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The Start of the War
Michael Goldfarb reported for WBUR radio
from northern Iraq during the recent war. He also wrote journal
entries for the wbur.org website, chronicling life in Erbil
and the Kurdish autonomous areas. Click below for the reports
from this past April.
war in Iraq divided public opinion all over the world, driving a
wedge between friends and allies. The international debate hotly
continues, mostly focused on America's intentions in Iraq. Often
overlooked in these fierce discussions is what the war meant for
the Iraqi people themselves. It has created uncertainty, unleashed
pent up pain, spasms of joy, and the chance to demand the most basic
But to truly understand what the war to overthrow Saddam meant you
would have to follow it through Iraqi eyes. You would have to watch
it in the flesh or on TV with an Iraqi. It would be especially interesting
if that Iraqi had been driven from his home by Saddam Hussein and
was counting the days 'til he could return.
Ahmad Shawkat is such a person and Ahmad's War: Inside Out is
a diary of the conflict, a journey home.
Part II: In the North, War Begins Slowly -- Ahmad
The war in most of Iraq started bang on time. Saddam was given
48 hours to get out of Iraq. To no one's surprise he failed to run
away. So the bombs began to fall.
But in Erbil the largest city in the Kurdish autonomous region of
Northern Iraq, things were comparatively calm. Many Kurds had fled
the city already. Saddam had been particularly brutal towards them
over the years and, fearing chemical attacks, families had streamed
up into the mountains.
|A bonfire in the citadel
to mark the start of Narooz. (Photo: M. Goldfarb)
Zoroastrianism is the religion practiced
by followers of the prophet Zarathrustra, who was born in
pre-Islamic Iran. The religion focused on fire as a symbol
of truth or of gods.
Click the links below for more information
on the Zoroastrian religion.
As U.S. bombers sought out a "target of opportunity"
in Baghdad. The festival of Narooz was being celebrated. Narooz
-- New Year's -- is a holiday whose origins go back to the Zoroastrian
religion, a fire worshipping, pre-Christian faith. In this part
of the world oil has been seeping out of the ground and catching
fire for millennia and people have been worshipping the phenomenon
for as long as they've lived here.
In Erbil that's been a very long time. The city's citadel is built
on the ruins of settlements going back to 6,000 B.C., making Erbil
one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns on the face of the
On the night the war started Ahmad Shawkat was sitting in the lobby
of a hotel at the foot of the citadel. Erbil's handful of hotels
had become job exchanges for any local who spoke English. Hundreds
of reporters were in town to cover the war. All of them needed translators.
Somehow Ahmad had failed to catch on with anyone. Perhaps because
he looked too old, somewhere in his late 50s, perhaps because he
was too courtly and diffident, not a quality that is helpful when
working hostile crowds in a conflict. Or perhaps it was because
his English was too literary.
|A sign in downtown Erbil the
day the war started. Reads: Future Iraq: Rule of Law, Justice
and Tolerance. (Photo: M. Goldfarb)
Most people interviewing for a translator's job would tell you
all about their local contacts and the news organizations they've
worked for. Ahmad wanted to talk about his favorite American author,
William Faulkner. It's not everyday in Kurdistan that you come across
someone who can discuss the Compson family and the other denizens
of Yoknapatawpha County. I decided to hire him. And he agreed to
work with me on one condition: that we stay together until the end
of the war. He wanted to witness the fall of Saddam up close. He
had his reasons: Ahmad was living in exile from his home in Mosul
over in Iraqi regime territory.
To begin with, the conflict was fought at night out on a vast,
green plain which separates Erbil from Kirkuk, the oil capital of
Northern Iraq and Mosul, the great population center of the area,
both still under the control of Saddam's regime.
|Peshmerga fighter and journalist
watching and waiting for something to happen at Dola Bakir,
on the road from Erbil to the oil capital of Northern Iraq,
Kirkuk. (Photo: M. Goldfarb)
Each evening Ahmad and I would drive to some camp or other of the
Kurdish Peshmerga local fighters who were America's coalition partners
to wait, look, and listen for air strikes or artillery fire, some
sign of fighting.
A favorite place to go was Dola Bakir, half-way between Erbil
But in these early days of the war there wasn't much to hear or
see. The Peshmerga passed the night away singing songs and dreaming
of the things other young guys on an adventure sleeping under the
stars dream about. Like having a sip of whiskey. When the Pesh weren't
singing they would prick up their ears and listen for the sound
of war coming in on the wind: the occasional bombing run on Kirkuk,
mortar and tracer fire from a ridge outline by the frail light of
a million stars.
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