Village people

In Sator, a Kurdish town caught between Iraqi guns and American bombs, the elder digs in his heels and refuses to budge.

Published April 4, 2003 12:45AM (EST)

The mokhtar of Sator village will not let his people leave a town that has just been shelled, and he is yelling at us to turn around. We don't move. When someone says turn around, that's a signal to stay. I'm looking at the mokhtar's yellow teeth, stubbled face and turban when he leans into the window of our civilian car and greets my friend Rashad, a former peshmerga. The greeting is civil and follows the pattern of all respectful Kurdish greetings, but then the village elder starts to get extremely upset. Baravan, a lawyer from Dohuk, listens for a long time, and I finally have to request a translation of everything the old man has said. Baravan doesn't like to translate during awkward situations.

When he tells me what the mokhtar has said, I get out of the car and follow Rashad up the steep slope to the concrete building that directly faces the Iraqi positions. The Iraqis have chosen a high place to dig in, just a few feet from a graveyard, and I can't help wondering how the village buries its dead if grieving families have to cross the front lines to say their farewells. In Kurdistan, as in Afghanistan, the dead are often buried on hilltops to be closer to God, with the gravestones facing Mecca. The dead have markers at their head and feet, and some are decorated with fluttering green flags. Green is the color of Islam.

Sator is a Kurdish village of about a hundred people in a no man's land between Iraqi-held territory and Kurdistan. There are no real lines and no front -- just a confusion of emplacements and earth bunkers. Like so many other villages in the war zone, Sator has no defenses, and it sits on a green hill surrounded by other green hills, with most of its houses tucked into the hollows. Imagine the village as an island on an earthen rise, in a sea of green, like something out of the universe of "Yellow Submarine."

We found Sator on Sunday, somewhat by accident -- by air strike. At 1 in the afternoon on Saturday, Rashad, Baravan and I are driving toward Arbil on the way back from Kalak when we see a plume of smoke a few miles away and then hear the whap-thump of a bomb detonating five seconds later. We pull over to the side of the road and look at the smoke plume with binoculars. A few other people are watching the smoke rise from the hills, arguing about the name of the place where the bomb hit. Looking through the binoculars I see a small town, a collection of buildings near where the explosion happened. I can't tell whether the bomb fell on our side of the town or behind a hill. I ask Baravan for the name of the place, and he asks the man and his son standing next to us, and they say the name is Sator.

"Are we going back to Arbil?" Baravan wants to know. I point to the smoke plume. We get back in the car and quickly find the secondary road that will take us to Sator and hit a checkpoint right away. Rashad talks to the peshmerga, bullshitting and joking and clapping them on the back for a while before they give us the all-clear to go ahead. We have to take a commander with us, and I learn that the men have orders to keep journalists out of the area. Rashad has an old friend at the main checkpoint building whom he works like a politician at a fundraiser. Rashad wears a chocolate brown suit. I wait and hang around the younger fighters who have drifted over to get a good look at the foreigner. We trade turns looking through the binoculars at distant Iraqi fortifications and smoke cigarettes.

Rashad brings his friend Bejdar over, who is the commander of the garrison at the checkpoint. Bejdar asks, "Why have you brought a foreigner here? It's dangerous and causes problems." Rashad smiles and shrugs. Bejdar then volunteers to go ahead and check if the road is safe. He walks to the guardhouse, starts up a battered red-and-white taxi and tears off down the road toward Iraqi-regime-controlled territory, disguised as a civilian. If Bejdar had taken a Land Cruiser, or any other vehicle that looked as though it had a military officer in it, the Iraqis down the road would have fired on him. Everyone in Iraq uses the taxi trick, even Saddam.

We follow Bejdar to an unpaved turnoff, and when we get to where he stops, we find him berating a family in a pickup for not evacuating their nearby village. Bejdar is getting heavy with the man, starting to give off an angry, bad-cop vibe, admonishing him, speaking to him like he's stupid. Bejdar then unloads a massive lie about a coming air strike on their village to get the man in his pickup truck to turn back and tell everyone to leave. The pickup truck driver doesn't buy it, but he looks terrified and keeps heading away from his village on the way to get his supplies. Bejdar yells at the man while his wife stares down the road and arranges her head scarf. They drive off, and Bejdar gets bored with us, but before he goes, he says, "There is nothing for you at Sator. All the people left a long time ago. You should leave." Bejdar gets in his cab and drives back toward the peshmerga checkpoint, leaving us to decide which way to go.

On the dirt road that winds through the clefts of the hills, we look at a series of Iraqi emplacements. The road drifts closer to the emplacements until we are directly under them. We look for soldiers but can't tell whether anyone is up there. A feeling of profound creepiness comes down from the ridges into the car, a kind of invisible gas. Baravan, normally a chatterer, falls silent. Rashad just watches and drives. The creepiness clicks over into something else at the moment I figure out we are no longer in Kurdish-controlled territory, and I feel stupid for not having figured it out earlier. I've been expecting another Kurdish checkpoint, but it isn't there. The next checkpoint down the main road was manned by Iraqi regime soldiers, but we turned off for the town a few kilometers before reaching it.

I ask Rashad who controls the zone we are slowly driving through. Instead of answering, he takes the binoculars and looks for the yellow Kurdistan Democracy Party flag that flies over Kurdish territory. It's not there. We can't see anything moving in the village, and we stop the car under the Iraqi emplacements. I can't see any people or flocks or bomb craters, just a cluster of low buildings at the end of a valley. Sator is still a half mile away on a rutted dirt track. Rashad creeps forward, watching the surrounding hills for men with guns. I want to turn back but I don't say so, and instead try to relax.

Just as we come crunching up the path, we see that Sator is not empty at all. It is full of women and children and a scattering of men. Arriving in this place feels like diving down through the blankness of the ocean and coming upon a coral reef. Women in red velvet dresses, their hair covered, talked in low voices. Boys ran between the men.

The mokhtar, the village chief, was the first one to reach the car. We got out and walked up the stairs that are cut into the hill to a concrete building and a flat place where the men assembled to discuss the situation. A crowd gathered around us. The mokhtar came up behind us and started yelling while another man from the village was taking me onto the roof of the village security building so I could observe the Iraqis on the next hill. They were walking around; I could see them without the binoculars. One was lying behind a gun.

While I was up on the roof, something was brewing between the mokhtar, Baravan, Rashad and another man. The village elder of Sator, surrounded by the older men, was erupting with condemnations. He swept his arms in a circle. He screamed. "We are not leaving. Everyone must respect our village. We will stay until everyone has died, because where else can we go? If the peshmerga come and tell us to go, we will fight them. I will not let anyone leave this place." The sole helpless representative of the Kurdish government in Sator, the other man with Baravan and Rashad, looked sad and then angry as the old man worked himself into a fury. "Yes, we will fight the peshmerga if they try to make us leave our homes. We cannot leave because it would be a great shame for us." Down the hill, the women talked among themselves quietly, and the children wheeled around them, touching their dresses.

We did not expect the mokhtar to talk about visitors with such vehemence. "It's very bad when strangers come to our village. They come with cameras and then the Iraqis shoot at us. This is a very dangerous place, but they did not shoot before the strangers came." I was amazed to learn that camera crews had made it as far as Sator. The checkpoint was now closed to them, but they had been drawing fire at other places near the Iraqis.

Plainly, Sator should have been evacuated; the fighting was too close, and so were the Iraqi gunners. They were much closer here than in Kalak, and in Kalak they were close enough so you felt that you knew them after a while and had to quell the urge to call up to them and say, Hello, why don't you come down off that ridge for a glass of tea and a surrender? Standing on a flat place near the security office, the men of the village described how a mortar shell landed near the mosque and slammed into the side of a hill not long before we drove up. A piece of the hill was missing. The Iraqis were shelling.

I did not speak directly to the mokhtar at first, but things had taken a bad turn, so I walked up through the circle of old men and explained that I did not want to upset him, that I did not come with cameras or recording equipment to his place. I told him that I thought the people of Sator were brave for staying while they were being fired on by the Iraqis and living so close to the bombs dropped by the Americans. At the end, the mokhtar was not so angry, and said to us, "You are welcome in Sator, you are in my eyes" -- a Kurdish greeting that meant we could stay.

The mokhtar told us that in Lajan, a nearby village just behind Iraqi lines, the military authorities told the mokhtar there that they did not want anyone to leave, that everyone must stay despite the bombing. Nonetheless, the mokhtar of Lajan decided to tell his people that they should leave for a safer place. The next night, the Iraqis arrested him. I had heard the same story about Kalak from my friend Suleiman Hasso. The Iraqis did not like empty villages.

"Did the Iraqi military threaten you to make the people of Sator stay?" I had in mind a human shield scheme, terrible pressure from across the no man's land. The mokhtar looked at me in a hard way and said, "No, that is in Iraq. But this is free Kurdistan, and we don't leave because it would shame us."

On Thursday, the Iraqis withdrew from their positions near Kalak, Sator and Guwair, moving back toward Mosul and Kirkuk.

For Kaveh Golestan and Paul Moran

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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