FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

From Check Point to Check Mate

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Checkpoints are common to every country in the Middle East and beyond. They play a central role in the daily lives of people from Tripoli in Libya to Peshawar in Pakistan and from the mountains of south-east Turkey to the marshes of southern Sudan. Nobody knows their number, although it must be in the tens of thousands, and they vary between being a minor inconvenience, a reassuring sign of security, and a place of terror and/or execution.

Their importance is commonly ignored by the ruling elite. Politicians, diplomats and even journalists are often permitted to pass through them with a polite wave of the hand. But for an Afghan farmer, returning to his village from the provincial capital, a checkpoint is where he may have to pay a bribe to continue his journey; if he is with his children, he fears they will raped by the police on duty. For Iraqis during the sectarian civil war of 2006-07, official or unofficial checkpoints were dreaded places where they might become victims of an “ID killing”, shot because their ID card revealed their religious identity.

Of course, their purpose is to establish control of the roads and show who is in charge. No consideration is given to the convenience, or even the ability to make a living, of ordinary citizens. Border checks show the same mentality. Almost the first act of the triumphant anti-Gaddafi militiamen after they had taken Tripoli last August was to impose such rigorous checks on those leaving the country that traffic tailed back for miles.

Most often there is nothing dramatic about checkpoints. They are simply the outward and visible sign of whoever is claiming authority over an urban street or a country road. But, without a shot being fired, they can stifle the economic life of an area, as Israel has done for years on the West Bank.

A surprise witness to the calamitous impact of these checkpoints in recent years is President George W Bush. In 2008 Bush was to make a presidential visit to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. The Israelis wanted him to travel the short distance by helicopter, but his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, insisted, according to her recently published memoir, that he go by car. She wanted him to see “the ugliness of the occupation, including the checkpoints and the security wall, for himself, and it would have been an insult to the Palestinians if he didn’t.” Barriers were taken down and Bush’s convoy raced at speed down the road to Bethlehem, but even so, briefly viewing what Palestinians had to put up with, Bush commented, “This is awful”.

After working in the Middle East as a journalist on and off for 35 years, I almost invariably try to check the potential of any checkpoint to cause trouble before I get to it. The simplest way is to ask drivers coming in the opposite direction. If there is no oncoming traffic, this is a bad sign. It is also worth thinking about how local security or militiamen may react to the number plate on one’s car.

My worst experiences, both in different wars in Iraq, came from forgetting these simple precautions. In 1991, I was part of a convoy of cars provided by the Iraqi governor of Sulaymaniyah to Swedish officials from the UN, pre-positioning supplies for returning Kurdish refugees. We drove up to the Kurdish front line where the militiamen noticed our cars had no number plates which, to them, meant that they belonged to the hated Iraqi secret police. The drivers, who were indeed secret policemen, panicked and tried to reverse as the Kurds opened fire. Our car was hit by a dozen bullets but, amazingly, none of us was seriously wounded, although I was hit in the face by metal and glass.

A second and worse experience was in Iraq in 2004, when I was driving with two Iraqis to Najaf to a press conference to be given by followers of the Shia nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Shortly before crossing the Euphrates at Kufa, we were stopped by a checkpoint manned by Mehdi Army militiamen who had just been fighting with US Marines and were in a high state of hysteria. I was wearing a red-and-white keffiyeh – headdress – as a disguise because we had been driving through some very dangerous Sunni towns to the north. The Mehdi Army men tore it off and started shouting: “He’s an American spy!” For a few minutes it seemed certain they would shoot us until we persuaded them to take us to their local leader in the Grand Mosque in Kufa.

It was a nasty experience and drove home for me the dread felt by many when approaching a checkpoint. For a period their lives will be in the hands of bored, ill-paid men with guns, all of whom must be treated with exaggerated courtesy, as well as cheery greetings and a groveling smile.

As a way of knowing what makes a country tick, close observation of checkpoints may be more informative than meetings with prime ministers and ambassadors. In countries such as Afghanistan and Yemen, they tell one what the government does and does not control. For instance, a year ago I was in Afghanistan and drove 40 miles north of Kabul into what is meant to be territory firmly held by the government. But as we entered the Salang valley, the only big road leading through the Hindu Kush to northern Afghanistan, there was a checkpoint manned by ragged gunmen who claimed they were collecting a municipal road tax but were probably freelance bandits. We decided to drive up the Panjshir Valley, the natural fortress of the old anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. In the gorge at the entrance was another checkpoint where militiamen took our passports and wrote down our names. The message was that the Panjshir was one more Afghan state-within-a-state which set its own rules.

In Lebanon during the early 1980s, I used to give copies of the Beirut newspapers to bored militiamen at checkpoints in the mountains as a conciliatory gesture. At about the same time I had a comic fantasy of starting a newspaper devoted to checkpoint life to be sold in the many countries where they flourish. The idea came to me when I saw two militiamen selling their party newspaper. Without exception, every driver was buying a newspaper. Around the next corner in the road, lying in the ditch, was a discarded heap of the same publication. The beauty of my scheme is that it makes newspaper purchase more or less obligatory and the quality of the publication, often an irritating cause of expense, will not matter. Surely such a plan cannot fail?

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 22, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Good as Goldman: Hillary and Wall Street
Joseph E. Lowndes
From Silent Majority to White-Hot Rage: Observations from Cleveland
Paul Street
Political Correctness: Handle with Care
Richard Moser
Actions Express Priorities: 40 Years of Failed Lesser Evil Voting
Eric Draitser
Hillary and Tim Kaine: a Match Made on Wall Street
Conn Hallinan
The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO
Ron Jacobs
Exacerbate the Split in the Ruling Class
Jill Stein
After US Airstrikes Kill 73 in Syria, It’s Time to End Military Assaults that Breed Terrorism
Jack Rasmus
Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent
John Feffer
Could a Military Coup Happen Here?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Late Night, Wine-Soaked Thoughts on Trump’s Jeremiad
Andrew Levine
Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?
Michael Lukas
Law, Order, and the Disciplining of Black Bodies at the Republican National Convention
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children
Victor Grossman
Horror News, This Time From Munich
Margaret Kimberley
Gavin Long’s Last Words
Mark Weisbrot
Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil
Brian Cloughley
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon
Lawrence Reichard
A Global Crossroad
Kevin Schwartz
Beyond 28 Pages: Saudi Arabia and the West
Charles Pierson
The Courage of Kalyn Chapman James
Michael Brenner
Terrorism Redux
Bruce Lerro
Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: Liberals and the Social Contract Theory of Violence
Mark Dunbar
The Politics of Jeremy Corbyn
Binoy Kampmark
Laura Ingraham and Trumpism
Uri Avnery
The Great Rift
Nicholas Buccola
What’s the Matter with What Ted Said?
Aidan O'Brien
Thank Allah for Western Democracy, Despondency and Defeat
Joseph Natoli
The Politics of Crazy and Stupid
Sher Ali Khan
Empirocracy
Nauman Sadiq
A House Divided: Turkey’s Failed Coup Plot
Franklin Lamb
A Roadmap for Lebanon to Grant Civil Rights for Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon
Colin Todhunter
Power and the Bomb: Conducting International Relations with the Threat of Mass Murder
Michael Barker
UK Labour’s Rightwing Select Corporate Lobbyist to Oppose Jeremy Corbyn
Graham Peebles
Brexit, Trump and Lots of Anger
Anhvinh Doanvo
Civilian Deaths, Iraq, Syria, ISIS and Drones
Christopher Brauchli
Kansas and the Phantom Voters
Peter Lee
Gavin Long’s Manifesto and the Politics of “Terrorism”
Missy Comley Beattie
An Alarmingly Ignorant Fuck
Robert Koehler
Volatile America
Adam Vogal
Why Black Lives Matter To Me
Raouf Halaby
It Is Not Plagiarism, Y’all
Rev. Jeff Hood
Deliver Us From Babel
Frances Madeson
Juvenile Life Without Parole, Captured in ‘Natural Life’
Charles R. Larson
Review: Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail