As the war progressed, our neighborhood became almost empty, the doors of the houses were wide open, living cattle and poultry were left in the streets with no one to take care of them or feed them. Since I loved animals, I wanted to gather all the animals to take care of them, but of course it was the most impossible wish to fulfill. My mother said, “Your four chickens are enough burdens for us at this time when we can barely feed ourselves.” As the neighborhood became almost empty, my mother’s fears increased. She started to take these rumors more seriously; her main fear was that the Iraqi Army could indeed enter the city and clash with the Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, and we could be caught up in their fires.
The idea of staying home and accepting our fate to live or die together was no longer an option, and my mother started thinking about leaving. However, for us, the destination would be northward, since that is where we belonged more (my parents being both Christians originally from villages in northern Iraq). Yet, we were not sure where exactly in the north we could go to be safe. Putting myself in mother’s shoes then, I can only imagine how it felt to be a pregnant woman with six little, vulnerable and powerless children, a lost husband, an empty neighborhood. I still remember a moment when I saw her looking helplessly through the kitchen window trying to think how and where to escape to save the lives of her children. The decision to leave the city came rather late. There were no cars left in the streets; people were saying that all the fuel-stations in the city were closed because there were no fuel supplies from gas stations anymore. That did not only mean a shortage of car fuel, but also a shortage in any source of energy that made all the streets in the city as dead as a grave, or as we Assyrians say in Aramaic: “There were even no birds to be seen in the sky!”
A very poor family occupied one of the houses in the same row on our street, and they were one of the few families who had nowhere to go to. Their father told us that there were still a few buses in an area about an hour and half by foot from where we lived. There, he suggested, we could find buses going to the north. So, by that time, we had no direction to go to other than head further north, even if it was not any safer than Kirkuk. Despite the constant bombing, and at this stage, the absence of any means of communication and the extremely limited transportation, my mother decided to walk us to the bus station and try to take us all to the north, hoping we could find a better shelter there, but knowing well that there were no guarantees whether we stayed or left. This is exactly how the destruction caused by war feels: leaving or staying become the same.
Life and death become the same. We packed two small bags that contained some warm clothes and what was left of the bread we had in the house—bread becomes the dearest and most sacred item during wartime. We walked for about two hours until we reached the bus station where we found no buses at all. Instead, there were hundreds of people (mostly Kurds and Christians) waiting for the next bus to show up. There were very few buses showing once in a while to help these people go to their unknown destinations. Every now and then a bus arrived and all we could see was how the bus got loaded with people before coming to a full stop. People were running for their lives in the most frantic way I have ever seen in my life. For me, as a child, it was both shocking and fascinating to witness at that early age how people behave during wartime. People, I thought, can be incredibly cruel unpredictable, and destructive when it comes to their survival during wars. Even at that time, I found it quite ironic that humans have to be so cruel and destructive for the sake of survival. Since then, I often wondered what better captures our human nature: the way we act during times of conflicts or the way we behave during times of “peace”. Even more, I always wondered whether peace ever exist anywhere in our sad and lonely world.
We did not have much luck in catching a bus until it started getting dark. As we were waiting to cling to any bus, we met another Christian family, much smaller in number than us—two women and two children close to my age. One woman was the mother of the two children, and the other was her sister-in-law. Their story in many ways resembled ours. Their father, too, was forced to join the popular army and they had no idea what had happened to him. They were too scared to stay home, and so decided to escape northward seeking safety. After a small chat with the family, we liked each other and decided to stick together throughout our upcoming journey. Before the end of the day, we somehow succeeded to get on a bus that was headed to Erbil. All I remember is my mother and the other two women holding our hands tight and running as fast as they could to catch the bus despite the crowd, a feeling that was like a stampede.
The next thing I remember is being on the bus, and the heavy rain falling outside—we were heading to Erbil. The fuel crisis was serious in Erbil too. It was impossible to find a car to reach our final and safe destination, which was unknown. We were just going with the flow, along with hundreds and thousands of people. In Erbil, however, the war was more severe and there was a conflict between the Kurdish forces and the Iraqi Army. People were running away with their bags, luggage, and children. I saw people getting so tired of running that they were getting rid of their loads little by little just to save their lives. Though war is disastrous and no human being deserves to go through it, I always remember people throwing away any possessions they were carrying just to survive. In a way, this makes me think about how owning anything is never as important as saving one’s own body and soul in the end. If people understand this lesson under normal circumstances, will they still be striving to own things or consume the way they do in many places around the world? If they understood this during times of “peace”, will there ever be wars on our planet?
“If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there'd be peace.” ― John Lennon