By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Since I was a kid, I hated the government; I always sympathized with the Kurdish revolution," Kirkuki says. So when it came time for his mandatory military service in Saddam's army, he refused to join and went into hiding, fearing the Republican Guard would execute him. Around that time, the now infamous Chemical Ali presided over mass killings of Kurds with chemical weapons. Three years later, Kirkuki thought his worries might be over. After the Gulf War, the United States urged the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south to rise up against Saddam. Kirkuki and his friends helped distribute fliers to spread the word. "Kurdish guerrillas came out from the mountains; I saw the peshmergas fighting the security forces—all the people came out of their homes and celebrated in the streets," he says. The liberation lasted just two weeks, until Saddam's army retook the city with tanks and choppers. Kirkuki fled toward Iran. He gained a new understanding of the old Kurdish saying, "The mountains are our only friends."
"We walked with thousands to the border, through the mountains—there was rain, mud, lots of people got sick," he says. The river along the border swelled with the rains, and a group of Iranian Kurds on the other side fashioned a rope bridge to help them cross. Many never made it. "I watched a mother and three kids try to cross and get swept away," he says. "When Bush [Senior] was celebrating after the Gulf War, 2 million people were suffering in the mountains—they'd encouraged people to rise up and then left them." Rather than return to territory controlled by Saddam, Kirkuki stayed in the mountains for six months, living in a makeshift tent and making money for food by buying and selling odds and ends at village bazaars.
Kirkuki's story is interrupted when a tall, dark-haired man walks up to the table and shakes his hand. "I have some questions for you," the man says. Their stream of Kurdish words is peppered with "Army reserves" and "soldier." Kirkuki pulls out one of his business cards and gives it to the man before he leaves. He's apparently interested in joining the Army translating program, though Kirkuki doubts he will because he worked as a translator in Iraq for Titan last year and made more money than he would as a soldier/interpreter. Interpreters can make six figures working for private firms, while soldiers earn a base salary of around $24,000 plus room and board. The Army translating program can be a tough sell since it's not nearly as lucrative as private-sector interpreting and requires an eight-year commitment. Nonetheless, since August 2005 Kirkuki has enlisted roughly a dozen interpreters of Middle Eastern origins. Most are Iraqi Kurds, but some are Arabs from Iraq and Sudan. Most join for the educational benefits, the fact that military service can speed up their citizenship and because they want to show patriotism for their new country. For the Iraqi Kurds, military service is a way to display gratitude to the United States and participate in the fate of their people.
Having explained all this, Kirkuki returns to his tale. After months of scrounging for food and freezing nights at high altitudes, he made his way to the city of Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. He found a job at a nonprofit called Kurdistan Save the Children, met his wife, married and had a daughter. Then, in 1996, the Iraqi army invaded the city. Amid the explosions and rumbling tanks, a friend told him the U.S. State Department was evacuating Kurds with ties to U.S. aid programs. He and his wife hurriedly packed a few things, took the baby and set out for the border with Turkey. A few days later, they were in a refugee camp waiting with thousands of others to board a plane and start new lives in America.
Finally, the invisible maze of dialed numbers and transcontinental phone lines rewarded him with the unmistakable sound of his brother's voice. Kirkuki peppered him with questions. What's going on? Are you OK? Why haven't you called? His brother sounded different, exhausted. I'm sorry, I wanted to hide it from you. I didn't want you to worry.
In the three years that he's worked for the Army, Kirkuki's brother has been in more than a few scrapes. But one day in mid-October, he ran into an improvised explosive device that was more powerful than any he'd experienced before. He had accompanied a group of soldiers to the outskirts of Kirkuk to dismantle an IED, but when they got to the spot there was nothing there, so they turned around. He was sitting in the back seat of the Humvee next to the gunner as they wound their way through farmland when suddenly there was a resounding BOOM. Smoke filled the car. He was thrown from the vehicle. As he landed with a thump and felt pain envelop his body, he realized it must have been a trap. Someone had called in a false IED, and while they were checking it out, set up a real one. He couldn't move. The wrecked Humvee, split in half like a giant metal egg, sat on the other side of the road. A huge, gaping hole in the ground showed where the bomb must have been planted.