We put the two machine guns on the kitchen table. “I’ll take them to headquarters,” said the colonel to the boys, who then stepped back outside as he closed the door. The engine started up and the jeep took off, carrying the fellows we’d spent four nights with in the desert.
It was a radiant Thursday afternoon. The sun was shining over Sulaymaniyah, and we’d returned safe and sound from the front at Khanaqin. Not even the truck had a scratch.
The colonel – Hesin was his name- lived in a two-story, American-style single family home. He’d furnished it with good taste and modern accoutrements. Compared to those unwashed desert nights and the smoky tea we’d warmed in tin cans over open fires, we were now beset by unimaginable luxury. Since arriving in Kurdistan, I’d spent nearly every waking moment with the colonel. He spoke English well, and so I, the foreign correspondent, had been assigned to him. We went together to the front, where, all night in the desert, together we awaited the attack. We ate the same food and drank the same drinks. Because the Peshmergas fighting on the front couldn’t pronounce my name, he accorded me the princely title Sardar, adding the honorific term Kak before it, hence making me Kak Sardar. But after the first battle he also called me “Brother,” as he did the Peshmergas. We liked each other.
“I feel really sick, brother,” said the colonel with a grin as I removed the camera from my backpack and set the battery and memory card on the table.
“You look horrible,” I replied.
“You seem sick, too.”
“Yes, I am.”
“You need medicine.”
The colonel stepped to the refrigerator, opened the door, and pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniels.
He poured a decent amount into two glasses, adding ice in each, and then handed one glass to me.
We drank. The whiskey washed the past four days’ constant drizzle of sand down our throats. The moment I put down my glass and he did his, the colonel refilled each one.
“Fuck Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi!”
“Fuck Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi!”
Again we drank.
“Forgive me for saying so, Kak Sardar,” said the colonel with a grin as he again put down his glass, “but you stink.”
“I know. I’m off to wash up.”
“Very well, I’ll order something to eat in the meantime.”
“You stink, too.”
I gave the colonel a slap on the back and headed upstairs. On the way up the marble steps it seemed inconceivable to me that a war was going on 125 miles away.
And yet there was a war. Two weeks earlier the Islamic State offensive had been halted barely thirteen miles from Erbil. All of Kurdistan had been focused on the war: young men and old, women and children, had all gone to the front. They had to. Everyone knew what to expect of the caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. We’d seen it full well for ourselves.
The charred corpses of Sunni Muslims had been piled up by the bushel in ditches dug by backhoes: those the caliph had no use for had been doused with gasoline and set alight. Worst of all was the sight of burnt children. It was easy tell their bodies apart from those of the women and elderly on account of their smaller size. The fire had shrunken them even more.
The bathroom was spacious, with white tile walls and a metal shower stall. As I loosened my laces and then slipped off my boots, the sand poured out. I undid my belt and unbuttoned my shirt. I really did stink.
For three days and nights I’d been in the desert in the same clothes, my shirt drenched with sweat and then drying and then getting soaked yet again. As I now saw, the salt had formed white splotches on my chest and underarms.
I finished undressing and turned the tap. The hot water fogged up the shower’s glass door at once. The sand still clinging to my skin began flowing off, and it seemed as if the water was washing away even the images etched into my brain, from mass graves to the expressions on the faces of dead Peshmergas. Pressing my forehead to the tile wall, I stood under the shower for a long time.
I was drying myself with one of the colonel’s towels when he stopped by the bathroom’s door, which was slightly ajar, holding two glasses of whisky.
“Drink this, then come down. We’ve got to have a word about something.”
He pressed the glass into my hand, we clinked glasses, and we drank up. He then hurried back down the stairs. After getting dressed, I went down as well.
He was in the living room staring at his laptop, which he shut on seeing me.
“I’ve got to go to headquarters.”
“The boys caught one of them.”
I sat down at the table and refilled both glasses with whiskey, handing one to the colonel.
“Can I go with you?”
“You can’t write anything about it. This is top secret. Journalists can’t go in there.”
“I’ll say you’re a volunteer under my command.”
We clinked glasses.
“Get ready. We’re going in a moment. Have something to eat.”
I got up and went to the kitchen. I opened the fridge. I found a chunk of cheese. I sat down and ate. The bell rang. The colonel opened the door.
He spoke in Kurdish with whoever it was. He then came into the kitchen.
“We’re going, brother.”
I got up from the table. At the door was a soldier who looked about thirty and was in a traditional Peshmerga outfit. I threw on my sport coat and headed off.
We went in a Toyota flatbed pickup. All three of us sat up front, the soldier at the wheel and the colonel between us. The two of them spoke, in Kurdish, for the length of the thirty-minute drive, which took us between the mountains through the lit-up nighttime city. I stared at stores’ neon lights and at all the people milling about and chatting in front of cafés. It didn’t seem like war.
Finally we turned onto the mountain road leading to the military command, which in turn soon came into view, surrounded by a six-foot-high fence topped off with barbed wire. In the watchtowers, guards holding Russian-made PKM machine guns stared out over the landscape, their breath visible against the glare of the spotlights.
A cluster of tanks surrounded the entrance booth. The guard stepped to the window, Kalashnikov in hand, as we stopped. Pointing at me, the colonel said something in Kurdish. The guard gave me a once-over and waved us on.
We stopped in front of the front door. The colonel got out and went inside. I followed him down a dimly lit hallway and then down a long flight of stairs to the cellar, where the holding cells were.
“We caught him in Jalawla” said the colonel. “He wanted to sneak in to our base in Khanaqin.”
“He was armed. We suspect he wanted to assassinate someone. So far he hasn’t confessed a thing.”
Beside the stairs was a desk, by which sat another soldier. He saluted on seeing the colonel, who in turn gave a wave of the hand and then leaned over the desk and signed a sheet of paper. He motioned for me to follow him.
“The reason you can follow me is that at the moment I’m the highest-ranking officer in the city. The entire high command is at Khanaqin.”
The soldier led us down the hallway, which was flanked by rusted metal doors. He then stopped by one, took out a key, and opened it.
It was dark inside. Only after several long seconds could we make out the furnishings. In the middle of the room was a big long table, beside it a metal chair, to which a boy of about seventeen was handcuffed. He blinked in the sudden light, and I could now clearly see his face, caked with dried blood.
The colonel stepped in. I followed. The soldier shut us in. The colonel turned on the room’s only light, a single bulb.
“As-salamu alaykum,” said the colonel in Arabic by way of greeting. “How are you, follower of the caliph?”
“I really need to use the toilet,” the boy replied. “Please let me go.”
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Ahmed Al Bahiza.”
“Where are you from?”
“What were you up to in Khanaqin, Ahmed?”
“I’ve really got to go, please let me out.”
“You went to Khanaqin to kill someone. Who?”
“No, my mother lives in Khanaqin. I was going to visit her.”
“With a gun?”
“There’s a war on.”
“You won’t be going to the toilet anytime soon, Ahmed.”
“I beg you to let me out,” said the boy hysterically. “I’m going to piss my pants.”
“Take a load of this scum, this Arab killer, Kak Sardar,” said Hesin, turning to me.
“I’m not a killer,” said the boy.
The colonel slapped the boy, who toppled over along with his chair.
“Talk when I ask you to,” said the colonel.
The child sobbed on the floor. He pissed his pants.
“How disgusting!” said the colonel. “Is this proper behavior on Jihad?”
“I’m not on Jihad,” said the boy. Hesin leaned toward the boy and, taking care not to touch his urine-soaked trousers, pulled him back up, chair and all.
“When did you join ISIS?”
“I don’t belong to ISIS.”
The colonel hit him again, but this time made sure he didn’t topple over. The blood again started running from the boy’s nose. The boy began to sob. He raised his head and looked at me.
“Please help me! I’m innocent!” he said in perfect English. Hesin hit him again, and the chair fell over. Grimacing, he repeated, “Please help me!”
“Where did you learn English, you dirty Arab?” asked the colonel, kicking him in the mouth, his teeth crackling loudly. The boy stayed silent.
“You shouldn’t do this,” I said as Hesin set the chair upright yet again. He went to the back corner of the room, where a faucet was hanging from the wall. Beside it was a grimy plastic bucket. The colonel turned the faucet and let water into the bucket.
“And why not?”
“The Geneva Convention.”
“Fuck the Geneva Convention. This here isn’t a soldier.”
“Then he’s a civilian.”
“He’s a dirty ISIS beast. You yourself have seen the mass graves and what they’ve done otherwise.”
“But you can’t know for sure that he’s one of them.”
“I know. This is a dirty Arab.”
“Not every Arab is with ISIS.”
“Tell that to those who’ve been beheaded or burned alive.”
“Please stop it. The kid has the right to a trial.”
“You idiotic Westerners. You come here to dole out your wisdom and to rob our oil. This is the trial.”
“Don’t be a brute.”
“I’m not a brute,” he said, pointing at the boy. “This is.”
The colonel took the bucket of water and poured it on the boy’s head. The kid came to, blood pouring from his mouth.
“Who was the target?” he asked.
“There was no target. I’m not with ISIS. I learned English in the American School. I was on my way to Khanaqin to visit my mother,” he said, choking on his own blood. Looking at me, he said, “Please, sir, don’t let him do this to me.”
“I’ll tell you what,” said the colonel, taking the Makarov pstol from his belt and loading the barrel. It was a beautiful pistol I’d done lots of target shooting with on the front with the boys.
“I’ll count to three,” said the colonel, pressing the pistol to the kid’s temple. “I’ll count to three, and if you don’t tell me who or what the target was, I’ll blow your head apart.”
“There was no target. I came to visit my mother!”
“I swear God is one and Mohamed is his prophet and that I’m not with ISIS.”
My right hook struck the colonel on the chin. It caught him off guard, sending flying some six feet, falling on his back on the floor at the other end of the room. The pistol fell from his hand. I jumped on him at once. He was ready. With one swing of his leg he kicked me off him. I fell back, toppling over the kid, chair and all. By the time I got up, the pistol was in his hand.
“I really do like you, Hungarian, but if you hit me one more time I’ll shoot you.”
I got up from the floor. The only sound in the room was that of the kid sobbing.
“I won’t let you do this.”
“You humanists. It’s because of you that the whole world is where it is.” He held the pistol toward the boy and fired three times. Two bullets ripped open his chest and one hit his head. My ears began to ring from the shots.
“You’re a cold-blooded murderer.”
“There’s a war on.”
The door opened, and the guard ran in, machine gun in hand. Hesin said something to him in Kurdish. The guard saluted and left.
“Coming?” asked the colonel, locking his pistol and putting it back on his belt before stepping out the door. I followed. We went up the stairs. The car was already waiting by the front door. We didn’t say a word to each other the whole way. The colonel spoke only with the driver. On getting back to the house, the colonel opened the door and went to the living room; I went upstairs, to the guest room.
I had one more day in Sulaymaniyah, from where I had to go to Erbil to catch a flight to Europe.
I undressed and got into bed. The image of that teenage boy didn’t let me sleep. What could I do to feel better? I considered my options. There were none. The Kurdish military command and human rights organizations were too busy with the war to look into the case of a single murdered Arab. My throat was dry from the realization.
I looked at my watch: 2:30 am. Getting out of bed, I headed downstairs, intending to go to the kitchen, where the colonel kept a jug of drinking water. Even from the bottom of the stairs I could hear him snoring. I looked into the living room, where he was sleeping. He was gripping an empty bottle of whiskey in his sleep. On a little table by the couch was his laptop, which kept playing a video from some Arabic file server.
I stepped closer to see what it was.
It was an ISIS video¾featuring the murdered teenager, holding the decapitated head of a Yezidi woman by the hair, displaying it to camera. He was smiling.
I went to the kitchen for a glass of water.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sándor Jászberényi (pronounced shahn-door yahs-beh-ray-nyee), a writer and a foreign correspondent, is the author of the short fiction collection The Devil Is a Black Dog: Stories from the Middle East and Beyond (New Europe Book, 2014), which Kirkus Reviews (in a starred review) praised as “heady, dizzying writing . . . a master class in how to tell a war story.” As a correspondent he is based primarily in Cairo, from where he has covered the Middle East and Africa for leading Hungarian online news service Hir24.com and has contributed reporting to the New York Times and the Egypt Independent. Jászberényi has covered the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, the Gaza War, the Darfur crisis, and the conflict with Islamic State. He has also reported on the war in Ukraine. His first collection of short stories, Az ördög egy fekete kutya (The Devil Is a Black Dog), was published in 2013 in Hungary (Kalligram) and in Italian (Edizioni Anfora) and in 2014 in India by the Speaking Tiger Books. Jászberényi’s stories and poems have been published in English in AGNI, the Brooklyn Rail, BodyLiterature.com, and Pilvax.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Paul Olchváry, a native of Amherst, New York, who spent much of his adult life in Hungary, is the founder and publisher of New Europe Books. He has translated numerous Hungarian novels into English for such publishers as New Directions, Hougton Mifflin, Northwestern, and Steerforth. As a translator he has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, in the United States, and Hungary’s Milán Füst Foundation. He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.