They face possible ambush, death, kidnapping or injury, and work for only a few hundred dollars a trip. They mainly oppose the US-led war in Iraq, yet are seen by some as supporting it.
Despite the dangers, truck drivers from Turkey routinely take on the perilous journey south.
In July, four of them were shot dead on Iraq’s motorways, while several others remained held hostage.
Up from the border crossing at Harbur on Turkey’s Iraqi frontier, tanker trucks and flatbeds are parked up for kilometres, waiting for the chance to cross.
Their destinations include Mosul, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Falluja and Tal Afar. Their cargoes range from cement and petrol to washing machines and trainers.
“We are doing our job, that’s all,” says driver Ahmet Kirikoglu from the southeastern Turkish town of Mardin. “We don’t like what is happening in Iraq, but we have to make a living.”
Like Kirikoglu, many of the drivers carrying out this trade come from Turkey’s economically depressed southeast.
Pain of war
This is a region racked by war. After a six-year unilateral ceasefire, ethnic Kurdish rebels there recently went back onto the offensive.
In the 15 years before the 1999 ceasefire, 30,000 people were killed in the region’s violence – most of them ethnic Kurds.
Since the beginning of resistance to the US-led occupation, they have borne the brunt of ambushes on the roads south.
Yet most drivers say they are conducting ordinary business with Iraqi companies, not helping the US.
At the same time, most give economic reasons for their decision to take the wages of fear and drive south, rather than any desire to support the Baghdad government.
“The 20-year-long warfare caused a great destruction in [our] region,” says Osman Baydemir, the mayor of the southeast’s regional capital, Diyarbakir. “Economic life has been severely affected by the conflict.
“The drivers and the traders are passing to Iraq mostly because of economic reasons. I don’t believe they go to Iraq to support any political organisation.
“In any part of the world if there is unemployment and bad economic conditions, people go to places where they believe they can find jobs and good economic opportunities. Taking such big risks may give us an idea about the extent of the economic hardships these people have been confronting,” said Baydemir.
Unemployment in the southeast stands officially at 40%, though most residents would put the figure higher.
Local monthly salaries are around $250, while a single trip to Iraq and back might gain the driver twice that.
It is not only the conflict at home that has led to economic deprivation, but the long years of conflict in neighbouring Iraq as well.
“Before the Gulf War of 1990-91,” recalls Celal Balik of the regional business association, GUNIAD, “trade between Turkey and Iraq was about $2 billion a year. After that, with the UN sanctions on Saddam Hussein, it fell to just $123,000.”
Now, trade is picking up. Southeastern cities such as Elazig and Gaziantep have been the major recipients of income from this Iraqi export trade, with each benefiting more than $1000 per person last year, according to GUNIAD figures.
Less fortunate have been Diyarbakir and Mardin, with less than $100 per person coming from cross-border trade.
Most of this commerce is with firms in northern Iraq, which with its predominantly Kurdish population is a natural market for many ethnic Kurds in Turkey.
The drivers deliver food products, white goods, clothes, cars, diesel and refined petroleum products.
“Often oil is transported to Turkey from Iraq, refined here and then transported back again,” says Balik.
Balik also claims little of what is transported goes to the US-led forces.
“Most of the goods the US troops use they transport themselves from the US. This is more reliable for them and means their troops get their home products.”
Permission to cross
At the Harbur gate, drivers must get permission to cross and receive a stamp in their passports from the Iraqi Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) border guards on the other side.
Recently, the KDP started stamping “Kurdistan” in the drivers’ entry documents, much to Turkey’s anger. Kurdistan is banned by Ankara as a description of this region.
Once they have passed into Iraq, “sometimes we get some protection from the Americans,” says Necip Karaman, a driver from the southeastern town of Cizre, “but often that’s more trouble than it’s worth. We just try to get there as quickly as possible and come home. In northern Iraq it is not so bad, but some won’t go further south.
“I understand some are angry at us doing this,” said Karaman, “but they should ask themselves what they would do in our situation. We have no chance to work here. I must feed my family. And if I didn’t do it, someone else would.”