Dear Mediterranean Sea By Simko Ahmed Originally written in the Kurdish language in 1994 Revised by a “Alex Shawn”
The magical blue waves of the Mediterranean and the soft sound of their whisper mingle with the sounds of laughter and joy of the tourists occupying the stern of the large white boat with the letters Zorba emblazoned on its hull. Mykonos is a fragment of paradise: through lips of magic blue tranquility she can tell you many a tale of Aphrodite and Hermes, but has yet to hear my sad story. Today I decided to tell her—oh God, to whom should I direct my story? Nobody? How about to Dear Nobody? No. That’s not it….
I decide to write my story down on the only paper at hand, a blank sheet of A3 that I brought all the way from Cyprus, last stop between hell and paradise. Yes, I’ll write what is in my heart and when I have finished make a small paper boat out of it and give it to the Mediterranean Sea. Got it! I’ll address my letter to Dear Mediterranean Sea.
Dear Mediterranean Sea,
My name is Aso, which in the Kurdish language means twilight. I am guilty of a huge blunder, the biggest mistake of my life, a crime I never meant to commit. The thought of it gives me indescribable pain in every waking moment, torments me to the core. Today, therefore, I would like to present to you, the Mediterranean Sea, this small paper boat. On it is written my story. I perform this small act in the hope that your great blue heart will whisper my story to all the other inhabitants of your glorious world—the fishes, boats, plants and so on. Pass my sad boat story to all those colorful tourists who are laughing and enjoying your calm breezes; tell them about the pain felt by millions not very far from here.
This is my first week away from the sad land of my birth. I’m alone here, seeking a peaceful life. I’m a refugee who’s never had a home. It sounds odd, to have been a refugee in your own country…. I’m on a fearful journey—a fearful journey of hope.
Kerkuk is an oil-rich city in Kurdistan; it was there I was born 19 years ago. I lived with my brother Ali, who is just two years younger than me, and with my old mother and handicapped father, who was paralyzed under torture. Together we lived in a small, old house in the suburbs. My brother and I supported the family by collecting scrap for recycling—iron, zinc, glass and so on—and selling it on the black market.
A cool blue wave of the Mediterranean is washing Aso’s feet with its soft white foam as he eagerly makes his confession to the sea, recording his sorrows on the white sheet of paper before him….
“Ali, don’t you have a headache? The smell of this place is killing me,” Aso said as he edged, sweating, through the stench of a long, long tunnel in the sewers beneath the city. Through here they have been walking since morning. It’s the only safe way to move; above ground there are bullets flying in every direction. The sounds of exploding shells and gunfire pour into the tunnel through manholes and other gaps that have been torn in the surface of the streets.
The foul stench of the sewer makes their heads ache. The two brothers are anxious to get home, having been away since before the fighting began. That morning they had gone to the west of the city to collect garbage for recycling; very soon, however, a battle started between the Kurdish opposition groups and the Iraqi government, whose troops had been kicked out of the city for almost a month. This was the first time the Kurds had taken control of the city; the first time the city had been free of the Iraqi military. Today war broke out again as Iraqi troops attempted to retake Kerkuk.
“I think we are near home now. Let’s check the next manhole cover we meet,” Ali said, as he staggered exhausted, shouldering the large, now empty bag in which he collects garbage for recycling.
They found a way out that promised to be close to their home, but were barely able to move the heavy iron cover of the manhole. Finally they managed it, emerging from the world of stench below to a world of fear on the ground.
They find the area fairly quiet and empty; nobody is around, and the sound of bombs and bullets seems somewhat distant from the suburb where they live.
Yet some buildings show signs that war was here this morning: walls pock-marked by bullets; a half-demolished school building with fire raging inside.
“Oh, shit! Aso, look!” Ali cried with a terror-stricken voice. A man was lying face-down in the middle of the street, his brain spattered before him. Some cats were feeding there. “That’s disgusting!” said Aso, and he shooed the cats away. They fled, their little mouths red with the man’s blood.
Eventually the boys got home. But nobody was there. The door to the house was ajar. Not only his family, but the whole neighborhood had been evacuated. They checked the other houses. In a few they found their neighbors shot dead. Going home had turned in a ghastly, waking nightmare.
“Aso, come here. There’s a message for us.” In front of the entrance door Ali had found a piece of paper; apparently it had been stuck to the door, but had come off in the wind. The boys realized that their parents together with the other residents in the neighborhood had headed up to the north of the country for fear of the Iraqi troops, who specialize in brutality and in treating civilians as combatants. Moreover, fears of chemical and gas attacks made many leave their homes even in areas not directly affected by the fighting.
People like ants were moving with small packs on their heads, fleeing the homes where their dreams belong, leaving behind memories of parents and people, heading to an unknown future. It is unjust that people are forced to abandon what they have acquired in the course of a lifetime, to lose in a day everything they own, or that which it took generations to create!
“We have to find a way out of here and join the family. By now they should be close to Chamchamal,” Aso said.
“Yes, but the problem is, how can we get to the other side of the city? We’ll have to cross a battlefield,” Ali replied, his voice full of fear.
“Better to walk through the sewers again,” Aso cried. So the boys got down into the sewers again.
“The flow down here has decreased—a lot of people must have left the city,” the younger boy remarked. The boys had spent several hours walking in the sewers; but since the sanitation system is not so developed in a city like Kerkuk, they didn’t have too much choice as to which direction to take.
“I feel sick, I’m going to throw up,” the younger boy said.
“We haven’t had anything to eat all day. What would you have to throw up?” Aso said. “Come on, be brave. We have just one more hour to walk,” he continued. But the younger boy had fainted, and was lying face-down on the solid waste on the floor of the sewer.
Aso was panicking and felt helpless. The only way to help his brother was to get him out of the sewer. He heaved him onto his shoulder and staggered around for a while to seek out a manhole cover. He didn’t even know where they were! But he had made up his mind that, whatever the risk, he would find a way out if only to save his brother.
Eventually he found an exit, and struggled to remove the iron manhole cover. He thought it would be better to go out first, and find a safe place, before lifting out his unconscious brother. Aso got out from the drain, relieved to be breathing fresh air once again. The sound of shelling had died down, and the surroundings seemed pretty well like a ghost town. But the huge pall of black smoke hanging in the sky spoke of heavy warfare. He found an abandoned shop that had seemingly just been looted, a few boxes of cigarettes scattered on the floor in the rush. He pulled his sick brother out from the foul-smelling hole.
Aso needed some water with which to clean his brother’s face. For this reason he left him alone in the empty shop, and went around looking for water.
As he turned into the main street a small military jeep appeared straight ahead, firing in his direction. Aso dived to the ground and lay there face down. A military man grasped his neck and pulled him towards the jeep. The boy cried out, begging them not to kill him; he could speak Arabic, which made the Iraqi soldiers understand that he was an unarmed person. As they dragged him to the jeep he shouted that he had someone with him. The two boys were taken to the jeep.
The military prison was dirty and bare; half the city was again under Iraqi control. They kept prisoners here until they could arrange their transportation to Baghdad’s main prisons. There were about twenty young men in the room; they had all been arrested during the day.
Yet nobody had been interrogated. Aso lay beside his brother, thinking about what might happen next. He could hear some of the other men talking, of how they expected to be shot the following day:
“They hate the Kurds, they will never keep feeding us in prison,” one old-timer was saying, his voice drained of hope. Fear was all you could feel; it stifled even hunger.
Aso covered his and his brother’s legs with a small dirty blanket that was available in the room.
“Ali, take off your trousers and given them to me,” Aso said in a low voice.
“What for? Why?”
“You give me your Kurdish Sharwal and I’ll give you these jeans. I let you know why later. Just do it, take them off,” Aso’s voice was serious, frightened.
They exchanged trousers under the dirty blanket.
“Listen, Ali. When they take us to the interrogation tonight, you are not my brother, and you are not Kurdish either, but Turkmen, and your name is Ayhan. Give them the details of our Turkmen neighbors and make out you are their son. Answer any questions they ask as if you were the real Ayhan, their son. They will not kill you; they hate Kurds more than Turkmen.
“How about you?”
“These trousers are simple evidence of my nationality. I can cope with it.”
“I you crazy? Why do that? Why don’t you keep the jeans and pretend to be Turkmen yourself? Why me?” the sick younger man asked, who felt deep pain in his heart and love for his brother who wished to sacrifice his own life to save him.
After a meal of dry bread and water, they were taken for interrogation.
Ali had now been moved to a different room where the Turkmen and Assyrian prisoners were being held.
Dear Mediterranean Sea, that night for me was like the calm before the storm, a night before combat. I couldn’t sleep at all, the sound of bullets echoed in my brain. To wait for death is more painful than death itself. I wrote some lines on the fetid wall of the prison where the only smell is the smell of death. I remember I wrote: “I love you , mother.” I wrote so many messages for my family and friends on the wall. I just thought that the next night I would be a dead man under the ground. I was going through my life memories as a child: our simple, happy but poor meals in Imami Qasim; the faces of friends and of other people I knew passing one after another across the ceiling of that deadly room. The other men in the room were the same: nobody was talking, everybody was waiting, like a caged bird, waiting for the next day, and the hungry bite of a wild animal. I will never forget those twenty-four hours; they seemed like twenty-four years.
The next day they led us out into the yard of the base. We were all handcuffed. Eighteen of us were Kurds; the Turkmen and Assyrian contingent consisted of five boys, including my brother. They made us, the Kurds, sit in a semicircle, while in front of us were the other five.
With our hands restrained, we sat under the hot sun. There were a few trees to our left, their trunks riddled with small bullet-holes. These trees bore the brunt of every execution at the base.
Some of us were already so deadened with fear they could hardly walk. There was a long silence, with everyone pale, each waiting for the bullets to enter his body. Some started to recite the Quran, preparing for the next life, determined to die without sin. I wondered why it was we deserved all this. I had never wronged anyone, had never held a gun, had never killed even a sparrow!
A few minutes later a group of soldiers arrived carrying shovels. Oh my God! It immediately occurred to me what they had in mind: we would be buried alive, but would have to dig our graves first. As we set to work some of us were unable to hold the shovel for fear and shock; they were beaten very severely.
By then I was begging to be shot, and not be buried alive, for that had been my lifelong fear. It had happened three years before, 1988, when they buried alive large numbers of Kurdish villagers in the Iraqi deserts. Such stories had haunted me.
It took us five hours to dig that pit, which was now about two meters deep. Most of us had started to throw up with fear. The other five boys didn’t participate in our work; this was work for the Kurds alone.
We were all exhausted and hysterical, just waiting to be executed.
A few minutes later five hefty soldiers arrived and the other soldiers left. These newcomers were exceptionally large and fat, with big, black oily moustaches; they looked as if they’d just come from feasting on kebab. They tied up our hands and legs—only us, the young Kurds. The man with the most stars on his epaulettes seemed to be the most senior, and spoke in a loud, harsh voice. I didn’t take in anything he was saying, my brain was so busy with thoughts of the agonizing death to come.
“You guys don’t deserve to drink from the river Tigris. You are children of sin, and criminals in our great country,” the commanding officer said, his eyeballs popping out and his heart filled with hatred.
“Do you boys think that by being slaves to the West and to the Americans, you can defeat our great country?” And so his words continued.
“Did you forget that you cheap Kurds are guests in our great country?” He said that and looked around at all of us, his resting on each of us one by one. When he came to the five others, he stopped. “Oh, wow. What do we have here? Some other mice in the field, Turkmen and Assyrians, that’s pretty cool,” he said, and touched the hair of one boy among them. “You pretty boys don’t know what fire you are playing with.” Upon which he gave a meaningful glance to his soldiers. They dragged the five boys to the trees and tied their hands to the trunks. We cried out in panic, begging not to be killed; our mouths were sealed with glue tape.
“Hey, you brave Kurdish men, why are you upset? Let’s make a deal. I will forgive any one of you who can fuck these Turkish boys,” he said, with an excited voice.
“Who is that brave man?” he shouted, “Anybody want to survive? Just move your head, I know you’re a bit tied up at the moment,” continuing his repellent soliloquy.
For a while he went on shouting, like a ravenous wild dog among us, coming and going with a big baton in his hand. “Nobody want to be in our porn show? Do you want to die?”
He took out his knife and cut the belts of the five boys and pulled down their trousers and underwear.
“Look at these pretty butts here, just as smooth as girls’. Hey, guys, what do you say? Doesn’t Kurdish dick work?”
We were all swimming in sweat and shame; at that moment I wanted to die there and then, and not feel pain any more. I couldn’t hear a thing. He was charging to and fro among the boys hanging to the tree-trunks. I cried out in that deep pain, how I wished to die at once. Even being buried alive was no longer such a fearful prospect.
Dear Mediterranean, I saw my brother Ali and the four other boys being raped by those big soldiers, whose brains were kept inside their guns. In that morning of agony, all human kindness was absent and a human being was worth less than a bullet.
After raping the boys they dragged them to the pit and buried them alive. I saw these inhuman acts carried out to the end. With my own eyes I saw my raped brother being buried alive.
“Hey, Kurdish boys, that was only a preview. I wanted you to see what will happen to you tomorrow. Tomorrow it’s your ass, so enjoy your day and be ready for tomorrow.” With these words the chief officer left, returning to his compound.
They dragged us back to our prison, beating us all the way, taunting us and making merry while our hearts were gripped by vivid pain, and as I was feeling the deepest sense of grief and remorse for my brother.
Again, in the same room, but now in even more pain than the night before, I wished that that day I, too, had been killed and my sorrow ended. Some among us planned to fight back in the morning, as soon as the guards opened the door to take us out; in their hands the fighters clutched detergent powder to throw in the enemies’ faces, seize their weapons and fight.
Dear Mediterranean, that tomorrow never came. That very same evening the base fell under the control of Kurdish freedom fighters, and the criminals who had been occupying it fled before they could be arrested. That same evening we were free. I can still picture the little boy running towards our prison that evening; we never expected that to happen. So many people swept into the base—men, women and children broke down the doors and led us out.
First I ran to the mass grave of the five boys, removed Ali’s body, and wept on his breast, begging his forgiveness for the biggest mistake of my life, the thing I never intended. I hoisted his body on my shoulder and walked in the direction of Sulaimania, where my family was supposed to be. On the way I changed my mind, decided not to show Ali’s body to my old mother, who has heart disease. I buried him in the graveyard at Chamchamal, a small town on the way. On his gravestone I wrote: “I love you, Ali. Rest in peace.” Since then he lives in peace in my heart.
Two weeks later I found my family in a refugee camp on the border with Turkey, the border inside our lost home. She was impatient to see us. I lied to her about Ali, told her that Ali had decided to go to Europe to seek asylum and a peaceful life. “Mama, don’t worry. There is peace there: no guns, no killing. I’m going to join him, too. And we promise to work like dogs to support you. We’ll be sending you letters and money.” I promised her that. I had been missing her so much, and it was so hard to leave them in the refugee camp.
Shortly afterwards I left Kurdistan and am now on my journey of hope. I sometimes write letters to her and father, adding Ali’s name to my own.
Dear Mediterranean Sea, that is my story.
The sun is beginning to set; orange and yellow invade the canvas of the sky. In the stern of the boat the tourists are singing and dancing; the boat is returning to the town. The small paper boat with the black stripes on its side is moving slowly on the waves, heading towards the blue heart of the sea in the orange of the sunset.