Friday, April 03, 2015

Joe Schemtob's story: the 'Kachagh' trail to freedom (Pt 1)

 On the eve of Passover, the festival which celebrates the exodus from slavery to freedom, it is  appropiate to feature the story of Joe Schemtob, who died a few weeks ago. Joe (pictured) was trapped in Iraq for six years, unable to join his wife Foufou in London and baby son David. Joe Schemtob was the son of the community leader Heskel Schemtob, who negotiated the Taskeet exodus of Iraqi Jews to Israel in the 1950s. In 1970 Joe was one of the first Jews to undertake the illegal, or Kachagh (pronounced Kachar) smugglers' trail out of Baghdad through the north of Iraq to the safety of Iran, then a friendly country. This is the first part of Joe's story. The second will follow soon. (With thanks: Ronnie)

Wishing all Point of No Return readers a very Happy Passover/Easter.

Part 1: Planning our escape 

 I called this story of our Kachagh escape, which means 'illegal'. Whist the word has negative connotations, it was fortunately our means of survival, as you will discover.

In March 1964, the Iraqi Government passed a decree for all Iraqi Jews who live abroad to return to the state by August 1964 or else lose their Iraqi nationality. Any failure to do so would result in the confiscation of all assets: property and money, as well as refusal to enter the country at any future date. It was also stated that those who return before August 1964 would keep their Nationality and be free to travel in and out as they so pleased.

In our immediate family, only my sister Leoni and I were affected by this decree, so we had to go back. Leoni had to leave her husband and two daughters in New York. I also had to leave my dear wife, Foufou and darling son David, who was only six months old, in London.

Needless to say, the Iraqi Government did not keep their promise, and all Jews who returned as per the decree were consequently forbidden to leave. There was no way out and the next six years were hell with no ability to communicate with the outside world. Our passports were confiscated and despite pleading with the authorities, it was to no avail. It was a terrifying ordeal and we suffered a lot both, mentally and physically: especially after the Six Day War in 1967.

Many of our friends were imprisoned, tortured, humiliated in many ways unimaginable and eventually beaten to death. Frequently, people were executed on public gallows for no crime but simply for being Jewish. People disappeared with no trace or clue of their whereabouts. Others were barbarically chopped into pieces and left at their family’s doorstep. Just remember that this was not the Middle Ages but the 20th century. Therefore, we had to plan our exit somehow or else face obvious consequences. There were dangers either way, but we had to take a risk and devise a route out to save our lives as well as our children.

Needless to say, Leoni and I wanted to go back and be with our dear families after six long years. This is how and when this dramatic story started. It was 21st of March 1970, Nowruz, the Kurdish and Iranian New Year. For many years,  a war between the Iraqis and the Kurds cost both sides heavy losses. Negotiations were ongoing to resolve their disputes and establish peace, which eventually happened a few days before Nowruz. It was a big achievement for both sides.

Restrictions on Iraqi Jews - that they must not travel more than 25 miles from their home - were lifted: we were free to travel anywhere. So 21 March was a joyous occasion with dancing in the streets of Baghdad and other towns in Iraq and Kurdistan. However, Jews were still in a mousetrap, because we did not know when the restrictions would be re-imposed. We Jews suffered much more than other civilians from Iraqi government strictures. Before 1947, we lived happily within the Muslim community, we had very good friends, and we used to enjoy ourselves and do business together. It is a shame it had all gone,especially after the many revolutions that took place in Iraq.

Matters became worse when Saddam came to power. He hanged 11 innocent Jews. Many were our friends, especially Charles Horesh. The night before they took him away, it was his son Rafi’s first birthday and his wife Samah was pregnant. He bought his son Raffi a merry-go-round and he asked me to go and assemble it. Next morning they escorted him from his office and no one saw him alive again. That Nowruz day, Abdullah Birshan, Max Sawdaye, Doudi and myself, were driving in the car. I told them that, as we were momentarily free to move anywhere within Iraq, we should go to the north and try to find a way to cross the Iraqi border into Iran. At that moment, our idea of going kachagh was conceived.

 When (my brother) Doudi and I returned home, I took Doudi to the living room and asked him if everything became normal, would he trust the Iraqi government and go to his office and start doing business as before? His answer was adamantly NO. I continued to question him: if he was not able to conduct any business, the money would run out in time. To complicate matters he had a family with two children!

He asked for my advice. I replied swiftly and shared my plan: “we should service your car and then, I will drive to the north by myself.” I was not sure how far I could get to but hoped that I would at least be able to reach Haj Omran. There, I will find someone who will help us cross the border into Iran. Needless to say, we would be taking a big risk with dangerous consequences. If we were caught, they would hang both of us. Conversely, if we succeeded, we should be free and our children would know what it was like to live.

He told me that he would like to think about and to discuss it with his wife Nina. Nina not only approved, but she encouraged him strongly to go ahead with this idea. Next morning we took the car for a service: it would take two days.

That day, Max Sawdaye called on me: he wanted to see me alone. He took me to his house and referred me to our conversation the previous day when I suggested that we should go to the north and see if there was a way to cross the border to Iran. He would not dare go on his own and wanted me to go with him. I was frank and told him that I had planned to go once my car had left the garage. He offered his car, as it was new and reliable. However, we would have to limit numbers because of the danger of taking a large group.

 Without hesitation I refused: I wished him well and suggested that it would be better if the two families made their own plans. Later on that day, he came back and accepted my original plan. The next morning, we both left on our exploratory mission to the north. On our arrival to Salah Eldeen, we saw a school friend of mine called Arman who was now a car salesman. I also knew him as a crook. He was playing backgammon with a well known Kurdish Agha. Max happened to have bought a car from him several years ago. Max smiled immediately and said that we were lucky to find Arman who was friendly with this Agha. “I am going to pay him well and ask him to persuade the Agha to help us cross the border into Iran”, he exclaimed.

 I pleaded with Max to do no such thing, as I mistrusted Arman and suspected that he would report us to the police! He said nothing to me. That night he told me that he had told Arman everything: Arman had promised to help us. I was appalled, but it was too late to say anything, except to keep quiet and fear for the potential consequences.

Next morning Arman gave us a big smile and said that he has been waiting for us to have breakfast together. We sat around the table and I was surprised by how nice he was to us. While we were having breakfast, Arman was inquisitive and launched a whole barrage of questions at us, such as:when you arrive in Iran, what would they do to you? Would they put in prison? Moreover, how would you leave Iran and go to England?

I told him that we only have to tell them that we were political refugees and Saddam was against us and so on, and they would do nothing to us, and they would accept us as refugees. Then he asked us if they would do the same in Lebanon? I answered that they would do it all over the world. After that morning, we did not see Arman again, thank God. When we returned to Baghdad, we learned that Arman had disappeared from Baghdad.

He bamboozled two or three taxi companies and told them that he could sell them Chevrolet cars for around £7,000 each below the market price in Baghdad, but he had to receive £5,000 for each car they ordered. The taxi companies ordered seven cars and parted with £35,000. Mr. Arman sold his business, transferred all his money to Lebanon, and travelled to Lebanon with the money where he mingled with the large Armenian community. Thank God for his brilliant idea, otherwise I am sure he would have blackmailed us, or he would have reported us to the authorities.

Now back to our dangerous mission. I told Max that I had a friend by the name of Daoud who did business between Arbil and Salah Eldeen. I was sure he would help us. He knew him too: we could trust him. We decided to leave the next morning for Haj Omran and see how far we could get.

After driving for three hours we arrived at the bridge just before Rawandoze, the line of control between the Iraqi forces and the PeshMerga, the Kurdistani army. We arrived at the Iraqi barrier : an Iraqi sergeant asked for our identity cards and enquired where we were going. We told him that we were visiting for few hours and we would be back the same evening. They lifted the barrier and let us pass. We crossed the bridge, we came to the Kurdish barrier, and the Pesh Merga asked us where we were going. This time we were warmly welcomed and told that we could stay as long as we wanted. We drove for half an hour inside Kurdistan; we stopped to rest at a café .

 Max was a person who liked to talk. However, from the moment we got to the café, Max did not say a word. I tried to speak to him, but he remained quiet. After half an hour, he broke the silence and said to me, “Joe I want you to do me a big favour” and then paused. He told me that he would not go back to Iraq no matter what happened. Let the Kurds put him in prison, do anything they want to do to him, but he would never go back to Iraq. He had not tasted freedom for a long time. "Therefore, what I want you to do is take my car and bring my wife and two daughters," he said." I am going to stay here and I shall never go back to Iraq. I would prefer to go to prison here than go back to Baghdad. "

I tried for more than half-an-hour to persuade him, but he would not accept. I told him that I could not do what he asked. His wife would not accept to come with me - perhaps she would not believe me and think that something bad had happened to Max. As we were able to come to Kurdistan that day, it would be just as easy for him to go back and bring his family there. He agreed reluctantly, and then we proceeded to Darband, which is only 45 minutes from the border to Iran. We were very happy to be able to come so far. Darband was a beautiful village positioned on a mountain, below which was a narrow road with the only hotel. It was an idyllic location with a river running between some boulders and surrounded by beautiful trees. We parked by the only hotel in the village to have our lunch. I must describe this hotel, because later on we made history in it.

The hotel was around 15 meters above the main road overlooking the beautiful river: it was such a sight. Its  small kitchen served only tea and kebab. There were around six or seven tables in the patio and only three twin-bedded rooms. Amazingly, it was built out of bamboo and cane  with the ceiling made of palm tree branches. You might call it very primitive, or even romantic.

 After lunch, we drove straight back to Salah Eldeen after a long tiring day. The next morning we had to look for someone who could help us cross to Iran. The only person that we could think of was Daoud. After breakfast, Max told me that he was going for a walk alone. After more than 30 minutes he came back and told me that he went to Daoud and informed him that our two families had decided to go Kachagh to Iran. We would appreciate his help to talk to the Agha on our behalf. Naturally, we would give them both a nice present. He agreed and said he would negotiate a price.

It was a mystery as to why Max did not share his plan to see Daoud by himself. After a whole week, we had completed our investigative mission in the North and decided to go back to Baghdad. At the first checkpoint before Arbil, the police officer asked us for our identity cards. Max gave him his own identity card, and the police officer asked whether his name was Mensi Hawi, followed by the inevitable question, “are you Christian?" "Yes," replied Max. The police officer ushered us to proceed. By the way, Max’s name on the identity card was Menashi Hayawi.

At the first checkpoint after Arbil, an army sergeant asked us where we were going. “Baghdad,” we replied. He pointed to two Palestinian Mujahideen across the road. They too were going to Baghdad and he would appreciate it if we would take them with us. Obviously, we couldn’t say no and they entered our car and sat in the back with Kalashnikovs in their hands. Max naturally was frightened and started driving dangerously at a very high speed. I do not know how many near- misses we had. I told him to let me drive, but he refused. Eventually, the engine over-heated; high speed coupled with a high air temperature of over 40 degrees Celsius. We tried to re-start it for more than half-an-hour, but it would not. I told the Mujahideen that they were better off stopping another car. They agreed. Thank God a car passed by and took them.

Our car started after it cooled down and we proceeded to Baghdad. We waited for a few weeks but there was no news from Daoud. One day Max came and told me that he had just travelled to Arbil to meet Daoud. He assured Max that everything was going well and soon he would come to Baghdad to take us. He asked for £3,000 for each family for him and the Agha.We had to pay the money in advance before 'D-day'.

During the waiting period, Max’s younger daughter got mumps with a high fever. Saeeda (his wife) wondered what they would do if Daoud turned up then. He told her that they would go no matter what. We would not delay our departure by even an hour. Several weeks passed before Daoud came to Baghdad and told us that we must leave within the next 24 hours. Unfortunately, (my brother) Doudi had a bad back and was bed-ridden. We knew there was no point in asking to postpone the departure. Daoud told us that the smugglerswould not return the money that we gave him. Moreover, if we wanted to cross into Iran we wouldhave to pay again.

We were very sorry because Doudi’s back was very painful, he could not make it, so our family would not be able to proceed with our plan. We wished the best of luck to the Sawdaye family and hoped they would arrive safely in Iran. We begged Max not to tell anyone that we were planning to escape to Iran once Doudi felt better, as it would endanger us. He promised not to tell anyone. Unfortunately, as soon as they arrived in Teheran our plans were revealed and news travelled to my wife Foufou in London. She urgently contacted Max and pleaded with him not to say any more, as news would get back to Iraq with catastrophic consequences.

 After a day or two, Doudi was a bit better and I decided to go to Kurdistan and see what I could do. My sister Fahima insisted on coming along with me together with Doudi’s children Heskel and Jane, so that it would look like a family holiday. Doudi backed her suggestion and I had no choice but to agree. The next day the four of us left at four in the morning. I was very tense and my thoughts were miles away. At six o’clock, it became hot and the sun was beaming down on Fahima. She fixed her scarf on the window to lessen the intensity of the sun. As I was driving, the scarf blew off the window. Fahima shouted, “my scarf has blown away”. I stubbornly kept quiet. “Joe this scarf is very expensive, I bought it in Paris and it is my favourite,” she exclaimed, but I made no sign of wishing to stop. Fahima kept on murmuring about her expensive scarf, but I had a mission and nothing was going to stop me.

We eventually arrived in Salah Eldeen at around ten o’clock. We stayed for the night. We had our fried egg breakfast early in the morning. Heskel and Jane were sleepy and did not feel like eating. Fahima ate her eggs as well as theirs and said, “what fresh delicious eggs (inhagam beto ashlon beadh tayib owtaza)”. 

We left Salah Eldeen after breakfast on our way to Darband. After driving for just over two hours, we reached the mountain of Darband and Haj Omran. The mountainous terrain was rough with many hairpin bends. We reached Rawandoze Bridge, the last post between Iraq and Kurdistan. An army sergeant approached our car and asked us for our identity cards. Doudi’s car had only two doors and Fahima was sitting in the back. Suddenly, Fahima pushed the front seat, opened the door where the sergeant was standing and threw up the entire contents of her breakfast on him. He looked down at himself and understandably became angry and told us to drive off immediately.

Without any hesitation I accelerated before he could change his mind. We crossed the bridge and arrived in Kurdistan and headed towards Darband. We rented two rooms out of the three at the hotel. After a day or two, I met with a Kurd called Shecho from Rawandoze. I started talking to him about all sorts of Kurdish problems with the Iraqi Government and how they could be solved. He opened up and as luck would have it, told me that two weeks ago he crossed the mountains opposite into Iran on a business trip. I was curious to understand whether he required a passport. He informed me that no one uses passports when crossing over this mountain.

He made it sound very easy, “we do it all the time, and we just go up the top, and go down into Iran.” I was so happy and it was music to my ears. I told him that my brother requiredan operation on his back and that it could not be done in Iraq. I continued to explain that we had to take him to London for the operation and the Iraqi government unfortunately had refused to give us passports. We therefore had to cross to Iran where we had friends who could assist us in obtaining passports allowing us to travel to London.

Excitedly, I said that we would give him as much as he wanted if he could take us to Iran safely. I told him that we were five adults and two children. He remarked that he couldn’t take seven people across the border. I asked him when would he be able take us, how and where we would meet. He explained to me, “the moon is small now but when it gets full, come to Darband and contact me in Rawandoze”. I asked if it was possible for him to show me the meeting point now, which he agreed. I took him to Rawandoze. He showed me his house and I thanked him and said that we would return when the moon was full.

We returned to Baghdad, hoping Doudi would be better and we would be able to go. Only close family members knew about our plan. On 22nd March, we went to my other brother Djamil to tell him about our plan and bid him and his wife Khatoon farewell. Next morning I told my best and sincerest friend to come to see me after closing his shop.

 That afternoon Djamil and Khatoon came to us. Djamil and his family wanted to join us in this dangerous adventure. I told him that Shecho did not accept to take the seven of us: it was only after hard negotiation that he had agreed. We were risking our lives on this trip and it was better for Djamil to wait and see the outcome. I gave him Shecho's address in Rawandoze.

Should we arrive safely, he should contact him and plan a similar escape. I too would brief Sheho. Djamil was very unhappy. We were also disappointed, but there was nothing we could do. Later my friend Isaac arrived. I took him aside to confide in him our plan.He was shocked: the plan was dangerous and Government forces would kill me on the spot or hang me. “You must forget this crazy idea and you must not go”. I told him that we had weighed up all the dangers ahead of us and we were willing to take the risks. There was no going back.

 We later learned that he drove to my sister Rachel and husband Farid at 6.00 am the next morning and told them, “take a taxi and catch up with them to bring them back - what they are doing is madness and dangerous”. Rachel and Farid assured him that they had been having these discussions with us for months but to no avail. They too were determined to escape. Had I been on my own, I would have managed to take the risk and escape some time before. But I could not go by myself without at least trying to take some of my family. The whole family was worried, but I was putting on a brave face. One day Rachel asked me, “what are you made of? In spite of all the danger facing you, it is as though you are going for picnic”.

The evening of 23rd July was very emotional and tense. We were leaving our family and did not know whether we were going to see them again. We kept our plans a secret from most family and friends and simply told them that we were going to Hamam Ali. Anyway we said goodbye with much emotion. Our cousin Denise was puzzled: “when Joe kissed me goodbye and hugged me, it felt more than just a farewell for a ten-day trip to Hamam Ali."

 Part 2: We embark on our dangerous mission

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