“In Northern Iraq there is a place called Lalish where the Yezidis say the universe was born.”
— Michael J. Totten
The building itself was a large rectangular block structure with a stone patio on the top of the first floor where people were standing, and talking. The structure supported three spires elegantly carved into lines pointing upward into the heavens. They were the dominant architectural elements in the valley. The towers, carved from light reddish-brown colored limestone reminded Katie of upside down snow cone cups.
“Isn’t that one of the camp’s white ambulances?” It was parked in the dirt parking lot closest to the temple. The back doors were wide open.
“Yes,” her driver replied. “Tahar requested the ambulance. He wanted more but we only one was available.”
“Well, it’s a start.”
The people in Lalish were unfortunately going to be seeing a lot of ambulances in the next few weeks.
“This is fine, I can walk from here.”
“Very good, Dr. Reynolds. Bye.”
She slammed the door and faced this other world. It was a world of three-thousand-year old temples, castles, graves, and grottoes. She needed a break, Jay was right. Entering the main courtyard, where the dancers and qewels and priests were gathered in front of the temple she saw Tahar drive past her in a Jeep. He went a little way further and parked it between some buildings.
He turned and smiled when he recognized who it was.
She ran over to him. “You were able to secure an ambulance, good for you.”
“I have been hearing more of this cloud coming from the east, from Alex and René. I am glad you are here, Dr. Reynolds.”
“Well thank you Tahar.”
“Could you take another picture of our squad, while we assemble onto the temple roof, please?”
“Sure, I'll be around. Just let me know when.”
“Wait until we are all on top. And don’t forget to wipe the raindrops off the lens.” He disappeared into the temple.
His squad was congregating on the concrete roof above the temple. There was enough room for them all to stand proudly between its spires. Katie looked up and counted fourteen men in military greens. Tahar waved and nodded, and she snapped three pictures.
There must have been two squads of Peshmerga because a handful of others milled downstairs while Tahar’s squad was still on top. When his men came out of the temple Katie noticed a change in the excitement level. Something was happening. The soldiers were more alert, looking expectantly around them. Alex came up to watch.
“What’s going on Alex?”
“Tahar says one squad must leave for Sinjar. They have come under gunfire and need backup. His squad will stay here because this is their home place. The other group came from Sinjar to help during the festival.”
They watched the Sinjar squad queue up in the courtyard.
“Are we in danger? Shall we move somewhere, do something different?”
“Probably not. Sinjar is more than a hundred miles away. It is a two-hour drive, so they must leave now. Hopefully, this is a one-time thing, you know.”
After they left, everything quieted down. But the Lalish soldiers seemed more alert and more focused, just in case.
Katie saw a group of priests, hustle through the complex carrying platters of food to the assembly hall. It was finally time to serve the meal. In spite of the increasing cloud cover and the threat of rain, the sanctuary courtyard came alive with the murmur and shuffle of a crowd of hungry people. Good feelings and easy talk floated freely in anticipation of a good meal.
Half way through the feast, the Qewel players, in white priestly garments finished their song list and withdrew to their sanctuary. Other musicians took over the plaza, and new, non-spiritual, tunes filled the air. Those who finished eating jumped up and started a line dance in the large courtyard in front of the temple. The men, dressed in their best suits, and the ladies, in their colorful dresses and head scarves, stood in a line facing inward. They hooked their little fingers together and moved their feet in unison to the rhythm of the music. Soon a long line of people, hooked together like a happy train were shuffling around the patio.
The priests lit hundreds of olive oil torches as the dark blue clouds, laden with water caused an early twilight to descend upon Lalish Valley. Large, fat raindrops spattered onto the stone walkways. Katie looked up at the darkening sky. A fat, cold raindrop plopped onto her right cheek. But is it a good or bad sign? No matter, she was content and happy to be here for the feast. The panic of her morning was gone. She glanced around gauging the mood of the people. The faithful didn't seem bothered at all by the soldiers. They were even ignoring the pouting threat of rain, happily exclaiming, rejoicing, and enjoying each other. “I’m going to walk around a little, Alex. I'll be back.”
He nodded and watched her drift away through the throng of the religious √äzid√Æs. She was tired, not physically, but mentally. She walked downwind, letting the wind push her gently downhill toward the parking area, away from the busy mass of people. Her mind was frazzled from speaking in Kurdish, or whatever pidgin type of Middle Eastern language she could call it. Here she was, a female doctor, a highly educated foreigner coming from one primitive culture and immersing herself in another. The people here were borderline literate, bitterly persecuted, severely patriarchal, and devoutly religious. A familiar concern resurfaced. What is the use of this study, really? How many resources does a civilization need to maintain itself? Why can’t they stop this thing themselves? This question should have been answered long ago. But it has never been satisfactorily answered anywhere. No society has ever been able to keep itself from failing. People become stupid and greedy and things fall apart.
Katie was a doctor. She knew just placing a Band Aid on an oozing fester does not stop it from oozing or festering. It only hides the problem. Is there ever a point when it’s best not to help? There is, isn’t there? Yet they needed her. Their priests, their Fakirs and Qewels and their highest community leaders accepted her. Walking through the crowd, she felt the acceptance. She noticed people backed up a little when she came near them, but it was because they respected her and were giving her space. Word traveled quickly. The √äzid√Æs knew Katie was there to help and they welcomed her without hesitation.
“Katie, have you eaten yet? The cooks are serving food in the assembly hall.” René jostled her back into immediacy. “Do you want to eat together?”
“You mean like a date, a date with Dr. René?” She widened her eyes in mock disbelief. “How do I rate such an honor? I would have thought I would be fourth, no probably fifth in your line by now.”
“You know I’m just fooling around, don’t you, Katie?” He wanted to make sure she understood he remained steadfast and serious.
“I know you are. Sure, I’m ready to eat.” They turned up the valley, heading back into the wind. Small stings of rain slapped her face. She tightened her headscarf, bent her head down, and followed René.
Suddenly she heard a voice behind her. “Doctor!” Tahar came running up from the lower checkpoint with another soldier. They stopped, out of breath. “Here, I’ve been told to hand these out. You must put this on.” He handed her a garment.
“What is this?” Katie held out the piece of clothing to look at it. It was a polyethylene windbreaker jacket, bright blue in color with white letters. Large letters were stenciled on the back ‘UN’. The lettering on the front breast pocket explained more clearly, ‘United Nations’. “Hey, I’m not in the UN.”
“Put it on. It may save your life.” Tahar looked worried, his eyes darting back and forth as he spoke. “Here's one for you, René.”
“Why, what’s happening?”
“The front checkpoint has been overrun, Dr. Reynolds. Many vehicles are coming this way. Have you seen Alex?”
“Yes, he's in front of the assembly hall.” Katie pointed to the crowd of people further up the hill. Tahar nodded tersely and urged his assistant forward with a nod. Hugging their rifles close to their torsos they hurried quickly up the roadway. On the edge of panic, they stopped everyone they ran into, telling them to run and take shelter further up the valley.
The rain started to come down harder. Grateful it was waterproof, Katie pulled the jacket tightly around her, losing sight of Tahar while he worked his way deeper into the crowd.
“Zip up your jacket René, you’re going to get wet.” Katie circled around, scanning for anyone left behind. She determined the parking area was empty. “We should follow Tahar. Let's go.”
Katie and René ran up the hill and caught up to Tahar and Alex in front of the temple. Alex was clearing people out of the courtyard. Tahar and Pir Zêdo were engaged in a tense conversation. Alex pulled one of the blue jackets on and walked over to see what the talk was about. He listened to his brother, nodding in agreement. Pir Zêdo and Tahar ran into the assembly room, looking for the temple elders, and Alex took control of directing the group. “We must move people up the valley to find places to hide. Tell everyone you see to keep moving up the hill to look for shelter. René, Katie, I need your help. These people have to go immediately!” He turned around and started moving people standing nearby, urging them to leave, quickly.
The rain worsened, and the steady drumbeat of the drops increased their intensity. People started shouting to each other in order to be heard above the hammering roar of the rain. Panic overcame the crowd on the patio. The fallen leaves were now slippery on the wet stones and walking was difficult. Katie looked around. Everyone was suddenly in motion. But maybe it was a good thing. At least they know they have to go somewhere. She started waving her arm. “Go that way,” she said to those who saw her. “Go that way, up the valley. Follow the others, just keep going!”
Suddenly, she saw a large group of people heading back down the hill toward the parking lot. No! That is where soldiers are coming from. I’ve got to stop them.
“René!” She yelled out. “René, come back! There are more people here!” She hoped he could hear her, praying her voice was not too muffled by the noise of the rain. She yelled again at the people running towards them, yelling louder. A young child, about ten years old heard Katie, and tugged on her mother’s thawb. The mother stopped and turned. She saw Katie motioning them the other way, warning them away from going further into the parking area. The woman called to her friends and the group turned. Seeing they were going the right way, Katie ran to the other side of the parking area to make sure there weren't more dawdlers.
The storm really settled in now and the rain came down in a deluge. She was wet, very wet. She stood on her toes, put her hands above her eyes, and strained to see, listening for others. As far as she could tell, no one else was left behind. She faced into the driving rain to return to her friends. The rain pellets, driven by the whipping wind, stung her cheeks and kept her from looking up, from looking forward. It was coming down in cold sheets now, curtaining her off from everything around her. Suddenly headlights pierced her isolation, illuminating the thousands of raindrops falling to the ground.
“Go to the temple! Run, hide!” The driver of a jeep yelled at her as it passed, and a second jeep followed. Men and machine guns were mounted on both. She jumped backward, avoiding the spray of the water from the tires and ran up to them when they stopped in the sanctuary plaza. The gunners turned and set up a defensive stance and focused on the headlights coming up toward them through the rain. Almost at once they began firing at the two pairs of lights. Noise, bedlam, and chaos erupted, filling the area with sound. Katie looked around for help. She knew she should be hiding somewhere.
“Katie!” René appeared from out of nowhere.
“Get down, run!” One of the soldiers in the second jeep yelled at her, twirling the machine gun on its turret. He fired, bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam! One, two, three, four, five, six rounds shot down the road at the headlights coming their way. Suddenly, the oncoming headlights went dark and gunfire erupted from the invaders. Pzing, Tszing, Tzing, bing! Katie heard the bullets ricochet near her. She fell to the ground, feeling the cold wet stone on her face. Cold water seeped up under the plastic windbreaker.
BOOM! The flash from an explosion went off down the road. Now they were throwing grenades or mortars, or something much more powerful than bullets.
“Katie, this way!” René yelled to her from the temple doorway. He could see how vulnerable she was, lying on the stone, between the jeep and the temple wall.
“Katie, come now, come, right now!” He ran out, pulled her up, and dragged her to the temple entrance. “René! You’re tripping me. Let me get my footing.” She tried to stay upright while René frantically pulled at her. Pzing, Tszing, Tzing! More bullets flew around them.
They were right in the middle of the firefight. Bam bam bam! Then, tcha, tcha tsch, tcha! Katie could hear the difference between the machine guns and the rifles. The gunner in the jeep returned fire and was fired upon again. Sporadic small arms fire came from others hunkered behind protective walls. After a few minutes of exchange, the firing stopped as the other vehicles revved their engines, and slowly came up the road. They got closer and their machine guns began firing again. Katie could see the flames licking the muzzle of the machine gun. Suddenly, BOOM! An explosion lit the patio, and the jeeps jumped. A mortar went off just twenty feet in front of them.
René frantically jerked Katie into the alcove of the temple, helping her gain her balance, before letting go of her when she could stand on her own. They both looked out, watching the engagement, not knowing what to do. They were still very exposed. Another round of machine gunfire came their way. Tzing, Tzing, Tzing, Tzing! Katie could track the path of the bullets. They seemed to be drifting away from her, moving toward the jeep. After a brief pause in the firing, a renewed burst of bullets continued their march across the wall. Tzing, tzig, tizing! The trail of bullets came toward the jeep again. Tzing, tzing, tzing, tzing, thud, thud! Two bullets hit the gunner who crumbled from his position and fell off the jeep onto the wet stone.
“Oh no!” Katie instinctively ran out to help him.
“Katie, no! Katie, stop!” René ran after her. Now they were both out in the open, with no protection. The machine gun started up again as Katie ran to the fallen gunner. “Help me, help me get him in!” Another soldier helped her roll the wounded man into the jeep. It revved off about one hundred feet further to take up a new defensive position. The other jeep followed.
“Katie!” René screamed. “Come with me! Now!” Turning her from the jeep, he grabbed her hand and pulled her hard and fast toward the temple again.
Tzing, tzing, tzing, tzing! René increased his pace. “Hurry, Katie, hurry!”
Katie was right behind René, and they were almost to a safe place when, tzing, tzing, tzing! Suddenly, she was stopped and thrown backward by the force of a bullet slamming into her body. Ttzing, thud, tzing! Katie fell. Tzing, tzing, tzing, tzing, thud! René went down.
Katie felt the hard punch of the bullet as it ripped into her left shoulder, the force of the impact caused her to spin around and fall to the ground. Tzing, tzing, tzing! She could hear the bullets coming closer again and was unable to move. Tzing, tzing, thud! A second bullet slammed into her leg, tearing the flesh leaving a gaping hole. She felt piercing, hot, searing pain in her shoulder and all down her leg. Lifting her head, she looked at her shoulder. Blood trickled down her arm. It felt warm. She looked down at her leg. Her pants were soaked in blood. It felt hot, like someone threw boiling water on it. She hurt, badly. Her whole body was hot. She was burning up. Where is René? Is he ok? Anybody? Ohh, it hurts.
A bullet ripped into the side of René’s abdomen and a trickle of warm blood began to stain the shirt under his jacket. He doubled over in pain and collapsed to the ground. It hurt, hurt like hell, like he was on fire, as if a thousand knives were digging themselves into his stomach. But Katie needed him. She was yelling for him. He had to do this. When he looked down the road, they were still coming. They didn't have much time. He crawled over to her.
Time moved in slow motion. Things were going dark. Katie closed her eyes, when she opened them she saw someone in front of her.
René reached out to her, but his right side was useless, so he grabbed her with his left hand.
She grabbed on. She was in horrible pain.
He staggered himself upright, moved toward the temple, and dragged her inside. They stumbled over the threshold and she slipped from his hands, falling to the floor, lifeless.
“No, no, Katie.”
She lifted her hand and whispered, “Help me, René.”
He took her hands and started to drag her. Two figures appeared in the doorway as René pulled her behind another threshold. The intruders shot into the temple as René pulled her further into the darkness. Afraid to follow or too lazy to run inside, one decided to toss a grenade to dispatch the quarry. René saw the soldier begin his throw and quickly pulled Katie backward, into a dead-end grotto. They were trapped; there was nowhere to go. Frantically he looked around and saw a small table, a sarcophagus, and a blanket. He pulled the blanket from the casket and pushed Katie behind the table, into the corner as far as he could. He threw himself on top of her and gathered the blue silk blanket around them. He closed his eyes and prayed while the space around them exploded into light and fire.