By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 1, 2007
DESHTETEK, Iraq, Oct. 31 -- The last three women left this tiny hamlet on Monday, carrying no more than their clothes and prayers. They joined 250 villagers who fled in the past two weeks, locking their homes and their yellow church and driving away on a desolate road scarred by war. Only 11 men remain, their lands separated from Turkey by a thin, emerald river winding through a fertile valley.
For several months now, Turkish forces have been shelling this rugged terrain from mountain bases, including a massive one perched above Deshtetek, in an effort to root out Kurdish guerrillas. An immense Turkish flag, its white crescent and star gleaming in the sun, is painted on the mountainside.
During the rule of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, Deshtetek's community of Chaldean Christians was driven from here, their ancestral homeland, to Mosul and Baghdad. Two years ago, they came back to this remote edge of northern Iraq to escape religious persecution and sectarian violence. Now, as the shelling from Turkey intensifies, a familiar dread has returned to their lives.
"This is our fate," said Zaito Warda Michael, 75, Deshtetek's mayor. "We have to flee all the time."
Along Iraq's border with Turkey, Kurds are caught in the crosshairs of a long-simmering conflict between Turkey and the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, which threatens to open a new front in the Iraq war. Several thousand civilians have fled their homes, propelled as much by the shelling as fear of the unknown. The pace of their departures picked up after Turkey's parliament two weeks ago voted to authorize the military to invade. Turkish attacks, including aerial bombings, have burned scores of fields and orchards, the villagers' main source of income and food.
But the campaign has done little to stop the guerrillas. On Monday, it took a half-hour's drive from Deshtetek, through these forbidding mountains, to run into four fighters, wearing grenade belts and clutching rifles, heading into Turkey. Their outpost was less than a mile from a border checkpoint operated by the Kurdish regional government, the semiautonomous body that administers northern Iraq.
The Iraqi Kurds have had an ambivalent relationship with Turkey. During a period of intra-Kurdish strife in the mid-1990s, Turkish forces were allowed into northern Iraq to pursue the PKK, and they remain in the area. On Wednesday at least 10 Turkish tanks were parked around their military base near the town of Bamerni.
Following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraqi Kurds feared the Turks would enter their region to undermine Kurdish autonomy and seize Iraqi oil. Since then, Turkish investment in northern Iraq and cross-border trade have grown.
As fellow Kurds, many villagers sympathize with the PKK, which has fought to carve a Kurdish state out of Turkey but now seeks Kurdish autonomy. But the villagers deny Turkish accusations that they support the guerrillas. They have little confidence that Iraq's weak central government can solve the crisis and place their hopes in the Iraqi Kurds' main Western backer. "Our destiny is in the hands of the United States," said Yusef Ali, 50, a farmer in the village of Kashan, which was shelled last week.
The tensions arise in a region finally reaping peace after generations of suffering, in contrast to the rest of the country. "We want to build irrigation projects, a church, a mosque, or pave a road," said Khalid Aziz, the mayor of Batifa, to which many families have fled. "We don't want war. We have witnessed too many wars in our lives."
Jamil Oraha, 53, moved back to Deshtetek from Mosul after Sunni insurgents started using the telephones in his call center to threaten Iraqis working with the police and the U.S. military. They warned Oraha that they would detonate a hand grenade in his store if he didn't cooperate.
For 13 months, he found stability in his village, along with other Chaldean families, Catholics who observe a rite of worship developed, in part, in the Mesopotamian region. The regional government built 25 houses colored in shades of cream and lime-green. Families returned from Mosul, Baghdad, even as far away as the southern city of Basra. That they faced a Turkish military base across the valley was never a threat. "We knew our roads and lands. They knew theirs," Oraha explained.
In February, their calculus changed. Shells began to fly over their village, pounding mountainsides, valleys and farms. Since then, Turkey has bombed this patch of Iraq's border at least 97 times, with as many as 800 shells and six aerial assaults, said Col. Hussein Thamer, the regional head of Iraq's border guards. No Iraqis were killed, but several were injured, he said.
"The Turks always say their target is the PKK," said Thamer, whose men patrol 125 miles of Iraq's border with Turkey. "But since February, nobody from the PKK has been injured."
In the office of Aziz, the mayor of Batifa, colorful folders are stacked on the floor, each an accounting of damage caused by the shelling. So far, he said, 1,100 farmers have filed complaints. One farmer lost 300 apple trees, each one at least 20 years old, he said.
On Monday, an hour after the last female residents left Deshtetek, the remaining men gathered inside a house, where a rifle rested against a sofa. All stayed behind to protect their lands and property.
"We have no choice," said Salim Michael Warda, 39, a farmer. "All we own in our lives is here."
Since the attacks, the village school has shut down because teachers were afraid to commute to the border. Their pastor also left. The men can no longer fish in the river. They said they have thousands of dollars worth of ripe walnuts they cannot take to market.
"Now, we are afraid to go out -- we can't even go get wood," said Zarro Kutto Zarro, 53. "If we go out, they will hit us."
A few days ago, at least 20 shells struck the lands around Deshtetek. One tore a six-foot-wide hole in the narrow, buckling road leading out of the village.
Three miles away along the same road, which coils through a line of oatmeal-colored mountains stretching from the border, the Muslim village of Parekh sits silent, save for the howling wind. Once there were 400 residents. Now, there are six.
"They fled because the news was bad," said Sabria Yusef Amar, frail and angular-faced, in her 50s.
She has lived alone since her family fled. Shells struck the mountainside above their house, but Amar refused to leave the village where she was raised. She was tired of running, she said.
"Whatever God has decided, it will happen," she said.
In the late 1980s, Hussein's government evicted Amar and her family and took them to a desert camp. Several of Amar's relatives were executed, she said, their bodies never found -- victims of the Anfal campaign, in which Iraqi authorities systematically killed tens of thousands of Kurds. She later moved to Zakho and didn't return to her village until two months ago, when the regional government built her family a small purple house.
"We were so happy. I felt that our life before Anfal would come back," Amar said. "Now we are afraid that the Turks will come here and deprive us of this gift."
About 1 a.m. Oct. 21, shells began to rain around Kashan. Sayran Hussein, 40, grabbed her children and hid in a nearby canal until dawn, as did scores of other villagers. The next morning all 30 families, including nearly 100 children, fled to Zakho.
Several days later, they heard on a newscast that Turkey's prime minister would visit Washington in November. They returned to their village, reasoning that any invasion would surely wait until after that meeting. Just in case, they left the elderly and the frail in Zakho.
On Sunday, a group of village elders gathered on a porch to discuss the geopolitics that rule their plight. During the Anfal campaign, the entire village -- people living in mud houses and caves -- fled to Turkey, where officials initially blocked U.N. assistance and confined the Kurds to camps.
"Saddam killed us and chased us to Turkey. We came back from Turkey. Now, Turkey is chasing us and trying to kill us," said Abdullah Abdal, 80.
He, like his neighbors, believes that Turkey's motive is to seize control of Iraq's oil -- not tackle the PKK. "There are 25 million Kurds in Turkey. They love the PKK. They should solve their problems inside Turkey," said Abdal. "We have nothing to do with the PKK."
Others expressed admiration for the guerrillas.
"The PKK are also Kurds," said Hadji Abdullah, 53. "Why should we fight and kill them?"
Less than a mile away, large charred patches pock the mountainside, where gray and orange shell fragments lay scattered.
"With artillery and bombs, we can hide. But if they launch an offensive, where can we hide?" said Yusef Ali, as he and his 5-year-old child picked up some bomb fragments.
"Turkey is practicing what Saddam was doing to us. That's why we're afraid," said Fateh Mahmoud, 53, a farmer. Seconds later, he added: "The U.S. has always supported us. Why are they not applying pressure on Turkey to stop these attacks?"
In Deshtetek, Jamil Oraha is worried about the future. "The central government can't protect itself. How can we ask it for help?" Oraha said, shaking his head. "We can't go back to Mosul. We can't go back to Baghdad. The cheapest house in Zakho is $400 a month. Where can we go?"
Michael, Deshtetek's mayor, is worried about history. He sees parallels with Turkish massacres of Armenian Christians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.
"We believe what happened in Armenia can happen to us at any moment," Michael said.
From the gates of the church, he gazed up at the Turkish base and flag, his back straight, his silence defiant.
Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.