The Truffle Hunters Of Iraq
Imad Hamdan Mutlaq and his cousin wake before dawn to hunt for truffles. They leave their small river village of Abu Taban and pile into a car heading southwest towards Nukhayb – a town deep in the desert. It’s spring, and the desert flowers. Frail star-shaped blossoms bloom, green grass tufts poke out of the earth and the normally rocky soil has soaked in enough water to become a fertile home for a rare delicacy: truffles.
Mutlaq, like many living in the rural areas of Iraq’s Anbar province, is unemployed and only able to pick up the odd job. He depends on the truffles to support his family. Desert truffles fetch a good price, although they are astronomically cheaper than their European counterparts. When cooked, the truffles simmer into a rich, buttery flavour that melts on the tongue. A kilo of truffles fetches around 6000 Iraqi Dinar ($5). Getting a good haul means a lot for Mutlaq. “If I get 40 kilos, I would have enough to support us for a month,” he explains.
When he and his cousin first drove west, they were praying for the best. They got to Nukhayb and asked where they could find the good truffles. Locals advised them to go deep into the desert – towards the oasis Wadi Huran. As they drove, they saw dark openings in some of the rocks. They knew ISIS used tunnels to move through the desert, but desperately hoped that these ones had been abandoned.
They travelled about 30 kilometres into the desert until they reached the areas where the desert bloomed wild and the truffles were plentiful. Once they got out the car, they took out the thin metal sticks they used to poke the earth for the hidden riches. They walked, scanning the ground for the telltale-cracks that meant a truffle was bursting just beneath the surface. When they found one, they would crouch down and use the stick to pry it out of the ground. The truffles would emerge covered in a fine layer of sand, resembling dust brown boulders.
After gathering the truffles, Mutlaq and his brother picnicked for lunch before deciding to head home. As they were starting to head back, a car pulled up behind them. Mutlaq noticed it was new – it looked like it had just been issued this year. Inside sat two armed men wearing khaki military-style uniforms. One carried a Kalashnikov, the other carried a rifle. They shouted at them to kneel on the ground.
“We’re from the Islamic State,” the men said.
“I felt I would die,” says Mutlaq. “I felt it was the end, there was no other way. It was up to the mercy of God.” His face is carved by strong lines around his mouth, which tense as he remembers.
Since losing its territory, ISIS has returned to its insurgent roots, based in isolated areas and targeting vulnerable people like Mutlaq for kidnap or ransom. But Mutlaq’s journey points to larger, latent issues within Anbar that will fester regardless of ISIS. Matluq went out to hunt for truffles because the province’s economic and political isolation made it almost impossible for him to find work. He received no aid after he was displaced. He does not have a regular salary and without his family, he would be homeless. Mutlaq had very little choice when he went to the desert. He joins hundreds of others whose only chance at survival is a risky odyssey that could cost their lives.
Desert truffles need water to grow. Most seasons they are rare, and require an experienced eye to seek out. In the good years, truffles are so common that Iraqis refer to them as the meat of the poor man. This year’s rains meant the greatest truffle season since 1998. Some truffles swell to the size of small melons, and the bigger the truffle, the better the price.
Mutlaq was not alone in being lured out to the desert. Hours away in the holy city, Najaf, a group of around 14 men prepared to make the journey to Nukhayb, where they heard the best truffles could be found.
Muqlaq and his cousin were lucky: ISIS released them eventually. When ISIS members let them go, they told them they were not looking for “Muslims,” but for members of the police and intelligence.
“He said to my cousin, ‘All of you Muslims are welcome,’” remembers Mutlaq. “My cousin replied ‘Anything for you.’ He was scared of them, he just wanted to go.”
ISIS kidnapped at least 44 truffle hunters over the course of the season. Some of them they released for ransom but others, those who came from Shia areas, they would kill indiscriminately.
For ISIS, the attacks on truffle hunters serve multiple purposes. They reassert that ISIS still carries influence at a time when it has never been weaker. They show that the security forces are willing to turn a blind eye. And they seek to sow sectarian division. While Sunni truffle hunters could be released or ransomed, ISIS made a point of murdering every Shia truffle hunter they kidnapped.
The men who left from Najaf split into two groups of seven. One of the groups was lucky: they slipped in and out safely. ISIS found the second group. They killed six of the men. Only one of them escaped with his life.
Zeinab Khadem Shaylan’s husband was one of the men killed. “He went to the desert for truffles, because we needed to survive, and they killed him there,” she says. She speaks in a quiet, hoarse voice as she sits in the entrance hall of her home in the outskirts of Najaf, under a portrait of her late husband. Zeinab says her husband would go out hunting for truffles every eight days with a group of 14 others from the village. Normally, they would avoid the parts of the desert where ISIS was known to be active. But this time, the prize was too tempting and like Mutlaq, her husband travelled straight in the direction of Nukhayb.
“They didn’t [usually] go there, but they heard there were many truffles there so they went with a group,” says her eldest son Abbas. “They spent a night there and the next they were supposed to return. But Daesh found them in the morning and killed them.”
Zeinab remembers the last call she got from her husband, on a Monday night. He said hello to the family and told them that he would be back the next day.
“When they did not come Tuesday, we tried to call but his number was closed. We called and we called, but it was off,” she says. She told herself his battery must have run out. The next day, a neighbour called and informed her there was news from the police: her husband’s body had been found shot in the desert along with the six others he’d gone out with.
“What’s the reason? He was a poor man, there’s no reason,” asks Zeinab. “They were all poor people with families. They went to try and get life from the ground. That was all.”
Only one of the truffle hunters who’d gone out that day survived. He escaped and told them what he witnessed. “They made them get out of the car. They asked them, ‘Where are you from?’ [The group] said, ‘We’re from Najaf.’ And they said, ‘Kill them,” recounts Abbas.
He believes that his father was killed because ISIS wanted to make a point. “Daesh’s message is that they are here in Iraq. That they are still here. After 2018, they did not have a victory,” he says. “They wanted to show that Daesh is still here and the evidence that Daesh is in Nakhib – between Karbala and Ramadi – they are close to Karbala. Karbala is the second centre for Shias after Najaf. They wanted to send us a message.”
Najaf is one of the most renowned centres for Shiism, which is all the Daesh militants needed to know in order to execute them. These tactics hark back to 2010 when al-Qaeda, the organisation that would later give birth to ISIS, was still active in the area. Between 2006 and 2009, al-Qaeda helped sow a sectarian conflict in Iraq that devastated communities across the country. In 2006 and 2007, the terror group was strong enough to informally control parts of Ramadi and Fallujah. But by 2010, they were practically eliminated in the area.
Weak and outnumbered, they set up operations in the desert. In this new era, the organisation acted as a mafia. It kidnapped prominent members of communities and demanded high ransoms for their return. They cycled between threatening and protecting local businesses until they worked with them. Slowly but surely, they were able to rebuild their strength and laid the foundations for what would later become ISIS.
The Islamic State was unique among insurgency groups for its ability to operate like a pseudo-state complete with taxes, bureaucracy and civil services.
On March 23, in the battle of Bahgouz in Northern Syria, the Islamic State lost the last remaining shreds of its territory. Now, similarly to al-Qaeda in 2010, the group has been reduced to a shadow of itself, and has retreated to the tried and true tactics of guerilla insurgency that defined the organisation in the mid-2000s. Today, the majority of ISIS fighters are suspected to be hiding in isolated areas in the Western Anbar desert, the Hamrin mountains and rural Ninewa.
Thousands of US troops are stationed in Anbar ‘to fight and destroy IS’ , and Iraqi army operations are active in the area. But the further into the desert you go, the less secure it becomes. Parts of the desert remain a Wild West: swathes of land with minimal security. The security forces that do exist are internally divided and seldom share information with each other.
Nevertheless, military operations against ISIS in the desert are ongoing. “Two days ago we completed an operation in Wadi Hur” says Tahseen al-Khafajie, the manager of the media office in the Iraqi Defense Ministry. “The goal was to eliminate ISIS supporters...we killed nine to ten of them and took their materials, their computers, and also gathered important information on the terrorists and their movements.”
Khafajie says what makes the current operations different than the fight against al-Qaeda in 2018 is that relations with civilians have improved. “If you look at the relationship from 2003 until 2014, there was not a lot of development, there was not a lot of change,” he says.
After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Saddam Hussein’s disposal, American occupying forces reshaped the government along sectarian lines and purged the Saddam-era government. On paper, the arrangement was meant to prevent exclusion, but many believe it institutionalised sectarianism and led to the marginalisation of Sunni-majority provinces like Anbar and Ninewa, where many Saddam-era leaders stemmed from. Over the years, that neglect crystalised into corruption – and often abuse – on the part of soldiers from the Shia-majority South.
“Why did three provinces fall?” asks Khafajie. “The soldiers were scared, they felt the people in front of them did not want them, so in the end, they took their arms and left.”
For some people, ISIS represented a resistance to perceived injustices of the Baghdad government. For others, though, even if they did not actively support ISIS, they scarcely mourned the departure of Southern soldiers.
But over the course of 2014 to 2017, the horrifying nature of the abuse ISIS committed stripped away most popular support for the group. “Now there is a big difference,” says Khafajie. “Now the people want the army. They helped the military with the liberation operations. So, of course, the relationship is much better than it was before.”
Despite Khafajie’s words, the groundswell of the support bolstering armed forces for expelling ISIS has begun to fade, in light of the ongoing negligence of basic services and support. It has been over two years since the international coalition expelled ISIS from Iraq, and little has been done to address the root problems behind its rise.
Iraqi law guarantees compensation to victims of conflict – which would easily include Abbas and his family. But in Anbar only around a thousand people have been compensated out of roughly 50,000 cases in 2018, according to sources in the local governorate. The complex and bureaucratic compensation process has been riddled with allegations of corruption, with many claiming that the only way to get compensation is to pay high bribes.
Abbas says that they have not received any help from any offices of the government. Abbas studies chemistry at university, fulfilling a long held dream of his father’s that he graduate with a degree.
“He would work from the morning till night...he just wanted us to finish our studies and enter university. The first year I entered university he was martyred,” he says.
Since his father’s death, Abbas has become the primary breadwinner for the family. “If we get our rights from the state, then I’ll continue, but if we don’t get our rights, I’ll have to leave university,” he pauses. “But God willing I’ll be able to finish my studies.”
Abbas does not carry much hope that ISIS will ever be fully eliminated. “It’s impossible for us to kill them all,” he says, “but at the very least we want our rights, for those that have left. My father and my cousin were killed for what reason? They have children who now don’t have a way to live.”
Poverty unites Abbas’ father and Muqlaq’s ill-fated journeys to Nukheib. They both relied on truffles to support their families. They both faced an economy where work was rare and ill-paid.
The war devastated Anbar in myriad ways. The conflict uprooted Mutlaq and his family who were forced to flee their town when ISIS took over. Their house was occupied first by ISIS, then by a militia and to this day, they see no chance of going home. They left everything behind when they fled, but the war still followed. Mutlaq’s children struggle to sleep at night – haunted by nightmares of bombs flattening cities to the ground.
In Anbar province, 57 percent of the homes were destroyed and unemployment is high. It’s rare for Mutlaq, who works as a car mechanic, to find even a day-gig. He lives in a dilapidated house donated by the community. Without the support from his village, he and his family would be missing the most basic commodities. As it is, even his mattresses were donated by his neighbours.
“We can’t even afford to go to a doctor, and one of my daughters is sick. We don’t have money. We just pray to God. What can we do?” says his wife Warda, who did not want to use her real name.
Mutlaq fears ISIS, but he rages against the Iraqi government.
“In Iraq there is no government,” Mutlaq says bitterly, “The government is parties, these parties are just interested in power. It just affects the poor and many of our people were lost in the desert: six from Rutba and eight from Nakhib.”
For these disparate communities, and these traumatised families, a wait for transformation continues – a wait for a future more predictable, for opportunities within closer reach. Until then, the desert continues to call. Until then, hope takes the form of dusty brown boulders in a dry earth.