The worn rubber tyres crushed a clutter of small rocks and compounded the Earth, sweeping the dusty remnants behind it as the rusty white pick-up truck jerked along on the road to Halabja.
A weary eyed man kept a loose grip on the dull grey steering wheel, clutching tightly at the cigarette in his right hand, resting it on the window frame. It was a starless night, but the bright moon took it upon itself to illuminate the dancing smoke birthed from the man’s tobacco stained fingers. The four remaining fingers that is; one was forfeited many years ago in return for the memory of bullets and battles. The wide open dust fields were decorated with a few clumsy mountains serving as the composer of the winds soundtrack drowning out a weathered Mamle[ref]Famous Kurdish singer.[/ref] cassette tape repeating the words ‘Ser la ser ranî, takû bayanî, bum ba mîwanî Nazaninm’[ref]‘Head on her thigh, until morning, I was the guest of my Nazanin’[/ref]
The headlights beamed onto the empty road ahead, the driver released his cigarette from his fingers and used his hand to set apart his brows before rubbing his eyes briefly. He rested both hands on the steering wheel before the bizarre stage of the world let him be privy to its latest scene. He pumped on the brakes, precariously steering left and right before he managed to bring the heavy vehicle to a halt. From the windscreen he could see, ten metres or so ahead of him, a tall slim man to the left of the road. He found it peculiar for the man to be motionless on this road at this time of night, his curiosity exited the car first then he followed swinging the door open and leaving the engine running. He saw a mound of dirt next to the man as he drew closer, calling out from behind him ‘Kaka, Kaka, what’s wrong with you? What are you doing? What are you doing here so late?’
The wind seemed insulted at this interruption and gusted powerfully as the mysterious man turned around. He had huge bulging eyes which were sloppily sewn on to his leathered wrinkle-strewn skin. The driver closed the distance between him and the old face elucidating the horrified expression on it, the tattered şorwal[ref]Traditional Kurdish trouser garment[/ref]of the old man and the raggedy camane[ref]Traditional Kurdish headwear or scarf often referred to as a Middle Eastern scarf[/ref]tied around his head. He could see, attached to his dangly arms, a sturdy mud sprayed spade.
‘Don’t worry. Don’t worry about me Kaka. Go on about your own business. Pray, take no notice of me please. Off with you and good night’ the old man uttered lightly.
The driver had come right beside him now, and noticed a small hole he was building in the Earth. Confused and slightly wary of the old man, he turned towards him to question him ‘Uncle, what are you doing? What are you doing digging at this time?’
The old man kept his head down and continued with his toil. He gestured timidly with his spade for the driver to leave as he spoke ‘Leave me son. Please go. Please don’t take any notice of me, for your own well-being. It’s nothing to do with you.’
The driver felt an inherent urgency to help the old man, concerned for his safety and sanity he pleaded with him again to stop this obscure undertaking. The old man’s back was crouched over, still an imposing figure, but chose to ignore the driver and avoided his face. The driver could hear him reciting prayers to himself and the sniffling of quiet sobs as he threw another piece of the Earth onto the growing pile.
‘Please son, by the will of God go on. I’m sorry for distracting you, but this is nothing to do with you and you must leave me.’
‘It is nothing to do with you’ the old man repeated plunging the Earth back into the soil and forcing his foot onto it with all the resoluteness of Sisyphus.
‘No, no, how can that be Uncle. Of course it affects me, what sort of man would I be if I left you on this road at this time of night? If I was to leave you to hurt yourself with this unexplainable campaign, sleep would evade me and my conscious wouldn’t forgive me.’ The driver pestered him more, feeling a great pity for the old man and his curiosity still beckoned for an answer at this enigmatic scene. ‘Let us go together Uncle. Come, let’s leave for tonight. You can surely return in the morning.’ With each twang of the spade in the earth, the driver felt anguish for the old man, seeing the sadistic wood splinter and seep beneath his broken and blistered hands. His fingers bent and trembling with tips so deformed he looked as if he’d been poisoned. The driver lunged at the spade and tried to snatch it away from the man, repeating ‘Come on dear Uncle, please, where is your family?’ before being humbled by the surprisingly strong grasp the old man commanded on his tool. The driver withdrew a step or two whilst the old men shrugged off his offence, and unshaken, shook the ground again with the blade.
‘My God, what torture is this?’ the driver exclaimed, tired and torn with whether to continue to argue against the old man’s insane resistance.
‘Ach torture. Torture, it is exactly that son’ the old man shouted as he moved to make his ditch wider. ‘Leave me’ he cried, lifting his head and throwing another chunk of soil away ‘Leave me be please. I am looking for something son. I pray to God I find it tonight.’ The old man paused for a second long enough for the Moon to expose a thin wave of quivering water resting on his cornea, his deprived skin seemed to absorb his tears instantly, never crawling below his last eyelash. His release of sorrow perpetually extinguished.
‘Then tell me Uncle, I can help you. What are you looking for? What are you looking for that is so important?’ the driver said gesticulating impatiently with a hand on his hip and the other thrusting towards the old man.
The old man turned towards the driver once more, their faces close and sharing stares. The crevices in his face appeared even more hideous now revealing its leathery texture at this breath intertwining distance. He lifted a hand from the spade and used the other to prop the spade into the earth, dropping his shoulders with a deep sigh, he leant in and whispered ‘My wife. My love. My wife.’
The driver felt his vocal chords tangle as he read the scriptures of pain from the old man’s eyes. He didn’t need to ask where the man’s wife was. He already knew of the countless unmarked graves scattered like vine leaves across Kurdistan. The driver was now confident that the old man’s sanity was questionable; adjusting his demeanour slightly, he softened the tone in his voice ‘When, when was it that you lost her?’
The old man pursed his cracked lips and stayed silent, he had resumed his digging and with each grain of dirt awoken from its dogmatic slumber it had become clear that the old man was not constructing a ditch but trying to reveal a grave.
‘This is ridiculous, my uncle. You wouldn’t even know it was her.’ The driver said soothingly to which the old man snarled
‘You think I wouldn’t know the bones of my own wife? You think I wouldn’t recognise her? I loved her inside and out. I will know her when I see her.’ He said as he begrudgingly continued with his endeavour.
‘How could you know sir? What does that mean? How could you even know where to dig? Dear God, how long ago did she die Uncle?’ the driver gently asked, trying to express his sentiment in his face.
The old man was silently inspecting the progress off his grave from the side. His fingers draining blood into the unforgiving wood, bonding it to him, and morphing it into the appearance of one clump of extended flesh right up until the metal blade
“What year is it?” the old man inquired.
“It’s 2014. Kaka, where have you been to not know this?’ the driver’s impatience was on the verge of leaving although his heart for fellow man wouldn’t allow him to.
“27 years then.” He said crashing another piece of fresh Earth onto a new mound he had begun collecting by the driver’s feet.
The driver placed both hands on his head tugging at his hair and shaking his hands towards the heavens as he asked again ‘Uncle. I beg you. Let me take you to my house. Let us go home! This is crazy. We will talk at home; I have lost loved ones too.’
‘Not possible’ he shook his head unabated, grabbing the camane off his head to cleanse his face of the film of sweat which had appeared. He left it dangling around his neck.
‘What happened, dear uncle. What happened to make you like this?’ continuing to beseech him the driver was no longer expecting any answers and resolved to stay until he had at least a vague understanding of the old man’s condition.
‘Who else apart from them? Those monsters in green, those invaders, occupiers, the Ba’ath bastards. 27 years ago they came to my village looking for Peshmerga[ref]The name given to refer to Kurdish rebel fighters[/ref]. And 27 years ago there was no longer a village. I don’t know the rest of the statistics, too many numbers of too many things destroyed.
The driver smacked his head in distress to express his empathy with the man’s suffering.
The old man went on mournfully ‘They came in the morning. They took our women. They took our children. All gone’ He said glancing upwards towards the driver from his now deep and well-formed excavation ‘All gone. Of course, they took us, the men, as well’
The driver felt a tear or two stream unconsciously down the side his face, his eyes expressing their sadness upon eavesdropping on the old man’s unbearable torment. The old man’s passions had been sparked and he carried on ‘Those heartless bastards. What sort of land beholds men like that? I never knew then, my son. But I know now. I thought they were human, like me, like us. I thought they would honour an agreement. It was all my fault. All my fault.’ The old man had his head in his hands stifling sobs and whimpering regretfully.
‘Uncle please you are torturing us both now, what do you mean it was your fault?’ the driver urged him on and grew suspicious of what his role was in this twisted tale.
‘It was all my fault, you see. Forgive me. When you take a bitter bite of the Devils bread, he expects a banquet in return. Once you invite him into your land, he no longer sees himself as a guest. That is the Devil’s way. Forgive me son, I’m sorry. They were not meant to kill us all, you see’
The driver listened intently, enthralled in this all too familiar lament for the dead, the sticky residue of the Al-Anfal campaign. The plethora of Kurdish genocide is a long and wicked collection. The grave was complete now, unfortunately for the old man it was devoid of bones. The old man searched frantically, tearing at the edges of the walls with his fingertips before letting them rest at his side in realisation of the futility of this exercise.
He whined ‘Every night for 27 years I have dug holes. Looking for my love. My wife. For 27 years, I have not rested on the land of Kurdistan. I cannot rest’
The driver blurted out ‘Oh uncle. Dear Uncle, evil has befallen all of us. This is no way to mourn. Please by the will of God. Please come out’ the driver, now with wild dishevelled hair, looked distraught and crying again as he extended his hand to the old man in the deep grave. The old man inspected the inside of the grave with his eyes once more before exhaling solemnly, and clasped the hand of the driver, tucking his spade into his armpit and ceasing his tragic ritual. The driver went to put his arm around his shoulder and bade him toward the car, but the old man quickly retreated to sit on one of the mounds he had created, letting his spade rest upright beside him.
‘Dear son. Forgive me.’ The old man said feebly with earnest eyes and an honest tongue. His body looked shattered and his mannerisms portrayed a man who had a pact with defeat. ‘I told you I cannot rest until I find my wife’s grave. Her milky bones would grant my freedom. It is retribution for my mistakes; for my own doing.’
The driver stood beside him tugging at his arm ‘Uncle, I have worked all day, I am exhausted too, come to my house, we will sleep so deeply, the dead would be envious.’ The old man shuddered, it was not a particularly cold night but a light breeze brought with it a warning and the wind, interested, swelled around this state of affairs.
The old man swallowed a large gulp of saliva before, hesitatingly, began a chilling speech ‘They were only meant to take some. That’s what I agreed with them, with the men in green, to only take some of the troublemakers, as they called them. Only those men who didn’t fear them. They took us all. Those men they took are resting now, but no, not me. I should have known, the Devil has no concept of some. He is the embodiment of evil, the perfection of it, he must have it all- or it is an impure evil to him- worthless. So they killed all of us. They did bad things, and then they killed us. They killed the women, they killed the children. The men. After they promised they only wanted a few! I betrayed them all, you see. Forgive me son, like I pray they forgive me. I am a truth all too easy to forget. The reality of the numerous Kurdish traitors. The betrayer and slave of the enemy. For enemies are meant to fight each other by definition, not succumb to them. Our mistake. There are many like me who still roam this land, ghosts, in debt with the devil. Even worse, there are many who never paid for their betrayal and are still amongst you; the foxes dressed as wolves.’
Before the driver had a chance to understand the meaning and compute his anger towards the old man, he continued, running his fingers through his thin white hair as he spoke ‘Forgive me son. I was foolish. That is my torment; employed to do the Devil’s bidding for eternity. Forever forced to continue help slay my own brethren even after death. Until the day I find my wife’s grave I cannot rest, I have to dig, until then my forever continues.’
The old man switched his gaze to the side and stared intensely behind the driver, his dominating physique crumpled and folded he said ‘I told you to leave son, in the very beginning. Do you remember? I did tell you to leave me be. Please forgive me.’ Repeating his mantra of forgiveness once again, his mouth twisted at the sides as if on its knees begging to frown.
‘Every grave I dig must be filled. It is my personal punishment, and duty, as a traitor. I am not permitted to rest. Please forgive me for my betrayal brother.’ The old man managed to squeak out, his face twitched and convulsed but his eyes held firm their gaze on the vision behind the driver. The driver stood watching him in sheer terror, unable to comprehend the meaning of all he was divulging. He noticed a liquid streaming by his foot and trickling regretfully into the grave. He slowly turned around to share the feast that the old man’s eyes were devouring. His knees trembled as he saw his vehicle, battered and bruised from all sides, resting on its roof. The front windscreen was cracked and splattered crimson, creating a blurry barrier blocking the view inside the vehicle.
Blood poured relentlessly from the gap in the front door, collecting in a pool and burrowing through the dust like veins, past his shoes, and into the old man’s grave. The driver was grief-stricken and perplexed, for there was no-one else in the car, he turned around to face the old man again, who by now had his back to him as he had started wandering down the road with the spade slung over his shoulder. He shouted back to the driver ‘Oh forgive me son. Please I am sorry. I cannot rest with you. Rest now son. Tell my wife to forgive me when you see her. I must leave you, I must go, I cannot rest.’
The wind refrained from moving along the mountains and instead gathered on the peak watching the awful scene. As the red elixir guttered into the pit gurgling slowly the wind woefully allowed the song from the overturned Toyota to supersede it, carrying the elegy along the open plain into the valleys, repeating the chorus ‘Yar bo mn bêwefa bû, ser la ser ranî, takû bayanî, bum ba mîwanî Nazaninm, taze nakem dlldarî, ser la ser ranî, takû bayanî, bum ba mîwanî Nazaninm’[ref]My lover was disloyal to me, head on her thigh, until the morning, I was the guest of my Nazanin, now I will no longer share hearts, head on her thigh, until the morning, I was the guest of my Nazanin[/ref]