Thursday, April 14, 2005

"Hello Ameriki!" (from the Kurds)

Children of Umar Bill

Kurdish people often ask me to say "hello" and "thank you" to Ameriki, as if Ameriki is a person I speak to privately. Yet, I will do my best to fulfill a mounting string of promises by heartily conveying these greetings from my Kurdish hosts: "Hello Ameriki" and "Thank you, Ameriki."

In the Kurdish villages threats from suicide bombers or random RPG attacks begin to evaporate. The Kurds have no tolerance for the insurgents who are boiling a cauldron of strife elsewhere in Iraq.

The Kurds needed help to shake off the yoke, but now they want to chart their own lives. As one Kurd said to me in perfect English, "I was born free. I live free. I will die free." They have made good these words to Saddam's former henchmen.

Kurdish enthusiasm for self-determination has a kind of contagion for our soldiers. The Kurdish and American characters mix readily, as is made clear by the Tennessee National Guardsmen, who are based in territory where many Kurds live. Yet there is more between the Tennesseans and the Kurds than mere polite respect; the relationship resonates with warmth and genuine regard. In contrast, relations with Arab Iraqis are often better characterized as negotiations, often with the modifier "grinding."

Meetings with Iraqi Arabs sometimes seem more like talking with the French. We are not enemies. But, generally speaking, there is no real personal connection. At best, our collective personalities just don't seem to "click." Yet by recognizing the sovereignty and inevitability of each other, we manage to cooperate toward our common interests, while not going to war when we disagree. But with the Kurds, like the Poles or the Brits, there is an easy and audible click. We have mutual goals, mutual enemies, and, also importantly, we actually like each other.

The timbre of relations between Kurds and Americans does not go unnoticed, especially by those interested in keeping the Kurds off-balance. Nobody wants a powerful and educated foe in their backyard; especially so if they hear the hammers pounding as survey stakes are driven into fertile and oleaginous soils, all while the carpenters are saying things like "I was born free. I live free. I will die free."

A few days ago, I drove with the Tennessee National Guard as they traversed several hours through mostly desolate countryside, heading to a remote Kurdish village. Along the way we were met by General Nazam, the Kurdish commander of the Iraqi Border Patrol in Diyala Province. I have met General Nazam on a number of occasions along the Iranian border. He has earned the open respect of his American military counterparts. The general and his entourage led us into the hills, to a place Coalition forces had never been. We arrived just before noon in a mud village called Umar Bill. When we arrived, the village was mostly quiet because the kids were still in school. The teachers kindly allowed us into the classrooms to meet the children. Like other Iraqi schools, the classrooms were tidy, the children well-behaved, armed with only smiles and waves.

The Tennessee soldiers came with a large truck filled with goods. It was bound to cause a bit of commotion, and the kids were let out of school as supplies were loaded into a storeroom. While American and Iraqi soldiers formed a chain to unload the truck, some Tennessee guardsmen had fun with the kids. It was the typical mess, with kids crawling over Humvees and so forth.

School's Out!

I couldn't help not spoiling the moment by thinking how often good and well-mannered kids turn into brats, thanks to well-meaning soldiers armed with candy bars and pencils. But before me was just a vista of giggles and glee.

With much flourish, General Nazam had invited Colonel Adams and Lieutenant Colonel Holmes, both from the 278th Regimental Combat Team, to a picnic near a stream under a hammock of scrub trees. The day was sunny but cool, and we washed our hands in a clear running stream nearby, while American and Kurdish soldiers stood guard on hilltops and other tactical approaches. We all sat cross-legged on carpets spread over the ground. The air was fragrant with spring flowers, and there was the scent of fresh mutton grilling over natural charcoal. It was served with cucumbers, tomatoes and pita. There were no bothersome insects, no irritants at all; just good food on a great day, and the Kurdish leadership thanked their guests for liberation. Click.

Nearing the end of the picnic, General Nazam introduced me to a man who had lived in Umar Bill all his life, and asked if I would like to speak with him. The man could tell me the story of his village and his life, since, the general offered, they were one and same.

"Definitely," I said, "I would like to speak with this man," and I moved with a translator to the edge of the trees.

A small, plump older man joined us. His name was Saamad. He said he was fifty-four. Through the interpreter, Saamad explained that Umar Bill is about three hundred years old, and that it had been named after his great-great-grandfather: Hassan Umar Bill. Now, it occurred to me that if Umar Bill were founded by Saamad's great-great-grandfather, the village was not 300 years old, or else it was founded by an earlier generation than translation or story permitted.

But that detail was unimportant. Especially when considered in the context of Saamad's story. Saamad said his ancestors came to Umar Bill after fleeing tribal fighting in a distant place in Iraq called Rania.

When I asked Saamad about his life, he told me he was veteran from the PUK, a Peshmerga fighter, wounded four times in battle. Talking of battles, he said when an enemy comes, only the shameful hide; the Peshmerga way is to show themselves and fight. His math may have been off, but his claim about the tenacity of the Peshmerga is accurate. The "Pesh" have earned a reputation of battlefield competency and courage. Once, he said, Saddam's army came to kill them in Umar Bill, but the villagers had plenty of ammunition. They fought from six in the morning, all day long, until the enemy finally broke and fled. When the army returned, they brought reinforcements. Courage is never enough, nor could courage alone save Umar Bill that day.

The Iraqi army succeeded in crushing Umar Bill. Saamad described how the enemy took away about 250 villagers. They would never been seen again. The year was 1988. Saamad's relatives and friends vanished. His wife and twenty-three-year-old daughter among them. I dropped my head in respect and we sat for a moment in silence.

"Did you take another wife?" I asked.

"Yes, I have two wives now."

"How many boys and how many girls?"

(One does not ask, "How many children?" rather "How many boys and how many girls?")

"Seven boys and three girls," he replied with satisfaction.

Through the years of fighting, nearly all the men of Umar Bill were killed or disappeared, their lives lost and their memories eroded by the howling winds. Some believe that perhaps a few of the captured Kurdish girls, the beautiful ones, were sold to buyers in the Gulf countries. Saamad told of records that had been captured in Kirkuk after the Americans invaded, that showed that some girls were sold.

Kurdish girl in Umar Bill

Were some of those girls from Umar Bill? Saamad seemed to ask me, as if I could find the answer. He seemed to hold precious the hope that a loved one escaped death by becoming instead a slave; but slavery is not the Kurdish way. Those girls are gone now. But to those who believe, maybe, just maybe, some of them live in homes in countries nearby, or across the seas. Maybe the girls have memories of families in villages they can never speak about. Maybe they sometimes dream in languages they can no longer speak aloud. Maybe they were once Kurdish girls, too beautiful to kill.

Today, Umar Bill is a village mostly of women and children. I asked Saamad the age of the oldest child. Fifteen, he said, adding that there are eighty families, most with five or more children. They are encouraged to have more.

He fell somber and disappeared for a moment into memory. Emerging with a slight smile tinted by sadness in his eyes, he said, "The Kurds are so happy to see you. The Americans are like the angels from God." But his expression changed dramatically to one of hidden anger: "The Arabs accuse the Americans of being murderers and criminals," he said with finality, "but when Americans came, they brought justice."

Saamad with mutton at picnic

I thanked Saamad for his time, and he invited me back to Umar Bill. As I rose and shook his hand, the feeling came over me that if an American soldier ever needed refuge, if he were to get lucky and stumble upon the village of Umar Bill, he would be protected until General Nazam's men could arrive.

The picnic wound down, and the American colonels were beginning to signal it was time to gather up gear and begin heading out. I found myself talking with a Kurdish man who spoke German. We had a direct conversation; his German was fluent. His accent was clear and high. He was a businessman and had lived in exile in Germany. The Diaspora curse turned into a blessing for this man, which is true for many exiled Kurds. After they were pushed from Iraq, they settled in places like Munich, London and Nashville, where they went about the business of surviving, but never forgetting home. They learned new languages, laws, customs, and made connections. Kurdish survival skills rival their courage in battle. Many are now returning to their homeland, armed with ideas, inspired by the opportunity to rebuild their country. The Kurdish businessman asked me to translate from German to English, so that he could personally thank Colonel Adams for coming to the picnic, and finally asked the colonel to stay longer. Colonel Adams smiled and said with such a long drive ahead, he must leave.

With the Kurds so eager to give thanks, and the Americans glad to hear it, the departure threatened to become an embarrassment of too many goodbyes. But, this was the army, so all it took was a particular kind of throat clearing and both General Nazam's soldiers and the American troops loaded into the trucks and Humvees. General Nazam invited me to come back, and I said that I would like to meet him again.

Umar Bill

Driving away, through the phalanx of happy children, the American soldiers were jubilant over the reception they got from kids. But it was the beauty of the schoolteachers that dominated the intercom talk for some time, until miles passed behind us and the men grew serious and started to keep a watch for IEDs. These are generally not a problem in Kurdish-controlled areas, but the Tennessee soldiers did not let down their guard.

As the convoy rumbled on through the desolate landscape, the quiet in my headset was disrupted by a voice saying that an important message just arrived via satellite through the Blue Forces Tracker communications gear aboard the Humvees: One of our elements was in contact down near Baquba, and F-18s were on the way. Colonel Adams was still near us, his men were in pitched battle far away. The Tennesseans in my Humvee started calculating the amount of fuel and ammo we had onboard, hoping to join the fight, but it was beyond our range.

We had no way of knowing that the battle was just getting started, and would last throughout the afternoon and into the night. Our people had been working with Iraqi forces to roll up some weapons caches when they stumbled across an enemy who had prepared a complex defense. Our men could not get in with armor, and the air power on station had difficulty finding targets. It was man on man. By the time it was over, we lost two Americans and two friendly Iraqis were dead. The combat had been close at times, with Americans using enemy weapons captured on the battlefield to continue the attack. Reliable counts put enemy losses at about seventeen, and a small blurb in the news said only that there had been a battle.

Smoke and flame, and piles of trash and metal, mark the boundaries of the so-called Sunni Triangle, where civil war rages. Other areas, including the Kurdish zone where just a few hours earlier we had picnicked on grilled mutton, are peaceful and marked by progress—schools in session, roads being paved, houses being built, shops open for business. The Kurds are becoming stronger by the hour. But make no mistake about it: the Kurds are not getting stronger by the hour because the Americans like them. Americans like them because they are the kind of people who get stronger by the hour.

Today, Iraq has a new interim President, Jabal Talabani. A Kurd. As the wrangling to form a new government gets serious, a chorus of Arab Iraqis complains that the Americans prefer to work with the Kurds. They are right. And the Americans know the Arab-Iraqis are right. The Coalition does its best to be impartial, but at the individual level, it can be difficult to maintain the aura of impartiality when confronting the fact that different groups generally treat our troops differently.

If an American were to be separated from his patrol in Fallujah, he might be hung from a bridge. But if he's lost in Umar Bill, or Al Salamania, he will probably get tea and more thank-yous than are polite to accept. Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Holmes told me that several Kurds have said to him things like, "You have come here to save us. I would rather one of my own sons die than for one of your soldiers to die in Iraq." Having spent time with the Kurds myself, I understood when LTC Holmes told me he believed them.

It's the difference between inviting someone to a picnic to share a meal, and demanding another marathon five-hour "meeting" that from the beginning is just another "grab-and-gimme fest," replete with gripes that compete with whines for airspace, to say nothing about the groups who allow insurgents to operate in their midst. Of course the Americans see the difference. There is no doubt that this can create affection for Kurds and suspicion for others in the area. But this is a professional army, and they do the job of maintaining security and training and rebuilding this country while trying not to discriminate.

The people who view the relationship between Americans and Kurds with suspicion and cynicism have just got the math wrong. But that's a problem for a lot of people around here. The Kurds are a reasonable people when given the chance.

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