Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Escape from Iraq: Emil Somekh's story (Part 2)
Emil Somekh's family was among the first to try a new smuggling route through Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq (Kurdistan) and into Iran, then friendly to Israel
Here is the second part of Emil Somekh's nail-biting account of how he escaped from Iraq in September 1970:
It was a long trip of several hours. In the evening we finally reached Sulaymaniyah and the taxi took us to the open air restaurant where we had fixed our rendez-vous with the smuggler. I noticed that the place was nearly empty and the smuggler was nowhere to be found. After some time he showed up stealthily and told me that he had spotted some secret government agents in the place and that he could not take us now.
He advised us to sit there, order food and he would come to pick us up later. As we were eating some starter delicacies I was wondering if it could be our last meal. We also ordered main dishes with grilled meat on skewers. But it was delayed. I was thinking that the smuggler might come at any time and I did not want to miss the delicious meal. I went to the place where they prepared the meat on the fire and I was urging them to hurry up. Just as the meat was ready, the smuggler arrived. So I asked them to wrap the grilled skewers for us and we paid and left the restaurant with the smuggler.
Just as we left the restaurant we saw the smuggler’s truck. It was a standard truck for transporting goods with a cabin that could seat just two passengers besides the driver. So my father, mother and my young sister Zetta squeezed besides the driver. The funny thing was that Zetta was then 12 years and she was dressed in a mini-skirt and high-heel shoes. No matter how much we entreated her in Baghdad to wear something more suitable, our requests fell on the deaf ears of a typical teenager. So my mother had to cover her legs with a cloth as she squeezed between my father and mother beside the driver!
My brother Terry and I were instructed by the main smuggler to climb on top of the driver's cabin and to sit there in full view with our Baghdadi clothes, which were completely out of place in this area where everybody was dressed in Kurdish clothes. The smuggler told us that if the army stopped him he planned to tell them that our car has broken down and he had found us and picked us up! That is why he did not give us any Kurdish clothes to wear and he left us in our Baghdadi clothes. So it looked to me that maybe he was preparing simply to abandon us to the Iraqi army at the first obstacle – not an easy feeling at the start of the second phase of our perilous journey into the unknown!
In a short while I realized how perilous our escape really was! It turned out that the route the smuggler chose took us right through the Iraqi army camps. It seemed that according to the terms of the armistice agreement signed in March of that year between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish rebels, the Iraqi army was supposed to give free passage to the Kurdish fighters.
It was like a scene from a James Bond movie. My brother and I were sitting openly at the top of the driver's cabin, in full view of the soldiers in the Iraqi army camps. I was incredulously looking down at the Iraqi soldiers going about their business - just a few hours earlier we had been in Baghdad, scared of our own shadows. We took a few minutes to pass several Iraqi army bases. We saw tanks, trucks, soldiers, and army barracks. Then the smuggler told me and my brother to get down from the top of the driver's cabin and to sit inside the enclosed part of the truck, where goods are usually stored. He said the fact that all the army camps we passed till now have not stopped us is nothing since they could have radioed to the last camp, which we were arriving to and they could stop us there. My father, mother and sister were still sitting beside the driver, in full view of everybody.
As we entered the last army camp, the smuggler started to pray. I knew we were entering the really serious phase of our escape. My brother Terry was looking through a hole in the truck’s side and I kept asking him whether we were out of the camp. It was a really big camp; the last Iraqi army camp before the Kurdish autonomous area. It took us about 10 minutes to pass through this camp. Finally we reached a bridge that had Iraqi soldiers at either end. This was the last bridge controlled by the Iraqi army before the Kurdish Autonomous Region. The soldiers at the start of the bridge waved us through. But as we approached the end of the bridge we saw the soldiers giving a sign to stop.
At this moment, instead of stopping, the driver put his foot on the gas pedal and speeded up. A shouting match ensued between the Iraqi soldiers and the armed smuggler and his assistant Kurdish fighter, who were hanging out of either side of the truck. We zoomed past the soldiers stationed at the end of the bridge and I waited for the shooting to start as we rapidly travelled away from them. But the shooting never occurred and we sped away from the soldiers around the bend of the road and into the mountains.
My take of the encounter was that the soldiers had met the smuggler and his team before when they were moving goods along this road. According to the armistice agreement signed half a year earlier in March between the Iraqi government and the Kurds, the government soldiers were not supposed to stop the Kurdish smuggler. But seeing that he had Baghdadi people with him was something new - and that is the reason why the soldiers probably wanted him to stop. He decided to take his chance and he dared not stop. He called their bluff and they did not dare start a firefight with him - this could ruin the armistice agreement.
As we turned the bend in the road into the mountain and away from the Iraqis, I though the difficult part of our escape was over. It was 2 am in the morning and a moonless night. But suddenly the driver turned off the main headlights of the truck as he drove along the narrow mountain road. I asked the smuggler why: he said we were now in an area with no government. It had become a No Man's Land full of dangerous bandits. We travelled without lights along these dangerous mountain roads to avoid being spotted by the bandits. After about one hour of driving we stopped for a rest by a mountain stream.
We decided to eat the meat that we had picked up at the restaurant in Sulaymaniyah at the start of our journey with the smuggler. It was totally quiet in the mountain; we just heard the sound of the flowing water. I was a bit nervous and I preferred chatting with the smuggler. He was boasting to us about the weapons supplied to the Kurds by the Israelis and how he had smuggled the arms to the Kurdish fighters.
After resting we continued our journey in the truck towards the Iranian border. We were about to reach the part of our journey where we would have to continue by foot. The smuggler was saying to me that my mother has packed too many clothes in the suitcases he had taken from us and they were too heavy to carry in our journey on foot. He asked me to open them and throw away some of the contents, without my mother knowing. I told him I did not want to do this. He gave up on the idea.
Finally we reached a spot in the mountains where the truck stopped and we continued on foot, the smuggler assisting us with the suitcases. My young sister was still wearing her heels and she had difficulty walking on the mountain trail. We walked for about half an hour. As we were walking along a road alongside the mountain, the smuggler said we had to stop there: we were very near the border and he could not continue with us. The Iranians might accept us but for him it was dangerous to get close to the Iranian border post. He said he would leave us there and we should wait till daybreak and then continue along this road until we reached the Iranian border post.
He said he would be waiting a close by in a Kurdish village called Tuwaila and if the Iranians turn us back he would take us back to Baghdad! It was a crazy idea, I thought – coming all the way here to the Iranian border and then having to return back to Baghdad - no way, I said to myself! The smuggler wanted to leave, but my mother did not accept and told him to wait with us. So he stayed.
But he was nervous. We were sitting there by a deserted road at the edge of the mountain, all five of us in Baghdadi clothes, our suitcases around us, in this location in the mountains, which the smuggler claimed was very close to the border, hoping that he was telling the truth. As time passed, the smuggler was getting more and more nervous and he kept asking my mother to let him go because he was scared of the Iranians. Finally my father, who was restless and pacing back and forth, got angry at my mother and he told her that she should let him go.
Now we had to give him half the money, as agreed – 1, 000 Dinars – and give him a code word that he could relay to my uncle Naim back in Baghdad so that he could claim the other half – another 1,000 Dinars! Now a code word had been agreed with my uncle to indicate whether the escape route was a good one - since we were the first to try it, and other Jews would need to use it. I had agreed with my uncle that if I felt it was a good and safe escape route then the code word would be TV – if it was an average escape route, then the code word would be RADIO. My uncle’s wife said jokingly back in Baghdad that if it was a bad road then the code word would be GRAMOPHONE.
At this point I could not faithfully convey a meaningful message to others who might follow about how good and safe the route was. The road itself was quite dangerous passing through the Iraqi army camps. The smuggler had not been frank with us about this at all, knowing that we would never have come with him had he told us. It was clear he was using us as guinea pigs to try this escape route out and, by keeping us in our Baghdadi clothes, he was hedging his bets and planning simply to turn us over to the Iraqi army if he could not pass through. There was also the very tense and dangerous near-armed confrontation with the Iraqi soldiers at the end of the last bridge before the Kurdish area.
To cap it all, we were now in some location in the mountains, without really knowing how near the Iranian border we really were. We had to take the smuggler's word for it. So according to all these factors the code word should actually have been GRAMOPHONE. But on the other hand I thought maybe he was telling the truth, and we were very close to the border.
I thought if I said GRAMOPHONE then all the Jews of Baghdad would think that something really bad had happened to us and their imaginations would run wild with theories of what had befallen us! So I decided to hope for the best and assume the smuggler was telling the truth - that we were close to the border. In that case, what we went through was nothing if the outcome was successful in leaving the Iraqi hellhole and reaching freedom in Iran!
So I gave the smuggler his 1,000 Dinars and told him the code word was TV!
We bade him farewell and he left us. Before leaving, he told us to wait until the first sign of daybreak. We should then continue along the road to the Iranian border post, which he assured us was just around the bend in the road. He said my mother and sister should go about 100 meters ahead so that the Iranian soldiers would see women first. He also warned us that if any local people passed by us then we should continue immediately to the Iranian post.
We sat there in the middle of nowhere, waiting for daybreak. Time passed slowly. We were listening to the sounds of wild animals that roamed the forests of the mountains at the Iraqi-Iranian border. Just as were seeing the first small signs of daybreak, we saw a local Kurdish man coming towards us. He saw us sitting there, completely out of place, but he just greeted us, SALAM ALEIKUM, and continued on his way.
At this point we decided to move on. Just as the smuggler instructed, my mother and sister went first and we followed them, carrying our bags. Just as the smuggler said, as soon as we turned the bend in the road we saw the Iranian border post in the distance. Since my mother and sister were not carrying anything and we were laden with bags, some distance opened between us. I saw far away that the border crossing had gone up and that my mother and sister had gone through. We continued with the suitcases and soon reached the border post and went in. The Iranian soldiers escorted us to their commander’s cabin, which was atop a mountain overlooking the whole area. Just as we climbed to his post, the sun came out and we saw the most beautiful view we could have set eyes on – right at our feet, down in the valley, we saw the whole route that we had travelled at night with the smuggler. When he had pointed in the darkness towards some point in the mountain and said that was where the Iranian command post was, he was referring to the place where we were now. The commander told us to look down at awful Iraq: he gave us his binoculars to look through.
My father, who has been in Persia for a short time about 30 years earlier, was so exhilarated that he suddenly started talking Persian! He remembered what he had learnt in that short time, 30 years ago. We learned that the reason for the warm welcome we got from the Iranians was that the border posts were alerted by the government of the Iranian Shah, which had good relations with Israel, that Iraqi Jews were trying to escape. Still, we were the first Jews who have escaped through this specific border post. After a short time at the border post, we were taken by military car to the nearest Iranian army camp for interrogation. There were two major offenses for which you could be killed in Iran: if you were smuggling drugs or if you were a communist. My father told the interrogators that we were Jews and we are neither communists nor drug smugglers. We were treated very nicely by the Iranian soldiers in this army camp. The camp commander’s wife cooked lunch for us. At night, some of the soldiers gave us their beds to sleep in. The next morning they got us a mini-bus and we were sent, with armed escort, to the nearest big city - Kermanshah - to continue our interrogation.
In Kermanshah we were put under arrest in a hotel. Delicious meals were brought to our rooms - white rice with chelo kebab was my favorite. Just before leaving Baghdad, I had bought shoes with thick soles for me, my father and brother. I had opened the soles and put several $100 bills in each shoe and then glued the soles back. With these shoes, full with the $100 bills, we had crossed the Iranian border. Now my father said that his shoes were dusty and needed cleaning and polishing. So he decided to send them out to a local shoe polish boy.
No matter how much I tried to convince him that there was too much money in them to just send them out, he persisted. The shoes came back with the money inside. I assume the kid who polished it would never again have so much money so close to hand!
After three days in this hotel, with no possibility of leaving, we finally got the permit to move on to Tehran. We were finally completely free.
We rented a taxi and we started on the road to Tehran, the capital of Iran. It was a wild ride with the taxi driver – more dangerous than our escape from Iraq. I thought it would be ironic that after escaping the Iraqi hell we were killed by an irresponsible Iranian taxi driver. After a few hours we finally reached Tehran in the evening. The taxi entered the city and we had no idea whatsoever where we would be heading. My father noticed a store with Cohen in the name. He assumed the store owner had to be Jewish. So we stopped the taxi and we went into the store. My father asked the store owner if he knew Nathan Bakhash and his wife Madeleine, my father’s sister who had married and left Iraq for Iran nearly 30 years before. My father had had nearly no contact with her during all this period.
The store owner knew Nathan Bakhash. He called his home phone number. Then Madeleine was on the 'phone talking to her brother after all these years. They recommended a hotel to us; they said they would meet us there. We found the hotel; it was quite new, having been renovated. We checked in. After some time Nathan, Madeleine and their young daughter Linda arrived. Linda had a captivating smile that had a big effect on me. This chance meeting with Linda was to have a significant effect on my future life. But for the moment the smile had to wait, since I was yet to start my life of freedom.
Epilogue: The filling for my tooth was completed by an Iranian dentist in Tehran. My bold decision to escape through Sulaymaniyah, with all risks and uncertainty involved, proved to be the right one. A few days after we escaped, -as I thought would happen - the Iraqi government soldiers swooped on all the Jews families in Erbil waiting to escape. They were all arrested and thrown in jail. Proof that a situation needs in-depth analysis. What looks like the easy way out might be the most dangerous after all!
Read Part 1 here