Iraq's Truckers In It For The Long, Dangerous Haul

Trucks from Iran queue for inspection outside the Iraqi city of Amara i i

Trucks carrying goods from Iran to Iraq queue for inspection about 90 miles from the southeastern Iraqi city of Amara. These days, Iraqi truckers face more delays than mortal danger while working, but life remains a challenge. Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images
Trucks from Iran queue for inspection outside the Iraqi city of Amara

Trucks carrying goods from Iran to Iraq queue for inspection about 90 miles from the southeastern Iraqi city of Amara. These days, Iraqi truckers face more delays than mortal danger while working, but life remains a challenge.

Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqis are intimately familiar with the struggle to balance security with freedom of movement. But the necessary security measures to thwart bomb attacks make life even more difficult for the average Iraqi truck driver.

Maher Yusef is just 30, but the lines in his face make him look older. It could be all the nights he has slept in his truck.

On a recent day, cars blow past the long line of tractor-trailers parked along the highway outside Baghdad. Trucks can only enter the city between 4 p.m. and midnight, which can make a short journey several days longer.

Maher says he only sees his family two or three times a month. A day earlier, his wife called to say if he didn't come home, she was taking the kids and moving back to her mother's house.

Luckily, it was easy for him to get home that night: He was stuck at a checkpoint just outside his home in the city of Abu Ghraib. He asked one of his five brothers — four of whom are truckers — to watch his rig for the night, and he went home.

Now, he is back in time for the line to start moving through the roadblock and into Baghdad.

When he reaches the checkpoint, Maher waves to the Iraqi police. He doesn't think the security is very tight, but he admits life is much better than a few years ago. Then, the roads were so dangerous that truckers would drive at night, slipstreaming behind American military convoys. The U.S. soldiers didn't like it — they sometimes fired warning shots — but it was better than going it alone.

Once, driving alone, a car full of Kalashnikov-toting masked men overtook him.

Maher says he thought he was dead when the men took him toward a gravel pit by the Tigris River. It was tomatoes that saved him: His truck was full of fresh vegetables, which weren't worth stealing since they would rot in 48 hours. The highwaymen let him go and waited for a better prize to drive by.

Now, more often it is not the dangers but the delays that plague truckers. Maher recently spent 10 days in Jordan waiting for permission to load up and cross the border. From Amman, it is about a 10-hour drive to reach the checkpoints in western Anbar province, and it usually takes another day to cross them.

And there's still a war on. Last fall, insurgents blew up a bridge on the highway near Ramadi in Anbar, and a traffic jam on the detour added an extra day.

When the violence was at its worst, Maher says, he and his brothers all sat at home for most of a year not working at all. Each of these two-week trips clears him only a couple hundred dollars, but all things considered, he says he'd rather be out on the road.

As he drives through Baghdad toward a warehouse, he shifts gears, and cupboards over the windshield of his truck start to slap open and shut in time with the engine. Blankets and a pillow jostle around in the bunk behind the driver's seat.

His father was a trucker; maybe his sons will be truckers, too. He doesn't love the job, but he is putting food on the table.

It's still dangerous, but what are you going to do? he says. It's either work or starve.

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