DUHOK, Iraqi Kurdistan — Our “travel agent” in Turkey was a bit misinformed. After contracting with the Kurdish coyotes to take us into Zakho, we were told we would cross a small river and then walk two of three kilometers to a truck that would take us to Zakho.
This was a big lie.
Our guide with the rocky teeth that we met in the alpine field was more of a baby sitter. He took us to a safe-house in a village on the Turkish-Iraqi border. We had a dinner of rice, cucumbers, tomatoes and naan, the bread served with every meal here. Soon three men showed up. Only one, a small man with a wrestler’s physique and a ready smile, gave his name: Çimli. The other two were friendly, but didn’t talk much. They shook our hands and smiled, and then talked amongst themselves for a while. No one spoke English and J. and I don’t speak Turkish or Kurmanji, the Kurdish dialect.
We waited around for about an hour, killing time by watching KurdSat recordings of popular Kurdish singers. The smugglers occupied themselves with a great deal of coming and going. Finally, we were ready to go. The five of us shouldered the packs — the smugglers refused to let us carry our own — and set out. As the smallest of the party, I got stuck carrying the food and the chai set. I was a walking tea cozy.
Once out of the safe-house, we were loaded in the back of a tractor, where J. and I laid down as flat as we could, watching the stars stream by overhead. After a short but vertebrae-bruising ride, we were let out on the side of the road. A couple of quick words and the five of us, J., myself and our three coyote guides, set off down a hill.
To our left we could plainly see the Turkish encampments about 1 km away. With a ring of lights and perched on a hillside, they looked like downed flying saucers. We hoofed it down several hills for another kilometer or so, and then came to a river — the Heyil Cayi, according to my map. The Turkish base was very close now, perhaps 500 meters away. Down underneath the bridge, two sentries were on duty.
J. pulled out his night vision goggles and handed them to Çimli, who was very impressed. He smiled at J. in the darkness, his teeth gleaming in the Turks’ flood lights. “Amrika,” he said. “Bosch!” Good.
The goggles gave us a tremendous advantage. The Turkish sentries, stupidly, were also smoking, showing us exactly where they were. From the darkness of the riverbank, even I could see the ember of their cigarettes.
Çimli started timing the sentries. When they turned their backs and started walking downstream away from the bridge, we made a run for it.
We scrambled down the riverbank, and hit the bridge. Running in a crouch, we were in full view of the base, whose inhabitants had thoughtfully lighted the whole bridge like Yankee Stadium at night. We were running through the “kill zone,” a patch of territory where it would be more than easy to pick off targets.
Halfway across, and the juice kicked in. I no longer cared if I was seen or not and broke into a full scale sprint. J. was close behind me, but even with his longer legs he couldn’t catch me. Huffing and spitting, we made it to the other side, protected by rocks. I almost took a tumble, but righted myself in the nick of time before dashing my head against a large boulder just at the end of the bridge.
All of us across, we kept a mean pace until we were well out of sight of the Turks. Finally, we rested next to a spring. Each of us drank our fill under the sky and one of our guides turned to me and J.
“Turkishiye, no problem,” he said and wiped his hands together.
“Problem yok,” I replied. No problem. It was in Turkish, but he smiled anyway.
Now the journey got rough. J. and I had naively believed N. when he said that we would cross the river and take a little two or three kilometer hike, and then there would be a truck to take us to Zakho. We had already done the 2-3 km trek and were thinking, “This isn’t so bad” when Çimli and Co. took us off trail. What followed from there were some of the most hellish hours of my life.
We had started out from the safe-house at around 9 p.m. It was now after midnight and it was pitch black. We wouldn’t stop marching and climbing until sunrise. We climbed three mountains that night, up and down. According to the altimeter in my GPS receiver, we were up around 5,500 feet at one point. And these mountains weren’t gentle slopes nor was there a flat surface on them. Each step was a gamble, hoping that I wouldn’t lose my footing and tumble down into the river we were following some 300-400 feet below. Often the “trail” wasn’t even visible, known only to Çimli and his cohorts from years traversing this terrain. My ankles ached from the twisting. My calves and quads burned. My combat boots thankfully had a good tread and didn’t slip underneath me — much — but the steel caps banged my toes painfully, ripping the nails from three of them.
We stopped once that night, for about an hour. As the walking tea cozy, it was imperative I survive, so I was pushed, hauled and lugged up a sheer cliff to a roomy cave in the side of the mountain where we had a very civilized second dinner. Çimli sang J. Lo songs and J. taught the smugglers words for the various makes of rifles. We were quickly becoming friends.
We tried to talk to them, find out how far it was to go. But the answer to “Kak kilometer Zakho?” How many kilomters to Zakho? was always the same: “Bir kilometer!” One kilometer! “One kilometer straight up?” I asked. Çimli just made an up and down motion with his hand like waves. Not encouraging.
It was getting cold now, and we walked and walked some more. The mountains in the Turkish-Iraqi border region are either one big rock with sheer faces and very few hand- and toeholds, or piles upon innumerable piles of broken, sharp shale that shift under your feet and cut at the your ankles. While my boots were high enough to protect from the cutting, they didn’t allow enough ankle rotation to walk along the mountain sides like a mountain goat. Our guides, clad in Iraqi web belts, Kurdish pants, military jacket and toting Kalishnikovs, also wore Nike and Reebok tennis shoes. Their ankles were as thick as PVC pipes. They, of course, had no problem on these slopes.
By dawn we were close to another Turkish base, and I was hallucinating. I imagined the guide in front of me was Emre, from Diyarbakir, and I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t responding to me when I called out to him. Çimli and the guys needed to get to a hiding place because I wasn’t going to make it much longer. The pace they had set was brutal. On a flat, paved surface, it would have been a brisk walk, the kind that leaves one a bit winded after half an hour. This was over unstable terrain, at night, up and down several times. And they never really stopped. And they did it carrying our packs, which weighed 30-40 pounds each. I have a great deal of respect for these guys, especially since they seem to live on mountain air, chai and cigarettes.
As light was breaking over us, we were almost to the shelter, a cluster of rocks that protected us from Turkish snipers. But we had to cross an old mining operation that had blasted an entire side of a mountain — which we had to clamber up, of course — into trillions of little pieces of shale. They just fell away in my hands, and it was like climbing a sand dune, except every grain of sand cuts through your skin. My hands will bear many scars after this.
Near the top, I gave out. I couldn’t make and begged Çimli to leave me, shoot me or something. It was not one of my finer moments. This was the one time I was glad he didn’t speak English. Instead, he hauled me up by my coat collar, pulled me up the slope and onto a road. Finally, we made it to the shelter where they dumped me behind some rocks and covered me with a camouflaged tarp so the Turks wouldn’t see me. I slept for an hour before I awoke, shivering. I drank some chai and fell back asleep until mid-morning. We would stay at that little camp until 1 p.m.
After that night, I wasn’t sure it could get worse. It did. All day and into the night we marched, never stopping for more than 10 minutes at a time. The GPS receiver didn’t work here and I suspect the U.S. was jamming the signal in the region. It still showed us in the little meadow where we thought this would be a light little adventure.
By nightfall, we were in the snows of the mountains, doggedly walking. I no longer knew anything or cared about anything except placing my feet in the footsteps of the peshmerga before me. When I could, I would reach down and grab a handful of snow to suck on, hoping for some hydration. It helped… a little.
I don’t know what time we entered the valley and finally saw Zakho in the distance, but it was before midnight. We were being handed off to two KDP peshmergas, Abdullah Karim and Sabdi. Abdullah was the younger of the two, looking a bit like Freddie Mercury in his prime. Sabdi was obviously an old warrior, with his graying red hair and fading mustache. But he was a tough old slugger. They took our packs from us. I, of course, was again the walking tea cozy.
For $200 they would take us to Duhok, which was fine with me. I was too exhausted to haggle, and in the light of the cigarette lighter by which we conducted the transaction, Ben Franklin seemed to be making faces at me.
That night, we walked until morning, through more snow, and with only another hour to sleep. I fell down where we stopped and didn’t get up until they made me.
“Mister, mister!” Abdullah hissed, poking me with his rifle. I woke up fast.
At daybreak we started out again, climbing up and down hills. Abdullah was enthusiastic and funny, making driving noises and warning us of Turkish tanks that shell the cabs on the road to Zakho. J. couldn’t understand why the Turks would do this, as we were in Iraq, a sovereign country, and the Turks were shelling civilians. At point, later in the day, we would come across an unexploded cluster mine, dropped from a plane. Also, I picked up a few pieces of Turkish shrapnel, left over from where the Turks had shelled the field. The road, which we avoided until well out of sight of the Turkish base, was pockmarked and scarred from the barrages. How did shelling Kurdish civilians and taxis enhance Turkish security? I wondered.
At one rest break, Abdullah filled us in on his view of world politics. “George Bush: Okaaaaaay!” he said, and gave a big thumbs up. Tony Blair got the same treatment. “Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condeleeza RIce,” he said, ticking off their names on his fingers. “Bosch!” But he literally held his nose and sneered when he came to the names of French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. He even found it in his heart to dis France’s ambassador to the United Nations.
He asked if J. and I had children. We didn’t but he did. He had five, he said. But then he started ticking them off again. The first one was killed by the Turks. The second by the Iranians. The third by the Syrians and the fourth by the Iraqis. For all the death Abdullah has seen personally, he seemed remarkably unbitter. But he was a full-on, “let’s roll” supporter of this war.
“Saddam, krrreeeeeek!” he said, and made a slicing motion across his throat. “Amrika, Kurdi dost!” he said, indicating the friendship that existed between the Kurds and the United States. I felt such compassion for him at the moment, I wanted to hug him. Instead, I patted his arm and nodded. “Friends,” I said. I desperately hoped I wasn’t lying to him.
After another four hours of marching, we finally made it to the taxi, which was a pickup truck driven by Abdullah. We had to go through a little military intelligence routine by a Kurd calling himself “Che Guevara.” (That’s him on the left in the attached picture. J is in the middle.) If any operational details of this trip leaked out, they would know who to pinch. I think I’m OK, since I don’t know any details.
Finally, Duhok. It was grueling journey and I can hear the bombs falling on Mosul less than 40 miles to the south. One was large enough to shake the windows of the hotel while I was writing this. I wonder if the trip over the mountains was really worth it… Tomorrow, Arbil.