The soldier at the checkpoint signals our bus driver to stop. I can feel the tension in the bus rising. A big sloppy guy in military fatigues barges onto the bus, looks around and demands our identity cards. I am intimidated by his piercing eyes and my fellow passengers’ utter silence. While I hastily give him my passport, I notice the others on the bus struggling to keep their nerves in check. The guy next to me, who a few minutes earlier had been reciting a peace poem popular in his home town, goes pale; the man in front of me is worriedly kneading his new pressed suits he holds in his hands. It takes a long time for the military guy to go through our documents. The silence becomes even more oppressive. The few words of Arabic that are spoken, I don’t understand. I don’t have to. The silence says it all.
‘What do you mean by bus?’ asks one of the members of the local peace committee in Rabia when I tell him how we’ll be travelling. Rabia is one of the three areas in northern Iraq where PAX works to re-establish democratic practices and improve relations between different ethnic groups such as Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Yazidis.
We also help these committees get in contact with the authorities in Ninewa province to present their problems directly. Many Iraqis are unfamiliar with this type of consultation. The Ninewa provincial authorities fled to Erbil when ISIS captured the provincial capital of Mosul. So we organised a road trip to Erbil for 15 members of the three Peace Committees. The ride from Dohuk takes about three hours.
The Peace Committee members expected to go in their own cars. People from the different ethnic groups don’t socialize, whether in the Peace Committees or in their villages. Although the three areas where PAX is working have been liberated from ISIS for more than a year, many people cannot return to their homes because they have the ‘wrong’ ethnic background. Sunni Arabs in particular are not allowed to return to their homes in Kurdish or Yazidi areas because they are accused of supporting ISIS.
While getting ready for the bus ride I sense a strange feeling of unease. One reason is the many Kurdish military checkpoints we will have to cross before reaching Erbil. A bus full of people from different ethnic backgrounds is not something you see every day. And travel in northern Iraq is easier for some than for others; it all depends on one’s ethnic and tribal background.The Sunni Arabs in our group are scared they won’t get through the checkpoints, since displaced Arabs in Ninewa have limited freedom of movement in the areas controlled by Kurdish forces.
But the Peace Committee members are willing and patient. In the end everyone, including all of our luggage, fit onto the bus, though we are somewhat cramped, sitting shoulder to shoulder on uncomfortable seats. One man is anxious about his two new suits, bought for this occasion. He doesn’t want them to get wrinkled, and the only place to hang them is at the bus door, blocking entry. So every time we are stopped at a checkpoint, the suits have to be taken down, and passed from one passenger to another back to the man. The four women who travel with us, representing different communities, occupy the whole last row of seats on the bus, creating their own private space. Someone says that he hasn’t been in a bus since he was seven years old, when he went on a school trip. Someone else invites everyone to sing songs about peace from each of their own home towns. Several respond by reciting poems. It starts to feel like a school trip.
At the third checkpoint, the atmosphere suddenly changes. This time it is not just the Sunni Arabs, who needed special permits to travel, but everyone feels intimidated. I wonder what will happen if some of the group is not allowed through. If the Sunnis would not be allowed,would the others stand up for them? If they didn’t, that could create problems in the future for the Peace Committee.
After everyone has gotten his or her pass back, the soldier leaves the bus, the doors close and the two suits are hung back behind the door. There is a large communal sigh. Everyone begins talking at once, about everything and nothing. Except about what just happened. That comes too close. Too close to home.
A thought occurs to me when we arrive in Erbil: we put lots of time and energy into organizing trainings and workshops and meetings. But the bus ride itself did just as much to create space for dialogue. It brought together 25 people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds from communities liberated from ISIS. Just travelling together, eating together, being together, experiencing together what it means to be the other. On the bus, we started seeing one other as human again.