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Orphan, 11, stands guard in an Iraq he'd rather leave


ZAKHO, Iraq -- Hewa Mohammed Abdullah is an orphan of his people's imperiled cause.

Along with a handful of unshaved Kurdish guerrilla fighters -- the Pesh Merga -- he stands guard at the first checkpoint into Iraq after the Turkish border. The 11-year-old boy is barely taller than the Kalashnikov rifle slung across his back.

What he'd really like is for some traveler to open the car door and carry him as far away from Iraq as he can imagine.

"Hello, mister," he calls to the foreign drivers who stop here. "How are you? I am fine."

The odyssey that brought Hewa here began three years ago, in Halabja, in northern Iraq, near the Iranian border. There, his entire family -- his parents, three younger brothers and three younger sisters -- were killed in the infamous Iraqi chemical weapons attack that wiped Halabja from the map.

He remembers a strange rain, and then falling with his fac against the ground. He was 8 years old.

Then after two days they told me my whole family was dead. All my uncles, all my cousins, all my family are dead in Halabja," Hewa said.

The Iranians came in helicopters to rescue the wounded. There were a thousand or so like Hewa, children, old people and women suddenly rootless and alone in the world, he recalled.

The boy was so badly hurt that a year passed before Iranian doctors released him from the hospital, long after most of the refugees of 1988 returned home.

Since then, he has been living with families that take him in no and then, and sometimes on his own.

In Iran, "a few of the families were very bad, but most of them were good," Hewa said. "Sometimes, there were Iraqi families at the border, and I lived with them.

"I sleep under trees, under the rain, under the snow," he said as darkness fell one night.

He remembers Halabja. "Most of the people had farms and all kinds of animals -- sheep and horses and cows. You could find any kind of fruit there. And there was a good market in Halabja. But now you can't see any of it, because Halabja has burned down."

His father, he recalled proudly, was a Pesh Merga. His father did not teach Hewa how to shoot the Kalashnikov, at least not directly. Hewasaid he taught himself in Iraq, before the 1988 Halabja attack.

"When the army fought, everyone took their guns, and I did, too," Hewa said.

When the Kurdish refugees from this year's fights with the Iraqis began leaving Iran, Hewa thought of going to Erbil. But then a family that was leaving proposed he go with them to Dohuk. Once his band of worn and beaten refugees reached Dohuk, one man traveling with the family decided to leave for Zakho and proposed that Hewa come along.

In the three years since he lost his family and home, Hewa has come to know a few Austrians and Americans at the relief camps in Iran and here in Zakho. They must have been kind to Hewa, for the boy longs to leave Zakho with any stranger.

From Iran, he remembers Mr. Harry, an Austrian relief worker he met, and Mr. Uwe, another Austrian. An American named Mrs. Pottra also carries the boy's hopes with her, wherever she may be.

Another man from Austria, he recalled, "promised to come back forme. But that was a long time ago."

He stays but a few days with the families here and in Iran. Hewa argued with one man who would not give him spending money. He left another family because they never fed him or washed his clothes.

But survival in postwar Iraq is no sure thing, and families her have little to share. Food handouts for all but the most dire cases -- old people living alone and people in transit -- ended July 31. Prices are eight to nine times higher than before the war. Unemployment is running at 40 percent to 50 percent, according to a recent United Nations report.

Hewa said he went to school in Iran and also worked as a laborer to earn money. "I buy whatever I need, clothes, shoes, everything."

The last family he was with handed him over to the guerrilla fighters who run things here for the moment. He sleeps with them now in a shack near the Turkish border. They feed him, watch over him and train him at the checkpoint.

"He is free to go where he wants," said Hasen Mosa, a Pesh Merga standing nearby. "If he wants, we can take him to another family."

"I go with you to America," Hewa proposed suddenly one night to a visiting American woman. Wouldn't he miss his people and his land?

"If I go to another country and it's good, I won't miss Kurdistan," he said.

"I'm not a Muslim," she told the young boy. "Maybe you would not be comfortable." He appeared crestfallen. "They don't allow Muslims in America?" he asked.

Hewa proposed crossing over at night, but the American told him he would not get past Turkish border police. He has no identity card.

"If I make it across the mountain and meet you in Silopi, can we go?" he asked.

The Pesh Merga, who had listened quietly, spoke then.

"You know, we are responsible for him, if anything happens to him," said Najem Rajeb.

And then, standing behind Hewa, the guerrilla fighter put his arms around the little boy's shoulders and held him close. And for the first time that night, Hewa smiled deeply.

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