Tuesday, June 01, 2004
I think I may have finally caught up on my sleep on Thursday. I suppose my Beef Enchilada MRE was a complete enough meal to allow me to sleep through the traffic buzzing outside in the morning. That or the chemicals used to cook the Enchilada put me asleep…
Mike and Karim had a bit of difficulty getting a flight from Diyarbakir so delayed their departure from Friday until Saturday. This turned out to be quite the blessing as there is no way they would have been ready to go at 5am Friday. Most of Friday was spent doing a few last minute things, but unfortunately all of the US-issued playing cards with Iraq’s most wanted could not be found anywhere. Earlier in the day we did head to the best hotel in Suli for a predictably mediocre meal. I would have preferred to have another plate of the nachos Mike and I made the previous night with Iranian potato chips and spicy processed cheese left over from my MRE. It was good. I swear it was. I think we were all drawn to the place given that it had been recently fortified with blast walls around the front.
By the time we sorted things out, Mike and Karim made their last round of goodbyes, and Karim got rid of his mobile so his students finally stopped bothering him to raise their grades, it was about 2:30am. We all got about two hours of sleep before waking to get our 5am taxi to the border. And this is where the adventure began.
To the border at warp speed
The taxi drive was typical Kurdistan: 150km/h, weaving at times and braking hard to save the suspension on all the bumps. Lunch three hours in where everyone stops on that road. The border procedures on the Iraqi side went smoothly after a long wait for a CPA convoy heading south to pass through with something likely in the neighbourhood of 150 trucks or more. Mike and Karim had had considerable difficulty getting into Iraq in the fall and because of this as well as Mike’s travel through Turkey on his Christmas break, they had little positive to say of Turkey since I arrived at their place last week. It’s not a dislike for the country, but that the territory is the only real means for them to gain access to Iraq, and given that Turkish policy towards Iraq and specifically Iraqi Kurdistan is the way it is, this road can fast become a chore. I had been warned, and we were all prepared for the Turkish border check and reminded ourselves not to let the Kurdish for thank-you to slip out instead of the Turkish.
Bribing the Turkish Border Guard
As soon as we piled out of the car at the Turkish customs check one of the Turkish guards was waving a Kazak 10 tenge note in front of me. This note, worth about $0.03US had been tucked inside my passport for the last year after I put it in there to keep it pressed. Sure, I should have taken it out long ago, but now I stood in panic, accused of bribing a Turkish guard with three cents. My obvious panic made the situation a little worse before it got better and he seemed happy with the final explanation that it was a souvenir. The note is now getting crumpled in my wallet after staying pressed for the last year.
With that out of the way, the questioning began and went rather smoothly, with all questions for Mike and Karim as the guards searched for their names on the NGO list they maintain there.
I stood watching, still a little nervous following the bribing incident when the guards started going through the bags we had with us. Mike’s was first and it wasn’t long before his postcards commemorating the Halabja gas attack were found. The Turks generally do not like anything referring to the existence of the Kurds and so we all thought that this would surely mean trouble. But, we were mistaken: Mike later said that one of them said ‘Saddam’ and drew his finger across his neck. Perhaps while they continue to deny the existence of the Kurds the Turkish army still has an overriding hate for Saddam Hussein.
A Game of Risk and Ottoman Geography
If for nothing else than saving our time, they stopped searching Mike’s bag there and were all drawn to the board from the game Risk that was in Karim’s bag. They unfolded the board, revealing the various regions in different colours that the world is divided into in the game. The guard in the middle put his finger to the centre of Anatolia, then east to the edge of the sandy orange colour that the ‘middle east’ region had been marked. Discussion begins between them as they try to decide where they think the borders of Turkey actually are. All are wrong, or have been looking at very old Ottoman maps; Turkey does not, and has not since Ottoman times come so close to the Caspian Sea or had any claim to it as they all seemed to imagine it does. Like kids on Christmas morning who quickly tire of the toys they unwrap and turn instead to the boxes, Risk didn’t keep these soldiers busy for long, and turned to other things. Thankfully they tired of us shortly thereafter. We were allowed to proceed and about half an hour later after going though the actual passport-stamping procedure and driving past the queue of trucks waiting to get into Iraq we reached Silopi. Before too long we all piled into a taxi for Diyarbakir, and hurtled down the highway at breakneck speed.
Safely through…or not?
By about 3pm Turkish time (one hour behind Iraq) we were dropped off at the Diyarbakir airport where Mike and Karim’s flight to Istanbul was scheduled to leave at 10pm. Our plan was to grab a drink then say our goodbyes and I would head to the bus terminal and on to Erzurum. Due in part to what in many respects amounted to a civil war here in the early 1990s, Turkish airports have x-ray machines at the entrances to the terminals, a practice not unlike many other countries where there have been significant threats made against such infrastructure. I passed through and took a seat to wait for Mike and Karim to root out whatever it was that caught the eye of the police officer running the machine. I continued looking back and eventually saw that they had found what they were looking for: the bayonets from Soviet AK-47s that they had bought in Iraq. The bayonets look like knives when they’re on their own, are about six or eight inches long including the handle, and come with a sheath.
Caught Red Handed
Of course such things should never be permitted in hand luggage on a plane, but I was surprised to see them taking issue with these three knives (one was Mike’s and the other two were Karim’s) when they had been in the luggage they were to check. Several minutes later Mike motioned for me to come over and look after their bags and they disappeared with police around the corner. An hour since we first arrived at the terminal passed and I was growing impatient, wondering if the apparent knife infraction had got them another close examination from Turkish police, always suspicious of people coming from Iraq. In time, the guard manning the machine grew impatient with my staring at him and disturbing his afternoon of doing absolutely nothing (as there were no flights). He motioned for me to follow him outside with the baggage carts, which I did and then followed him across the car park to the police building at the entrance to the airport. From outside I could see Karim being questioned inside by three officers. Inside I was led down the hall to where Mike was, in a large office with about six officers. He turned when I walked in, put his head in his hands. Mike and Karim were held for having illegal knives in Turkey.
Immediately I realized how lucky I was. Mike and Karim had bought old Soviet ones and had I found one I would have bought one as well. However, when I looked in the bazaar they only had lesser quality copies from elsewhere, likely Iraqi but perhaps Cuban, Chinese or from somewhere in Eastern Europe.
Turkey is a country of rules and laws
Karim was questioned in Arabic as the head police officer knew it quite well. Several minutes after I arrived they printed off a form which appeared to be a declaration of what they had done to be signed. With the Turkish form signed under a bit of duress thanks to the looming departure of their flight they were informed that they would have to go have their fingerprints done and photos taken. After that, they would be taken to court but it looked as if they just might get their flight five hours later. Overall, once the difficulties with language making for problems communicating had been overcome, the police seemed to be quite friendly and accommodating, seeming to recognize that they had made a quite honest mistake, but a mistake nonetheless and one with consequences. As Karim said the head officer told him over and over again: “Turkey is a country of rules and laws.” From the number of times Karim said he was told this it seems as though the Turkish police seem to think that the world sees Turkey as lawless; while I would say Turkey lacks some laws – namely more vigorous human rights law – I can’t imagine where the officers got the impression we as foreigners see Turkey as a lawless place.
Mugs + Prints
I went along for the ride as Mike and Karim went off with three officers in a large Ford Transit police van. Along with us was a woman and her baby; the woman was the wife of one of the officers and spoke reasonable English so would translate. After getting their photos and prints done we sped off to the hospital for Mike and Karim to get physicals done. It never would have crossed my mind that they would do this or should, but when the interpreter told them they would have physicals done it made immediate sense and now I couldn’t imagine them not doing it. What better way to get ‘revenge’ for being nabbed for a stupid mistake than for foreigners to get home after a situation like this and claim that they had been mistreated by Turkish police but not wanting to miss their flight had not said anything until arriving safely home. I just wonder if Turks are granted the same privilege.
The hospital we went to was a public one, and was the epitome of chaos but the staff seemed to be making the most of few resources. Most patients seemed to be injured rather than sick and most appeared to have come from villages and towns outside the city as most of the mothers of the children (and most of the patients were children) were dressed in traditional Kurdish attire.
The courthouse was a massive white building, with Ataturk gazing down at all who entered as is the norm at all public buildings here in Turkey. We had to wait for some time before the judge would hear Mike and Karim and passed the time answering questions about life in Canada from the interpreter and police officers. They were amazed to hear the salaries of police officers and teachers (the interpreter’s usual job) in Canada but we were quick to point out that we pay a good deal of tax and most things are significantly more expensive at home than in Turkey which must be taken into account when comparing salaries.
Each floor in the courthouse was the same: long, wide corridors with windowless doors leading to offices. We waited outside one of the offices for the judge, a positively obese man with stained shirt and greasy hair. Inside his office sat a secretary and we all took seats facing him. Behind the judge was one large picture of Ataturk, and a calendar on another wall had a famous picture of him on the back of a train. The proceedings started and the offer for a lawyer was accepted. Once she arrived the officers and I left the room to make space but I could still hear the proceedings outside. In time, they all came out of the room after being told they would have to see another judge who would render a verdict on their case and hand down punishment.
Holding the flight for two Canadian crooks
More waiting for the second judge was making Mike and Karim nervous as 10pm edged closer and closer. My stomach growled. The lawyer gave instructions to contact her when they returned to Canada and through her broken English and the interpreter’s translation she said that it was possible that they would have to serve time in jail in Canada as they would be contacting Canadian officials. I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing on the chances of going to jail in Canada for carrying a knife but all of us bit our tongues. In time the second judge arrived and began proceedings. Outside I waited with the police as they made arrangements to hold the flight out of Diyarbakir. The conversation seemed to get quite animated, but to my surprise when they got off the phone they said that yes, the flight would indeed be held. In time he convicted both of them but stopped short of giving them any punishment. Mike and Karim were visibly relieved that they had gotten out of their jam and would likely be able to make their flight.
The siren wailed to get through intersections as we bounced through the rough streets of Diyarbakir to get first to the police station where the bags had been left and then on to the terminal. I went in with them, wanting to be sure to see them off on their flight after such a long day. They seemed to be shepherded along with an energetic little man with a bright orange t-shirt on. After picking up the tickets and checking their bags the orange t-shirt man was still lurking around, then took off behind the security fence with their passports. It all seemed to quite normal given the circumstances. Mike went to try to make a phone call while we waited.
Then, it began to seem as if the two of them were being deported. Mike told Mr. Orange T-shirt he had a day to spend in Istanbul as his flight out of there left a day later than Karim’s. No answer. They passed through security not knowing for sure what their fate was in Istanbul, with their passports still in the hands of Mr. Orange. But, it was a few minutes before 10pm and they were certain to make the flight to Istanbul.
“I am never coming back to Turkey” Mike said, more emphatic than before when his main complaint was the attitude towards the Kurdish minority which made his experiences in the country since fall 2003 so unpleasant. Karim wasn’t quite so explicit, but surely both Mike and Karim will be keeping their distance from this country at least for a while. Perhaps the Turks prefer it that way. Karim and Mike both got the same flight out of Istanbul to Amsterdam.