Friday, January 27, 2006

Kurdistan (Iraq)

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Getting into Iraq was much easier than I thought. You don’t need a visa or a letter from your embassy or even a reason for going there. Anyone can go, and it’s beautiful this time of year !! We drove into Iraq from Southern Turkey. We crossed the border at a place called Salopi, got an Iraqi stamp on our passports, and we were in. Adrian and I decided to split up in order to get the broadest possible coverage of the election. When we got the Kurdish city of Erbil, he took off for Baghdad and was embedded with the US Army. (Check out our reports on www.current.tv) I stayed in Kurdistan and met up with another journalist, Matt Gutman, who writes for the Jerusalem Post and USA today. It was Matt’s fifth tour of the region, and he quickly got me up to speed on all matters related to Kurds, Iraq, and the election.

The Kurdish Autonomous Region is a relatively safe place to be these days, and has been since 1991’s Gulf War, when the US-backed Kurdish militias known as peshmergas (lit: those who face death) took control on the ground and the US Air Force took control of the skies by creating a “No-Fly Zone.” It has been a semi-autonomous region since 1991 and today is a shining example for the new, “democratic” Iraq. It really feels like a separate country, which made me wonder if maybe it should be. I reckon that now would be a great time to correct the mistakes of imperialists of the past. The main reason it isn't even being considered is that neighboring countries with large Kurdish populations do not want to see Kurdish upsrisings in their own states. Turkey and Iran surely do not want to see an independent Kurdistan which might embolden their Kurds. Short anecdote: I was in Turkey after the trip explaining to my mom over the phone that I spent most of my time in Kurdistan, not Iraq, which was my way of deflecting her guilt trip for putting my life in danger. Anyhow, some random Turkish guy almost beat me up for saying Kurdistan. He furiously pointed out, "there is no such place as Kurdistan." To which I replied, "Yeah but let me just tell my mom that." He repeated, "there is no such thing. You can not say that word here." So I fended him off for a minute, hung up with my mom, and then acquiesced to the fact that there is no such thing as Kurdistan. Sorry mom.

Nevertheless, I found the Kurds to be among the most hospitable, warmest people on Earth, possibly because many of them consider Americans to be their saviors. The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. There are about 25 million Kurds chiefly in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. There are about 6 million in Iraq out of a total population of 26 million. Under the Baathists and especially under Saddam, the Kurdish areas were culturally and politically repressed, ethnically cleansed, and killed in numbers that constitute genocide. The most famous incident was on March 16, 1988, when Saddam’s henchman, Chemical Ali, bombed the Kurdish city of Halabja with conventional bombs, artillery fire, and chemical weapons in the form of mustard gas and nerve agents. Five thousand people were killed in one day and many more were left with chronic illnesses and deformities. We interviewed a man who lost 21 relatives that day, and his uncle died from a chemical-related cancer the day we got there. We interviewed him just after the funeral, and I will never forget his grisly account. He said that minutes before the chemical attack, the Iraqis fighter planes dropped leaflets from the sky to gauge the direction of the wind. Then when the chemical weapons were dropped everyone thought the weapons were duds because they didn’t make a sound. We went to the memorial, the cemetery, and the museum, which had some nightmarish photos on display.

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Halabja Cemetery


Needless to say, there was no ethnic group in the world happier about the US invasion of Iraq than the Kurds. Kurdistan is also one of the few places in the world where Americans are celebrated. I felt relieved that I didn’t have to pretend to be Canadian here. I walked down the streets at night in Suleimania with my US passport in my pocket and showed it proudly to everyone who asks me where I’m from. They then take their two index fingers and put them together, exclaiming, “America (pointing to one finger) and Kurds (pointing to the other).” The Kurds celebrated the election every night by pouring into the streets with their Kurdish flags, drums, and horns, blocking traffic for hours on end. One car even had an American flag draped over it. In Iraq, the adage "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" rings true.

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Kurdish Street Celebrations


One flag that I did not see even once in Kurdistan is the Iraqi flag. When I asked people about that in Halabja, their answer is that they would never display the same flag that was on the war planes that gassed them. The vast majority of Kurds I spoke to voted for one of the two militias turned political parties, the P.U.K. or the K.D.P. Due to Iraq’s viciously sectarian past, most Iraqis vote by ethnicity or tribe. The biggest challenge for Iraq will be whether it can unify its three main ethnic groups under one federal system. Some Kurds are willing to give federalism a try, but most still would prefer a sovereign state. As for the Sunnis, well, some seem willing to cooperate, whereas others are obviously perturbed and angered by the consequences of American invasion and its never-ending occupation. The Shiites are the majority, and lean towards an Islamic Republic like the one that exists next door in Iran.


For election day, we decided to leave the Kurdish bubble for Kirkuk, which may or may not be in Kurdistan which may or may not exist. While it has historically been a Kurdish city with a minority of Arab nomads in its outlying areas, the city has been ethnically cleansed of Kurds by subsequent Baathist regimes. Saddam escalated this cleansing after 91’ when he lost control of Kurdistan proper. The reason Kirkuk is so important is due to its vast supply of oil. It has one of the largest oil reserves in Iraq. So the city of Kirkuk today is a divided city, with a large Kurdish and Sunni Arab population. It tends to erupt in violence every so often, with sporadic car bombs, shootings, and kidnappings.

The truth is I was really scared to go there. I had to ask myself the question: Do the rewards justify the risks? For most people this answer is obviously "no". But for me the answer was "yes". I felt the need to go to Kirkuk, to hear a perspective that I felt was needed in my story. I also had this intuition that everything would be OK. I am not sure where this intuition comes from, but I have learned to trust it unconditionally.


So we left the relative safety of Kurdistan, drove past the oilfields, and got to Kirkuk in a couple hours. We weren’t allowed to take a private vehicle in because all the roads were closed for security reasons on election day. When we got to the last checkpoint before the city, our car was stopped and we were interrogated by Peshmerga. After telling them we were American journalists, the Kurdish Peshmerga chief insisited that we board a private van armed to the teeth with his own personal bodyguards. These guys wanted to protect us at all cost , so we complied with their demand. We really had no choice in the matter. I asked him what would happen if we went to the Arab part of the city without armed guards and he said, “You would be hanged.” Needless to say, I was glad to be riding in a car with 7 gunmen who were protecting me, although we were also more of a target for Arab terrorists/freedom fighters.

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My security attache

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This peshmerga took my picture. They really took my security seriously and even followed me to the bathroom once.


Thankfully, we got some great material and made it out of Kirkuk alive. Of course it was only once I thought I was completely out of the woods that I learned the invaluable lesson that there is no such thing as being out of the woods. The irony of my trip was that my most dangerous encounter in Iraq was not with an insurgent or freedom fighter, but with a semi-trailer. We were on a two-lane highway when a giant rig traveling in the opposite direction lost control and was heading straight towards us at a very high speed. Our driver, who had been with us the whole trip, Kak Dana, swerved to the right just as I screamed “Holy Shit.” The rig hit us square on the driver side. It happened so fast, in exactly the time it took me to mouth those two lovely words.... Boom! I’ve never felt such force in my life. It was otherworldly. Our car was 20 feet off the road facing the opposite direction. The rig that had lost control careened even farther. I immediately felt my legs to make sure they were ok and thank g-d none of us were seriously injured.. Glass projectiles did hit all of us, cutting our driver and Matt. Twenty Iraqis came on the scene, pouring their precious gasoline over the open wounds. I had glass pieces in my hair, in my pants, and one piece even came out my nose, but somehow walked away without a scratch. If it wasn’t for Kak Dana’s last second swerve, I probably wouldn’t be writing this. I kissed Kak Dana’s bloody mug before leaving him there on the side of the road. There’s no insurance in Iraq, so the poor guy lost his livelihood in that accident. But I think even he realized that we had been saved only by the grace of god.

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This is what hit us

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My computer, camera, and backpack were all in tatters after the accident. We gave all our remaining cash to Kak Dana. Matt caught a flight out that day but and I had to wait in Erbil for two days for Adrian to get back. There are no ATM machines in Iraq, nor is there one establishment that accepts credit cards. (I felt a little cheated by Visa’s ad campaign, “Everywhere you want to be”) With not one dollar or dinar to my name, I had to made friends really quickly. Adrian managed to get some cash at the US army base, so when he finally arrived I paid off the generous Kurds who let me eat and sleep on credit for two days. But when I went to pick up my backpack from the young street cobbler who promised to be waiting for me on the street corner at 6, he was nowhere in sight. My 80 liter backpack that lugged my crap all over Asia was gone. Physically exhausted and emotionally drained, I left the hotel carrying all my earthly possessions in 5 large black plastic bags. We boarded a jeep and drove overnight back to Turkey. We arrived back in Jerusalem, 5 plastic bags in tow, on the morning of my 26th birthday. That night my spectacularly amazing friends organized a surprise party for me at a friend’s new pub. I really was surprised!! Adrian edited and presented a somewhat embarrassing, but funny video of all the highlights and lowlights from the 10-week long reporting trip and put it on the bar’s big screen. I wore a T-shirt that said “Kiss me, I’m the birthday boy” and even that funny cone shaped birthday hat. It was only through wearing that dunce cap that it sunk in that my trip was over. It felt good to be wearing a new hat, so to speak.


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Happy Kurdish Voter



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Pleased Kurdish Voters


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Young Kurdish Voter

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