"Am-ri-ka! Am-ri-ka! Am-ri-ka!"

After suffering years of Saddam's ethnic cleansing and a night of U.S. bombing, the residents of Mahad greet Americans with chants and stories and shouts of joy.

Published April 10, 2003 12:11AM (EDT)

As the afternoon light filtered through the haze and dust, Zedu, an old Kurdish man born in the village of Kandala, resettled by Saddam Hussein's regime in the bleak town of Mahad, leaned on his shepherd's crook and wept. He was crying tears of relief and joy and he was not alone.

Zedu and thousands of other people in Mahad waited 28 years for Sunday, April 6, the day their town was abandoned by the Iraqi regime under pressure from U.S. forces. Leaving a relieved but still nervous population behind, the Iraqi military had fled a night of intense bombing by U.S. aircraft, retreating to the safety of a ridge above the town. People in Mahad were terrified that the Iraqis would shell them in an act of retribution. After a few anxious hours, the village elders made contact with the local authorities from Kurdistan and invited them to come into the town and take control. It was a day of song and stories and joy, when the bombing and death that made it all possible seemed blessedly far away.

Mahad, desperately poor, is a place of open sewers and crumbling cinderblock buildings, more reminiscent of rural Afghanistan than Iraq. It was created almost 30 years ago, when Saddam Hussein's vengeful administration deprived the residents of nine villages of their farms -- Kurdish ethnic cleansing -- and forced them into a refugee camp, which eventually became the makeshift town of Mahad. Arabs brought in by the government took over the expropriated Kurdish farms, in some cases renting the land back to their original owners.

I witnessed Mahad's liberation by happy accident, after trying to cover a battle some distance to the north and getting lost. Early Sunday afternoon, we found ourselves at a Kurdish Democracy Party checkpoint at a bridge over a muddy stream. Across the stream, a kilometer to the west, we could see the outlines of a large settlement at the base of the hills, the town that turned out to be Mahad. The local Kurdish security officer pointed in its direction and said, "Saddam," summing up the security situation over the bridge.

We looked through binoculars at the regime-controlled town. On the hill was a building with a tall star-shaped spire made of yellow stone. The building with the tall spire did not have minarets, there was no crescent at the apex. It was not a mosque and I was curious about it, because it didn't look like any temple I had seen before. In the town there was no shooting. No bad signs, just a quietness across the field. Azad, the local KDP officer in charge, was polite but preoccupied, and in the middle of our conversation he got a phone call. A moment after he stepped away to take the call, a white four-by-four -- the type used by U.S. special forces -- pulled up and a crowd of at least 50 men materialized and surrounded the driver. They were mobbing him, all of them trying to give some piece of crucial information at the same time.

The driver was an American, and that lent an electrical charge to the situation that wasn't there before. Information came in bursts, the translation kicked in and out. My translator, Baravan, was having trouble keeping up because he was so excited. But he worked his way into the center of the crowd and started translating for the American soldier. This was a massive coup, because Baravan stepped back and related the entire conversation to me. "The men are telling the soldier, who they call 'Mr. Robert,' to please tell the planes not to bomb the town across the river," Baravan said. I wanted to know why the men wanted to convey that piece of information at that moment. After all, we thought the town was controlled by Iraq, and didn't the Iraqi army have weapons near the town?

In fact, they didn't. Azad, the Kurdish security officer at the checkpoint, told Mr. Robert, that he'd just received information that the Iraqis left Mahad, "and the people there are asking us to come to the city." Mr. Robert asked them to wait, saying, "Don't go into Mahad until I come back with the other soldiers. Give me two hours." Then he drove off in his four-by-four.

The peshmerga didn't wait. They ran around looking for vehicles and they took whatever they could find, battered Volkswagen rabbits, dented pickup trucks, as they pulled together a convoy to drive to Mahad. They couldn't wait for Mr. Robert, they just headed off across the bridge to a dirt road across the field. We ran to the car and followed them. We were about to witness Mahad change hands.

The settlement sat in the middle of a field. As we followed the second vehicle in the convoy, there was a weird, weightless moment when I thought the invitation to the town might have been a trick to capture us, but it didn't last long. Rashad drove past the star-shaped spire and the cemetery and we saw that the people of the town were coming out to greet the convoy. They stood in small groups on the road and cheered and clapped in a rhythm. As we drove, more people came out until there were hundreds; those closest to us were leaning into the windows, smiling. They shouted, "Welcome!"

The crowd ran along with the trucks of the convoy, welcoming the soldiers. More came out of houses that were barely houses, until there were thousands of people greeting the peshmerga from the checkpoint, driving in their battered cars. Their voices came in waves, they rolled and swelled. As the convoy made its way toward the Mahad's Baath Party office, people surrounded our car and we got out and walked down the road with then. My friend and photographer Sion took pictures of the roiling mass raising their hands to us. I don't know where they came from; the place just didn't seem big enough to produce that many inhabitants. There were old men, boys, women, entire families and they surged toward the security office. No one carried a weapon. I had a flak jacket on that I took off and gave to Baravan. It was a species of madness.

We walked toward the old Baath Party headquarters, and we moved in a sea of people shouting and the sound was joy.

The people of Mahad had lived though a terrible night of bombing and airstrikes, and they had not seen Americans or British people in their town until they saw us. The U.S. soldiers wouldn't arrive for another few hours. Because we were walking down the road and were not tucked away in a car, we were recognized instantly. The men of the town saw us walking and led us, nearly carried us, through the crowd toward the Baath Party headquarters in the center of town. It is a building built of the same yellow stone of the temple on the hill, but in the style of an old crusader castle with round turrets. It was built without exterior windows. On the outside of the building are the words, "Saddam, our Jerusalem." The words were smeared with mud. The inside was packed with people.

The building has a courtyard and a second-story balcony that goes around it; the men of the town led us to the balcony where the crowd assembled below us. Hundreds more people were milling outside the castle chanting and shouting. They were saying "Bar-zan-i" and singing a song that was more like a chant. They chanted the name of the Kurdistan Democracy Party leader, Massoud Barzani, and when they caught sight of us, the chant and the clapping changed and they shouted, "Am-ri-ka! Am-ri-ka! Am-ri-ka! Am-ri-ka! Am-ri-ka! Am-ri-ka! Am-ri-ka! Am-ri-ka! Am-ri-ka!"

We went to the balcony where the senior officer of the Kurdish militia was standing and the crowd shouted their welcomes to us. I can't remember any speeches. The new Kurdish security officer stood beaming.

Everyone in the town turned out to welcome the convoy, and I had no idea when we arrived that we would be witnessing a liberation. We did not know what the people of Mahad had been through, we did not know how long they had lived under the boot, we knew nothing except that it possibly was safe to go there and talk to them.

I wanted to go somewhere I could ask the old men what the town had been through, so I went to the house of Khader Nazam. It was a normal Kurdish house and we sat on low pillows, and it wasn't long before glasses of juice arrived, along with 50 older men who wanted to listen and talk. They reminded me of prisoners of war who start to talk about what had happened and then can't stop.

It was impossible to get it all, because these stories went back decades and they were talking about villages in a way that made the places seem like dead relatives. The men were worshipful when they said the names of the places where their families used to live. Most of the men I spoke to were, like the weeping, happy Zedu, originally from Kandala, a village where people grew olives. When I paused, a man sitting in the room would say, "Please, ask us more questions." They wanted to start at 1975, when their villages were mostly depopulated, so I let them. In a way, it was a collective interview about how they had come to be in Mahad. Many of the men told variations on the same story, and this is what came out in the first few minutes.

Mahad it seemed, was formed by the ethnic cleansing of Kurds from nine surrounding villages -- this explained why it was such a large town in the middle of rural Iraq. They were all settled refugees. Most of their families had had their farms taken away by Saddam Hussein's administration, and they were forced into Mahad. The regime spent no money on basic infrastructure, which left the Mahadis without essential services and decent healthcare. The men did not talk about systematic torture or arrest at the hands of the political authorities, though they did remember the names of two people who had disappeared.

I learned that the worst thing that can happen to a Kurdish villager, short of death, is to be forced from the village, to lose the place and the continuity of his family. The men talked about being unable to bury their family members in the old plots in the villages because the Arab settlers wouldn't let them. Kurdish, the first language of the town, was not allowed. Speaking Kurdish in public, and any expression of Kurdish identity, was also dangerous under the Arab administration. "Our village was destroyed by bulldozer!" said Khader Nazam. "We can only speak Kurdish at home. They changed our identity cards from Kurdish to Arab."

There was another twist. The people of Mahad, unlike the rest of Kurdistan and Iraq, are not Muslims. They are Yazidis, a group that adheres to Zoroastrianism, a religion that predates Christianity by 1,400 years. They worship an ancient deity, Ahura Mazda, by lighting a flame in the temple. For the Yazidis there is a heaven and a hell, angels, and concepts of redemption and righteousness. Much of what the Yazidis believe is familiar because it worked its way into major religions; it was theirs ages ago and now it is ours. Much of the doctrine relates the struggle between light and dark.

A man across the room said, "One of my family died and I wanted to take them to Kandala but the Arab man who lived there shot the graves there to keep me away. Yes, they destroyed temples and graves to keep us out of those places." His friend said, "It was better to move the grave of my father." The other men agreed. Later in the afternoon, when I went to the cemetery at the Yazd temple, I saw that it was recently built, and that the long dead had been moved there. The Arabs allowed them to practice their religion, but destroyed all the monuments they loved to get them to move to the camp. It had the twisted logic of an ethnic cleansing campaign, of a surplus of darkness.

I walked to the Baath Party security office and watched chickens and goats poke around in the refuse while sheep wandered down unpaved streets. Mahad was a shambles, not anything like the Kurdish villages across the border.

Sion was there taking photographs of defaced Saddam signs when the Special Forces convoy rolled up to the shouts of the locals. The arrival of the Americans set the crowd going again, and when they got out of their white four-by-fours, they were mobbed by the Mahadis and looked a little surprised by their reception. The soldiers moved around cautiously but treated the villagers with respect and shook hands and said hello. The kids wanted to get close to the soldiers and look at the dangerous things they carried in their cars, but the older men kept them back.

Mr. Robert, the officer we met earlier, got out and talked with the KDP man in charge, while the other soldiers started to set up shop. Sion told the soldiers about the locked doors in the Baath Party office and Mr. Robert thought it was interesting, so the men found a crowbar and tore the locks out and opened all the closed rooms. One room had cabinets in it that were full of printed material and handwritten files. The Americans loaded up their vehicles with Baath Party information, and Mr. Robert said to Sion, "We can't read it so we'll just have to take all of it." They took all the records and put them in the trucks, while the kids tore up pictures of Saddam.

Before we left, more than one man came up to me and asked me if they were safe. I told them all what I wanted to be true. "The bombs won't fall here now, and don't worry, darkness is gone."

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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