The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq given the security situation. Travel within Iraq remains dangerous. This Travel Warning replaces the Travel Warning dated January 19, 2012, to update information on security incidents and to remind U.S. citizens of ongoing security concerns for U.S. citizens in Iraq, including kidnapping and terrorist violence. The United States completed its withdrawal of military forces from Iraq as of December 31, 2011. The ability of the Embassy to respond to situations where U.S. citizens face difficulty, including arrests, is extremely limited.
If you follow the international news you’ll know that Iraq is still being torn apart by sectarian violence more than a year after the US Army and its allies pulled out of the country. The coalition forces have brought some kind of democracy to the place but they failed to put an end to the mass slaughter which is indiscriminately laying waste to the population. The Angel of Death works overtime in this land, visiting pain on household after household. And a spirit of enmity continues to divide religious sects and ethnic groups. Unsurprisingly emotions are strongest in the oil-rich areas.
That being said I can say with hand on heart that the Kurdish-majority northern part of Iraq felt to me as safe as anywhere else I’ve been. Several times I roamed freely on my own without feeling threatened at all. In all honesty I have felt more at risk in parts of New York or London than I did in downtown Sulaymaniyah. When I walked in the bazaar the locals barely paid any attention to me even though I was the only white face in the crowd. And when they did interact with me they were invariably charming and friendly.
Perhaps I am a little reckless. Or just stupid. My friend Ciprian, who has been living there for around three months now, was more nervous about me going out on my own than I was. He advised me not to take taxis on my own, fearing I’d be an easy target for kidnappers. One time I told him I was going outside to take some photos but when he saw me fish my brand new Canon EOS 550D out of my bag an ashen look came over him. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ he said, ‘it’ll attract too much attention.’ Nonetheless I ventured into the thronging bazaar shooting away with my DSLR and all I got by way of a reaction was a friendly salute from this kid.
However, I do not wish to deny the disturbances which do sometimes take place in Sulaymaniyah. In March of last year an American teacher was shot dead in front of his class by one of his students. The reason for his horrific fate may be that he was an outspoken Christian. At an international church which congregates in a rented room of a shopping mall I spoke to several people who knew him. They all agreed that this teacher had been too forward in his attempts to evangelise the Kurdish people, who are predominantly Muslim. The student who shot him had not responded well to having his worldview challenged. Exposure to Christian teaching left him confused – some days he embraced it eagerly, other days he reacted angrily to it.
There was also a consensus in the international church that the American teacher had been an extremely kind-hearted and approachable individual. Even Kak Amanj knew him and claimed that he was a close friend.
Such shootings are relatively rare in Sulaymaniyah. But, as I said in my previous post, political demonstrations are common and sometimes things can get ugly. If you want to read about some of these protests from the perspective of a Kurdish blogger who has been under fire from the government’s riot squads I recommend you check out The Moving Silent.
I had arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan at around 5am on Saturday, the 12th of January 2013. And after a bumpy ride from the airport in Kak Amanj’s battered car we arrived at Ciprian’s dorm. His living conditions are Spartan, like a cell in a hermitage or something. A stripped-down type of life. There is no inbuilt heating and Ciprian hates the smell of the bulky kerosene heaters which are normally used to heat interiors in Sulaymaniyah, not to mention the twofold danger of fire and carbon-monoxide poisoning which they pose. So he instead uses a small electric fan-heater. The only problem with that is the power-cuts which happen several times daily. You see, Sulaymaniyah’s power-grid was not built to handle modern-day levels of electricity consumption. As wealth grows in the city more and more people can afford to run air-conditioning and other power-hungry appliances and the electrical system can’t cope. Most businesses have back-up generators, and their insistent humming is part of the sonic background of the city. Some shrewd entrepreneurs have bought large generators and earn a tidy profit from providing back-up power to residential neighbourhoods for a fee.
Ciprian says he can handle the primitive conditions of the dorm. Having spent his childhood in communist-era Romania when food and other basic necessities were in short supply he is familiar with extreme deprivation. But one thing he can’t stand is the cold. Even with the electric heater on he goes to bed nearly fully clothed and still complains that he’s not warm enough. It doesn’t help that his balcony door doesn’t close properly and is only secured with an elastic band tied to the bunk-bed. One night there was a sandstorm raging outside and this door was constantly being yanked open by the fierce wind. Funnily enough I didn’t feel cold at all in the room. I guess all those bitter winters I spent in Beijing count for something.
Ciprian’s neighbour, a slightly eccentric maths teacher called Kak Salim, was pleased to see his Romanian friend. ‘I thought you were never coming back!’ he exclaimed. (Ciprian had been traveling around Europe for a month or so, visiting his scattered family and doing musical performances). Kak Salim welcomed us with a plateful of dried figs, raisins and assorted nuts which had apparently come from Iran. Then he went back to his room to Skype his fiancée.
We also met the guy who was Ciprian’s roommate when he first arrived in the dorm, before he moved into a room of his own. I don’t recall his name but he was a Catholic from Mosul, a city about four hours drive north of Sulaymaniyah. Mosul is said to be a hub of al-Qaeda activity and is regularly buffeted by violence. The city’s Christians in particular are being forced out by targeted attacks. Just three days before I arrived in the country a Chaldean Christian teacher had her throat cut in Mosul and the following day a car bomb claimed the life of a Christian final-year medical student.
Ciprian’s ex-roommate is doing a PhD in family medicine. The ongoing violence in Mosul made it impossible for him to complete his course there. So, to pursue an uninterrupted education and to escape the brutal attacks on Christians in his hometown, he moved to the comparatively peaceful Sulaymaniyah where, amazingly, schools were only stopped once during the Iraq War. He is now in his final year of study and when he finishes he will apply for refugee status and move to the USA. His sisters are already living over there.
The three of us sat down to a simple breakfast in Ciprian’s room – freshly baked naan, cream cheese, jam, a salty yoghurt drink called ayran, and mandarins.
Then we hit the bazaar – Ciprian and myself – to drink sweet cardamom tea and buy a guitar. I would frequent the bazaar in the coming days after developing a strong attachment to the sweet tea, savouring its delectable comfort on cold mornings. The teashop owners for the most part were exceptionally friendly and sometimes would refuse to accept payment from us for the tea.
As I already said I never once felt in danger when walking around the bazaar. Strangely I didn’t even feel out of place there. Although I was the only white person around I was barely conscious of my foreignness. People mostly paid me no attention. I was not overwhelmed by hawkers or dogged by pickpockets. I was not trailed by beggars. And the shopkeepers didn’t try to exploit my lack of local knowledge by charging me over the odds for things.
One time when I was looking for my sweet-tea fix a shop-owner hailed me over and struck up conversation with me. ‘Sprechen sie deutsche?’ he enquired.
I told him I couldn’t speak German.
I shook my head: ‘Inglise.’
‘Pity, my English is not so good.’
But his English was good enough for basic conversation. He told me he lived in Nuremburg, Germany as a refugee for about a decade. I asked him if he liked it there. He shook his head. ‘Too many racists.’
I experienced many variations of this conversation during my time in Iraqi Kurdistan. Pretty much everyone I met there had lived for some time in Europe or America. It’s only really since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the Baathist government that the Kurds have been able to feel safe in their homeland.
This caused me to re-examine my own views on the Iraq War. I have always been a pacifist and was staunchly opposed to the deployment of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have long felt that foreign wars are a counter-productive way to combat terrorism. And yet I cannot deny that the US-led invasion of Iraq was, for the Kurdish people at least, a good thing insofar as it took Saddam out of the picture.
Saddam was a ruthless dictator who sought to impose Arabic culture on the Kurdish region of Iraq. When the Kurds resisted this process of ‘Arabization’ he implemented Operation Anfal, a long, bloody campaign to wipe them and their culture off the map. I will come back to Anfal in a later post but for now suffice to say that Kurdish life was cheap under this reign of terror. Hundreds of thousands were killed and many more displaced. But ever since American troops spearheaded the overthrow of Saddam and the Baathists the fortunes of the Kurdish people have changed dramatically. Their cities are, for the most part, thriving; their markets are buzzing with activity; their children play freely in the streets; their villages have been rebuilt; their culture and language is intact; and hope is alive and well.
Whatever ulterior motives the allied forces may have had for entering Iraq – and I’m still convinced oil was the main motivator rather than empathy for suffering civilians – I’m glad that their actions at least gave the Iraqi Kurds the chance to live at peace in their homeland.
In the evening Ciprian and I went to the Saturday service at the international church. The congregation was small but several nationalities were represented. I spoke to a Swiss man who had come to Kurdistan with his family to do business and a Mexican businessman who had likewise come with his family. Because of the lack of international schools the children of these families were being home-schooled.
There was also a bunch of American girls in their early twenties. They had come to Kurdistan as volunteers with humanitarian organisations to teach English. They too said they feel perfectly safe walking around in Sulaymaniyah. One of them had started out teaching in a village out in the mountains surrounding the city.
There were only two Kurdish guys at the church. One – Kak Saber – gave me his business card and said he worked for the International Bible Society. He was also a freelance journalist for various Kurdish newspapers. The other was a softly-spoken young guy with long hair and a Michael Jackson T-shirt. His name was Kak Shorsh. He couldn’t speak much English but he was pleased to see Ciprian. I learned later that this guy had lost both of his parents. In fact there wasn’t much left of his family at all. I’m not sure what his day-job is but, according to Ciprian, he is a gifted preacher.
After church Kak Shorsh took a taxi with Ciprian and myself because he lives near the dorm. He could barely speak a word of English and Ciprian’s Kurdish is very limited so there wasn’t much verbal communication between us. But this Kak Shorsh radiated some kind of inner peace which baffled me. His family had been wiped out – decimated. But if he harboured any bitterness there was no sign of it.
Back at the dorm Kak Amanj invited me to eat popcorn with him. In no time he had a saucepan rattling on the stove in the communal kitchen. A guy from the Turkish part of Kurdistan came in and I greeted him with the Arabic phrase which is always used in Iraqi Kurdistan: ‘Salaam alaikum’ (peace be upon you). But he laughed and said ‘I’m not an Arab! Don’t speak Arabic to me, I hate it.’
The following day I would visit an old prison where the Baathists detained and tortured their political opponents. And later in the week I would talk to a class of high-school students and take the bus to the ancient city of Erbil which is crowned with an 8,000-year-old citadel.
More posts on Iraqi Kurdistan coming soon.