Special Report

The War Before the Last War

A tiny southern peninsula still bears the wounds of Iran vs. Iraq.

Previous: Peter Chilson on waiting out the coup in Mali. 

I decided to start in the south, checking the conditions at the river border between Al Faw, Iraq, and the Arab province of Khuzestan, Iran. Al Faw is a tiny teardrop of land between Iran and Kuwait, and its northern border with Iran is the last few miles of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which demarcates the southernmost border of Iraq and Iran, stretching between Basra and the Persian Gulf. The river is narrow enough that my mobile phone chimed periodically to let me know that I would be charged roaming rates on MCI, the largest Iranian cell-phone network, if I made calls.

Without Al Faw and the nearby port of Umm Qasr, on Iraq's border with Kuwait, Iraq would have no outlet or claim to the sea. So the Shatt al-Arab became the scene of intense fighting in the Iran-Iraq War, with Iran seizing it in 1986 and holding it for another two years. During that time the whole peninsula was militarized and its population sent packing for other Iraqi cities. Some Fawis eventually returned, and other Iraqis were induced to move there to repopulate the place. An Iraqi in the nearby city of Basra told me that the whole peninsula had been battered with artillery during that back-and-forth, so that "not a single square meter was untouched by fire."

On the summer days when I visited, the heat felt like napalm burning the air. The peninsula was quiet, with most everyone inside sleeping through the noonday sun. The only ones outside were the real natives, the fishermen docked across the river from Iran -- them, and the bushlambo, a species of Persian Gulf mudskipper that is abundant in Al Faw and flapped merrily around the boats' wooden hulls. The bushlambo presumably had no idea how terribly hot their home was, though the humans had spent enough time in exile that I would have expected them to know better.

"Al Faw was a paradise on Earth," said Musa Yaqub Abdullah al-Rashid, 58, about his home before the war. He had returned two years after the occupation. "There was fishing. There were date farms." Now, he said, the place remained wrecked, not just by the war, which reduced every structure to rubble, but also by the ongoing machinations of the Iranians, whose flag was visible across the water. On the road into Al Faw from Basra, one could see government projects to provide fresh water. Fawis said that the water that once fed the date farms had turned brackish due to Iranians' diverting rivers from the area and thereby making the farmland unusable, as if to salt the fields of the conquered, even decades after the conquest.

Jawhar Talib Jawhar, 51, the captain of a boat called the Ishtar, said that the waters around Al Faw had once been prime fishing grounds and that in his youth he could slip across the national border to poach fish or even visit the Arab Iranians on the other side. After the war, the border had become fixed and inviolable. That Iranian flag in the distance marked a patrol that would instantly come to intercept him if he chased fish too close to the Iranian side. "They detain us, and they treat us badly," he said, adding that the Kuwaitis were much worse, though their waters were correspondingly richer in fish and therefore worth violating now and then.

In a way, though, the old men of Al Faw had been spared the worst of the war. Their land had received the scorched-earth treatment, and on their return it was essentially a new place, with every vestige of the old removed, and indeed every vestige of the Iranian occupation removed as well. The land is now a palimpsest whose best version has been rubbed out and scribbled over in multiple drafts, leaving little even to remind of the fight that did the initial rubbing and scribbling.

Next: Matthieu Aikins on traveling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border by truck. 


Special Report


A reporter travels the treacherous Pakistan-Afghanistan border by truck.

Previous: Graeme Wood on the tiny peninsula that's still reeling from the Iran-Iraq war.

After days of negotiations, our truck, festooned with embossed metal decorations and hauling a navy-blue container of foodstuff marked WAN HAI, finally set off along the highway that skirts the northern edge of Karachi, carrying in its cramped cabin me and my friend Sardar as well as the two Pashtun truck-driving brothers who had agreed to take us all the way from Pakistan's port megacity over the Hindu Kush to Afghanistan. It didn't take long, however, before the four of us were introduced to two of the principal impediments encountered by anyone trying to go overland from Pakistan to Afghanistan: bribery and breakdown.

As we connected onto the main highway heading north to Hyderabad, a Suzuki motorcycle swung in front of us, bearing two tubby traffic cops in white uniforms. The cop on the back got down and came over, and he spoke sharply to our driver, Jahangir, through the truck's window. Ignoring the folded 100-rupee note that Jahangir offered, the officer made him get out of the truck and began an angry pantomime. We watched them gesticulate -- the cop's motions domineering, Jahangir's placatory -- and finally, they exchanged the truck's documents for some cash, and Jahangir got back inside. "How much?" his brother and assistant Ahmad asked. "400," Jahangir replied.

That was about $4, which was a little higher than normal, Ahmad explained, because their registration papers were for hauling an oil tank, not the shipping container they now carried. Nor, for that matter, did Jahangir have his driver's license, which the traffic police had taken from him earlier in the week, something neither of them seemed concerned about despite the fact that he was about to drive a truck 1,000 miles across the border into Afghanistan. "They don't need papers," Sardar said, seeing the expression on my face. "They know that the only thing that can solve their problems is money."

The truck pulled onto the main four-lane highway that led north through Sindh province and, beyond that, the rich Pakistani heartland of Punjab, before starting to climb up into the Hindu Kush mountain range, into Afghanistan. Thousands of trucks and billions of dollars in supplies have passed over these roads since late 2001 to feed the 11-year war in Afghanistan. Outer Karachi's dilapidated factories and car dealerships quickly gave way to fields and strips of one-story shops. Before we had driven for even an hour, however, Jahangir pulled over onto a wide dirt lot in front of a mechanic's shop. The muffler, he explained. The truck, an old Nissan diesel, was generally in poor condition, flaps of rubber flaking off the tires on the trailer -- I knew it was going to be a long ride.

The shop's grubby, whitewashed walls were painted with green and red Pashto writing: "Welcome," then the name and phone number of the owner, and next "Pardes," a Pashto word for someone who lives away from home. It's a sad word, more melancholy than "traveler" or "stranger." Under the awning, dangling from metal poles and wires, propped up on sticks, or sitting on the hard-packed dirt floor, was a collection of sundry objects that gave the shop a post-apocalyptic feel: decorative metal plates from trucks, including a red rose; a stack of rusting suspension leaf springs, big like dinosaur ribs; an ancient, box-shaped power distributor, yellow with a pair of painted pheasants; a row of colorful jacks; an anvil; a rack of flat piston casings hung high like hunting trophies; grease-encrusted oil drums; and a spindly chair welded out of wobbly iron bars that might have been designed by Giacometti.

Sardar and I got out of the truck and wandered through the heat to a scattering of the rope beds known as charpoys beneath a bedraggled acacia tree, as Jahangir and Ahmad watched one of the mechanics spot-weld the muffler back onto the exhaust pipe with an acetylene torch. After a failed attempt to get back on the road (this time the transmission wouldn't shift into gear), the mechanic came sauntering out again and squatted down to peer at the gearbox. "Don't worry; it won't take very long to fix," he said, and then left for Friday prayers. He returned two hours later and took apart the gearbox. "It's fine for now, but you'll need to get it properly fixed when you come back," he warned. We set back out.

Traffic in Pakistan drives on the left, British-style. Jahangir kept the truck in the right-hand passing lane, where the asphalt was generally better, and traffic swarmed past us. Even so, the truck -- which traveled at no more than the speed of a fit bicyclist -- jarred violently over the tiniest bumps, and in certain gears the engine itself shook the cabin. Outside, the rice fields and mango orchards of rural Sindh scrolled by. It was late in the afternoon, but the day's heat continued unabated. Possibly as a result of the busted muffler, the engine's exhaust rose up around the back of the cab, heating up the back wall, its glass window becoming too hot to touch. More than once, after the heat and motion lulled me to sleep, I woke gasping for air and soaked in sweat.

It was better to sit up in the middle and talk, as Ahmad rolled a spliff of hash and passed it to his older brother. Jahangir was 34 (though he looked older) and had a son, a daughter, and another son who had died in infancy, he told me; Ahmad, 26, was unmarried. They had grown up in the Khyber Pass town of Landi Kotal, near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, where they lived in a large compound with more than 100 members of their extended family. Jahangir had bought a truck four years ago, after a 10-year apprenticeship as a conductor. The brothers had started off hauling oil tanks for NATO's supply line, which had been good money for them, netting upwards of $500 a run as often as twice a month. Then in November 2011, Pakistan closed the border to the supply line in response to an errant U.S. airstrike that killed 24 of its soldiers. After five months of waiting, Jahangir decided to switch to hauling private containers, which was much less lucrative but at least it was work.

It would take us between four and five days to get to the border. Besides the physical dangers of driving through the hazardous traffic and mountain roads, the threat of an attack by bandits or the Taliban, and the risk of being kidnapped for ransom, by either our hosts or someone else who realized I was a foreigner, there was also the fact that any Pakistani police officer or soldier would be extremely nonplussed, to say the least, to find a Canadian journalist in a transit truck. Fortunately, I had been told the police were interested in extracting bribes only from the truck driver, not his passengers. The first real challenge would be the Kohat Tunnel, a 1.2-mile passage that cuts through the mountains south of Peshawar. After multiple militant attacks in the tunnel, the Pakistani Army introduced checkpoints with stringent searches on either side. Soldiers did not take petty bribes, and they were checking the documents of everyone who passed. After that was the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a territory strictly off-limits to foreigners, just as the Torkham border crossing was afterward. A special permit called a "no-objection certificate" was required, but despite months of coaxing the civilian press office, I still didn't have one. We were going so slowly, however, that I'd have a few more days to think about what to do.

As darkness fell, we lurched on slowly into the night, our headlights illuminating an arc of pavement on the unlit highway, throwing shadows against the lush tropical orchards that hemmed us in. Traveling in their own pools of light were fellow trucks, sometimes with little motorcycles drafting behind them and occasionally a fast-moving vehicle, a Corolla or the new black Hilux pickup of a landlord and his men. Rural Sindh was a dangerous place, the worst stretch of road before the tribal areas. At night, the bandits came out. On the edge of the highway, a police pickup and cops in slovenly black uniforms, cradling AK-47s, lurked like predators. "Sometimes they change their clothes and rob vehicles," Jahangir said.

The sun had set hours ago, but the night was still stifling hot, the air heavy with the scent of diesel exhaust and fetid rice fields. The road was potholed due to the monsoon rains, and the cabin lurched violently. Jahangir smoked joint after joint and blared cassettes of old Hindi music to stay alert, swaying his shoulders and waving his hands to lines like "Those who love cannot know fear/And those who fear cannot know love." I looked at my watch -- it was well past midnight. The lights from the highway swam in the liquid arc of the windshield. With the heat and the motion and the blasting music, it was impossible to sleep. There was nothing to do but stay up, watch the road, and try some of Jahangir's hash.

Next: Paul Salopek on his seven-year journey to retrace the footsteps of early humans.