Colours of Kurdistan
ErbilErbil – Dohuk – Suleimaniah – Erbil
Eight o’clock in the morning, I’ve just stepped out of the shower. There is a massive blast outside & our rustic hotel room starts to shake. I climb onto my bed & from the small window high up on the wall I can see a huge plume of black smoke starting to fill the sky.
Just a few miles away from us a suicide truck bomb has exploded outside a government office.
Five days earlier; The first lasting impression I have of this country is of a framed photograph in our hotel of US president George W. Bush standing side by side with Iraqi Kurdistan leader Massoud Barzani.
For the past few months in the Middle East (actually everywhere else we’ve ever been too) we’ve had the same conversations – Bush bad, people good. Blair bad, people good. Suddenly we are in a place where George W. Bush is apparently a popular man.
We are in Iraqi Kurdistan – the other side of Iraq, the place that you don’t see on the tv every day. Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region of Iraq that is normally considered very safe.
While most of Iraq is inhabited by Arabs, the majority of the population here are Kurdish. The Kurds were brutally persecuted by Saddam Hussein, but today this is the only part of Iraq said to be free from bombs, kidnap & torture. It is an area that is traditionally rich in history & culture & which today is enjoying booming economic success.
Arriving overland from Turkey at Ibrahim Khalil border we have no idea what to expect. Although we’d researched this part of the trip as much as we could, there’s no guide book on the region & few other travellers to ask for information.
Crossing the border is easy, we leave Turkey in a taxi & are driven through no man’s land into Iraqi Kurdistan. We arrive at an office where we are sat down next to a tv & given tea. Eventually the immigration officer calls us over & asks a few random questions. Do we speak Kurdish? No. Do we speak Arabic? No. Farsi? Hindi? No. He makes some jokes, stamps our passports and we are in Iraqi Kurdistan. As far as international borders are concerned, we are in Iraq, as far as the Kurds
Erbilare concerned we are in Kurdistan. The passport stamp says “Republic of Iraq – Kurdistan Region”
The entire time we are in Iraq we won’t see a single Iraqi flag or emblem – every building, every badge, every soldier proudly displays the Kurdish flag. The whole Kurdistan region stretches from Turkey (where there are 12 million Kurds) to Syria, North East Iraq & into Iran. Although Kurds have lived on this land since 2 BC, far longer than any of their neighbours, they have never had a land to call their own. The autonomous region within Iraq is the closest any have come.
We’d heard good things about Kurds & they easily live up to their reputation – we found this out before we even made it to Kurdistan. Our one night spent in Turkey was in the Kurdish town of Silopi, where we met a few locals who bought us dinner & arranged our transport for the next day. Even so close to the border we hadn’t been sure whether to cross or not, but the Kurds we met in Silopi quickly convinced that we would be safe.
Having cleared the border we exchange some dollars into Iraqi Dinar & jump in a taxi for the one hour trip to Dohuk. It’s a nice car, clean & modern. Our driver is a traditionally dressed Kurd who speaks no English. For much of the drive we are surrounded by green hills & mountains. We drive along a well paved dual carriageway. We are in Iraq, but everything is normal. Well, almost. Our driver is insane, but then we had heard that the drivers here are some of the worst. There are roadworks on our side of the dual carriageway so we spend much of the time the wrong side of the road. There’s no signage, no one really knows who should be driving where, we just cross back & forth, occassionally dodging oncoming traffic.
On arrival in Dohuk we find a hotel, The Perleman, the place where the first thing I notice is the photo of George W. Bush & Massoud Barzani.
Dohuk, 73km (45 miles) north of Mosul is a small town & it doesn’t take long to explore on foot. There’s the usual bustling Middle Eastern bazar, normal shops & normal restaurants. We find a place for lunch & from the window. There’s cellphone shops, butchers, internet cafe’s, cars, billboards & a lot of people. Everything is normal. There’s a few police around, a few soldiers (the Kurdish ‘Peshmerga’), but far less obvious presence than we’ve seen in other countries recently.
We explore the bazaar – some people are friendly & talk to us, a few are curious. When looking at Kurdish material belts one woman insists on telling me which colour to buy. A group of traditionally dressed Kurdish men poses for photos after James buys a hat & scarf. A lot of people just ignore us, we are apparently as normal to them as their life seems to us.
The following day we move on to Suleimaniah (also spelt Sulymania, Sulaymaniyah, Sulemany, Suly & any other way you see fit), a four hour taxi ride away. As we hit the highway & head out into the countryside we pass a sign that points to a turning that leads right to Baghdad & Mosul; it’s at times like this that you forget the green hills around you & remember where you are. Most of the few travellers who make to Iraqi Kurdistan travel
Greetings From Iraq
Unfortunately there’s no postcards from Kurdistan. These vintage ones still feature things like the statues of Saddam Hussein; Erbilby taxi, busses generally being considered too dangerous. The various journeys we take would have passed through or nearby to Mosul or Kirkuk had we taken the public bus or even a normal shared taxi. Although we are never that far from Arab controlled Iraq, we are always well within Kurdistan.
Throughout the journey to Sulymania we are treated to panoramas of snow capped mountains, lush green valleys and the odd nomad with their tents & goats. It’s hardly what you expect to see anywhere within the Iraq border. Along the route are plenty of Kudish Peshmerga checkpoints, all there to keep the region free of trouble. Most of the time we pass with a smile or a nod, other times they half heartedly check a passport.
Suleymania is a big city but once again the people are friendly & hospitable. Conversations follow the usual pattern ‘Hello, welcome to our country, where are you from?’ and then ‘What are you doing here?’ The usual reply of ‘We are tourists’ is consistently misheard as ‘We are terrorists’
Wandering the market we are warned by a friendly local when a market trader tries to rip us off. Walking around even well after dark I feel safer than I would at pub closing time in England.
It’s ironic that today it is Kurdistan that is considered safe while much of the rest of Iraq engages in civil war. Kurdistan is now the place that Iraqi Arabs want to move to, to escape the daily bloodshed. Yet just a few years ago it was the Kurds who lived in fear. The Arabs that escaped oppression under Saddam’s regime are those heading to live beside the Kurds the people who were previously the most deprived and isolated under him.
After months of being surrounded by friendly & hospitable Arabs in the Middle East, it’s strange to be surrounded by Kurds who tell you that it is the Arabs that populate the rest of Iraq that are the dangerous ones causing all the trouble. What Kurds don’t tell you is that if you head north into Turkey, beyond the Kurdish region, there are plenty of people there who will tell you that in fact it’s the Kurds who are the dangerous ones. As we will later find out the Turkish side of the Turkey/Iraqi Kurdistan border is very heavily fortified & there are apparently regular incursions into Turkey by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The Turkish government feels the situation is so bad that they are currently deploying more troops to the region & are threatening military action.
Sulymania is home to Iraq’s first War Crimes Museum, known as Amna Suraka by the Kurds & the Red Security Building by Saddam Hussein & the Arabs. This is where you begin to learn why the Kurds feel the way they do about Arabs. While parts of the former torture centre have been rebuilt, much has been left as it was when it was full of Kurdish prisoners, many living out their final days.
The building was taken over by Saddam’s forces in 1985 & quickly gained an infamous reputation for its barbaric torture methods. In 1991 a Kurdish uprising secured the release of hundreds of detainees & much remains as it was found then.
As we enter the main building we pass some of Saddam’s tanks & rocket launchers. Narrow external corridors are roofed with barbed wire, blocking any possible escape route across the top. Inside we walk though cell after cell after cell; in some are reconstructions of torture methods involving electrical wires & ropes. In one room an audiotaped interrogation plays over & over again. We are shown small single person cells & then large caged rooms, the floors still covered with the only furniture, blankets. We notice graffiti on a small cell wall. The young guide tells us that the occupant was a teacher. Other cells are full of graffiti too, in one the pencil drawn image is that of a haunting face. In another a calender has been scratched onto the wall, just a few of the days are crossed off. In a large cell that also held young children is the obvious image of a cartoon superhero.
By coincidence there was an article in the local newspaper about Amna Suraka while we were there. It translated a number of the phrases that were carefully written on the walls. Perhaps the final words & thoughts of those condemned to death.
We leave the main building & pass Saddam Hussein’s tanks again. We’re led to a basement full of enlarged photographs taken around the time of Saddam’s genocidal chemical attacks on the Kurdish people at the nearby town of Halabja. If it was possible to have even the remotest of sympathy for Saddam Hussein, this is a good place to come & be reminded of what he did.
Before we leave we are given a sets of postcards; on each card is a gruesome image of a a person or a place; the very vivid aftermath of the deadly chemical attack. It’s hard to know what saddens me mosts about the place; the fact that it happened at all, the fact that we’ve seen very similar places in a number of other countries or the fact that events like this are undoubtedly still going on somewhere in the world today.
At least things have improved for the four million Kurds in Iraq. Following a campaign for independence in 1961 they were offered greater official recognition and freedom but then denied it, instead suffering brutal repression under Saddam. After the 1991 Gulf War two million fled to Turkey and Iran but soon after, under UN supervision the Kurdish Autonomous Region was created. Since then the area has seen relative peace. Following the fall of Saddam it was feared that the Kurds would begin a new fight for true independence, but they didn’t. They won 17% of the national vote in the 2005 election, & although he doesn’t have a huge amount of power, the national Iraqi president is a Kurd, Jalal Talabani. The Kurds no longer live in repressed isolation, they are now key players in the rebuilding of a peaceful & unified Iraq.
Moving on from the past we step back outside the torture centre into modern Kurdistan. Around the corner is a well stocked supermarket with a cafe selling pizza to trendy young adults. Along the road are hotels, travel agents & a large green park. Back at our cheap hotel the rooms may be very basic but we can still watch Friends & the BBC on the 300+ tv channels.
On the way back to the town centre we stumble upon the local museum which contains all manner of relics from the past few thousand years. This whole region is bursting with yet to be exploited ancient sites & ruins. Before leaving the ancient past contained within the museum we are reminded of the fragile infrastructure in Iraqi Kurdistan today – there’s yet another power cut & the visit is cut short.
Back at the Kurdish Textile Museum; Erbil market we shop for some of the Kurdish music which always seems to be blasting out from the numerous cd & mp3 shops. Later as the sun sets the streets fill with traders & shoppers we enjoy some sweet black tea as Kurdish flags fly all around us.
To get to our next destination we head to the taxi terminal, way out on the edge of town. As we barter the price for our ride, other drivers around us are touting for travellers to head elsewhere. Behind me is a car full of people heading to Mosul. I find a driver who is about to leave for Baghdad. In theory the only thing stopping us from going with them is our sanity.
For every person we meet who tells us not to go to Baghdad, Mosul or Kirkuk, another asks if we are planning to visit one of these places, as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do. With most people you just have to mention Baghdad or Mosul for them to put their hand to their throat & mime it being slit. Most Kurds tell us they wouldn’t even venture into Arab controlled Iraq -we are repeatedly told that Kurdistan & the Kurds are peaceful & safe, it’s just the Arabs you need to worry about.
Like some other people we’ve met in the Middle East the Kurds often struggle to differentiate between leaders, normal people & so called insurgents. As far as they are concerned it’s not just Saddam & his regime that were bad, it’s all Arabs too. Somehow they alway recognise the difference between Bush & the American people & Blair & the Brits.
We may joke with Kurds about travelling to Mosul or Baghdad, but it doesn’t take much to be reminded of how serious the situation really is. After buying a soft drink one day we are invited to sit down to drink it. As usual we get talking; the young man is an Arab, he came here from Baghdad. The conversation has taken the usual ‘where are you from?’ pattern when he mentions almost in passing, that one of his children was killed. It’s a very sobering moment & it’s hard to know what to say next. The places we are in may be normal, but there’s very few miles between us & all the bloodshed. It’s impossible to comprehend what it must be like to live there, to be confronted with such danger every day.
The taxi ride out of Sulymania takes us through yet more mountains & valleys, past lakes, villages & lush green scenery – at one point on the horizon we can see the snowy peaks that mark the border with Iran. Finally we arrive in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital, Erbil (Hawler in Kurdish & also known as Arbil, Irbil, Hewler & Howler). Much like the other taxi drivers here, this one was far more interested in what was going on around him than what was on the road ahead.
Erbil is a modern city that sprawls for miles around the base of the ancient citadel. At the top of a small hill, the high citadel walls hide from view below the rambling narrow streets & alleys of the old town, said to have been the longest continually inhabited town on earth.
Climbing up to the hill we have no idea what to expect. Behind the walls we find a deserted city. The streets are quiet, the houses all empty. It is a rare chance to explore the world behind the high walls & solid doorways that are so common in these ancient Middle Eastern towns. The mud brick homes vary in size, but follow a similar pattern – a small enclosed courtyard, a two storey building & an outside toilet. Looking around the dusty shells of homes, we try to work out how long ago it was abandoned. In one we see a calender from 1998, in another a roll of developed camera film. There’s power lines & street signs as well as the suggestion of running water. It’s a surreal & mysterious place, easily far more interesting than other ‘dead’ cities we’ve seen around the world.
On the edge of the town is a disused hammam (bathhouse) & a mosque, near them a Kurdish textile museum. Although it doesn’t sound thrilling, the museum is a highlight – it’s full of intricately woven rugs, kilims & felts. Alongside them are traditional hats, clothes & every day Kurdish artefacts. It’s here that I first realise just how rich in culture the Kurdish people are. Saddam Hussein did a lot to destroy the traditional ways of the Kurds & sadly much of what we see in the museum would be hard to find out in modern Iraqi Kurdistan today. This visit we only have the time & money (it is very expensive here) to see a handful of places, but perhaps next time we’ll get lost in the mountains where there’s still plenty of nomads, traditional culture & stunning scenery.
We get talking to Lolan, the friendly owner of the museum & he fills us in on the strange town that we have found ourselves in. The inhabitants only left six months ago; most were refugees that had moved to the town in the 1970’s – although they had made the place their home, they never owned the properties & the town & sewage system (or lack of it) could no longer cope with the growing population. The familes were relocated & given US$4000 (£2000) and 250 square metres of land each. Apparently they were all glad to move on. There’s plans for redevelopment, excavations & one day a tourist attraction with boutique hotels & restaurants. It was hard to get an answer to whether or not the excavations will take place before or after the rebuilding – there’s a few thousand years of history buried in the sand & dust under some of those houses.
Below the museum is shop selling perhaps the best collection of souvenirs that we can’t afford yet. As we browse through the backgammon sets, musical instruments & colourful clothes that we can’t afford, a few American & British soldiers pass through & spend a fortune. Kurdistan is apparently the place that the troops come when they need a break, a holiday from the carnage they normally live with in Arab Iraq. These ones have probably travelled from Mosul just 84km (52 miles) away. Although they are off duty some still wear fatigues, all wear a huge I.D. badge, most seem to carry guns. I may have never supported the war & I may be surrounded by people who want the so called occupying forces to leave, but I do feel some notion of respect for these soldiers.
We didn’t talk to any soldiers, but did meet a Kurd who left twenty-seven years ago to live in America. He was back for the first time since he left, for a wedding. At home in the States he works for the military, teaching soldiers & marines what to expect when they arrive here. He teaches them arabic & kurdish as well how to ‘not to look stupid, but instead how to kick ass’ when they arrive.
In theory the Kurds are supposed to support the Americans – I thought the photo of Bush when we arrived confirmed that. By finally removing Saddam Hussein, the Americans finally freed the Kurds from the endless cycle of oppression they were used to. However no one is happy with the situation today. I asked numerous people about it. “Should the troops stay? should the troops go?”. Most gave the same response “Troops stay bad, troops go bad”. No one really had a suggestion for a solution. I ask another question What is worse, the past under Saddam Hussein or the situation without him now? the answer is similar, Saddam bad, now bad. Everyone I ask wants the occupying forces to leave, but what no-one mentions is that if or when the forces leave & the Sunnis & Shiites finally unite, it may not be such a good thing for the Kurds. A unified Sunni/Shiite Arab government could spell disaster for them.
Erbil is the place to come for your ‘Welcome to Iraq’ postcards & Iraqi football team shirts. Like perhaps every town in the Middle East it houses a rambling market – although that may some day change. International money is suddenly flowing into the city & much like other places we’ve seen around the world, the future & progress apparently means shopping malls. Hence a giant mall is being built just beyond the shadow of the ancient citadel & bazaar.
A taxi driver we met was keen to take us out exploring, so not long before sunset we set off to leave the city & find some small towns & villages. We haven’t been driving long when we spot a wedding party in a field. Before we know it we have joined hands with the guests & are trying to dance along to the loud Kurdish music, stealing the attention & cameras away from the disgruntled looking bride. Moving on we pass through the town of Corwi near the Korak mountain range. Here, between two spurs, was a bloody battle between the Kurdish Peshmarga & Saddam’s troops. A couple of tanks & a mural stands a reminder of what happened.
On the way to our destination we pass a few castles & forts. Having an English speaking driver, we ask what he knows about them. He tells us matter of factly ‘This was one of Saddam’s homes, that is a two thousand year old castle, this was one of Saddam’s prisons’ We stop to photograph one castle, not realising that behind it, on the horizon is one of Saddam’s former palaces, now home to leader Massoud Barzani. When we reach the next checkpoint, the Peshmargeh are not happy. It was an easy & innocent mistake to make, but the consequences could be messy. I show him the photographs of the castle & luckily he lets us move on.
Eventually we arrive in Shaqlawa a small town at the foot of the mountains. We drive through & already it’s time to turn back & head for the city. Our driver tells us that this is a muslim & a christian town as if that is something special. On one side of the street are muslims, the other christians; sometimes the two faiths even inter marry. Night falls, the driving is erratic, the soundtrack is a neverending cycle of 80’s one hit wonders Modern Talking & 90’s boy band Blue. The next day we are due to leave at 9am. We have the same driver booked to drive us to the border, four hours to the north.
Eight o’clock in the morning, I’ve just stepped out of the shower. There is a massive blast & our rustic hotel room starts to shake. I climb onto my bed & from the small window high up on the wall I can see a huge plume of black smoke filling the sky.
The moment we hoped would never happen.
Not sure what to do, I run downstairs to see what the staff & other guests are doing. Fluorescent light bulbs have shattered, there’s glass all over the floor. No one seems that phased. One person tells me in broken english that it was a plane. We soon learn that it was the obvious, some kind of bomb. Thinking that these things sometimes happen in clusters, we wonder what’s best to do. Should we stay in the room or go downstairs? We are due to leave in less that an hour, but will the taxi make it through?
We wait & hope. Outside a shopkeeper opens a metal shutter – it makes a loud bang, making us all jump with fear. At 9am the taxi arrives & we leave.
It’s not over yet; just down the road there is already a police roadblock. We try another route & leave town. The border is just a few hours away, but the journey seems to last forever. News reports come though on the radio, the number of dead & injured rapidly climbing. At checkpoints the Peshmarga become more disciplined & our driver tells us to say we are coming from Sulymania, not Erbil to ease our passage. At one checkpoint the traffic queue leads back for what seems like miles. Has the road ahead been blocked, the whole area sealed? We selfishly overtake the other cars & trucks & make it through. But still it’s not over.
We’d heard that leaving Iraqi Kurdistan could be quite an ordeal – massive queues, lots of questions & very thorough searches. The Turkish authorities don’t recognise or like Kurdistan & we had been told that they are particularly interested in people like us who have travelled there. Our bags are full of Kurdish maps, tshirts, cd’s, newspapers & keyrings – will this be our downfall?
By the time we reach the border our driver appears to be an emotional wreck. The journey took forever & it will take him a lot longer on the way back. I’m sure he’s been crying and he’s sweating & shaking. He’s as shocked as we are, things like this aren’t supposed to happen in Kurdistan. We bid him a rushed farewell & hope that while he makes it home quickly & safely, we’ll get across the border swiftly too.
For a moment it appears that the border may actually have been closed – following the morning’s events it wouldn’t come as a surprise. Luckily it’s not. It takes us a few hours to cross, most of the time we are sat by another taxi in a traffic queue on the bridge that crosses a river & marks the border & no man’s land between Iraq & Turkey. As we wait the cars move on one by one. Sweating, thirsty & choking on petrol fumes I look around at the scenery – a gentle flowing river, green hills all around. Little do they reveal about the hostile border that they mark. We are told that truck drivers spend a week or two waiting to cross this border, but it doesn’t make our wait any easier.
Fortunately we are accompanied by a Turkish man who works as a teacher in Erbil. He speaks good English & keeps us up to date with our progress, explaining also that we each have to carry two cartons of cigarettes for the driver. An extremely young soldier with a big gun waves us through & we reach the Turkish bag search. Despite us pretending to carry the driver’s ‘over the limit’ cigarette stash & with our Kurdish souvenirs well hidden we pass with ease. Perhaps they aren’t interested in stickers & cd’s, maybe it drugs & guns that they are really after. The immigration officer jokes with us & finally we are back in Turkey. It was slow, but it was easy.
Back in the hotel at Silopi we eagerly await the news on the BBC & Al Jazeera for a more detailed report of what happened. But what’s another bomb in Iraq? It’s not anything big or new, even though it’s in the safe Kurdish region. The blast does get a mention, but only as a sideline to a bigger Iraq story about Dick Cheney’s visit to Baghdad the same day. Later we check online but there’s barely a mention there either.
It was easy for us to leave, but what of those we left behind? Back in the apparent safety of Turkish hotel room I feel a little guilt. Somehow it’s the same as numerous other places I’ve been – places like Burma, North Korea, Iran & Indonesia, places where people live with poverty, dictators, no freedom or threats of war. In almost every country I’ve been to there are plenty who just want to live with freedom & peace or perhaps want to leave or, but can’t. We stroll in, meet a few people, see the sights, take a few photos, eat the food & leave again.
Is Kurdistan really so safe after all? As we were leaving, our driver had told us that the suicide bomber was an Arab, it couldn’t have been a Kurd. It’s still safe he tells us. Were we mad or stupid to go to this region of Iraq in the first place? Would we go back? Would I recommend it to anyone else?
Statistically there’s perhaps a greater risk that you’ll be hit by an act of terror in London or New York. Yet no-one tells you not to go to England or the USA. I remember arriving at home in England years ago, to see that a station I had just passed though in London had been hit by a bomb just half an hour after I was there. No-one was really interested at the time & no-one said don’t go back to London. Bombs exploded in Bangkok in December, tourists were killed. We were there a few weeks later but no-one told us to keep away. Statistically you are far more likely to be raped, murdered or just mugged in any western country than you are to be inconvenienced in any way in most of the Middle East, including Kurdistan.
Throughout the Middle East part of our trip we’ve had people tell us we’ll get shot or kidnapped. I met an American family in Jordan who were shocked that we were going to Syria, not that they could think of a reason why it may be dangerous. I asked where they were going next – the answer was Israel. I may be mistaken, but I remember seeing far more trouble & bloodshed on the news about Israel than I’ve ever seen about Syria.
Hopefully our Mid East blogs have convinced a few people that there’s a lot more to the region than you see on the news. Like the rest of the region, the people in Kurdistan are friendly & hospitable. They buy us drinks, they give us their phone numbers & tell us to call them if we ever need any help. The bomb was as much of an unexpected shock to them as it was to us.
Until the moment the bomb went off in Erbil the scariest thing about being in Iraqi Kurdistan was the taxi drivers. I would say that if we went back, the feeling would still be the same.