Michael's Dispatches

Lost in Translation

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Iraq invaded Kuwait in August of 1990. When the US announced that the invasion would not stand, Iran released the Iraqi prisoners of war. This meant that Mr. Qatou had come home just in time for another war. His life was defined by war: drafted to fight Iran; captured by Iran; released after years only as fodder for the Americans, and today, I being the first American he met, sitting with him in his home, trying to sort the tangle of dates and facts.

What is certain is that during this second war of Mr. Qatou’s life (the “Gulf War” for the first Coalition), the Kurds received support from US Special Forces and others. Sent to bolster Peshmerga strength, they distracted Saddam’s army in the north, while the Coalition expelled Iraq from Kuwait in the south.

Iraq’s army accordioned in defeat, and the first Coalition folded most of their tents and sailed home, leaving the Kurds to fend for themselves. Saddam had revenge on his breath when he turned his attention north and unsheathed his fury against the Kurds. Initially a slaughter of wholesale proportions, somehow, still the Kurds kept fighting. They hung on until the US gave military support and maintained the no-fly zone overhead. In 1993, Mr. Qatou was able to return to the rubble that had once been Yezdinar.

An Iraqi. A Kurd. A Yezidi. A village Headman. Whatever the label, more than forty years after his birth, this man came home. Only now, after the latest war, does Mr. Qatou finally have confidence in the peace, after more than a half century of life lived under orders or under sentence.

This seemed like the moment to ask the question, “What do you think of the United States?”

“We cry when America loses one soldier. We pray for the soldiers every night.”

Many Kurds had expressed the same sentiment. One had said poetically: “For every drop of American blood, we shed one thousand Kurdish tears.”

“What do you think about the United Kingdom?” I asked.

“Also very good.”

His answer for some of the other countries, those that abandoned his people to get back to their beer and wine, was merely a quick frown followed by silence.

Ever the gracious host, Mr. Qatou asked me if I was hungry, and if I would share a meal with him.

“Yes!” I said, a little too fast, and probably a little louder than he expected. I thought he would never ask.
My enthusiastic acceptance evoked hearty laughter from the other five men, who spoke among themselves in Kurdish.

“Why is everyone laughing?” I asked.

“We thought you to say ‘no,’” Mr. Qatou replied.

“I am very hungry,” I said, my enthusiasm not waning in the least. “I would definitely like to eat!”

And they laughed again, and Mr. Qatou suggested we tour his village while his wife prepared our meals.

“As you wish,” I said, and we all rose and began walking out. I stopped to put my boots on, their bad condition seeming somehow more obvious to me.

New Roof for the Sheep PenNew Roof for the Sheep Pen

We started our walk around the village, our conversation covering more ground than our feet.

“Do you have any problems in the village?”

“What do you mean?” asked Mr. Qatou.

“Security problems?”

“Is very safe.”

“Problems with running the village?”

“Water is our only problem. Our well is a problem. Otherwise, all is good.”

“May we look at your well?” I asked.

We walked to the well and when the men removed the stones from the sheet-metal cover, I peered down into the blackness. I gestured my observation and Mr. Qatou nodded. He dropped a stone into the well; it seemed to take two or three seconds for the splash to echo back from the darkness.

“That’s deep.”

“Yes.”

I asked to see the water run, and as water came from the hose, I coaxed my fatigued Nikon to photograph him, but having gone the way of the boots, the camera is mostly broken, so it took several attempts to photograph the scene. Once I got a decent photo, the men replaced the cover and we headed to the village school.

Mr. Qatou demonstrating the town water supplyMr. Qatou demonstrating the town water supply

About 70 children attend classes in grades one through six. Mr. Qatou called to the school headmaster who lived next door, and he took us into the school courtyard. I noticed a chalkboard with something written in Kurdish on the bottom in Arabic characters. According to the interpreter, it must have been written by a child, and it read: Don’t put your hand in fire. If you put your hand in fire your hand will burn and you will cry. Mr. Qatou explained that kids had to be taught about fire in the village. When I told him that American kids burn down houses every day as a result of playing with matches, he seemed genuinely surprised.

Blackboard in Yezdinar Village schoolBlackboard in Yezdinar Village school

We left the school and continued strolling through the village, with Mr. Qatou pointing out the landmarks that one would expect in a village that had been nearly decimated by war. He showed me where the young men had been shot, and we ambled around heaps of rubble that had been buildings before Saddam’s army came rampaging. Something made me think of recent scandalous headlines, and I asked:

“Did you see the photos of Saddam without clothes?”

“Yes”, Mr. Qatou said.

“Many people were angry by the photos,” I said.

“Why would they be angry?”

“What did the Iraqi people think when they saw him with no clothes?”

“He was a bad man.”

“Do you want him to be executed? To be killed?”

“I want him to stay in jail.”

We found ourselves in front of his house. Once we removed our shoes and boots, we walked inside and sat on the cushions. His wife delivered roasted duck and vegetables, and I ate more than my share. The meal was delicious. My appetite and appreciation for his wife’s skill in the kitchen filled him with pride the way that duck filled my stomach. It was a most pleasant meal.

Roast Duck, Yezidi-StyleRoast Duck, Yezidi-Style

His grandchildren gathered around him, peeking at me from behind his weathered arms. He seemed unaware of the slight smile that eased across his face whenever he looked at the children. They constantly sought his approval for each small gesture of interaction with this stranger in their grandfather’s home, which he granted with slight nods.

“My children’s children are free…it was worth it.”“My children’s children are free…it was worth it.”

The demands of digestion had quieted my questioning, but he still wanted to talk, so I listened intently. Although I had only known him for a few short hours, it was clear that Mr. Qatou liked to talk about the future.

“My life is nearly finished,” he said, almost wistfully. “But will be good for my children and my children’s children.”

“Yes,” I said. “It was worth it, no?”

“What?” he asked, confused at my meaning.

“Your struggle,” I said. “Now you are free.”

Mr. Qatou smiled and disappeared into his memories briefly, then he spoke:

“My life was mostly soldier and prisoner. My children are free.”

 In a Child’s Eyes: Happiness Under a Rainbow Umbrella. A Yezidi Kurdish-Iraqi schoolgirl’s drawing shows her imagination of the world

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