Watermelons Replace Bombs on Road to Baghdad

Recent journey along infamous highway invites comparisons with edgier passage at height of insurgency.

Watermelons Replace Bombs on Road to Baghdad

Recent journey along infamous highway invites comparisons with edgier passage at height of insurgency.

Tuesday, 10 November, 2009
Our car crossed the Hamrin hills and slowed down on the outskirts of the town of Uzem, south of Kirkuk.

Two years ago, bandits and insurgents had made this one of Iraq’s most lawless places. Anyone passing through ran a risk of being robbed, killed or abducted. Few would have stopped here voluntarily.

Our driver, a Shia Arab from Baghdad with short hair and large sunglasses, brought the vehicle to a halt near some reed huts.

On either side of the road, farmers were selling watermelons, stacked in piles of three. Most of the men stood in the sun close to their produce, avoiding the shade of their huts despite the scorching heat.

One man alone sat in the shade, wearing a white dishdasha smeared with mud and a red scarf around his head. His watermelons looked relatively old and small. He must have realised they were not worth exposing himself to the heat for.

The passengers – a mixture of Kurds and Arabs, all travelling to Baghdad – disembarked and began inspecting the melons.

I struck up a conversation with a young farmer – a boy of 12, who gave his name as Rokan. He said he had dropped out of school three years ago. His long hair hid his ears and the nape of his neck.

The summer heat had burnt the skin on his face and arms. As he spoke, a set of large, rotten teeth appeared behind cracked lips.

My fellow passengers finished their purchases and began loading more than a dozen watermelons into the trunk of the car.

I was about to get back in the vehicle when Rokan held up a hand and waved at me to wait. He grabbed a watermelon and took a step towards me. A second later, he put it down and picked up another.

Then he put that one down too and chose a third watermelon. After tapping it to check it was still fresh, he handed it to me. “This is for you,” he said.

I was really touched. Trucks, buses and small cars were constantly pulling up along the road for their passengers to pick watermelons.

I did not buy any but I had been glad for the chance to talk to Rokan. He too must have been hoping that someone would stop and talk to him about something other than watermelons.

I first travelled along this road in April 2003, days after the American military invaded Iraq.

I remember a flat agricultural landscape on the base of the Hamrin hills, where barely a soul stirred. Even the road was empty. It seemed as if everyone was staying indoors, waiting to see what would happen next.

During the height of the insurgency, I passed through again several times.

On one occasion, on the southern outskirts of Uzem, the traffic grew thick. Scores of cars had pulled over.

It turned out that the American military had blocked the road ahead with their trucks. We did not know why.

I wanted to find out what was going on, so I took the potentially fatal risk of leaving my vehicle to approach an American soldier.

I cautiously walked over to the roadblock and found a man lying on the ground, bleeding heavily. He was a Kurdish truck driver, and he had been transporting blast walls from a factory in Erbil to the violent town of Baquba, just north of Baghdad.

The blast walls were intended to protect the police stations and government institutions that were under attack from Baquba’s insurgents and al-Qaeda fighters.

The driver’s convoy had itself just come under attack from a group of armed men. Their vehicles had been sprayed with bullets. One of the trucks had been set on fire and rolled off into the desert.

The injured man and the American soldiers could not understand each other, so I acted as their interpreter.

An American officer told me they had radioed for a helicopter to evacuate the man. I passed this on to the driver, who complained at first, saying he wanted to be left alone.

But the prospect of riding on a military helicopter must have appealed to him, because he soon changed his mind and even smiled at his fellow drivers.

The helicopter eventually picked him up, landing and taking off in a blinding storm of dust.

Since that journey two years ago, Iraq has grown a little calmer.

Though the American military has withdrawn from many of the big cities, it maintains a presence in the area around Kirkuk, along a tense frontline between the Kurds and Arabs.

We encountered them again on this latest journey. As our car approached an American convoy, a young soldier riding in the last vehicle waved us past, allowing us to overtake.

In the past, this would have been impossible. The gunner at the rear, usually nervous, would have signaled other vehicles to stay back, creating a traffic jam behind the convoy.

The area around Uzem is still not entirely secure. Most people still try to make sure they have no reason to remain on the roads after dusk.

But two years ago, the traffic would have passed through as quickly as possible, hearts and engines racing.

Today, it stops to inspect the juicy watermelons that have replaced the roadside bombs along this route.

Ayub Nuri is a freelance reporter and former IWPR radio editor based in Halabja.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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