Thursday, May 20, 2004
The journey to get here was not terribly difficult I must say, just long. Very long. On Sunday I flew out of Toronto, daydreamed too much in Munich airport and missed the first connecting flight to Ankara, Turkey. I never would have thought that the International Herald Tribune could grab my attention like that! In fairness to myself I was already quite tired and in fact had fallen asleep with cup of coffee in hand on approach to Munich and woke up only as the tires hit the runway. The second flight of the day left Munich about eight hours later and got me into Ankara minutes before midnight on Monday. The card from Monopoly came to mind: ‘Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.’ Except it was ‘Go directly to Iraq, do not sleep, do not shower.’ Upon arrival at the Ankara bus terminal, I was pleased to see that it was not deserted but a quick scan of the place had me scared that I had missed all connections to the east. The man behind the first desk I approached cringed when I asked for a ticket for Diyarbakir; all tickets had been sold. Thankfully, there was one going to Sanliurfa, another city in the south-east at 2am and I was told it would arrive at 1pm. Upon arrival in Sanliurfa, or most frequently called simply ‘Urfa’, I immediately looked for a ticket to Salopi, the town on the Turkish-Iraqi border. The initial departure time of 5pm was postponed to 9:30pm and thankfully was advised to take the later one at midnight that would get me into Salopi in the early morning rather than 3:30am. I spent the break with a Kurdish man in Urfa who once inside his home where he was trying to build up a home-stay business told me countless stories of run-ins with Turkish secret police over the years. Until just a few years ago the Turkish military waged open war with Kurdish groups in the south east of the country. Today, there is a semblance of peace but there has yet to be any change in policy which has always formally rejected that the Kurds even exist. This broad issue has been one of the sticking points with negotiations to get Turkey on the list for admission to the European Union.The bus blew a tire several hours into the journey. A quick look by the driver and most of the men on the bus and it was decided we would press on regardless. The blown tire made a cacophony of sound as we made the way towards Salopi over the next few hours. The night sky was pitch black save for what I assume were military installations on the horizon as the road we traveled traced first the Syrian and then Iraqi frontiers. For some unknown reason at about 5:00am the ailing bus that had carried us so far through the night for some reason could not continue the final 20km to Salopi. Two hours later a dolmus (Turkish word for minibus) arrived and I finally reached Salopi shortly after 7am. Finding a taxi for the trip across the border was no trouble at all. One foot outside the dolmus and I had already agreed to a price significantly below what Mike had told me was the going rate when he last came through several months ago. The taxi driver took care of some formalities at Salopi before we took off for the crossing. There again he took care of some formalities after he skipped the long queue of trucks, as do all taxis. The exit stamp took a fair bit of pushing and being pushed to get, but was no trouble at all. My friend Mike who I am here visiting told me of the sensitivity of the Turkish guards on the crossing. Given their policies towards the Kurdish minority in their own country, they are weary of the power the Kurds in northern Iraq have had since the last Gulf War under the protective watch of the US-British no-fly zone. Since the latest war, the Turks have been weary of the Kurds in Iraq getting still more power or autonomy. Given this concern, they don’t want foreigners going to the Kurdish parts of Iraq. The last stop in Turkey was the ‘real’ check. All the taxis were stopped, bags searched and passengers questioned. Mike had told me not to mention Kurdistan or the Kurds and to make sure I had nothing in my bags mentioning it. Apparently their checks are much more cursory now than in recent months. I was not questioned in a room by Turkish military personnel and my bags were not gone through thoroughly. I told them I was going to Mosul, which made them happy enough and after a few more questions, they told me to ‘be careful’ and allowed me to leave. Across the bridge lay Iraq, or more specifically, Iraqi Kurdistan controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The KDP control most of the northern section, while the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) controls the rest, including Suli. I waited there for my passport to be processed and listened as my taxi driver made fun of me with the others as I was going to Mosul. I hadn’t thought he had bought the story I had told the guard on the Turkish side, but evidently he thought there was some truth to it. Bureaucracy takes time and eventually I came to be bothered by this. So, I leaned over and whispered to him ‘Suleimaniya’. Nothing more. He pulled away, looked at me smiled and started to chuckle before grabbing my hand and shaking it. I would have thought he would have not been surprised at all at this story I told, but it seemed as though he thought I was foolish enough to go to Mosul. On the Iraqi side in Zakho, scores of transport trailers lay waiting, full of used cars. Other luxury vehicles passed by as I waited in the car for formalities with the taxi’s carnet de passage, no doubt at least stolen from Baghdad during the latest war. Around another corner and this part of the journey was complete, and there lay in wait about a dozen Iraqi taxis. Across the car park were about six or seven US soldiers, sitting in the shade, apparently doing little. I managed to get what Mike told me was a good price for a taxi all the way to Suli, $55, more surprising given that they seemed to have a good cartel operating there. My vehicle was an early 90s Chrysler Voyager; the driver a half-blind man who looked 65 wearing the traditional Kurdish dress. Usually when I play driving/racing video games I will keep my foot on the gas, pressed to the floor, except when I am braking hard, again with foot to the floor. My driver drove like I drive in video games. It seems as though most people here went to the same driver’s school. Mike has told me countless times since he arrived here in October that the drivers are horrible here. I would always say that they couldn’t be any worse than elsewhere in the middle east, no way they could be worse than what I saw two years ago in Tehran. They are worse, much worse. About a minute down the road and the first accident happened just a few cars ahead. Thankfully it was nothing serious and due entirely to tailgating. A few more kilometers down the road some US military vehicles appeared in front of us, each manned by solders with 50 caliber guns facing backwards. The soldier in the last truck had the rather unenviable task of keeping all the cars behind him from passing, feverishly waving his arm at any car that tried to pass on either side. Over the next half hour the procession of angry drivers grew behind us, and at times was four and five abreast across the road, with traffic in the other direction driving up the shoulder. Every few minutes one in the procession would start honking his horn, and within seconds, the hundreds of cars around us would all do the same. It was quite funny really, but thankfully none of the drivers took what would have no doubt been a perilous risk of trying to pass. The US convoy was staggered so as to keep the road covered and no doubt any driver who pressed his luck would have invited the soldiers to fire. Most of the traffic turned off with us to the west; to continue south would bring you to the hornet’s nest of Mosul. Each of the checkpoints was manned by Kurds in US military-type fatigues with no insignia or ranks of any kind and most often wearing sneakers or sandals. We were always pulled off the side and from what I could tell the questioning was always the same: where are you coming from, where is he going, etc.. Evidently the Kurds, while they love foreigners are nonetheless weary of them given a legitimate fear that the peace in this part of the country could be upset. About half way to Suli we stopped for lunch. It was busy place, buzzing with a lunchtime crowd. Five minutes after sitting down I looked over to the left and there were three large men who had just arrived, foreigners carrying quite the arsenal. They set up a table, radioed someone, and a minute or two later more men came and the people they were protecting: men working for a Bosnian-based NGO (or that is what their coveralls said anyway).On the road there was only very limited evidence of the US military presence. There was one convoy stopped at roadside but for the most part it seems most of the work on the ground in this part of the country seems is apparently done by local Kurdish police. At the final checkpoint outside of Suli, with the city of about 800,000 on the horizon it seemed for a moment that I was too suspicious to be allowed pass. After some hesitation and conferring with a superior, we were allowed through. The driver spoke only a few words of English and so while he understood my instructions of where Mike had told me to ask to be dropped near a landmark on the main street here, he was reluctant to do so. Only after finding an English speaker who could translate that I had a friend here who has an apartment did he feel comfortable leaving me. My impression was not that he was concerned for my safety so much as he was concerned that a foreigner could be left in the city. Apparently my story relayed through the interpreter made him happy enough. Mike came and met me at the pre-arranged location after I gave him a call. Suli seems to be moderately progressive, and quite modern. Few of the buildings are more than three stories high but overall the infrastructure seems to be quite good. There is only electricity for a few hours of the day, however. After a most welcome shower in his apartment and change of clothes we eventually went out for dinner at what turned out to be a meeting of the entire Francophone expatriate community here in the city. Tired from the journey I couldn’t help myself from falling asleep on minutes after getting something to eat. The alcohol helped me along as well, of course! Alcohol is widely available here and I am told that many Kurds do drink, but from what I understand alcohol usually only enjoyed in private homes. We headed out today around noon after a long sleep. It has been raining all day and got soaked before lunch. We then had to change some money for me, I desperately needed a haircut after being afraid to cut my hair too short before the journey. With this done, and a few things picked up for the party being held tonight to celebrate Mike’s 25th birthday we headed to what was once the headquarters of the Mukhabarrat (secret police) here in Suli. The Kurds rose up following the 1991 war and with the help of air support (albeit too late to stop mass killings and suffering of the Kurdish people) pushed the Baathists from the city. The army left the town and left the Baathist government officials in the compound to the mercy of the Kurdish rising outside. Hundreds were then killed inside. The building and compound once home to surely thousands of Kurdish prisoners and site of innumerable killings has been converted into memorial. Much of the building remains how it was at the end of the uprising, but now there are dozens of mounted photographs mounted in the halls, many from the period following the 1991 war when the Kurds fled from Saddam Hussein’s army. Others were more graphic, showing some of what happened in that compound in an earlier period. Another exhibit of sorts had thousands of pieces of broken mirror on the wall, representing the lives lost, and hundreds of tiny white lights on the ceiling, representing the villages destroyed by the regime. We also toured the holding cells and solitary confinement chambers that still have carvings in the walls from prisoners once held there. In the grounds there are a handful of Soviet built tanks and armoured vehicles as well as about a dozen mortars, heavy machine guns etc.. Mike had been to this place before, but the military equipment is all new since the last time he visited. Never having the chance of doing so in any museum at home, we took the opportunity to climb on top and inside of several tanks there but were not entirely certain that all the systems inside had been rendered inoperable so tried our best to keep our fingers off all the switches and levers. We decided we should probably get out after getting filthy, banging our heads numerous times, and getting soaked from the rain dribbling through. Clearly Mike and I are too tall to be inside tanks. Mike has been working at the university here in Suli with another former student from McGill, Karim, both teaching English. They were also assisting a McGill professor with some research here, but he left several weeks ago. Both Karim and Mike will be returning to Canada shortly and I will most likely be leaving Iraq with them. Tonight there is a birthday party for Mike in the works, to be held at his flat. Tomorrow we are going on a picnic with some of Mike’s students who planned it to celebrate his birthday. Picnicking I am told is quite the production here: I was shocked at the number expected for tomorrow, 20, but Mike tells me he was at one several weeks ago with 3000 people! Cheers.