Saturday, August 25, 2007

Travelling to Iraq: '' are crazy, you have a deathwish or something?''

I look on the clock, six pm already. The low sun burns the left side of my face, we are driving north. I stared out of my window, looking at a landscape I had been looking at for the past week. Dry, sandy hills lying under a blue sky which seems to be always cloudless. Suddenly, I was focussed on the road again. The driver slowed down and stopped behind a row of cars. An old Toyota van with a numberplate in Arabic was waiting in front our BMW. Slowly we moved to the front of the que. A man wearing a greenly camouflaged suit walked towards our car, he had a dark skin and a big mustache. I saw a Kalashnikov hanging over his left shoulder. He puts his head in the window of our old BMW, his eyes going carefully through all the passengers in the car. His hand points at me and he said something in a language I don't know. 'Hollanda', I said, figuring he asked for my nationality which usually is their first concern, I gave him my passport. He made a sign I should step out of the car. One of the other passengers followed me to the office and said he would translate for me, as he knows some English. The Peshmerga (local name of the military forces) flicks through my passport. He asks: 'why are you here?' 'Tourist', I replied him. He nods and continued searching my visas. Than his hand stops moving and he shows me the sixth page of my passport. He asked: 'you have been to Iran?' 'Yes', I said with a question tone in my voice. 'Why you have been to Iran?', he asks emotionless. 'Same reason, tourism', I said with confidence. And than he gave me the answer I was waiting for: 'Ok mister, that's all'.
I step back into the car and the driver accelerates quickly to 120km/h. Within an hour I arrive at the destination I payed him for: Ibrahim Khalil. Ibrahim Khalil is different than other border crossings. It is a heavily fortified maze of roads, checkpoints, Turkish trucks, army vehicles and fences. The border separates two states, but at the same time, it divides one nation. Ibrahim Khalil divides the biggest nation in the world without a state. And all thought on the southern side of the border the splitted nation, the Kurds, control their lands, have their own government and their own military forces (Peshmerga) I felt strange crossing a border which shouldn't be there. I was traveling to the northern side, to a country which is considered to be safe, a country without terrorism, a fully functioning democracy, a country completely different than the one I just came from. I was crossing into Turkey. In total I had to wait 6 hours to be on Turkish ground again, the reason is an amazingly slow and extensive car-search on the Turkish side. Also I had to wait for a taxi across the border to fill up. I wasn't complaining though, as I managed to get the taxi for free. Also I spoke to a friendly Turkish guy who has been living in Germany and he invited me for a diner. Two hours after, I was standing on a bridge. The bridge connects the two countries and is considered no-mans-land. The bridge was full of cars, one row for passengercars, the other row for trucks. Slowly our taxi moved to the front of the row. It was almost midnight, still four cars in front of us. I look up to the sky, full moon.
Finally, we were able to drive further. Our car was searched by the Turkish military. They searched everything, the spare wheel, they looked into the engine, we had to unscrew everything unscrewable in the car. It took almost half an hour before we were able to drive on. I wandered why the hell they are unscrewing everything; for drugs or weapons, they can use dogs, can't they? After the searching everything went fast, I got my Turkish entry-stamp and before I know we are driving towards Silopi, the first town in Turkey. On the way the driver gave me back my passport and I look at all the visas and stamps I collected. Then suddenly I start to believe what country I just came from, I realize I had been traveling in one of the most dangerous countries in the world. I realize I have been to Iraq.
One week earlier: 20/08, Diyarbakir, Turkey.
It is 6.30 am in the morning, I open my eyes. I see people walking in front of me and I hear the sound of cars. I am still tired and my back hurts, the price I payed to sleep on a bench in Diyarbakirs bus station. I took my bags and walked into a cafe for coffee. I sat there for an hour or so, still waking up from the painful night. Two cups of Turkish coffee later, I walked out of the station and catched a bus to the center. I walked a bit and stepped into the Balkar Hotel, this was the place where I was supposed to meet Edward, an Irish guy who was also traveling to northern Iraq. I made the receptionist call his room and a couple of minutes later I met him in the lobby. We talked a bit, had breakfast, a quick lunch and we sat in a bus towards Silopi, a Turkish town 15km from the border with Iraq. Like with all Irish people I've met, I had to get used to the accent, all thought Ed's accent isn't very strong. During the bus journey we talked more about our destination and the difficulties we might approach. The Kurdish region in Iraq is supposed to be perfectly safe, the mean difficulty is that we didn't had information on the area, as no one is crazy enough to write a guidebook for Iraq. We drove for about 100km past the Syrian border before we arrived in Silopi. I was full of excitement, I was 15km away from traveling into a country most people only know from carbombs, chemical weapons, sectarian violence or a crazy dictator with a big mustache. We went into an internetcafe to find more information on Iraqi Kurdistan, used the ATM and chartered a taxi to take us across the border. There was lots of paperwork involved for our crossing into Iraq, but after about an hour we sat in a small building on the Iraqi side. The borderguards asked us a couple of simple questions and gave us free tea. Soon after we said goodbye to our driver and hired another taxi to the first city in Iraq: Dohuk. In Dohuk we found a place to stay, a small hotel with very helpful and funny staff. As we were almost starving, we had an amazing diner directly after. The owner of the restaurant sat on our table as well and we talked quite a bit with the friendly man.
Next day started with coffee and some hanging in the hotel. We enjoyed kebab for breakfast in the same restaurant we ate the day before and I walked a bit over Dohuk's bazaar after. The city is very busy, with hordes of people and too much cars on the roads. It has a nice atmosphere and made a good introduction for Iraq. But soon after we moved on, to the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Arbil (aka Hawler). The guy controlling the car, drove like a maniac, making dangerous curves and seldom driving slower than 100km/h. Seatbelts he only wears when a policecheckpoint is ahead. Speaking about checkpoints, the roads controlled by the Kurdish forces are full of checkpoints. During our two hour journey we passed at least 8 checkpoints. Usually the driver waves at the soldiers and we can move on, but occasionally they ask for our passports and we answered a couple of simple questions. When we were halfway, things started to become a bit dodgy, because we saw Iraqi flags weaving above housing instead of the usual red-white-green Kurdish flags. We left the Kurdish territories for a couple of kilometers and drove through the Iraqi controlled land, 15km outside of the extremely dangerous city Mosul. But luckily, before we knew we saw the Kurdish flags again and continued our journey to Arbil.
Arbil is quite an amazing place, it is a huge city and even busier than Dohuk. There is a big citadel overlooking the city on top of a hill and we slept in a hotel next to the chaotic bazaar. Like elsewhere in the country, it was extremely hot in Arbil, with temperatures rising as high as 47 Celsius. Probably the heat has been one of the reasons why Ed became sick, he had stomach problems the first day in Arbil. I bought some stuff for him on the bazaar and went out by myself after. Strangely enough, all the shops were starting to close at about 9pm already, totally different than Dohuk, which was very lively even after midnight. So it took me a while to find a place to eat. I had some sandwiches with meat and went to an internetcafe after. By the time I walked out of the internet, around 11pm, the atmosphere in the city was rather dodgy. There was absolutely nobody walking the streets and everything looked pretty empty. Also one guy scared the shit out of me. When I walked out of the internet there were two guys standing at the exit of the cafe. One of them, an old man selling cigarettes and wearing old clothes, he was holding an AK-47. I was used to seeing a lot of kalashnikovs due to the many checkpoints on the road, but the fact that a guy who sells cigarettes caries an AK with him, made me feel a bit afraid. I said 'Salam Aleykum' and didn't had problems with him, but I quickly walked back to the hotel and didn't feel like making an evening stroll in the city that night.
At 10 o'clock the morning after, Ed decided to travel back to Turkey as his sickness started to become worse. We relaxed a bit and I joined him to the taxi-stand after. When he left for Silopi, I walked to the big mosque of Arbil. The 10 minute walk was pretty hard, because there was no shade on my route and the hot wind and fierce sun burned on my head. I tried to remember the heat I experienced in Iran the year before, I couldn't believe it was hotter overthere, it must have been at least 48C that day in Arbil. The mosque was quite nice, but I didn't stay long, I fled into an internetcafe soon after. Later that afternoon, when the city cooled a bit down, I hiked up the citadel. To my surprise, I was called over by a Pesha when I tried to enter the historical site. He body-searched me, asked me lots of questions and wanted to see my passport. At first he didn't want to let me in, but gave me a go after. So I walked into the citadel and within 10 seconds, a couple of other soldiers called me over and I had to answer their questions. They said I wasn't allowed in the citadel, only the two small museums. So I did what they told me and I walked into the museum. The museum shows some traditional Kurdish carpets, but besides the old stuff, there was a guy in a camouflaged suit holding a huge gun inside the museum. When I walked out of the museum, a couple of other soldiers again asked me questions and told me I wasn't allowed to see more of the citadel. It seemed there is some kind of armybase up there, as it was full of soldiers and army vehicles, and the strict security of course. Walking out of the citadel the soldier which spoke to me first wanted to see all the pictures I made, which I showed him. After I walked down to the bazaar. It really is a pity I haven't seen the citadel, because it is one of the oldest in the world. Some people told me Arbil is the longest inhabited place on the planet, it had been a city for over 5000 years. Back down I strolled over the hectic bazaar and I spoke a bit with a UN-soldier from the Fiji-islands. In the evening I met the two guys I shared the room with, a Kurd from Sulaymaniyah and an Arab from Basra. We watched some Hollywood B-movies on the satellite-tv before I went to sleep.
The next morning I woke up, my hair wet of sweat; the airconditioner was turned of in the night. I made myself some coffee and did some reading. In the afternoon I went to the 'Suly-garage' for a shared taxi to As Sulaymaniyah. The friendly driver spoke some English and we set of for As Sulaymaniyah (aka Slemani or just Suly) quickly. The journey was pleasant and we drove for 200km through the desert. Again the road was filled with several checkpoints. Halfway, I started to become quite nervous. We drove into Arab territory and into one of the most dangerous cities on earth: Kirkuk. The driver told me it isn't problem and that the Kurds control the roads, but driving in the suburbs of Kirkuk really gave me some dodgy feelings. We didn't had problems though and when the driver waved the last Iraqi checkpoint farewell, we were back on Kurdish territory. We stopped for a while in a roadside restaurant and an hour later, I was in Slemani. Like the other Kurdish cities, also Suly is hectic, a truly Middle Eastern city. I found a hotel and met some friendly guys overthere. The two guys are both named Ali, one coming from Baghdad, the other from Kirkuk. They work as tolks for the American army and were enjoying vacation in Slemani. The stories they shared with me were more than amazing. One of them had been kidnapped, the other one was also close to death as he was in the middle of a shooting incident. Their work can be called extremely dangerous and I listened to their anecdotes with much respect. We watched a bit of tv together and I went to sleep soon after. Again I had a satellite tv on my room, with as many as 1405 channels (!), unfortunately most of them were in languages I don't speak and strangely enough most channels are Italian, but also Sudan TV, Indian Karaoke TV, Vietnam TV, CCTV (China) and many others.
When I walked down to the hotel lobby the morning after, I met a man named Ayob. I talked a bit with him and he invited me for breakfast. Later on I met the Ali's again and we strolled over the huge bazaar. Much more I haven't done that day actually. I went back to my room early and washed my stinky clothes sindarella-style. With an Italian musicchannel on the background, I read a couple of chapters of my book and went to sleep.
When I woke up, I looked on my mobilephone and blamed myself for sleeping so long again. It was almost noon already. Quickly I got dressed and made myself some nescafe. I went into a small restaurant for falafel and walked towards the suburbs of Slemani. After asking several people, I found the place I was looking for: Amna Suraca (also called Red Prison). It is a museum about the horrors from the Saddam regime in Kurdistan. I was able to join a free tour with a couple of other Kurdish people. They showed me the prisoncells and the ways of torturing. The prison has an empty atmosphere and I could see some bulletholes in the buildings. Outside of the building, some tanks and artillery stuff were showed. The guide told us the tanks are still working and we were allowed to play a bit with the warstuff. I made some fun pictures on the tanks and thanked the guide after. The tour was free and I walked back to the citycentre. In a country as hot as Iraq, it feels like someone is blowing with a hairdryer in your face all the time and I went into a small cafe to escape the heat for a while. I continued my stroll back to the hotel and had kebab in a good restaurant after. The overweighted and friendly owner welcomed me into his restaurant and asked me if I could speak German. 'Ein bischen', I said and I had a long conversation with him in my broken German after. For some reason, he kept thinking I was coming from Greece as he asked questions about the weather in Athens and kept talking about Greek passports. He gave me a big discount on the diner and three cups of tea. Back in the hotel I did the same as the night before and went to sleep late.
The next day, I went back to Arbil. Again I was pretty nervous about crossing through Kirkuks suburbs, but like the first journey through Kirkuk, I also didn't have problems this time. After Kirkuk the driver did something unusual, he drove slowly and wasn't overtaking cars anymore. Strangely, the other cars were doing the same and the cars coming from the other side all stopped on the site of the road for a while. Soon I realized what was going on: we were driving behind an army convoy. Ahead of us, I could see three camouflaged hummers with artillery on top. I wandered under which flag they were driving, but up until now, that stays a mystery. When we arrived at the next Checkpoint, the convoy turned left and the driver was free to go crazy again. During the way, I had been questioned twice at the checkpoints, which caused some delay. Back in Arbil I went to the same hotel again and shared the room with three Arabs. One of them was the same man I met before, a friendly guy from Basra. I watched some B-movies with them again and went to sleep.
My last day in Iraqi Kurdistan, I woke up late, had kebab for breakfast and went back to my hotel. For quite a while, I had been talking with the Arab man from Basra. He told me how much he hated people with extreme ideas about religion and he showed me pictures on his mobilephone about his work. He works as a blacksmith and he teaches Arabic language to small children. After an hour or so, I said him farewell and walked to the taxistand. I chartered a taxi to Ibrahim Khalil. The ride was nice and relaxing and at about 7pm I arrived at the border. Around midnight I finally finished all the paperwork and carsearching and the taxidriver brought me to a hotel in Silopi named the Habur Hotel. I asked the reception to call room number 204. Within 5 minutes an Irish guy walked down the stairs. I was talking with Ed about my journey in Iraq for a while and gave him a small present I bought for him in Arbil: an old Iraqi banknote with Saddam Hossein on it. When I asked the reception about the roomprices, I figured I didn't want to stay there as it was quite pricey. I showed him my sleepingbag and pointed at the floor of the lobby. 'Ok, no problem mister' he said. I slept on the floor of the hotellobby for free!
While I was lying on the hard floor, I thought back of my journey in Iraq. Most people I spoke to before I went into Iraq told me I am crazy. They see pictures in their eyes about war, sectarian violence and danger. Big media companies show us the violent part of Iraq, they show us images of death people, carbombs and army presence. But as allways, media is something we shouldn't fully rely on; if you know what you are doing and stick to the safe areas controlled my the Kurds, travelling in Iraq is as safe as travelling in Turkey. The Kurds are amazingly friendly people and, besides a couple of moments, I felt perfectly safe and had a great time exploring a truly Middle Eastern country.