Stories from Iraq
Our colleagues in Northern Iraq experience the challenges many people face every day, and most of these stories never end up in the news. These families lost everything, they are persecuted for being Christian, and carry the nightmares of war. The poet János Lackfi was asked to help us get closer to the lives of these people through the means of literature.
A mother will never leave her children, but even if a mother leaves her children, God will not leave those who love Him. A man comes and goes in despair, angrily, gets something in his head that not even God can knock out of his hard skull, if it were up to him the world could turn upside down. I don’t even know what kind of ground he is walking on, where his cigarette burns, where a lot of crazy ideas thrive. Then he will send money and then come back on a black horse, inside his tank, he will be mine forever, he will lay the treasures from East and West before my feet, but now he must go. And he goes.
God does not go anywhere, He comes with me, cries with me, worries with me, He is faithful to me, covers my head or at least with a tarpaulin, sends people who do not owe me a grain of rice, yet they feed my children as if they were their own.
I lay in a darkness, listened to the whisper of my treasures, and I do not know where the damned man is, the blessed man, God here lurks in the little ones, in the third year in the refugee camp. If they share something, there is a great deal of scolding, scrambling, people stamp on each other, but everyone gets fed, we become predators, when we are hungry. When they eat plenty, there is laughter, the couples get closer, people playing cards, fiddling some tunes, smoking some cigarettes.
If it rains, the kids go out to jump, as it pours and pours and they play around pushing pools of water with sticks from under on the canvas cover, and more and more water gathers. Each little pool becomes a bigger lake and the kids are thrilled, they forget everything. They are enjoying themselves and I, sitting full of envy, watching them have fun, and I am relieved. I don’t know if, one day we can return to Sinjar, if our house is still there, if it is still ours, or who is left from before. I am afraid I won’t know anyone there and no one will recognize me. I am a stranger here and maybe I became a stranger there too.
Daddy was working in a marble factory, he showed me the place once. It was full of dust as if a cloud came down between the walls, people wore masks, they looked a bit like aliens, with white eyebrows and eyelashes. One day dad came home, his face still covered in dust, he told me the factory was shutting down, there is no more work and we have to leave Bashiqa, too.
I didn’t understand where we would go, we’ve always lived here. The soles of my feet know the dust on the street, every stray cat and dog comes when I call them.The neighbours wave kindly, giving me a bit of their bread. Who’s going to be waiting for us and what will we live off of when daddy’s eyebrows never become gray? I could bring my teddy and the big cross from above my bed, I used to glare at is when the flame of the candle made it dance.
You could live in Duhok, cuddle mommy, but no one was waiting with a piece of bread, everyone was coming from somewhere, and went on, when they could. We didn’t end up in our own house in Bashiqa, strange smells, walls and garden awaited us. We were told we got this house from an old man who lives in Australia, very far away, but I was always afraid someone would turn up and tell me “What are you doing here, little girl?” We saw where our house used to be, and our old street. It was like a pile of building blocks that was pushed over by a mean old boy. I saw one of my stray cats there, stretched out and covered in dust. Mom said I can’t touch it, I might get sick. Daddy wasn’t sure we could stay, not everything was as easy as before, when the marble factory was still open. Mom chuckled, saying the rock dust did leave a mark in daddy’s hair, you could see a few gray hairs.
The sign was there on our gate. They painted it, marking us as dead. We speak the same language, live in the same place, just happen to go another church. We were sentenced to die. To die alive. I waved at a neighbour as usual, and drew his thumb across his throat.
What kind of dad waits for them to come and slaughter you together with your son, then raping his wife and daughters? The sign was there on the gate, you couldn’t erase it. My brother was prepared to draw the sword to stop them. I asked what about his family? He would rather take their lives, not to be in the hands of the enemy. He was sobbing on the phone.
We had twenty four hours to get ready to leave, what are you supposed to take on a trip like this? We left Mosul, it was as if our hearts were torn out from our chests. On the way out I can’t remember how many times we were stopped by the armed soldiers. They knew what they were looking for, at the first checkpoint they took out our clothes and stamped on them, in search of our jewels hidden between the clothes. At the checkpoint they cut apart each and every shoe, to discover the few bills I had hidden in the soles of my second shoes. At the last stop they took my grandmother’s carpet packed deep in the trunk. Slowly but surely our little future was shrinking, but we remained for each other.
We moved to Shenkan for three years, suffering the perils of exile. I got to work in a little shop, where we could save up enough for rent. We were living like sardines in a can, but we lived, and didn’t have a sign on our gate. The war was over, but Mosul was still not safe, the streets covered in shadows. We are living in Bashiqa, in a brand new house, we are grateful to be here, and the on our gate there is only the little sign that we hung up “God Welcomes You”. We want to live here in the land of the living, where our fathers lived and our father’s fathers. But if there is no work, we must make the long journey and cross the seas. This is no longer about us, but about our children and their children.
It was just the two of us, Faeu and I, we held each other’s hands while we sat on the back of the truck, noticing angrily that we didn’t have anything of value. They tried sticking the nozzle of the machine gun in our faces, but we didn’t have a thing. Later they realized too, they could have killed us before for much less. Not humans, but Christians. We aren’t considered humans around here nowadays, it is glorious to take our lives, and on our forehead lies the curse. If we do not deny our faith, we don’t stand a chance.
The children are already in Europe, if they sent an airplane flight, we went to visit them, but we wouldn’t even consider moving there. We were born here and here we will die. We Skype with the grandchildren and it hurts to know that we can very rarely spend time with them, but this is our fate, God gave us the sky above and the earth below us. I would have to spit in the mirror on the day when I say, Lord, I am leaving the land where I was destined to live.
I was holding the two hands of Faeu when we were in the dark church with hundreds of people and I could smell smoke. He didn’t have much tobacco left, he always thought through when to roll the next cigarette. We were lying there on the freezing ground of the church in our last clothes that remained. Light was shining through the archways of the church, and I was waiting for the screaming warriors to enter, but I managed to get rid of the fear, fear is not from God.
Friends were helping, we had a place to live and they didn’t raise their eyebrows, we survived through the goodness of others. The kids constantly messaged that they would send the airplane tickets, but we insisted were staying. Here. We cried when saw our home again, from joy and sorrow. What is was and what is became.
Faeu doesn’t lift the rocks like back then. All the walls were rebuilt through the help and goodwill of our friends. We are staying. Who would stay if we wouldn’t? Our hearts are torn when see the young families group up and flock like birds and never look back. They fly away like the smoke on Faeu’s cigarette. It is only us who are left, like the stubs that life has smoked.