ASHKOTWAN PRISON CAMP, Iraq – He moved north, an Iraqi man journeying across a nation at war in search of the soldier who was his brother. Ali Abdel Karim checked hospitals, prisons, even graveyards. He feared the worst.
Then, on Saturday, he landed at this prison camp in the farthest reaches of northern Iraq. Here he found his brother, Adel — safe, reasonably healthy, riding out the war at the sloping foot of a lush mountain range in a Kurdish-controlled prison camp equipped with volleyball courts and television.
"For six days I've been looking for him," Ali Abdel Karim said, embracing his brother and weeping. "I can't believe he's alive. Please make our happiness known around the world."
On Saturday afternoon, scores of Iraqi fighters from Saddam Hussein's army began the journey home, freed by their Kurdish captors after up to three weeks of detention at Ashkotwan prison camp.
Minibuses playing Kurdish love songs carried 94 Iraqi soldiers from the camp as the remaining 640 prisoners, all captured in northern Iraq, cheered and impatiently awaited their turn. Larger buses arrived later for the rest.
Prisoners said they had been treated well, spending their time playing volleyball and soccer and watching television captured from satellite dishes.
As the releases began, the mood was buoyant.
"The tyrannical regime is finished. Saddam is finished. We were forced to fight," said Ali Dhaji, 27, a Sunni Muslim soldier from Anbar, near the Syrian border.
Added Sabah Sayer, 25, a Shiite from the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah: "We didn't want to fight a meaningless war."
The buses will return the fighters to their hometowns, or as near as possible. The camp began housing POWs March 27, and prisoners were still arriving as late as last week.
No U.S. military presence was visible around the camp, located about 45 miles northeast of Irbil, a city near Iraq's northeastern border.
Akram Sofi, a Kurdistan Democratic Party official overseeing the camp, said orders to release the men came from party leader Massoud Barzani. "It's so that you can return to your families," Sofi quoted Barzani as saying.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party is one of two groups that control separate sectors of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq established in 1991 under U.S. protection.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters with automatic weapons have been guarding the unfenced camp, which has taken on the look and feel of a county fair.
Though the United Nations is not involved, pale blue U.N. tents have been used to house the prisoners, who were free to move about the valley as they please. Some even went swimming in a nearby river.
Hassan Haddo Khawaja, another KDP official, said most Iraqi fighters who ended up in the camp surrendered, though a few were captured by force.
"We did not treat them any differently," he said.
"When they came, they were in a really bad state," Khawaja said. "Their clothes were torn, they hadn't eaten, their health wasn't good."
Prisoners were given three meals a day, cigarettes, newspapers and even haircuts if they wanted, he said. Two large tents were set up for television viewing.
That doesn't mean they weren't eager to leave. As the buses arrived, they made that clear: "When are we going? When are we going?"
The slow pace of the releases irritated some, and the American invasion wasn't widely welcomed, either. "We don't accept the Americans," said Thaer Hussein, 45, one of the few Iraqi officers in the camp. He allowed, though, that, "We don't like Saddam, either."
Departing POWs packed up toothbrushes and towels issued by their Kurdish captors. As the first bus caravan snaked off into the fog-shrouded Bradost mountain range, prisoners waiting for the next batch shook hands with peshmerga fighters. Some even embraced, an unusual sight in a land where Saddam's regime made sure ethnic tensions were stoked continually.
For the two freshly reunited brothers, the focus was not on politics but on family. Still, as they wept, they took notice of the strange circumstances that had brought them together in the Kurdish section of northern Iraq — a place where, normally, Arabs would have felt unwelcome and been unlikely to travel.
"I never imagined I would one day come to this spot," said Ali Abdel Karim, pointing to the ground. "And," he said, "Saddam's fall made it possible."