Michael Totten

Back to Iraq Part III - The Kurdish Disaster

This is the third installment in a Back to Iraq series which is basically a single long essay. Don’t miss Part One and Part Two.
TURKISH KURDISTAN – Sean and I dragged our sorry, exhausted, and malnourished selves to the car at 6:30 in the morning just a few hours northwest of the Turkish-Iraqi border. For the first time we had a look at our surroundings in daylight.
Turkish Kurdistan is a disaster. It is not where you want to spend your next holiday.
One village after another has been blown completely to rubble.
Destroyed Kurdish Village in Turkey.jpg
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The Turkish equivalent of roadside Kurdish strip malls have also been blown to pieces, by tank shells, air strikes, or what I could not say.
War Damage Turkish Kurdistan.jpg
Military bunkers, loaded with sand bags and bristling with mounted machine guns, were set up all over the place. Helicopters flew overheard. An army foot patrol marched alongside the highway. Twenty four soldiers brandished rifles across their chests. I slowed the car down as we approached so I would not make them nervous. I could see the whites of their eyes as they stared, deadly serious, at me and Sean. It’s too bad neither one of us could take pictures. But we didn’t dare. Those soldiers were not just hanging out and they were not messing around.
The civil war in Eastern Turkey didn’t look anything like it was over. I could tell just from driving on through that the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK) was still active. How else to explain the full-on siege by the army? The Turks’ treatment of Kurds has been horrific since the founding of the Republic. But the PKK seems hell-bent on matching the Turks with the worst they can muster, including the deliberate murder of Kurdish as well as Turkish and foreign civilians.
The violence is getting worse right now, not better. I would have interviewed people on both sides of this conflict if I had the time. But I didn’t. All I can do right now is link to other reports and tell you about what Sean and I saw from the car.
For a while the highway ran alongside the Syrian border. Turkey walled off the deranged Baathist regime of Hafez and Bashar with a mile-wide swath of land mines wrapped in barbed wire and marked with skulls and crossbones. At one point we could look right into a Syrian town in the distance where Kurds lived in possibly worse conditions than even in Turkey. The Baath stripped Syrian Kurds of their citizenship in the town pictured below for the “crime” of not being Arab.
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From a distance it appears that the biggest problem in the Middle East is Islamism. That’s probably because Islamism is the worst of the Middle East’s exported problems. Up close, though, the biggest source of conflict seems to be ethnic nationalism. The crackup of the Ottoman Empire has still not settled down into anything stable. Arab nationalism, Turkish nationalism, Kurdish nationalism, and Zionism everywhere create bloody borders and internal repression. And that’s just for starters. Lebanese went at other Lebanese for fifteen long years. Arab Sunni and Arab Shia are slugging it out in Iraq right now as you read this.
Sean was able to sneak a photo of a small Turkish military lookout point on the top of a hill.
Turkish Lookout in Kurdistan.jpg
That was the best we could do without getting pulled off the road and interrogated.
Some Kurdish villages in Turkey still stood. Every one of them, though, looked grim compared to many of those I had seen earlier in Northern Iraq.
Squalid Kurdish Village in Turkey.jpg
The only places in Turkish Kurdistan that looked pleasant were those where no people lived, where there was no dug-in military, where there was no visible poverty, where there were no blown up buildings, and where you did not look across minefields toward Syria on the horizon.
Turkish Kurdistan Countryside.jpg
Sean and I soon came upon the city of Civre that straddled the Tigris River on its winding way to Iraq. I was glad we didn’t spend the night there. It didn’t look like a war zone, as the countryside did, but it did look like a sketchy and miserable place.
“Sean, do me a favor?” I said. “Can you hold my camera at the window and just start taking pictures? I don’t care of they’re photogenic. Just document what this place looks like.”
“Sure,” Sean said and rolled down his window. He snapped pictures of the town as I drove.
Civre 1.jpg
Civre 2.jpg
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Housing Blocks in Civre.jpg
Sean looked off to the side. I looked straight ahead.
“Quick, put down the camera,” I said. “Don’t take a picture of those guys.”
Just up ahead in traffic a flatbed truck was loaded down with armed men who looked like guerillas. They wore keffiyehs on their heads. Only Arabs and Kurds wear keffiyehs. Turks never do, at least none that I’ve ever seen. These guys were heavily armed and sloppily dressed. They obviously were not Turkish military. I don’t know if they were PKK or what, but they sure looked like trouble. A military helicopter hovered over another part of the city.
We drove slowly over the Tigris.
Tigris in Turkey.jpg
Every driver in oncoming traffic nervously stared at us. The vibe on the streets was palpably paranoid even from inside the car. It’s so easy to misunderstand what’s going on in a foreign country, especially when you don’t walk around and talk to people. I didn’t know what the real story was. But whatever it was, it wasn’t good.
Sean and I left the rental car and our non-essential luggage in a parking lot near the customs gate on our way into Iraq. We stuffed everything we needed – passports, cash, phone number lists, etc. – into our backpacks and started walking. I sure hoped my old fixer Birzo sent somebody to pick us up. We had long been out of email contact, however, and there was no way to know until we got to the other side.
As we approached the first building we were instantly mobbed by a crowd of men.
“You need a taxi.”
“We’re walking across,” Sean said.
“You can’t walk across,” a man said. “Give me your passports.” He stuck out his hand. “Come on, give me your passports.”
“Who are you?” I said in my don’t-fuck-with-me voice as I sized him up head to toe. He smelled distinctly like trouble.
“I’m a police officer,” he said.
Liar, I thought. Did he think we were stupid? He wore shabby clothes, not an officer’s uniform. And he had the obvious personality of a shake-down artist and braying carpet shop tout.
“Come with me,” he said.
I trusted that he knew the border procedure, but I would not hand him my passport. He led me and Sean into a small room in a trailer where a real police officer sat at a desk. The officer asked for our passports. We handed them over, he wrote down our names, then handed our passports back.
“Here,” our ‘guide’ said. “Get in this taxi.” He opened the back door of a yellow taxi.
“Why,” I said.
“Just get in,” Sean said, clearly annoyed with my resistant attitude. He got in the back. I climbed in after him. Two strangers, both of them men, hopped in as well. One man had horrible pink scars all over his face and his hands.
“Why do we need a taxi?” I said. “I’d rather walk.”
“No one can walk across this border, my friend,” our fake-policeman-driver-guide said. “It will cost fifty dollars.”
Fifty dollars?” I said. “For what? For a one-minute drive down the street? Come on.”
Sean put his hand on my shoulder. He was feeling much more patient than me. “Did you notice what happened back there?” he said to me quietly.
“No,” I whispered. “What did I miss?” I was a cranky sleep-deprived zombie.
“We jumped to the front of the line and no one complained.”
He was right. There was a huge line of people waiting for taxis. Mr. Fake Police Officer Man yanked us right to the front. I decided to cut him some slack. Yes, he was ripping us off. But he was also speeding us up.
We pulled up to the side of a building. The man with the horrible pink scars on his face got out.
“Follow that man,” our driver said. “He knows what to do.”
We followed him to a drive-thru type window and handed our passports to the border official. He stamped us out of the country and we were set.
“Do you know why that man’s face looks like that?” Sean said on our way back to the taxi.
“No,” I said. “Do you?”
“He’s Iraqi,” Sean said. “Those scars are burns from chemical weapons. I’ve seen photos online. I know that’s what happened to him.”
We drove through a post-industrial wasteland of devastated buildings, piles of scrap metal and box cars, an unfinished international highway, and derelict drive-thru gates that presumably were closed after the Saddam regime’s batshit behavior required a long-ago shutdown of the Turkish side of the border. After a quick hop over a one-way bridge we were inside Iraq. The Iraqi side was cleaner, more orderly, more prosperous, and far more soft on the eyes than the Turkish side. I wish I could have taken some pictures for contrast. I swear it felt like the sun came out and the birds started chirping as we left Eastern Turkey behind.
A Peshmerga guard stood in front of the customs house wearing a crisp professional uniform.
“Choni!” I said. Hello, in Kurdish.
Everyone in the car flashed him our passports. He smiled and waved us past a sign that said “Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan Region.”
Inside the immigration office a bad Syrian soap opera played on TV. Sean and I were told to sit down in the waiting area after we turned in our passports at the front desk. A young man brought us overflowing glasses of hot sticky brown tea on little plates with dainty spoons.
“Well,” Sean said as he flicked his eyes around the room. “We’re here.”
A portrait of Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani hung on the wall.
I knew I would go back to Iraqi Kurdistan. But I could hardly believe I was back there already.
The customs boss came out from behind the desk and walked up to me and Sean.
“What do you guys do?” he said. “Are you NGOs?”
“You won’t believe me when I tell you,” I said.
He raised his eyebrows.
“We’re tourists,” I said.
He laughed. “Welcome to Kurdistan! How long do you want to stay?”
“We’re just here for the day,” Sean said.
He laughed again. “How long will you be here, really?” he said. “Two weeks? A month?” He spread out his hands.
“I swear to God,” I said, “we are going back to Turkey today. I’ve been here before. Sean hasn’t. We were just in the area and I want to show him Dohok.”
He smirked at us, indicating he was willing to play along with what he thought was a ruse. “Welcome,” he said. “Welcome.”
“Sozpas,” I said. Thank you, in Kurdish.
“Thank you,” Sean said.
“You need to learn Kurdish” the man said to Sean. “Your friend will teach you Kurdish!”
“We’re only going to be here for one day,” I reminded him. He laughed and shook his head. “I only know a few words of Kurdish myself.”
“What else can you say?” he said.
“Choni. Nosh,” I said. Hello and Cheers. “A few other things.”
He grinned and patted both of us on the back. “Welcome, my American friends!” he said. “Have a wonderful time while you’re here.”
The whole thing was just weird. I don’t quite know how to convey how surreal it is to leave a country that maybe, just maybe, might join the European Union and enter a country that is a poster-child for wrenching war-torn catastrophe and have everything around me dramatically improve all at once. But that’s how it goes these days when you cross into Iraq from Turkey. Even though Sean had never been there before, he, like me, breathed a sigh of relief at our arrival in a tranquil place at peace with itself.
Read Part Four.
Post-script: If you enjoy these travelogues and if you’ve learned something new, please hit my tip jar. I am not independently wealthy and I can only afford to write this sort of thing if I’m paid. Many thanks for your support so far.
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