chaldean woman who introduced me to her husband, a Kurd. The couple was tending a half-abandoned cemetery. The Kurdish husband, in dark glasses, was blind. He’d taken part in the uprising in Sulaymaniyah in 1991. Iraqis had poked his eyes out with the tip of an RPG. “And electricity always,” he said, pointing to his groin. “Today is the first time I have put on Kurdish clothes. I am happy now; it is as if I have four eyes.”

In the shuttered downtown, a crowd of young men appeared from nowhere. They were former Iraqi soldiers in civilian clothes—some in trousers, some in long dish-dashes; their faces ranged from light brown to black. They came from all over Iraq—from Basra, from Nasiriyah, from places in the South I hadn’t heard of. They were stranded and worried, trying to get home. “There are no cars,” one said. “Is the road to Baghdad safe? What can we do?” They were exhausted; they had been sleeping on people’s floors, in garages, or out in the open.

I, too, am exhausted, laid up with a feverish cold. My mind is addled. Since the Kurds arrived here, the electricity is off, the phones are down, and water comes through the pipes only fitfully. Kirkuk is a multiracial, polyglot city of Arabs and Kurdish, Turkmen, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Christian. Some are hurt. Everyone is afraid. They are waiting for some normality to return; they are waiting for some government, any government, to organize things again. More than anything—more even than they ask to use my Thuraya phones to call relatives abroad—people ask me, “When are the Americans coming?”