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Nomads in Hussein's Reach

Even the Bedouins, whose tough but free way of life in the desert posed no threat to the dictator, got caught in his regime's tentacles.

June 13, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

NEAR THE IRAQ-KUWAIT BORDER — Sheik Wallay Rakan draws no lines in time, no measurements in months or days. His life moves in seasons. The signposts that mark his road are the births of his children, the loss of his camels, the death of his eldest son.

So he can't tell the exact year when the black days began. But when he had to sell his last, favorite camel, Aliyan, he knew he was losing his grip on survival.

He sits cross-legged, his back ramrod straight, under the roof of chaotically stitched sacks that line his low, black-wool Bedouin tent. His face is chiseled, proud, impassive. His eyes are as black and mournful as the story he tells.

His son brings a tin bowl of tart sheep's milk, and Rakan watches sharply as a guest receives his hospitality, then smiles with approval when a compliment is offered. Before the day is out, he'll be offering to slaughter a sheep for the stranger under his roof.

Rambling through the desert, singing to the sky, playing games with stones to pass the time, Bedouin nomads in southern Iraq seemingly posed scant threat to Saddam Hussein. Yet even they were caught up in his regime's tentacles, which curbed their freedom and hastened the decline of their ancient way of life. Their experience illuminates just how thoroughly the Hussein regime dominated the lives of ordinary Iraqis, even those far from the world of cities and politics.

Out in the flat desert sands, Bedouins such as Rakan and his friend Shaty Bassat tried to avoid officialdom, shunning the documents and pieces of paper that inundate a city dweller. They were not interested in a regulated life or the man called Saddam Hussein.

But officialdom was interested in them. And even out in the sandy plains, there was no way to escape the regime, which reached everything, like fine dust blasted by the wind into every crevice.

Hussein's regime banned them from wandering freely across the border to relatives in Kuwait. Their teenage sons were conscripted for the army, where those who deserted were often caught and executed. In a final blow, Hussein diverted the rivers running south to block water to resistance forces. That was catastrophic for the Bedouins, whose source of life dried up.

"I don't care for governments or politics. It's not my business," said Bassat, whose family of six usually travels close to Rakan's. "All I did was I took my animals and my family and traveled from place to place.

"In my father's time there was no Saddam," he said through an interpreter. "You could go wherever you wanted and stay wherever you wanted. It was a beautiful life."

They call that time "before." The precise years are hazy, but one of the main dividing lines between "before" and the present desolation was 1991, when the government cut the water supplies to areas of southeastern Iraq to punish rebel factions.

Rakan, 61, said he had to sell his three camels after that because he could not find feed for them in the desert. He also sold his horse and all but two of his 15 donkeys. He has just 30 sheep left, a fraction of what he once owned.

"Aliyan was my friend," he said, with a fond smile for his favorite camel, whom he suspects was turned over to butchers after he sold it. "He was very smart. I'd put the water on his back, and he'd find his own way home. When I smoked, he came up to me because I used to give him a puff of my cigarette. I put the cigarette near his nose, and he inhaled it.

"I kept Aliyan to the end, then I had to sell him. When I started to lose my animals it was a huge loss for me, because it is my life."

Their memories of the past are not idealized. Life was always tough; but now, they say, it's becoming impossible. They cling to a precarious existence -- camping for a few weeks at a time at one place or another, usually near a highway or settlement where they can get water.

Under Hussein, they became dependent on food rations. With the rations gone, the families are selling off their remaining livestock to buy food -- typically bread, sugary tea and homemade sheep's yogurt. Sometimes they have rice or lentils.

A grown sheep fetches the equivalent of $100. They used to sell only the lambs, to keep the size of their flocks stable. But both men's flocks have gradually shrunk, and in time they could lose all their animals, and their only means of income.

"Of course we love our animals, but what can we do, if there's not enough food for them and not enough water? It's difficult to survive with our animals. We can't live without salaries in this new world," Rakan said.

At 54, Bassat appears much older, with a hacking cough. He passes his time sitting, smoking, worrying about survival.

As a young man, shepherding his sheep, Bassat wafted dreamily through the hours. Neither Rakan, Bassat nor their children went to school.

"I'd call my sheep with a special call. I'd drive my camels and take all the animals, the cows, the sheep and horses and donkeys, all together into the big desert until early evening," Bassat said.

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