Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Donkeys Put Out to Grass

Iraqi beasts of burden face an uncertain future after their owners replace them with cheap stolen cars.
By Hazim al-Sharaa

One unlikely side-effect of the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime has been the sad fate of Iraq’s hard-working donkeys.

These beasts of burden once commanded the same price and prestige as a good second-hand car, but their value has dropped dramatically after the overthrow of Saddam led to an influx of used and stolen vehicles into Iraq.

For years strictly a luxury item, cars were suddenly affordable to the masses.

In northern Iraq, donkeys once commanded a price tag of around 300 US dollars, but many have now been abandoned.

A good number can be found grazing at the side of the Kirkuk to Sulymania highway. Some of these strays - who are affectionately known as “Abu Sabr” or father of patience in Iraq - have been killed after wandering into the heavily-mined hills and valleys of Kurdistan in search of food.

In Sulaimaniyah, horse- and donkey-drawn carts have become a thing of the past. Instead, locals buy cheap vehicles – many former government cars stolen in Baghdad and driven north – from the makeshift car auctions that have sprung up on the outskirts of the city.

Ahmed Salih, from the village of Sarkent near Shoorbache on the Iranian border, told IWPR that donkeys had been invaluable during the time of Saddam’s sanctions, which led to a fuel shortage. “Wood from the mountains was our only means of cooking and heating. Because we relied on donkeys so much, the price for each animal rose sharply,” he explained.

The animals aren’t entirely redundant, however. “There are still some places that cars cannot get to and so we use donkeys and horses, especially now that you can buy a donkey for only two dollars,” he continued.

Many smugglers who live and work in the Kurdish mountains still prefer to stick to the more traditional modes of transport.

“Horses are fine,” said Bakr Hassan, sitting on his doorstep in the shade of an immense satellite dish. “They’re fast and carry heavy loads.”

Hassan told IWPR that they can change hands for as much as 1,500 dollars.

Further north, in the hills of Qash Mach, smugglers were leading a convoy of horses loaded with crates of beer towards the Iranian border.

Kareem Jamali, a 19-year-old Iranian Kurd, said he had bought his horse for 400 dollars. “He can follow the trails without me so I don’t get arrested,” he said proudly. “It’s common practice.”

But villagers and shepherds can hardly wait to abandon their animals in favour of a new set of wheels.

On the Malka Awa pass in the Azmar mountains, shepherd Abdool Haj Ahmed was making slow progress along the road with his sheep, in the company of a donkey laden with his belongings.

He has tried to get rid of his donkey a number of times, he said, but the loyal animal won’t take the hint.

“If you want my donkey, I’ll give you him for free,” he said. “I’ve left him more than once, but he always comes back to me.”

Ahmed planned to buy a looted car when he reached the town of Shahrazoore, leaving his former constant companion to an uncertain fate by the side of the road.

Hazim al-Sharaa is an IWPR trainee.