Q&A: The long and dangerous road to Baghdad

An Iraqi truck driver tells Al Jazeera about the perils of his Erbil-Baghdad route, including the risk of murder.

    Haider Najeh, 25, says eight drivers have been killed and their trucks burned in the past month [Megan O'Toole/Al Jazeera]
    Haider Najeh, 25, says eight drivers have been killed and their trucks burned in the past month [Megan O'Toole/Al Jazeera]

    Erbil, Iraq - The roads between Erbil and Baghdad are fraught with peril, but some Iraqis drive them every day - including 25-year-old Haider Najeh, whose family business is trucking.

    Najeh typically transports household goods from Basra to Baghdad, and then on to Erbil. There, he switches loads, bringing Turkish and Iranian goods to Baghdad and western Iraq.

    There were always risks associated with Najeh's route, but since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) swept through the country last year, the dangers have increased exponentially.

    With the main road between Baghdad and Kirkuk shut to heavy traffic, truckers must instead use village roads that skirt dangerous areas, dramatically increasing their travel time. 

    Najeh spoke to Al Jazeera about what it is like to work on some of the world’s most dangerous roads.

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    Al Jazeera: How did the ISIL invasion affect your route, and what are the main risks you're now facing on the job?

    Haider Najeh: Because of the current situation, the main road is closed between Baghdad and Kirkuk, so we have to use village roads. It's too long. 

    Before it was easier - maximum 12 hours, and that's because we would drive slowly with heavy loads. But now it's more than 48 hours, sometimes longer if there are accidents. We have to drive slower and focus more, because of the bad condition of the roads. There are big holes, and the roads are narrow, which makes it take more time. 

    It is also more risky, more dangerous. This longer way is closer to central Diyala, between Baghdad and Kirkuk. Some of Diyala was under ISIL control for a while and there are still some groups, some mafia, who just kill the drivers or burn the trucks just to terrorise people.

    We would ask the government to help us, to open this road. The other way is risky and it's harming us. We've lost lives. We need to use the other road. It's more secure.

    The village roads were good in the beginning, but they weren't made for all of these heavy cars and trucks. Daily, there are about 1,000 trucks driving this route, mainly transporting food and drinks, electrical equipment and construction materials.

    The road is very bad. It's not a level road, so there are accidents. The road is tight and cars flip over, and when that happens, the road is closed for hours or days until they can bring in equipment and open up the road.

    Al Jazeera: How many checkpoints do you have to go through on each trip, and how do these impact your journey?

    Najeh: From Baghdad to Erbil, there are around 40 checkpoints - mostly Popular Mobilisation [a mainly Shia force fighting alongside the Iraqi army], but also other kinds, including a few Kurdish checkpoints near Kirkuk and other military checkpoints.

    Five or six of them are very strict. Sometimes they open the trucks to see what's inside, especially the checkpoints near Baghdad, Diyala, and Kirkuk.

    Al Jazeera: Have you ever encountered ISIL fighters while you were on the road?

    Najeh: I've never been close to them, but some drivers I've met around Basra have shown me receipts they got from ISIL when they went through Mosul. 

    ISIL asked them for taxes, $300, and gave them a receipt marked with "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria", with a stamp and signature on regular paper. Food, drugs and other goods are continuously moving inside Iraq - from Karbala to Ramadi to Mosul. Drivers pay ISIL $300 as a tax to guarantee they will be safe, that no one will harm them.

    Al Jazeera: With other risks, such as bombs and random killings, as you mentioned earlier, do you fear for your safety?

    Najeh: The risks in our job are high. Two days ago, roadside bombs caused the road to be closed for more than a day. If the police or army have information about suspicious activity, they will close the roads - one hour, 10 hours, and we have to wait, depending on the situation.

    One Minute ISIL

    The new risk is of murder and burning the trucks just to terrorise people. There are snipers who kill the drivers and burn the trucks. We don't know who these people are. It's not to rob us; it's just to scare the drivers and scare the people. In the past month, eight drivers have been murdered and their trucks burned.

    Al Jazeera: Considering all of the risks, why do you still want to do this job?

    Najeh: It's our job. It's our life and our business, and food for our families. My father is now sick, so we cannot do nothing. Whether it is risky or not, we have no choice.

    Whenever I'm driving, my family calls me to keep in touch; they are worried. All of the drivers' families know the scenario, so they follow us until we reach a safe point.

    Also, we don't drive alone. We usually have other people, relatives, in case something happens, and to feel more secure. Most of the drivers use two, three, four backup drivers.

    Al Jazeera: Is there anything the government could do to minimise the risks for you and other drivers?

    Najeh: We just want one thing from the Iraqi government: opening the old road from Erbil to Baghdad. It's been open to civilian cars for about a month, and for small vehicles and military vehicles, but not the big trucks.

    We would ask the government to help us, to open this road. The other way is risky and it's harming us. We've lost lives. We need to use the other road. It's more secure.

    Follow Megan O'Toole on Twitter: @megan_otoole  

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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