by Max Sawdayee


Thursday June 11, 1970

Last night was tough, exhausting.

At midnight, after a very bad sleep in the cold atop the mountain, we were awakened by Hamid to take the road again.  Wife, the children and I feel miserable.  Really miserable.  Just after we fed the children with a little canned food and took a cup of tea kindly served by Jamal, we all got on our mules, and continued our slow, difficult ride on the mountain top in complete darkness.

Mabrook, my mule, seems very much concerned.  The road on the rocky mountain at night is no fun to him either.  He keeps looking in the dark with the utmost caution, trying to feel, smell, and make sure where his feet are landing.  I am driven to believe that he has a mature sense of responsibility not only towards himself, but also towards me his rider, who has invested in him my full confidence.  He certainly does not wish to fail in his mission, and does his hardest best not to stumble.  Although I ride him with anxiety, my concern is not only for myself, but also for this respectable, admirable and maybe pitiable creature.

And while Mabrook is occupied in patiently exploring his path through the dark night, I am occupied in my own way too.  I keep thinking.  Lots of things intertwine in my mind.  I think of my brother Kamal in Baghdad, who must now be very worried about me and my family.  About himself too.  He carries the risk of paying our account, later on, maybe with his head.  I think also of my mother, undoubtedly having sleepless nights, because of her anxiety and fear.  I imagine her crying and praying to God to lead us to safety and protect her other son, back there, from the hands of evil.  I think of my father as well, who may be still ignorant of the whole story of our escape, but will be profoundly sad and worried when he becomes aware of it.  I think of my wife and myself, of our life together, sometimes happy, sometimes not, at times rather bad, and lately very very bad most of the time.  I think of my two daughters, who are being roughly handled through the ordeal of this wild escape, and who just can’t understand why people must do such a thing as leaving their homeland.  All these thoughts cross my mind.  They entwine in it and get garbled.  And I am riding my mule in the pitch of darkness, which adds a black shade to my garbled thoughts.  I regret that my country has compelled me to resort to escape instead of continuing to live in it as a proud citizen living a decent life, or at least a peaceful existence.

The only things that dissipate my thoughts and send me back to the dry reality in which I am now, are my Kurdish headband getting untied every now and then and inclined to fall down from my head; and my dagger, which, planted in my belt, thrusts into my liver as though trying to pierce it hard. 

Just before dawn we stop once more to have a little more sleep at the other edge ending the Paradoost mountains.  Again literally exhausted, we lie stretched on the ground, holding the children between the two of us, and sleep like logs.

We open our eyes at seven, with two worries commencing the day.  Younger daughter can hardly see any more.  Her entire face is terribly inflated, swollen like a red balloon, undoubtedly the result of a bite by a wild mountainous insect while she was asleep.  The only medicine we can giver her is an antibiotic tablet.  That is all.  We do that immediately, and wait to see how things develop.  Poor child.  She is moaning her pain with awful fortitude and patience.  We try to cheer her up and help her forget her suffering for a while, but cannot.  Wife is distressed, but Hamid assures her that within six of seven hours the effect of the bite will disappear and daughter will feel better.

And now we suddenly discover that some eight new mules have found company with our own five, eating fresh green grass together with them, and all of them emitting a lowing or croaking sound in the happy satisfaction of their stomachs.  That may spell trouble, though.  We try quickly to get them away from us and our mules, but it is rather late.  Loud voices of no fewer than five or six men and women are audible, calling their mules in funny different ways, and approaching closer and closer. Hamid and the other two guides, Salman and Jamal, betray a little apprehension, but are so vigilant that they are ready for every new phase that may come over.  The strangers are now very near.  Wife, the children and I hide behind a big rock, waiting to see what will happen.  Everything turns out well when we learn that they are three Kurdish families from this same region returning to their home villages in the Kohi-Zir mountains, north-east, after a very long absence in the westerly Bermam mountains.  We establish acquaintances with them, chat a little, and decide to join them on the road for the day.

Having found new company, Salman and Jamal carry the two little girls on their backs, when Sa’ida, Hamid and I manage the steep slope down on foot, compelled to leave the mules to make their descent alone.

Going down this sharp, rocky slope is an ordeal.  It is very difficult trusting our feet to the tricky ground, then moving our bodies slowly to a fresh position.  The ordeal becomes greater when we look down at the deep valley below, just below, and flirt with the idea what will happen if the feet cannot help stumbling!

Some two hours pass in this awful descent when all of a sudden we hear one of the Kurdish women screaming aloud for help.  Hamid leaves us, wife and me, to our fate, does all sorts of acrobatic movements in order to hurry up to the scared woman.  Her husband also comes to the rescue, to find that a mountainous snake is making its way down as well, just close to his frightened wife.  Hamid all but kills the snake with a pistol shot, but the husband has already smashed its head with a big stone.  We stand glued to our places, but take a long breath when the ‘killer’ shouts from a distance that the mountain is a true friend, that the snake is dead, and that we can proceed down with our ordeal.

The sight of us, more than a dozen men, women and children, and more than a dozen mules, spread all along the dangerous slope and climbing down it the way one would walk a tightrope, is so dramatic that it is more a movie show than a reality!

Our climb down the mountain is over at about noon.  A waterfall awaits us there, and we decide to rest for a while near by.  Our new acquaintances seat themselves not far from us, joking and chatting in Kurdish with Hamid, Jamal and Salman.  Wife still complains of the pain in her back.  She and I lie stretched on the ground to alleviate our exhaustion a little.

The contrast is sharp between the cold mountain top and the hot bottom where we are now.  The sun is hitting us perpendicularly at this choking hour of the day.  It is scorching us, roasting us mercilessly.

I feel rather miserable.  Unshaven for three days, not having had the minimum of food and sleep, terribly scratched in my head and body, covered with dust and dirt all over, and entirely drained of strength, I imagine I am like another man hiding in my skin!  I twist my body painfully about on the grass, in meditation of this cruel, horrible escape.  But I get up on my feet again to give my little daughter, who is a little better now, another half-tablet of antibiotics.  Then I take her and her sister near the fall to wash our faces and hands.

All that is left of our food is one 200-gram can of sardines and another 200 grams of cheese.  Our new companions help us with an additional piece of cheese and three boiled eggs, having themselves finished all their food supply just before the end of their long journey home through the mountains.  This new ration I distribute equally among our three guides, as, except for tea, they too start to lack provisions.

At four in the afternoon we get on our mules again and proceed with our long ride down the valleys and plains, heading north-east with our new, gentle Kurdish friends.  Our convoy grown much bigger with all these nice people, wife and I feel safer, and our tension subsides to a great extent.

At eight in the evening we stop for half an hour, then resume the hard job of climbing our mules up another mountain chain – Kohi-Zir by name, as Hamid and another Kurd say.  I am a little scared approaching closer and closer all these high mountains, and again in the dark.  They even have the insolence of hiding from us most of the stars, so high these mountains appear.  ‘Let us face them with determination and courage,’ wife advises when she is nearer to me on her mule.  ‘Sure,’ I reply, let’s be more patient than ever and see what is next.  Take care of yourself when riding up!’

We bravely defy the slopes of this new chain of mountains, non-stop for two hours, although it drains us of the last bit of our strength.

Just near the top of the first mountain, when at midnight we stop for a little sleep, our new friends come to bid us farewell.  They will continue their way north, to arrive at their village within an hour.  They delightedly kiss both our daughters, shake hands with us, and the women exchange kisses with my wife, gently and touchingly, beside a small fire lit by Hamid.  We already like them very much.  We love them.  We felt so safe in their company that I really wish we continued the road together.  Hamid says they are good, nice people, all of them faithful to their great leader Mulla Mustafa Al-Barazani.  But his praise is evidently superfluous.  They have more than proved how nice they are.

It is the goodness of simple people that fills the world with delight, and makes life worth living.

Friday Morning, June 12, 1970

A Mig for a Shelter

Last night, when our Kurdish companions left us at about midnight we remained alone near the top of the mountain.  It was pitch dark and almost freezing.  The emptiness of the place and the distant noises of wild insects and snakes rendered our stay a little sad and pitiful.  We felt as though submerged – wife, the children and I – in a bottomless chasm of loneliness.  Of homesickness too.

With our three guides we strolled around in the dark trying to discover some sort of shelter where we could sleep till morning.  Oh, there!  A big gray sheet of metal in which we could recognise the shape of a wing and the shattered body of an airplane.  Salman pointed out that it might be the Iraqi Mig hit by the Kurds about seven months ago while strafing peaceful Kurdish villages, and fallen right there!  My wife expressed some fear and anxiety, suggesting not to get close to it.  On the other hand, I suggested that we turn it into a shelter for the night, arguing that nothing would happen and no damned stranger would know about us at such an hour.  Smilingly, I explained: ‘Iraqis used this plane for aggression against noble, courageous and peaceful Kurdish citizens, and Kurdish warriors shot it down in defence of their freedom.  So I do not see any harm in using it for a better, at least human, purpose after all!’

Then we hastened to stretch ourselves all round the body and the wings, fell sound asleep, while one of the guides kept guard.

Four hours later Salman awakened us, saying that it was safer to leave that spot before dawn, and resume our journey north-east.

I am absorbed by the sight, sadly moving perhaps, of wife trying to put the children in good order and giving them each a small piece of cheese near the body of the plane, while I re-construct in my tired mind what this instrument of war might have ‘accomplished’ in the recent past.  I come to the conclusion that if that mass of wreckage was really a Mig, then, so far as Iraqi Migs were concerned, if they were shot down and utilised as shelters, as the one we stood near, for distressed people in darkness, in hard moments of their lives, well – that would be the finest purpose they could serve!  And if destiny had it that the Mig be hit and fall in a certain spot, then I should be most grateful to Al-Barazani warriors who had had it fall right here!  It was of great help to us in its wreckage!

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