The Happy Deserter in Kalar

KALAR, Kurdistan—The deserter was 23, with a thin beard, a narrow face, and a concave frame. I told him I would not use his name. He said had been in the army three years; he’d been drafted. He was paid $2 a month. Before the war, his unit had been pulled back from the Jordanian border to a position opposite the Kurdish militia. He’d had a forward sentry post; at one point no officer was near him, and he simply walked off. He went to his hometown of Najaf but stayed only a few hours before traveling to the Iranian border and surrendering to the Iranians. The Iranians sent him on his way to Free Kurdistan; ultimately he traveled in a big circle.

He said, as deserters often do, that nobody was ready to fight, that the troops didn’t know anything, that only the battalion commander was allowed a radio. They didn’t even know that Baghdad was being bombarded; they didn’t know Basra was encircled.

I met this man Tuesday in Kalar, where I went to talk to the Kurdish security people, the Asaij. I was proceeding south and had come to the southernmost tip of Kurdish-controlled territory. Here the land flattens, the sky widens, the rivers run wide—into dry gravel beds—and palm trees begin to appear. Many of the cars are 1950s Soviet army jeeps, because they are rugged and have roomy cargo spaces in the back. Kalar is flat, dusty smuggling country. Before the war, convoys of trucks used to battle Iraqi patrols nightly to get through the cordon and load barrels of gasoline. The men in the tea houses in Kifri would open their shirts and flaunt their battle scars.

“Why did you desert?” I asked the young man. He looked unaccountably happy—a strange sight, an Arab wearing baggy Kurdish trousers that someone had given him.

“For a long time I wanted to leave. I thought about getting to Kurdistan and surrendering to the U.N. for asylum. We had no possibility to hope or wish for something. We were like animals without rights. If I was sent to Baghdad to fight against the Americans I would be killed; if I tried to stay behind or desert, I would be killed by the Iraqi government.”

The security office was painted concrete; it had a desk, a sofa, and BBC World on the television. Earlier, while waiting for the deserter to arrive, I had drunk a Zam-Zam cola with Maj. Akhmed Zhazi of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who had told me about the deserter and had summoned him to the office. “He was lucky he was a sentry,” the major had said. “In most divisions of the army there is a hanging committee for deserters.”

Now he was here, the cheerful deserter. He smiled, scratched his cuticles nervously, and smiled again.

“All of us, as soldiers, wanted to be free,” he said. “We like freedom. We were forced to serve as soldiers. The soldiers want to desert and go back to their families, but they are frightened to desert because their families will be arrested. Since we were children we hoped to travel to other countries, to have a life like people in other countries have. In Iraq you are always controlled. Twenty-four hours, monitored, observed in your quarters, in your alleys.”

He had left the army twice before but had been easily arrested at home. Both times, he had been imprisoned for several months. The first time, he told me, they tortured him, using cables to beat his feet. He also said he had an older brother who is required, as nearly all Iraqi men are, to serve two months each year in one of Saddam’s spurious armies, either the Popular Army‚ which is obviously not popular, or the Jerusalem Army‚ which has so far failed to liberate that Israeli stronghold.

“When I went home I told my brother just to stay in the house, not to go onto the street because if they saw him they’d arrest him and put him in the army.” “How were people in Najaf two weeks ago? How did you discuss the coming war?” I asked.

“In Najaf people are only worried about how to get food, and if they will have enough food. They were worried how long the war would last and what would come after it. I only talked to my family. You can’t talk about these things outside of your house. But in my family we were happy about the Americans coming. We knew war was coming and we talked about, insh’allah, getting rid of this government.”

He grinned. “There are no uprisings like in 1991. No one can rise up because they are afraid of the Mukhabarat, the Amin [Interior Ministry forces], the Baathists. Even here”—he shuddered, for the first time—”I am afraid of the Baathists. If they suspect anyone of an uprising they will kill them. When I was in Najaf there were Baath or Amin on every corner. There were more soldiers than people.”

“Do you remember the uprising of 1991?” I asked him.

“I was 10 or 11. It was a mass disaster. They attacked the city with surface-to-surface missiles. There were rockets, many kinds of missiles. People were shot in the street, hung in the street. People were arrested en masse and still no one knows what happened to them.”

I asked him what had surprised him most about Kurdistan.

“When I came here I was shocked when I saw all the dishes on the roofs of the houses. I had never seen them so I asked people what they were and they said satellite. I had never heard the word satellite.”

He was clearly delighted about the satellites. “It is the first time I watched satellite. Now I watch the news every half-hour. In Iraq we heard the names Bush, Blair, and UNSCOM, but we never saw them. We didn’t know what they are doing—or what purpose they had.”

I related a final question through my translator. “What do you know now, that you didn’t know before?”

“I can understand that they want to liberate Iraq, free the people of Iraq, create a better life in Iraq. I am very comfortable about the fighting in Iraq because I can see they want to free Iraq.”

It’s an extraordinary thing to have Bush freedomisms quoted to you by an Iraqi. Perhaps the deserter had picked up his rhetoric from the Kurds who are very emphatic about human rights, about freedom and democracy. Democracy might be an imperfect and slightly misunderstood concept in Kurdistan, where human rights are tied up with honor killings and clan laws, but it is plain that freedom is something that everyone feels the lack of when it’s denied. I don’t think that we have yet begun to imagine the extent of that denial in Iraq.