A Travellerspoint blog


Back into Turkey (again!)


Early start for the border. It transpired to be a pretty efficient affair with a prompt departure from Zakho, a lone taxi transfer to the Iraqi side of the border (known as Ibrahim Khalil), and after getting my stamp, straight into a share taxi for Silopi. Having been pre-warned by Ant that this border could be problematic, the Turks were very thorough in weeding out anything remotely Kurdish seemingly, but the bag searches were more rudimentary than expected, just a lot of waiting around. In 2 hours we were through though, and the towns of Silopi and Cizre were both a blur as the locals herded me from one dolmus straight to another. I was struggling to get my brain back into Turkish mode though, and still being a Kurdish area I was never sure which tongue to speak. The road passed by more great mountain scenery and the River Tigris, women wearing lilac scarves picked cotton in the fields and an APC sat by a roadblock in a village. Thankfully I received only a smile. I remembered I had gained an hour but would quickly lose it again upon entering Iran, bizarre! I arrived in Sirnak at 2, much earlier than I had even hoped for, an unlovely town but with a great location slapped on a moutainside with top views. It made a further good impression upon arrival when the first thing I spotted was a beer shop where the guy came out and offered me tea. If only it was always like this! The hotel was also right across the road and afforded fantastic views of gigantic mountains from my room window. In the lobby I also caught the end of Castaway with Tom Hanks, about a guy returning to civilisation, another surreal TV coincidence! The locals had been quick to tell me that all the people were Kurds and all the police and army Turkish. This area had a particular reputation for unrest and indeed it had been out of bounds for foreigners until recently, it was still not totally assured that I would be able to proceed to Hakkari the next day as intended. Within the first hour a large army convoy passed through town with a turreted armoured car sporting a heavy machine gun like a Spandau. 2 Huey helicopters also throbbed overhead making their presence deliberately known I guessed. After what the guy at the hotel said I was left confused, perhaps I had to register with the local cops but wasnt sure, I left it to chance, it would not have surprised me. They wanted to hang on to my passport all the same. In the room I also had my first local encounter with porn channels, which were pretty full on and more than what I expected to find in Turkey. They were all Italian exports but had suitably jazzy oriental titles, my favourites being Sexy Arabia, Juicy East and Arab Girls 69. Police that ya bastards.


Chowani - Hello
Wuruh - Come
Harah - Go
Az Bash - I'm fine
Supas - Thankyou
Guluk Supas - Thanks Very Much
Bibure - Sorry
Sahr Chava - Upon my eyes (standard greeting)
Dizanim - I know
Her biji - Cheers
Idi - Again
Chandhay - How much?
Chuneenuh - No problem
Bele - Yes
Na - No

1 - Yek
2 - Du
3 - Se
4 - Chwar
5 - Panj
6 - Shesh
7 - Hoft
8 - Hesht
9 - No
10 - De
15 - Panze
20 - Bist
30 - Si
40 - Chil
50 - Pencha

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Iraq Comments (0)

Back in Arbil


I just wanted to get back to Dohuk pronto but taxis took forever to fill up in this town. Everyone takes the Coaster but going via Bashiqa it was too dodgy a proposition for me, especially after my recent experience. Eventually I managed to persuade a taxi guy to go the safer country road via Bardarash, a longer more northerly route which I knew would cost me more. Since it was at my behest I ended up paying $20, double what everyone else paid but I was just glad to be on my way. There were numerous checkpoints, at two of which my passport was taken away. "Here we go again!" I thought but now safely back in Kurdistan there was no problem. It was a narrow and very undulating country road to Bardarash, passing through many small villages but suitably quiet in the main. Back at the trusty Diyanah Hotel I conked out upon arrival, then went to visit Ant in the evening, who saw that I was a changed man. True to form though, Ant pulled out the stops for me and produced a selection of quality whiskys retained especially for medicinal value. I helped him make a big dent in a bottle of Laphraoig, my first whisky in over 2 months and it certainly did the trick.

29th November

I was supposed to go out with Ant and the Diakonia kids on a photography project today but sadly I was pretty crook and had to give it a miss, coming down with flu I had picked up from Ishmael I feared. Again I was foiled at meeting the kids and getting suitably pestered I guessed, it would have been fun and a chance to maybe give something back too. With a visit to the atmospheric underground market we bought in a chicken dinner and despite having no mains lecky and the generator being in bits, we had a good yap over some beers in the gloom. One point of note I raised with him had been my foiled desire to visit a town about 160Ks West of us which sadly lay off the map in dodgy "southern" Iraq. It was here that the Yezidi community had their stronghold, a sect somewhat inappropriately described as being devil worshippers. They believed that Shatan (Satan) was a fallen angel who had to be appeased through prayer until he repented and took his rightful place back in heaven. It was not considered good practice to even speak his name. As faiths go its imaginative if nothing else! Though not at all apparent to me, Ant knew about them and was able to explain such strange quirks as their propensity for owning all the local booze shops and restaurants. They were darker skinned than most, always wore a certain type of cotton undergarment and bizarrely never ate lettuce. The women would wear purple headscarves but never blue. It was time to say cheerio to Ant and very simply, I couldnt thank him enough for making it all possible. Top guy.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Iraq Comments (0)

Kirkuk to Arbil


I kept a suitably low profile that morning until it was time to don my body armour and goggles, and after an enigmatic farewell to Andrea I was sat in the lead jeep of a 3 car convoy back to Arbil. With JC the other Scottish guy driving and Darren a New Zealand Maori guy sitting shotgun with a machine gun up front, I was in the back alongside thousands of rounds of ammunition and smoke grenades. It wasnt the done thing to chat and so I just sat like a prince and watched the same road I had just travelled rewind in reverse. At roadblocks we showed a Union Jack flag and were beckoned through, it certainly beat the Coaster. Upon approaching Arbil, David in one of the other jeeps queried over the radio whether I had left the room key, I had left it in the door I replied. I got the ultimate oneupmanship though when I had to tell them that we had inadvertantly left my 2nd (expired) passport at the guardroom, their screw up and I told them just to destroy it. Man, how I love to show petty power merchants their technical incompetence. They dropped me off outside the Sheraton, a quick and friendly affair which didnt call for any mucking about. I had the body armour and goggles off in seconds and was on my way with waves and smiles.

Much as the Sheraton would have been nice, I headed back to the less salubrious Kaleen Hotel in the bazaar where unfortunately I didnt find my Arab dentist friend but 3 others instead, including an assistant surgeon blitzed on Arak. So I got a liquid fuelled tirade on cancer treatment and prognosis, obviously his forte in English! Another of the guys worked for Aspen brand cigarettes, and though we had no common tongue I understood that nobody at his factory knew what Aspen was. So using my atlas and a game of charades I had to try and explain as best I could that it was a ski-ing resort in Colorado, I hoped it was a suitably quirky answer! Another crazy day.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Iraq Comments (0)



Next morning another guy was brought in and beaten up in front of me, idle cops didnt bat an eyelid, it was obviously just par for the course, justice Iraqi style. Bashkale, an interesting site in Turkey I recognised was on TV but the locals swore they would never show anything Turkish on Kurdish TV, I wasnt going to argue. A big cheese general and his sidekick then showed up and I received another short half-hearted grilling, he was obviously more used to other minions doing the dirty work though and quickly only wanted to help. I re-iterated the deal agreed with the Yanks that the police had to transport me to Sulimaniyeh, and I also queried the need for the consul, they took away my passport for the umpteenth time, what a circus. The by now jovial commander whose bed I had slept in was a changed man, I had done a good job in buttering him up and now all he wanted from me was 3 kisses before he left! The Americans turned up at noon again and so we sat and ate felafel together, them in full combat gear, me and Adam the midget cop, it was surreal. Through Captain Wolfe I spoke on the phone with Andrea the Brit consul and was invited to visit them, they would not be visiting me and I was under no obligation to see them, I had done no wrong after all. I thought it prudent to listen to what they had to say though, I was here to research the place if nothing else and including their safety briefing made sense. So suddenly the deal with the cops was superfluous, the Yanks agreed to take me up to the consulate which was quite some way away, co-habiting on an American State Department facility in the northern Kurdish sector known as the REO (Regional Embassy Office). I climbed into one of their Humvee armoured cars and we were off at last.

It was quite an experience. With me in the back and the interpreter guy the other side, we had fatman Purvis sat dangling in a harness between us as he manned the rooftop M60 through an open turret. Any traffic that didnt make way for us or got too close got shouted at and the M60 pointed at them, we must have been really intimidating. Drivers stopped and showed their empty hands, other vehicles crawling along or parked were picked out as suspicious and we crossed the central reservation onto oncoming traffic if it afforded the safest route. Sat behind Captain Wolfe I could see him using a sophisticated GeoSat imagery of the city to navigate, probably talking to a satellite in real time, quite a piece of kit. Entering the Kurdish sector which had been built by the Brits 50-60 years ago, it was discernibly cleaner, more orderly and felt safer as was remarked. The REO appeared as a chicane of road blocks and tank traps which were tricky to negotiate in our wide Humvees but eventually we were met at a gate by 2 heavily armed guys built like brick shithouses. They looked like death and werent for talking, I could have guessed they were ex special forces. Soon up trotted 4 guys Reservoir Dogs style and I was introduced to Chance and Jesse, who were American security guys, David the Brit vice consul and Gary one of his security team, all very friendly. With strangely no frisk or bag check, I was ushered in across the compound and soon met Andrea the consul who was obviously at a loss as to what to say to me. A little underwhelmed by vague statistics of road bombs here and there, they convinced me however that the Penjwin border crossing to Iran was too dodgy to attempt. They had had 3 IEDs (roadside bombs) and 1 VIED (car bomb) along the Penjwin road in the last 2 months, a Qattusha rocket arms cache had been found and there had been firing on the Iranian side. The memorial to Saddams genocide at Halabja had been torched to the ground earlier that year too. I reckoned I could still have passed OK but under the circumstances a second problem and they would have thrown the book at me, I had no choice but to stop short of it and that meant that going to Sulimaniyeh was now both equally dodgy and pointless. Later I had a further short security briefing from Gary which left me similarly underwhelmed, it seemed they knew less about the situation in the Kurdish north than I did, but it did prove slightly entertaining. After explaining what would happen tommorrow and issuing me with body armour and goggles, he told me that they had had 2 similar visitors a year earlier. They turned out to be 2 secret service guys, one with 3 sets of ID and the other none at all! I remarked how quiet the city seemed and Gary laughed.

Though the security guys were cool I could tell the consular staff werent happy with me, but again I had done no wrong, they thought I didnt take the security threat seriously. Whilst I made a point of being diplomatic I wasnt going to take any crap from them either, I had my reasons for being there and no matter how much they didnt like it the word on the street contradicted their advice. On querying whether I had checked out the government travel advice website, I was able to tell them that there wasnt a single reference to Kirkuk on it, not that I had intended going there anyhow, the cops had brought me there I reminded them. For good measure I also threw in that if you did a Google search on Kurdistan you came up with nothing in digestible form for people interested in the place and if the place was ever going to become stabilised then that was what was needed. So there was the Catch 22 situation that somebody had to go there and find out about the place, somebody had to be first, and that included finding out where was safe. I told them they could expect more unexpected visitors like me, I wasnt the only traveller who had passed this way and I wasnt going to be the last. They were also obviously taken aback at where I had been, in the worst part of the city. The powers that be had obviously done a good job in putting the fear of death in them about such places, even in their armed convoys they would never go there.

They were a strange duo for what they were. Andrea the consul looked eternally tired, broken even, certainly very sad. She reminded me of what it was like to live at your work and never be away from it, as I had done most notably with the NAAFI. On her intended journey to satisfaction the career path mentality had brought her nothing but down a dead end and maybe she could see it, she seemed deeply unhappy. David the vice consul on the other hand, a young guy who had to be no more than mid 20s, still had all that to learn and was intent on trying to play a part which didnt suit him. Staring at me shiny eyed, emphasising the situation upon me as though trying to give me a ticking off, he tried to be assertive but was just a kid who wasnt going to tell me anything. It was almost laughable but then I had been his age once, he would make the same mistakes as the rest of us. Later over lunch he couldnt help but have another dig, they could have thrown the book at me and charged me a few thousand for their trouble he threatened, my impending silence meant that he thought he had me. For once I had stopped short of succinctly pointing out that I was only there at their invitation and had done no wrong, I was clearly more the diplomat than he! Later he told me that he had been on night duty in Baghdad when the Ken Bigley affair had blown up, he said he was just a mercenary who deserved everything he got.

It transpired that David would be travelling to Arbil the next day and so I was invited to join him, it made sense so I grabbed it. Though not used to having visitors there were a few cubicles for transiting guests and so I was ensconced in-house for the night. I wasnt supposed to wander anywhere without an escort but reckoned that the TV room was reasonable enough. There I found some blokes of the consular protection force, including 2 Scottish guys, one of whom Gary from Inverness was the boss.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Iraq Comments (0)

Arrested in Kirkuk


With no common language to explain anything beyond my desire to go to Sulimaniye, I was determined I wasnt leaving the bus, I didnt have any assurance who these guys were despite what their badges said. I clutched onto the bus in vain but the Sergeant wasnt having it and I was grabbed by the arm and herded towards a police pickup truck. They were especially interested in the fact that I had a camera with me, and it was a quirk of fate that I had had it out at the time the bus stopped and had just quickly stuffed it into my trouser pocket. Normally it would have been in my jacket and throughout the ensuing ordeal it was not searched once. A local boy who spoke good English had offered to help but in spite of my protest he was brushed aside. It didnt dawn on me in such terms at the time but I was under arrest.

Hustled into the back of the pickup, I was sat on my own and the cops immediately showed their piss poor professionalism. I was free to delete the 5 or 6 recently taken photos of the desert fortresses and suburbs of Kirkuk which I thought might incriminate me. Driving through the broad boulevards of Kirkuk, I saw Iraqi flags for the first time en route to the police compound, a ropey affair made of slapped together breeze blocks with barbed wire and a roof mounted machine gun. Upon entering the main building I was shown into an office where I met Adam the paymaster, a small kindly faced guy who had good English and most fortuitously was on his one 24 hour shift he had to do each week. Upon walking out towards a small building in the centre of the courtyard I was left wondering why I was being taken in this direction, it didnt seem to offer anything of significance. The Sergeant started to fiddle with his holster and the 4 escorting cops were line abreast behind me armed with AKMs. It did just cross my mind at this point that they were about to squirt my guts against the wall. In vain I looked for a way to run but the compound wall topped with barbed wire was a clear 100 yards away, I would never make it. My footsteps must have momentarily faltered but thankfully none the wiser, the cops just kept on walking and now I saw that we were headed over to another small outbuilding over the other side of the HQ. Here I was presented to the commander, a squat burly guy in civvies who you wanted to be on the right side of. So I got 20 questions to which I carefully added a little padding to the truth, he was more bothered about me taking photos and I had to go through them one by one. There were a few he was not happy with, ones showing political party name crests and another of pin sized soldiers slouched by the statue at Arbil Citadel. It was also bad patter to admit that I was headed for Iran, not flavour of the month around here but my visas would have given the game away anyway. They also wanted to go through all of my gear but did a very sloppy job of it, they never saw half of my stuff and I could have very easily still been concealing my camera or a weapon for that matter. The camera was taken off me and passed back umpteen times, it was a circus. After a while though the interrogation relaxed as it turned to politics. I explained through Adam that I was trying to investigate Kurdistan, that I was the first of many travellers who wished to see their country and with the help of the brochure Ant had given me in Dohuk I threw in the work of Diakonia for good measure. Having already established that these guys were all Kurdish it was music to their ears and so the heat was off. In turn, it revolved into a very interesting education about the resentment felt towards Turkish involvement in the present situation. Turkey favoured the small local Turkmen community who held the balance of power between the Kurdish and Arab populations in Kirkuk, and was using them to intentionally destabilise the area. The fate of Kirkuk would be the linchpin in any future Kurdish state and the last thing Turkey wanted was for the new Kurdish Autonomous Region to flourish. An election pencilled in for November 2007 would be a crucial juncture.

Another interesting aspect was Adam. He was a Sabaean Medean Christian, that is a follower of John the Baptist of whom he explained there are perhaps only 250,000 worldwide, 10,000 of whom are in Iraq. He had had to try and hide the fact for his families safety in the south but had finally fled north. Now getting the royal treatment, the TV was switched onto the BBC World Service where Michael Palin was tackling the Sahara. We all had a laugh when I explained through Adam that he was travelling through a part of Algeria known as the Triangle of Death, probably the first white man to go there in 10 years. Most pertinent! Meanwhile the news explained that Baghdad was now under a third night of curfew, 21 had been killed by a bomb in Tel Afar, and 23 had been shot in cold blood after been taken from their homes in Diyala. And it was all happening just down the road. God knows how anyone could believe that this was in their best interests.

The US Army eventually sauntered in at 3, a Captain Wolfe and 3 troopers whom I later established were of the 25th Infantry. Captain Wolfe (my own personal superhero) could only have been late twenties, Centola was a kid from New York, also Purvis the fat guy and their very brave local interpreter whose name escapes me. The third guy went back outside to sit by the M60, their Humvees parked in a circle wild west wagon train style. They had been returning from a standard patrol and had been within sight of their base when they got the call about me, they were mystified by my presence. Thinking I might have a bit more of a problem explaining myself to these guys I made it plain that I was a tourist travelling in Kurdistan and had not wanted to enter Iraq, it was the cops who had brought me there. Thankfully, the Captain readily agreed that it had been a pretty dumb thing to take me off the bus and bring me into Kirkuk "for my own safety". I had no idea where I was but they explained I was in the south, and the worst part of the city at that. For good measure some idiot playing with his weapon in the courtyard ND'd (fired his weapon accidentally), it could have gone anywhere and did little to settle my nerves. Thankfully the Yanks stood by me and insisted I was delivered to Sulimaniyeh personally by the police, despite their continued attempts to fob me off. Moaning about lack of resources, they just wanted to dump me at the local taxi garaj, not healthy for a white boy in this neighbourhood. So with 2 police pickups with roof mounted heavy machine guns and 10 heavily armed guys in balaclavas, all just for sweet little me, I was eventually ready to go when Captain Wolfe called. They had radioed my details to their HQ who had contacted the Brit consulate and said that a Brit diplomat would be visiting. Already dusk, it would mean spending the night at the police compound and despite all that had happened, the overwhelming sentiment was of boredom, I just wanted to get out of there and be left alone.

Over the course of the evening I was audience to a ragtag bunch of fat guys and kids coming and going, decked out with AKs and body armour (those not too fat to wear it!) that made up what I discovered were Kirkuk's finest (sic), the Emergency Response police. When the shit hit the fan these were the guys who were supposed to go out and deal with it. No wonder the country was a mess! Over the course of the night 2 young guys were brought in and received the full treatment from the chief and his cronies. He had shown that he was a real Jekyll and Hyde figure and was pretty quick in laying slaps and kicks into these guys before taking a big stick to them instead. It could so easily have been me. I thought they might have been curfew breakers but was later told they were robbers.

Another observation had been that the chief's office where I had spent the day was adjoining the exterior wall of the compound and would have made a really soft juicy target for any bad guys. It was plain for me to see that you could have parked a vehicle outside right up against the building, and coordinated with a lookout, taken out half of their force in one hit. Prefering the sofa, I was beckoned instead towards the chiefs grotty old U shaped bed and had to try to sleep up against that wall after one hell of a day. Staring back at me from the walls were pictures of martyred cops killed in the line of duty on the streets of Kirkuk. Thankfully the place quietened down later on, and left pretty much to myself I managed to sneak a tin of Efes from my bag I had been savouring, I had never needed one so much.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Iraq Comments (0)

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