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"Coyote" Part 15 'From bad to worse"
From the Author
This is mostly a work of fiction, but it's based on my recollections of what really happened, and as such it's a pretty hard series to write as even after more than twenty years, I'm finding the nerves still as raw as ever when I think of the things that went on.
I suppose when we hear of people fleeing the conflicts in this world, we think they should 'stand and fight' (I think that's what President Trump said in at least one speech) but how can you do that when you know that doing so condemns not just you, but your whole family?
September 1st 1996 was the day Saddam re-took Erbil, and like the story says, I was on the way there at the time, but what was more concerning was what happened next, when the Kurds came to terms with the fact that they really were 'on their own' again and the unthinkable might happen again.
I'll just say here, this might not be an easy piece for some to read, I'm sorry about that, but the truth needs to be told, so that next time you see a refugee walking down the street, just try and think what they might have gone through to get to safety.
Let's join the team and see what happened next.
'Back at the office'
“So glad to see you two” Jean said as they pulled up at the office, “we tried getting a message to you, to turn back”. They were in the kitchen, Jamila was making hot drinks for everyone, Samir and the three others were sat around the table.
“We didn't get them” Tariq replied, “fat lot of use this was” he threw the handset onto the table. “I think Dohuk uses different frequencies”
“So, how did you get the message than?” Samir asked.
“Peshmerga” Luka replied, “the checkpoint just before the mountains had just gotten word of the attack”
With Tariq, a 'debriefing’ always went better with coffee, preferably steaming hot filter coffee, and some food. Jamila finished making the drinks, and served them up.
“But they don't have any radios,” Samir made it sound like a statement, “do they?”
“No idea” Luka jumped back in, “but somehow, these Peshmerga knew what was going on!”
“Did they say anything else?” Jean asked anxiously.
“Just that they’d rolled in at first light,” Tariq replied, “overwhelmed the posts to the south and executed them all, said he was still executing people in Erbil” he paused to take a sip of the coffee, “apparently not the foreign people though, they're leaving them alone, just telling them to stay inside!”
No one quite knew what to make of that. During 'Desert storm’ Saddam had used foreign workers as 'human shields’ for his installations, but second guessing wasn't their problem.
“Any way we can find out what's going on?” Jean asked.
“Only way I can think of” Tariq replied, “is we go and see the Colonel, see if they know anything”
Would they be back?
'Orders from on high'
The Colonel was in charge of a small contingent of special forces, American, British, French and Turkish, all in, about a hundred of them, all with one job, “Keep that mad dog Saddam in his cage!”
Two lines on an imaginary map did that, one in the air said “no flying further north than here” and had been enforced with ruthless effect, anything that crossed the line better have a 'friendly’ transponder signature, otherwise as soon as the AWACS picks it up on radar an F16 will shoot it down, no warning given, just a sidewinder air to air missile.
Erbil was within the 'no fly’ zone, but outside the line 'on the ground’ that said 'no crossing’. The soldiers job was to make sure anything that did was on the receiving end of an airstrike, and it was something they'd done frequently in the early days.
Saddam had broken 'the spirit’ of the Desert Storm ceasefire, even if he hadn't broken the letter of it, the question on everyone's mind was “what is the West going to do about it?”
“Nothing at the moment” it was Major Smythe-jones, the British second in command they'd managed to get to see, it had taken nearly a week, but the strange but was he came to see them, something wasn't right, they were being too 'nice’!
“We've been ordered to monitor the situation, but at the moment,” the Major continued, “he hasn't crossed that line, so we're holding back, but we'll keep you informed” he'd been sat on the rug in the office, he lifted his glass of tea, drained the last of it, then placing the glass upside down on the saucer in eastern fashion, reached for his beret and started getting up. “Of course, if anything happens” he stopped momentarily, “you can count on us to evacuate you, we'll have two Blackhawks here within two hours of the word given” and with that he headed for the door, and the armoured Humvee waiting outside, a gunner manned the fifty calibre on the top.
“What do you think?” Jean asked as soon as the Humvee drove off.
“Total bullshit” was Tariq's only reply, the language made her wince slightly, “Sorry Jean, but something's going down, they can't say what” he pointed in the general direction the Major headed, “perhaps they don't even know, but he tried to tell us to be ready to 'bug out’ without actually saying it!”
“You reckon?” it was a question, the worry evident, she wasn't one to show concerns, but this couldn't be avoided.
“Okay” she began again “what do you think?”
“They always said that if the proverbial hit the fan” he replied, “they’d evacuate us when it was needed!”
“You think it might go that far?”
“I think the Major does” Tariq replied, “otherwise he wouldn’t have said anything, he’s given us a warning, we’ll only have two hours if it comes to it!”
"All well and good for us, what about our local people?"
“That’s for the foreign staff” Jean replied, “what about the locals?”
“That” he replied, “I have no idea about, but we need a plan for them as well!”
“And not tell anyone, how are we going to do that?”
“We aren’t totally, I’ll have Azeem make sure the vehicles are all fuelled up and ready, if they need to, they’ll at least be able to head into the mountains”
(and what about Samir and Sara?)
“You’ve done well with this one” Turgut didn’t often give praise for Samir’s work, he didn’t really need to as he’d paid well, and he always paid cash, usually in US dollars, twenty here, fifty there, never big amounts, but with the Iraqi dinar being as low as it was, fifty dollars could provide for a family for a month.
The ‘one’ was a Mercedes Benz ‘C’ class, top of the range, almost certainly for some ‘wannabe’ rich person who couldn’t quite afford the new one, so a good condition stolen (with the plates changed, naturally) was what they got, she was less than a year old, but he’d still given the car a thorough service and whatever else they asked for.
“She didn’t need much” Samir replied as he closed the bonnet, “Just a tune up and checking all the belts, she’ll run like a dream”
“That’s good” Turgut replied as he walked, more like swayed into the garage, “Where it’s going they like fast cars”
“So you get them Mercedes!” Samir shot back with a small grin on the face, “why not a good Japanese car, or a British one?”
“Germans don’t buy Japanese” Turgut replied, “neither do the rest of Europe if they can help it, and as for British, let’s just say they like fast cars that actually go and don’t break down every five minutes”
Both of them laughed at that, fact was only billionaires could afford British cars that could do reasonable speed, though recently they’d started building Nissan and Toyota there. If you wanted a good 4x4 then take a Land rover, or Range rover, but getting them across Europe would take forever, it was too risky, German cars stolen from Germany or Austria were the best and easiest.
“Anyway” Samir began again, “How’d you actually get the cars through? I mean the border’s closed right?”
“Ibrahim Khalil crossing is” the Turk replied, “to the wrong people that is, but I use another place, roads are a bit rougher, but no one watches”
That drew Samir’s attention, “what do you mean, I thought they watched everything?”
Turgut laughed again, “They do my friend, they do, but sometimes their eyes turn green, and they just can’t see what’s going on, know what I mean?”
They say “Money talks” and sometimes it talks louder than most other things, but at other times, it’s far better to let that money ‘whisper’ into the ear of the right official, in the Middle East, people knew all about that.
“That brings me to the other thing” Turgut reached into his pocket and took out an envelope, “You’ve done a lot of work for us, and not taken half the money you’re supposed to, my bosses don’t like a debt not paid” he threw the package down, “Here’s the rest of the money”
Samir picked the package up and gave it back to him, “I’ve told you” he replied, “I don’t want the money, but there is something I need, maybe you can help me with it?”
Samir went to the back of the garage, he’d been secretly hoping that one day, this would come up, working with these people until they were in his debt, and wanting to repay that debt.
One of the first thing he’d learned about Turgut and his people was they were tribespeople, originally from the mountains not too far away, they believed in a code of honour, yes they were crooks, and the stole from people, but among themselves, and the people who worked for them, there was a code, and that involved not allowing a debt to another to get too big, that’s what he’d hoped for, now it was time to tell them his price.
His jacket was hanging up at the back of the garage, he reached into a pocket, he saw Turgut bracing himself, getting ready to draw his weapon from it’s holster. “I’m just taking an envelope out” he turned and faced the man, “It has something I hope you can help me with” he explained slowly removing the envelope from the pocket.
“It’s simple really” Samir began. “In the envelope are passport photographs of my wife, my son and myself, we need passports that we can travel to England on”
The Turk actually smiled, “Is that all?”
“I don’t need the money” Samir replied, “I do need the passports!”
“Does anyone know what's happening?” it was Jamila asking the question, one that was in everyone's minds, but no one dared ask, no one except her that is. Three years working with Mrs Pauline had changed her from the shy girl in the background, to one strong enough to ask tough questions, ones that even made the men uncomfortable.
“Tariq says they've been told nothing, no more than we know that is!” Luka explained, “but he suspects the soldiers know more than they're saying” he shifted slightly, reaching for the tea in front of him, he lifted the glass to take a sip. “and he doesn't think it's good either”
There were eight of them, Azeem and Luka had told them to meet up at Samir's place, so they could talk through what they needed to do, it wasn't that they didn't trust the westerners, but they had a lot more 'riding on’ the situation. “He's told me to have the vehicles ready for if they need to leave, and he did say to make sure it was all of them!”
“You really think it'll come to that?” Jamila asked, she had aged parents, it wasn't going to be easy for them, almost sixty years old and never been more than fifty miles out of Zakho, not even during the uprising, now, they were facing having to leave, either that or having their youngest daughter executed for doing what a good daughter should, looking after her parents by finding work to provide for them in their old age, either that, or the dangers of a perilous journey to an unknown destination with an uncertain future, and even if they do make it, to a refugee camp that is, they'd face more years of uncertainty, unable to work, living on 'handouts’ from a grudging and suspicious international community, until one day, in the distant future, someone finally takes them in, but their olive coloured skin making sure they're never fully accepted. “Do you really think we'll have to run for the mountains?” The thought made them all shudder.
“I really don't know” Azeem replied, “what about you Luka, have they said anything to you?” he turned and waited for Luka to reply.
Luka's face was like that of a poker player, totally devoid of any hint of what might be going on inside, that was good as he was torn between loyalty to two sets of people he considered friends, it wasn't that one set was trying to deceive the other, just they didn't want them to worry, not realising that telling them not to worry is going to cause worry!
Tariq had told him a little, he hadn't sworn him to secrecy, 'I suppose he won't mind me saying that’ he thought, 'after all, it's true, and he didn't tell me not to!’ so he began. “They're keeping an emergency bag packed, ready to go at one hour's notice”
“But they've always had that” Jamila interrupted.
“Not Tariq” Luka replied, “not since I've lived in the same house at least!”
"Then you'll know the proverbial's hit the fan!'
“He once told me” Samir cut in, “If you see me packing and I'm not going on holiday, then the shit’s hit the fan!”
Tension released as the two women started to giggle, even the normally stern Azeem smiled, Tariq wasn't exactly known for his tact, it's exactly what he'd say, Samir had even got the accent mostly right.
“And he did tell me to keep all the vehicles fuelled and ready to go!” Azeem added.
“They did have the meeting with the British officer the other day” Luka added, “He said that they’d assured him there wasn’t any plans for reprisals against Saddam for capturing Erbil” that got everyone’s attention, the worry showing on every face, if Saddam was allowed to get away with it then what might he try next, “Neither he nor Miss Jean believed them either!” he quickly added, “They both suspect the soldiers know something is about to happen, they just don’t know what!” he reached for the small kettle that was on the paraffin heater in the middle of the rug, Sara saw what he was going to do and got there first, she gently poured each of them another glass of tea as Luka continued, “I think in their own way, they were telling us to be ready for anything, ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst’ as he sometimes says”
“Samir” Azeem began again after a long pause, each one taking in the gravity of the situation, “you’ve still got one of the Dodges right?”
“Yes” he began, “fuelled and all in working order, but they’re all open backed, and if we’re going to have to flee to the mountains we’re going to need tents and the like, as well as food and heating”
“Tents aren’t a problem” Father Boutros spoke up for the first time, “I’ve got a couple at the church you can have, but I implore you, think about what you’re planning! Do you really want to take such a risk?”
Everyone knew that Father Boutros wouldn’t be going with them, he was only there at the meeting as a ‘chaperone’ for Jamila, young single women just didn’t walk the streets alone at night, they rarely ventured out alone during the day, but as a Priest he was a valued and respected member of society, and an appropriate ‘chaperone’ for a young lady.
Father Boutros also had a lot of respect as a man, ever since the first time Saddam had gassed the Kurds and thousands fled to Turkey, he was allowed to cross the border to visit them in the refugee camps, literally imploring them, often with tears streaming down his face to come back to their homes, and help rebuild the country, he was a man who knew first hand the future they faced, but he wouldn’t go with them. “I’ve got two at the church, they’re ten man tents, so they’re big enough for families, but you’ll need to find heaters and the like”
“I can find us heaters” Luka said, “we’ve got two at the house, and a couple we’re not using at the office, we can move them down to Samir’s workshop”
“No, we’ll just have one of each at the workshop” Azeem spoke up, “and food, but the others we’ll keep at Op Mercy’s place, we’ll tell Mr Tariq it’s in case we need to go to the villages for the projects, he won’t believe a word of it, but he won’t say anything, and Miss Jean never looks there!”
They were all in agreement with the plan. It wasn’t much, but that night everyone left Samir’s place feeling just that little bit better, at least they had some idea what they were going to do if the worst happens. The sheer lunacy of even attempting to get out didn’t even occur to them, what was important was they had a plan that just might work, no matter how remote the chances were.
From the Author
I can't imagine the stress that the local staff were under, trying to work through what was happening, yet knowing that at any moment the people they were working with might have to leave, and might leave them stranded.
Next time you see a refugee, I just want you to take a moment to think 'What might you have gone through?'
Since starting this series, I also found out that one of my work colleagues here in New Zealand was a refugee from the war in Bosnia, she and her daughter got out with literally the clothes they were wearing, and that's all!
Take a moment, to write a reply.
Meanwhile, here's a clip from one of the best movies about those to go into 'harms way' to protect those of us bonkers enough to try and help!