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February 20, 2005
They live in a cluster of 450 tents, each with blue UN letters stamped on the sides. They call this place Malakshah, it’s a village of tents. Officially, it is an IDP camp; a camp for Internally Displaced Persons. But Malakshah is a no-man’s land if ever there was one. The whiplash of reality in this war-ravaged region has left the families who find themselves in this refugee camp with a case of cultural vertigo.
They live within sight of a border that is no more than some imaginary line drawn on a map. Step over the line, you’re in Iran. Reverse direction, you’re back in Iraq. But for the people who live in Malakshah, in this village of tents, imaginary lines define their lives.
They live in tents, but gradually these are coming down, as foundations are laid and cinderblock houses are mortared into place. They have no running water, but the excavators and drills are scraping and pounding the earth as a well is dug. There’s no reliable power.
Now, in other places this set of circumstances could set the stage for a marathon gripe-fest. When we arrive with Army officers, who are quickly encircled by the Kurdish men, I wander off into the tent village with an interpreter, braced for the onslaught of complaints. I’m wondering how long it will take before someone points out that Iraq is the birthplace of civilization, the home of the people who gave the world the wheel. Or when someone will pose the rhetorical question about how it can be possible that a country that put men on the moon cannot get the electricity to work.
Seconds into my first encounter with a resident, reality snaps the air, and I quickly realize how different Malakshah is from the rest of Iraq. Eight women approach us to tell their stories. One woman has two daughters; both beautiful, with deep brown eyes and shy smiles. The younger girl stays very close to her mother, peering out at me, her little hand clinging to the woman’s abaya. The older daughter is bolder, not just in the distance she stands from her mother, but also in how strong and focused her stare is. These are the eyes of a child who sees things clearly. I feel both of the girls staring at me, while I listen to their mother.
Through an interpreter, she tells me that Saddam Hussein had run her family out of Iraq, into Iran. It’s not clear how they were received there, but it was apparently neither accepting nor welcoming. Once the Americans came, her family was allowed to return to Iraq, but forced to live in this refugee camp. To the Iraqis, her family is Iranian. To the Iranians, they are Iraqis. Others consider them Kurds. The interpreter begins to explain that people in the village are confused. “They don’t know who they are,” he tells me, as if making a profound statement.
But this doesn’t seem to matter; until someone somewhere decides, her family lives in a tent in a village, and waits. She gives me permission to take a picture, and peering through the lens trying to get them all in the frame and in the best light, I suddenly see her point: they aren’t Iranian, they aren’t Iraqi, and they aren’t Kurds. I see only a woman and her two little girls, waiting for their future.