Smugglers, refugees, merchants, villagers and Marines interact – and avoid one another – as they carry out what have become new ways of life for travelers of myriad paths: civil, soldierly and secretive.
Al-Karama, Jul 13 – Omar Al-Jarirri is the controller of the Mahat’ta, the staging point for travelers preparing to make the 1,000-kilometer trip from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad, Iraq by car. This is the way most Iraqis travel in an out of Iraq. Air service in occupied Iraq is cost-prohibitive for most.
The departure area is a dusty harbor of white, late-model Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicles.
The drivers, almost all Iraqi, often sleep in their vehicles, partly in order to get a good spot in the line-up and partly because their homes are in Iraq, a thousand kilometres away. The vehicles most often leave Amman in the middle of the night to avoid driving in Iraq after dusk. Almost none of the drivers owns his own vehicle; they are simply the ones hired to negotiate the harrowing journey to Baghdad.
A small man dressed in a flowing white dishdasha, Al-Jarirri walks with a pronounced limp. “Ninety-nine percent” of the travelers on the Amman-to-Baghdad voyage are Iraqis who have fled their war-torn country and are “going back to visit family,” he said.
The highway, a vast desert expanse marked by signs warning of camels, is a rat race of SUVs, leap-frogging one another for the whole 400 kilometres to the Al-Karama border crossing.
Bilal, who has driven the route regularly since the climax of the US-led invasion of his country in 2003, is a 22-year-old from Sadr City, the sprawling, poverty-stricken Shia district in Baghdad. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Bilal applied for a nursing position at Baghdad’s biggest hospital, Madinat Al-Tib — Medicine City. But when he called on his school to obtain his nursing records, Bilal learned that the files had gone missing when looters stole the school’s computers during the chaos that swept over Baghdad in the first days of US occupation.
“All of my records were destroyed. You must have seen this on TV,” he said, referring to the riotous images broadcast around the world in the days following the fall of Baghdad.
“‘You’re free, take what you want,'” Bilal mimicked sardonically, a reference to Rumsfeld’s infamous statement in the second week of April: “Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”
Bilal said he proposed to a woman about a year ago, but her mother refused the marriage because he no longer had a degree and could not acquire decent work without one. So he tried to pay a bribe in order to get a job as a police officer, but it failed to secure him one of the most dangerous jobs on earth.
Instead, he drives the infamous land route, which Iraqis refer to simply as “the highway,” through some of Iraq’s most dangerous areas, including the restive Al-Anbar province.
The highway requires operators to be alert and hyper-vigilant, always on the lookout for US convoys, which require the drivers to pullover as far as possible.
“If we drive too fast, or are too tired to notice the American convoy in the distance, they will shoot me up, and waste my car,” said Bilal, something that has happened more times than anyone knows on the highway and elsewhere throughout Iraq.
The drivers are not permitted to work legally in Jordan, and in Iraq, they are under siege.
“Why do I have to stay up all night to make a simple living,” Bilal said, rubbing his eyes between deep yawns. “We are exhausted. This is no life.”
Usually, Bilal shuttles between four and six passengers per trip. Though each traveler pays 15 Jordanian dinars — about $20 USD — for the ride to Baghdad, Bilal makes only about $40 USD for each round trip, a journey that generally has him away from home for four or five days.
With each trip home, he imports items that his family needs but finds difficult to obtain in Iraq. This time, the precious cargo is boxes of laundry and dish soap.
The dominance that the Suburbans enjoy over the Jordanian road is not broken until about 350 km’s east of Amman, near the town of Al-Ruwayshid. There, they are joined by the bah’haar, or “merchant seamen” — smugglers who run Iraqi gasoline out to Jordan.
Omar Al-Hayek, one of the elder seamen, explains the moniker: “Just as the fishermen who head out onto the sea in search of plenty, for the benefit of those on shore, we are transporting the riches of Iraq: the gas.”
Apparently one of four original seamen, Al-Hayek, said he has been smuggling gas across the border to Jordan since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. Before that, he explained, the smuggling was in the opposite direction, from Jordan to Iraq.
But the end of the war saw Iraq’s oil production skyrocket, reaching levels comparable to those boasted by Saudi Arabia. Al-Hayek describes the years following the war with Iran as the glory days of the merchant seamen.
His car, a baby-blue 1991 Chevrolet Caprice station-wagon, is in relatively decent condition. Given the volatile cargo, it has to be. Yet, juxtaposed against the late-model Suburbans, the seamen’s sedans of ’80s vintage, retro-fitted with large storage tanks that hold up to 500 liters of gas, look decidedly aged and worn. They travel at about half the speed of the Suburbans.
“I take the car into my mechanic after each day, just to make sure everything is right, and safe,” Al-Hayek said.
The smell of fuel in the car is overwhelming. One little flaw – a flat tire, an errant spark, a damaged muffler – could lead to catastrophe.
The border is a mesh of people heading west into Jordan – some are Iraqi workers escaping the rampant unemployment and lack of opportunity in their homeland, some are merchants moving their wares to markets elsewhere. Many others are going to visit family members who have escaped the chaos in Iraq or are themselves fleeing.
Refugee camps on the Jordanian side tell this story in stark relief. They lay off the roadside, hastily constructed of tents with tattered sides flapping in the incessent wind that blows from Saudi Arabia to Syria unimpeded. Small funnel clouds of sand dance about the camps, just one element of the desert’s relentless brutality indefinitely endured by those lacking the funds to escape the new Iraqi nightmare in style.
Although many Iraqis wealthy enough to move out of the war-torn country did so before, or during the initial stages of the war, the ever-deteriorating security situation in Iraq has increased the refugee flow dramatically.
Still others are simply seeking short reprieve: a vacation in Jordan’s resort towns of Aqaba or Petra, or just a hotel in peaceful Amman.
The Fayez family from the Al-Khadimiyah district of Baghdad is one such case. They are taking 10 days to themselves in a three-star hotel in the Jordanian capital. “We need a break,” said Nour, the eldest daughter. “The situation is impossible.”
Nour recently completed high school and should have much to look forward to. But the conditions in Baghdad are so chaotic and unpredictable that daily life has been all but confined to the home, she relayed. “There is no life; there is no hope. We must leave.”
The border is a major conduit for the machinery of occupation as well. Dozens of trucks – many of them tankers importing fuels for the aircraft and armoured vehicles, others supply trucks toting cargo covered by flapping tarps – wait in long line-ups for military escort into Iraq.
[photo: Tankers wait on the Jordanian side of the Iraq border for their American military escorts to arrive and take them into the war zone. (© Jon Elmer 2005)]
In no small part, it is these convoys that make the highway so dangerous, as they are vast, vulnerable and coveted targets for ambush. Their burned-out carcases litter the highway across Iraq as testament.
On the Jordanian side, the border is patrolled by the Jordanian military; on the Iraqi side, it is the US Marine Corps keeping a watchful eye.
The actual border crossing station between Jordan and Iraq looks like most other terminals between nations, with long line-ups and crowds in the various offices. But here at Al-Karama, the language of expedition is spoken in cash.
Caught in a long wait, cars nudging bumpers with hardly an inch between them, a single Jordanian Dinar slipped subtly out the window to an official will secure a key place in the line-up, or may in fact open another lane altogether. With each incremental move, and each official encountered, the appropriate documents are passed out the window, the necessary money stowed inside. Bilal, the veteran driver, is adept at this form of communication.
The Al-Karama border area is patrolled by a unit from the US Marines’ 2nd Division.
Attracted by the sound of English spoken with North American accents, one of the Marines notices that the passport officer is demanding from The NewStandard, a bribe well beyond the usual $1 or $2.
“Hey, ‘hajji,’ you takin’ money? How many times did I tell you not to take money,” barked a 19-year-old Marine named Rusty. The epithet “hajji” is an Arabic term conveying great respect, commonly turned on its head by occupation personnel to disparage Arabs and other brown-skinned people in Iraq. “I tell you, we always have to baby-sit these guys,” Rusty remarked condescendingly.
Rusty said he graduated high school in May 2004 and immediately enlisted. A distinct accent confirmed his claim to North Carolina as home. In March, the Corps deployed him to the border crossing, where he will likely remain until September.
Rusty’s father, also a Marine, only recently returned to the US after serving his own tour in Iraq. “My mom used to worry all the time; now she only worries half the time.”
Rusty, dressed to the brim in uniform — helmet, sunglasses, Kevlar flak jacket with shielding neck-piece, hand on the shaft of his M-16 – was sweating, visibly uncomfortable. “They hate us,” he said. “They sure want us out of their country.”
Asked if he sees himself leaving, Rusty responded without a moment of hesitation. “No way; we’ll be here forever.”
Rusty said his platoon has not experienced much combat. “We raid that village over there all the time,” he said, pointing to the village of Trebil, “but we never find anything.”
Asked if he was disappointed at the lack of action, the Marine nodded slowly. “Yeah, I mean, it would make me feel better about myself,” Rusty said, lifting his helmet to wipe sweat from his forehead.
Hours later in Trebil, a village general store owner named Abu Mustafa sarcastically contested Rusty’s claim of weekly incursions. “Not really,” he said smiling. “Once we went fifteen days without a search.”
Special Notice: NewStandard correspondent Jon Elmer is on assignment for the summer in the Middle East. He is attempting to operate in (or at least cover stories concerning) Iraq before moving on to cover the Israel/Palestine conflict. To support this very important (and expensive) work by Jon and TNS, please sign up to begin donating to our nonprofit organization. Joining for free as a Basic Member will entitle you to once-daily email notices of new, original stories from TNS.
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