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In Kurdish Iraq: Breaking bread, sharing Gospel after a day amid Halabjah’s sorrows

KURDISH IRAQ (BP)–The drive across northern Iraq winds down one mountain pass into a narrow valley only to go up another, crisscrossing a tortured landscape of sharp, barren crags. The rocks fold on one another in a geological rollercoaster that seems as implausible as my presence here.

In recent days, 68 Iraqis have been killed and three more Americans have lost their lives. I photograph oil wells set ablaze by insurgents and watch a car bomb explode from my hotel. The separation between sanctuary and security is often as little as a few kilometers, or mere city blocks.

The Kurds have locked down this portion of the country. Their tough troops -— the Peshmerga -— keep insurgency at bay. What violence occurs happens with great difficulty and great cost to those attempting it. I feel comfortable hiring a car and driver and wandering at will.

I am doubly blessed. Not only is Ali, my driver, a Kurd, he is a brother in Christ. In the days we travel together, he stops often at villages. We park on side streets, slither through inconspicuous doorways, across courtyards into back rooms of buildings to meet small gatherings of believers. I know little Kurdish. English, if any, is nominal at best at these meetings. But radiant smiles, hands cupping my elbow to guide me along and robust goodbyes bridge the chasm of language.

Recent events have opened an opportunity for the Gospel in this land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The church is blossoming here as people come to know Christ. This is a heady moment, one that stirs the dust of time. Babylon, Nineveh and Ur may lie in ruin -— little more than toppled stone and historical memory —- but the winds of the Spirit are fresh.

Ali and I entertain each other as we ride along. We point and ask, “What is this called?” learning words in our respective languages. Suddenly he points to a goat. “In Kurdish!” he demands. It is a test. I stumble over the word and we laugh.

All along the route are tells —- mounds marking the successive remains of ancient villages, lookouts or fortifications, each succeeding one built upon previous remains in a layered symmetry. Their flat tops make them distinct from hills in the surrounding landscape. Many date back millennia, sentinels of earlier times. Some are still in use, topped by a village, gun emplacement or checkpoint manned by Peshmerga. On one I see a spray of scattered stone lighter than the native substratum.

“Ali, what is that?” I ask. “Saddam’s sin,” he answers. “Once a village.”

Hussein leveled many villages in a genocidal campaign against the Kurds called the Anfal. Only about 500 of the nearly 5,000 Kurdish villages that once dotted northern Iraq remain. Days earlier in another part of northern Iraq, I stood in the ruins of such a village with another new friend. He had grown up there. Only foundation stones and one small grape arbor remain.

“My father’s house was here,” my friend said, finger stabbing the air. “My aunt and uncle lived there. The school was around that curve. We swam in the pool at the base of the mountain.”

He talked about the day in 1987 when soldiers came. His family and other villagers hid in a cave while their homes were destroyed. They piled fresh-cut saplings in front of the entrance so the soldiers wouldn’t find them and held their breath while helicopters circled overhead, then escaped by walking for two weeks through snow on a long circuitous journey that took them through Iran before ending in Turkey. He limps, still suffering from exposure incurred on that march.

Little reliable documentation remains, but as many as 180,000 people may have died in the Anfal campaigns of 1987-88.

The next day, my friend took me to an Anfal office in a nearby city. Photographs of the missing line the walls. The office was crowded with people seeking information about loved ones who had disappeared. Now Ali and I were driving toward the most infamous site of Hussein’s campaign against the Kurds: Halabjah.

On March 16, 1988, Iraqi troops bombed the town. The chemical agents used killed between 4,000 and 7,000 people. The town still remains. It rests on a plain surrounded by mountains on three sides, the border with Iraq only a few kilometers away. A memorial to the victims and a cemetery mark the atrocity, while the name, Halabjah, has become synonymous with the larger tragedy of the Kurdish people, as well as their perseverance.

A translator at the memorial says he was only a small child at the time of the attack, but remembers running as bombs fell. A woman who was older recalls the sweet smell of the gas and animals dying first as people ran for sanctuary in the surrounding mountains. The memorial records all this in galleries of photos taken by Iranian journalists soon after the attack and life-size dioramas depicting city streets filled with dead and dying people and animals caught by the gas as they attempted to escape.

The day is waning. It has been exhausting and emotional. We leave Halabjah, heading for a nearby city where we were able to confirm hotel reservations. At dusk we pull into a town nestled against spectacular mountains and eat dinner.

As we finish our meal, Ali suddenly says, “My brother [lives] here. No hotel. We stay [with] him.”

To refuse is unthinkable. During an evening with hospitality that includes scalding tea and fresh-baked cookies, we share photos of our families and play with Ali’s 2-year-old niece. Late in the evening, pallets are spread on the floor and warm blankets are offered against the night chill. After a cold rinse in the early morning light from a spigot in the courtyard, we make a breakfast of walnuts. We bless them and break the pods with the point of a knife, then press their meat into cheese and wrap it with pieces torn from the flat bread that is so much a staple in this part of the world.

I recall that “ish” is one of the Arabic words for bread; it also means life. In the breaking of that bread, the phrase “Bread of Life” suddenly takes on new meaning.

This is an ancient land, the cradle of the Old Testament. It is a land of violence, but it is also a land of hospitality. As we eat, I stare into the eyes of my brother and think: In the offering of ourselves, the Gospel comes — like one hungry man sharing bread with another.
*Name changed for security reasons.

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