I arrived at the Al Gazlani military camp towards the end of February 1970 with my bed roll on my shoulder. My friend and I were left by our minder, the Kurdish sergeant, at the gate of the camp which was the HQ of the First Iraqi Army Division. There were three logistic companies at the camp that were responsible for the provision of mules and the companies had some two thousand mules in total. The camp was basically a place where the animals were rested and allowed to recuperate(R&R) as, before the days of gunship helicopters, the army used mules to transport guns, supplies and ammunition to the inaccessible mountain areas. At the time the army was constructing small forts on the tops of the mountains and hills in Kurdistan that were to be used by soldiers to control the surrounding area and to watch the movement of the Peshmerga These forts were called ‘rabeia’, meaning high plateau in Arabic, and were simply observation posts for the bigger military camps situated in the valleys or lowlands. The mules were used to take supplies up the mountains to the rabeia from the main camps and the poor creatures were given a month of recuperation after two to three months on active duty in hard conditions.
Some of the animals never returned from active duty as they had been killed during fighting or blown up by mines so the soldiers used to bring back the halters and chains used to tether each animal to record each mule killed on active duty. It was our job to tend to the wounded mules that were returned to the camp. In the month that the mules stayed in camp they were fed well with ample rations of good quality crushed wheat straw and each animal was given a kilo of slightly salted, soaked barley every day. Their feet were checked and each animal was re-shoed by the Farrier (blacksmith) before leaving the camp on its next tour of duty.
We had the task of replacing the mules that had been killed and a purchasing committee used to buy mules from Kurdish villages and bring the animals back to the camp. We then had the job of tattooing its army number onto the upper gum of each mule and to castrate the male mules. The male mules had to be castrated as the intact animal could be very difficult to control, particularly when so many mules were congregated in one place. The number, colour and place of purchase of each animal were well documented in a ledger books, including the mule’s service record, and these records were checked regularly by the Major our company commander. I often thought that they did not keep such accurate records for the soldiers in the company.
The way in which the animals were castrated is something I will write about later and some people may question why it was done. As a short explanation I should mention that a mule is the result of a male donkey or jack ass mating with a female horse or mare while the reverse mating results in a smaller animal, the hinny. However a donkey has 62 chromosomes and a horse has 64 chromosomes and as the offspring receives half of its chromosomes from each parent then a mule has 63 chromosomes. This means that the majority of mules are sterile and it is only in rare cases that a mule has produced offspring. However the mule does produce sex hormones and the female goes into oestrus, (i.e. goes ‘on heat’) and the intact males will endeavour to mate with any female in heat. I seem to remember that there was a mule foetus that was a few months old as a preserved specimen in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Baghdad
Our company was at the far end of the camp, senior officers of the HQ of the First Division of the Iraqi Army did not want to have a company of mules near them because of flies and the smells from the animals. In addition a great deal of dust was created twice a day when the animals were taken to the water troughs to drink. The mules were also taken every morning for two hours exercise when most of the commissioned and non-commissioned officers would quite literally ‘go along for the ride’. Naturally the best mules were always reserved as mounts for the officers
Mules are always described as stubborn animals but I do not agree. During their morning exercise, or the short trips these animals had from the stables to the water trough, they were chained together in parallel sequence to form groups of six animals. Each group followed the group in front in a long, well organized column. The order taken for watering was organized according to the platoon, each platoon had a large stable block and the storage facility for animal feed and tack. When the mules went out for their morning exercise the soldiers and non-commissioned officers used to ride the first animal on the left in each group.
The stables were built from mud and straw and were maintained by using the same material, well mixed by soldiers, naked to the waist, treading the thick sticky mud and straw and then using it to repair the muddy stables. It was ever continuous, hard work for this group of soldiers and initially I thought that these half naked mud workers were prisoners being punished by the company for some wrong doing. Then one day as I passed by them to enter one of stables I heard them speaking Kurdish and it was later that day, when finding the opportunity to speak to them, I discovered that they had done no wrong and had to do the work simply because they were Kurds. I still remember their faces and how happy they were to discover the new veterinary doctor was like them a Kurd, even he was a simple soldier and not a lieutenant as was the other veterinary doctor who had been with the company for the last two years and was always addressed as ‘Sir.’ They told me that most of the soldiers and the saddler, the latter were given the rank of sergeant, were all Kurds as in Iraq it was mainly the Kurdish villagers who kept mules. Most of the Kurdish conscripts were taken to the mule companies as muleteers. I noticed that they spoke Arabic with me in front of the Arabs as they did not want the others to know that I was a Kurd. We Faili Kurds were brought up in Baghdad and it was difficult for an Arab to recognize us Kurds because of the pure Baghdadi arabic accent we used when speaking.
I was supposed to be the company veterinarian responsible for treating the mules. There was another qualified veterinary officer in the company, with the rank of lieutenant, and over a dozen auxiliaries who were non-commissioned officers. After the morning exercise all the veterinary corps attended surgery in order to treat injured animals, carry out castrations and tattoo numbers on the new animal ‘recruits’. The lieutenant would attend for a few minutes and then hand over the responsibilities to me as a qualified vet. That was the dilemma that Saddam Hussein had created, I held no rank that allowed me to issue orders to a dozen non-commissioned officers, the lowest rank among them was a sergeant. Readers of this note may not fully understand the difficulty I was in unless they too have served in a third world army. I was a soldier; quite simply I could not tell the non-commissioned officer what to do because I was a much lower rank, on the other hand as a qualified veterinarian I had to supervise their work. Simply that was against all rules and discipline even by the standards of ancient armies. This is what Saddam Hussein was doing.
The clinic was a simple small room with an earthen floor and a roof of corrugated iron covered with a layer of mud and straw that had been built by the company’s ‘mud boys’. The equipment consisted of a few pairs of forceps, some large needles for suturing wounds, one large tool for castrating the mules, a tin dish, a spirit lamp, a tooth rasp, mercurochrome for disinfection and plenty of sulpha powders. It could hardly be said that the clinic was furnished with all the modern facilities of the day. The clinic faced the stables and was adjacent to two larger rooms of the same construction that were used to accommodate the veterinary auxiliaries. My arrival caused the immediate dilemma of whether I should be billeted with soldiers in tents or with the non-commissioned officers who were the veterinary auxiliaries. It was after much deliberation that it was decided to put me in with the latter.
My daily duty was to look after the welfare of the mules. As the word went around among the Kurdish soldiers my clinic room also became a first aid center for the soldiers who suffered cuts and bruises from working with and riding the mules. The veterinary auxiliaries turned a blind eye to what was going on, simply because an injured soldier was never given permission to see a doctor in the Division’s headquarters. In addition the Division HQ was too far away and you could not expect arrangements to be made to transport a Kurdish soldier to the clinic in HQ, could you? As time went on I treated a variety of health problems in those soldiers with the resources supplied for treating mules, I even had to give what help I could to soldiers who were infected with tuberculosis or gonorrhoea.
On 11th, March 1970 a peace agreement was struck between the late Mulla Mustaffa Barzani and Saddam Hussein. I thought that the mud boys would be released from their daily toil. Instead the only change for them was to be allowed to sleep in tents, as did the other soldiers, instead of sleeping in the lice infested cells of the company’s jail. Unfortunately the mud boys were still hard at work when I left the camp in October 1970 after paying 100 Iraqi Dinar to be released from service. That was a lot of money at the time; at least it was for my family. I bought two months of freedom for a hundred Iraqi Dinars.
In March 1970 I left the camp without permission and eventually I reached the HQ of the Peshmerga in Galalah, where I met my brother Adel. I stayed in Galalah for two weeks and one of the humorous moments I had there was an encounter with Shakeeb, who had a closely shaved head forty years before the style became fashionable. Shakeeb was in charge of intelligence in Kurdistan and we had a talk about the army’s mules. I understood then the damage the mule was doing to the Kurdish resistance in those days. After two weeks in Galalah I returned to the camp to find no one was bothered about my absence! The army really was in chaos.
Exchanging notes with other university graduate soldiers who I used to meet in the city of Mosel on our Friday afternoon break, I noticed that our company was more organised than other troops stationed at the big camp. The mule company was copycat of the British muleteer (mule men) army units dating back to before 1916 and in 1921 the British army had 15,000 muleteers who were mainly Cypriots. Two years later I arrived at Liverpool University in Britain to study for a Ph.D. I still treasure the day when I met Dr Frank Jordan, the eminent poultry disease specialist and the Head of the Poultry Department in Liverpool’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. He was a Welshman who had been a military veterinarian in the war against the communists in Malaya. He told me how he had to cut the vocal cords of the mules in order to keep them quiet when moving the animals through the jungle. Exchanging notes with this pleasant man I realized that two decades later I had been doing more or less what he had done in Malaya, but my main surgical procedure was castration.