SURAGLA, Iraq – In this rough-hewn border hamlet in the jagged Qandil Mountains, where armed guerrillas are the law and the whistle of artillery is the soundtrack, most villagers no longer bother to seek shelter when the bombs start falling.
A ceaseless, nearly invisible war criss-crossing the borders between Turkey, Iran and Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq has left thousands of impoverished Kurdish farmers resigned to their grim fate.
“Our lives are worthless because today we build up our house, tomorrow it will be destroyed by shelling – that’s our life,” said farmer Ahmed Abdullah. “Now, every day we wish for death.”
The undeclared war, pitting Turkish and Iranian armed forces against Kurdish separatist fighters based in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, has been waged for years with tacit approval from the U.S., which supplies the Turkish military with intelligence on the guerrillas. And when the Turkish military plans an artillery barrage in the area, officers give American troops advance notice, according to U.S. soldiers working in the region.
Local villagers are not so lucky and, while no solid numbers are available, there have been many reports of civilian deaths and injuries. In March, a 2-year-old boy was killed near the Iranian border, and earlier this month, a farmer was badly injured by shrapnel.
More often, the attacks kill livestock, set pastures and farms ablaze and flatten homes. In between shelling, shepherds who graze their sheep along the poorly-marked border must worry about being captured by Iranian troops, a fate that has befallen at least nine Iraqi Kurds in the past month, according to local officials.
The fighting makes an already grinding existence, scratched out from unforgiving terrain through bee-keeping, herding, and subsistence farming, nearly impossible. At least 8,000 Kurds have fled the fighting, creating a refugee crisis in surrounding cities, according to the Refugee Office of Soran, a government organization that works with Kurdish refugees.
For many villagers, who have scant formal education, city life offers little hope.
“If I go back there I’m going to starve or be a beggar, but here I have some bees, I have some cows – that’s my life,” said Suragla resident Muhammad Hussein.
For villagers like Hussein, staying in the mountains means always keeping an ear out for the sinister whistle of artillery shells flying overhead. The gaunt villagers of Suragla say their children have developed psychological problems from the constant bombardments.
“The shelling comes and the children cry,” said Hamin Azziz, as her children played near a makeshift earthen bomb shelter. “We lie to the children. We tell them it’s just thunder. But now they understand it’s not thunder.”
The governments of Turkey and Iran say they are defending themselves against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which seeks to establish an independent Kurdish state within Turkey, and their Iranian counterparts, the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK). Both groups are branded terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.
An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 such militants operate inside Iraq’s borders, according Kurdish military officials. And the two guerrilla groups virtually control a large swath of rugged mountain territory, openly operating checkpoints and even carrying out police and judicial functions when villagers have disputes, according to militants interviewed for this article.
Kurdish soldiers are afraid to venture into the region, and the U.S. government has declared much of the area off-limits to its soldiers.
A PJAK political officer interviewed near the Iranian border said his group takes care of civilians, building bomb shelters and maintaining law and order in a kind of Wild West, where the authority of Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government stops at the first makeshift PJAK checkpoint.
Dressed in the traditional baggy tunic of Kurdish fighters, the officer, who would only give his nickname, “Heresh,” dismissed the complaints of Kurdish officials that guerrillas like him are uninvited guests causing neighboring civil wars to spill into Iraq.
“Our political philosophy says this is Kurdistan and we can stay anywhere we want,” he said. “There’s no Iraqi or Iranian land – it’s Kurdish land.”
With all of the animosity between the U.S. and Iran, Heresh says he is puzzled that the U.S. has declared PJAK terrorists and frozen the group’s assets.
“Now you have a problem with Iran – now we are your friend,” he said.
The war presents a delicate situation for the Kurdistan Regional Government, which presides over Iraq’s three-province autonomous Kurdish region. Turkey and Iraq are both vital trading partners for the region but the dominant political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both have historic ties to the PKK separatists. Those ties, in turn, have long fueled Turkish suspicions that Iraq’s Kurdish region might someday seek to break away from Iraq and form the nucleus of a broader Kurdish homeland.
For their part, Kurdish political and military officials condemn the cross-border bombardments launched by the separatists, but say there is little they can do to stop them.
“The PKK shouldn’t stay here anymore,” said Maj. Gen. Ahmed Fazladin, who oversees military operations on the Kurdish region’s approximately 600 miles of international borders. “They should go back to Turkey if they have a problem with Turkey.”
But Fazladin, like every Kurdish commander interviewed for this article, said his soldiers cannot reach the militants, who are dug into some of the most rugged terrain in the Middle East.
It’s a common answer from Kurdish military officials, though a Stripes reporter reached PJAK militants just a few kilometers from a Kurdish border patrol station with little trouble.
U.S. military officials have kept a low profile in the area, looking the other way at dug-in Turkish military positions several kilometers inside of Iraq’s border and generally barring U.S. troops from traveling in much of the region.
U.S. Army soldiers with Border Transition Team 4100, a group that oversees operations throughout Kurdistan, have instead concentrated on humanitarian efforts, concerned about the danger posed by desperate, impoverished villagers living near Iran, a country the U.S. has long accused of fueling the Iraqi insurgency. The team has worked to get food and other aid to civilians affected by the shelling.
“These type of people are vulnerable to exploitation and the kind of activity we don’t want along the border,” said U.S. Army Maj. Jim Lawson, who helps oversee border patrol training.
On a dust-blown, sweltering plain in the shadow of the Qandil Mountains, a collection of tents that blend with the drab tan surroundings lies just off the area’s main highway. Here, near the city of Qaladza, whole families huddle to escape the afternoon heat, driven from their homes by the fighting and forgotten, they say, by their government.
In the distance, the refugees can often see puffy mushroom clouds rise as their former homes are pounded into dust by artillery. “We don’t have a house, we don’t have sheep, we don’t have cows,” said Hamad Rosul Ibrahim, a resident of the grim refugee camp. “We have nothing left but these tents.”