Road Trip

Published Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

(BEYOND SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ) Two million Americans have fled their homes this week to get out of the way of Hurricane Gustav. Every news account leads with photos of empty roads in one direction and a steady migration away from coastal lands in the other. Windbreaker sales are up, just to clothe all the television reporters.

Imagine the same scene if America had a tenth its population and was a twentieth its size. If two million displaced people had to find new homes, all inside the boundaries of a country the size of California, for years on end, with no hope in sight — that would be Iraq’s situation with its Internally Displaced Peoples.

Many Iraqis are openly skeptical of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s recent claim that it is now safe for expatriated Iraqis to return. If that’s true, they wonder, why are there still two million Iraqis inside the country who cannot return safely to their homes? We wonder too.

Iraq and Oregon are alike in at least one way. If all you see is city life, you haven’t seen it all. To learn how life looks across Iraqi Kurdistan, we have to leave the city of Suleimaniya and meet people managing their lives in rural areas.

Road trip!

We’ve hired two men with four-wheel-drive trucks to take us to Zharawa, a camp for Internally Displaced Persons ten miles south of Turkey. What we saw when we reached our destination will be a separate essay. The getting there is a story all its own.

The trip is more than three hours in each direction, but some areas are so rough, there is literally no road — only a line of vehicles, snaking from the unannounced end of one road to the unmarked beginning of another.

Roads themselves are nothing but ribbons of asphalt here. No lines, no lanes, no rules. Drivers regularly misjudge speed and distance while passing slow-moving trucks, forcing another driver to leave the pavement for the dirt beside it. Tires on dirt make clouds of dust. When the cloud clears, you’re surprised you’re still alive. No, it’s worse than an “Indiana Jones” chase scene. It’s a Roadrunner cartoon.

Several hundred Kurds have settled in Zharawa for now — nine nearby villages have been evacuated. Turkish planes have been bombing their villages regularly since the spring, and Iran has also been shelling the area with truck-mounted missiles. Border areas are notoriously unstable, especially in mountainous regions like this one. Without flat land as a canvas, the dotted lines between nation-states can become very confusing on the ground.

Many in Kurdistan believe rumors that Turkey and Iran are both receiving intelligence from the United States to pinpoint their attacks. Some even worry that the United States is goading the Iranians into shelling these Kurdish villages, so that U.S. forces can then turn against Iran, starting another war to “protect the Kurds.”

If all that intrigue doesn’t make your head hurt, you may want to consider a career opportunity as a diplomat or an arms dealer. All we know for sure is that homeless children hear explosions in the distance many nights while they try to sleep. We’d like that to stop, so we’ve made a plan.

Christian Peacemaker Teams often engage in “direct action” to disrupt violence, and this is part of this trip’s agenda. We’ve made a large banner that reads “Bombing Hurts. Please Stop.” We hope to walk with some Zharawa residents back to their villages to take pictures of the destruction, with our bannered commentary in view. If U.S. satellites are watching, they’ll be able to read the message.

The Kurdish Asaish (secret police) insist on sending two guards with us “for our own protection” before we’re allowed to pass the final check-point. To make room for the soldiers and their guns, two of us offer to ride in the back of one truck for the final 20 miles to the camp. We’re in the middle of nowhere now, so our drivers have the terrain to deal with, but not other drivers. Good thing. The terrain is challenging enough — it’s a path more than a road, winding around the craggy mountainside.

What we see beyond each cliffside turn is breathtaking, and beautiful — vistas with as many browns as Oregon has greens. What I would see at the camp was more surprising still.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is writing this week from the Middle East. All his essays are posted and readers can leave comments at www.dksez.com.