Life amidst the ruins

Iraq, January 27, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    View of the cement factory from the village of Tirkashkan. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Talking to Ghaybullah in Tirkashkan, close to the ruins of the destroyed village, the cement factory dominating the horizon. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps

Even before we stepped out of the car onto muddy ground in the village of Tirkashkan, northern Iraq, it was clear that the place had been hard-hit by something, maybe many things. The houses and buildings looked half-ruined. The ground was pocked and scarred with holes and trenches. An enormous cement plant choked the whole horizon, issuing acrid smoke across the entire village.

As we got out and began greeting villagers, the first word that came to my mind was “apocalyptic” — and I didn’t know the half of it.

During our visit to Tirkashkan, I’d planned to hang back and help Mercy Corps writing and photography workshop participants when they needed to ask a question. I’d planned to be, for the most part, an observer — but then something happened and those plans suddenly changed.

That something was someone with many things to tell me: a 52-year-old man named Ghaybullah. When I was walking amidst the workshop participants as they did their interviews and took photographs, he came up and shook my hand, then started walking beside me and talking. I don’t speak Kurdish, but it sounded really important — so I asked one of our program officers to come over and translate.

Ghaybullah got right to it: “This village was destroyed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1987,” he told me. “It was destroyed because it was Kurdish. It was destroyed because they wanted our land.”

Tirkashkan was one of approximately 4,000 Kurdish villages that were demolished by the former regime’s al-Anfal campaign — a campaign that aimed for the destruction of Iraq’s Kurdish population. More than 85 percent of Kurdish villages were razed to the ground. As many as 100,000 people were killed and at least one million people displaced.

Ghaybullah and ten members of his family escaped the death and destruction, but lost their home and farm and headed into displacement in the Iraqi city of Ramadi. Soon after he was forced to leave, he tried to come back to Tirskashkan to retrieve some of his family’s belongings — instead, he was arrested by regime forces under the command of “Chemical Ali” and imprisoned for three weeks.

After he found his way back to Ramadi and his family — working as a bus driver while in displacement — he didn’t return to the village until 2003, when Saddam Hussein’s regime fell. When he got back to Tiskashkan after 16 years away, everything was gone: no houses, no mosque, no schools. The nearby cement plant had even dug away much of what had been their cropland.

There was nothing left, but this place had been home for generations of Kurdish families. And so, within months of Hussein's downfall, 37 of the 85 families who’d lived in Tirkashkan before its destruction had moved back.

Through a local partner, Mercy Corps is helping these families — including Ghaybullah — rebuild their lives. We recently helped our local partner purchase and distribute chickens to villagers to help them put food on the table and earn income. Everyone we spoke with expressed their appreciation: “This shows us that someone cares,” they said. But there’s still much to be done here: clean water is unreliable. Sanitation is non-existent. The tiny, bare-bones school has no electricity.

This is what it looks like when you build back from nothing, with nothing to begin building back.

As we were walking in the wastelands between the reconstructed village and the monstrous factory, Ghaybullah stopped and pointed at some piles of shattered mud bricks.

“This was where our mosque was,” he explained. “And our house was over there. If you dig a little, you might find our household things and furniture.”

But it didn’t take a lot of digging to find out what had happened here, what had happened to Ghaybullah and his family. He came to me, walked with me and let me know. I’d largely forgotten about the plight of the Kurds before coming here to Iraq but in Tirskashkan — somewhere between the ruins and hopeful green growth in a small cropfield — I found a story I had to share.