The Long March

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.

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.

Q & A

I answer a few questions while I convalesce and prepare to join some friends in Arbil.

Some of you have been asking questions in the comments sections of this site. I will attempt to answer some of them as best I can in a quick one-off. These are questions that don’t warrant a full story or dispatch.

What was the problem with the Iridium satellite phone?
There was nothing wrong with the actual phone, as it turns out. But for some reason I couldn’t connect to the Iridium network that allowed me access to the Net. No connection, no email. And that was bad. This wasn’t Iridium’s fault, of course, but really more a connection issue between the Toughbook and the phone. Anyway, the data guys at Iridium set me up with a static IP address rather than DHCP and it’s working fine now.

Why’d you use a dumb — and offensive — metaphor about the Bataan death march?
Because I was in such a hurry to get to sleep that I got lazy and used an inappropriate metaphor, for which I apologize, especially to people who lost relatives in Bataan. What I experienced was not a death march. However, it was a forced march in that once I signed on, there was no stopping. I was physically hauled to my feet several times or pushed forward when I thought I was too far gone to continue. We climbed five or six mountains in pitch blackness, sometimes going high enough to trudge through calf-high snow. I hallucinated and became delirious. There was little water to drink and not much food. The language barrier was beyond frustration. Death march? No. But I honestly wanted to die several times.

When are you going to start reporting?
What, interviewing Kurds about their aspirations for nationhood isn’t good enough? Talking with peshmerga about their support for the war too mundane? Should I be throwing myself into the pitch of battle immediately after a 36-hour forced march (see above)? I just got here. I left a little over a week ago, and I think there’s been some decent reporting already. It’s not Associated Press inverted pyramid-style writing, but I didn’t think people wanted that on a site such as this. My reporting combines the personal, the micro and the macro. It’s not necessarily new, but it works for me.

How do the gitem control the villagers?
Well, by receiving guns and money from Ankara, they intimidate, bully, harass and sometimes torture — or just kill — the villagers they supervise. They’re local thugs used by the Turkish military to keep order in the southeast. The system reached its apogee during the 1984-1998 Turkish-PKK war, but they’re still around and terrifying the people of the region. While the emergency rule has been officially lifted, Turkey finds the gitem a valuable hammer for pounding the nail of Kurdish nationalism. (Mind you, most of the people abused by the gitem system are just simple villagers who get caught up in personal score-settling. Nice, huh?)

What the heck is chai?
It’s what people call tea in this part of the world.

Where are the pictures? And how do we know you’re really in Iraq?
Patience, patience. I’ve just sent three of the pictures — of the Orthodox Church in Mardin, at our camp in the meadow waiting to leave and a picture of J. and two peshmergas who helped us. They should be up later today, I hope. My bandwidth is extremely limited. Also, bear in mind, that the last two days weren’t exactly conducive to snap-shooting.
That’s it for now. At the moment, I can barely walk. My feet are in bad shape, but J. and I will head to Arbil tomorrow where I will hook up with some old friends and renew my contacts with the KDP and the KRG. I’ll post a full accounting of the forced march tonight in a few hours. That is, if anyone’s interested.

Back in Iraq

DUHOK, Iraqi Kurdistan — Well, that last post was quite a cliff-hanger, wasn’t it? However, after two nights and a day of walking — well, walking, marching, climbing, scrambling — from Turkey to Iraq, I can confirm that I’m safe and well in Duhok at the Jiyan Palace Hotel. The crossing was a Bataan death march. Luckily we survived. I’m exhausted. It’s 4 p.m. here in Iraq, and I need to sleep for a while. Sorry for no details on this one, but I’m just absolutely knackered.

At least I’m alive. Now, I can get to work.

Keep the comments on topic, please.

Normally, as the interim editor of Back to Iraq, I would not do this, but I’m going to put a stop to the posting of off topic comments. Who ever is posting some other journalists work in the comments section just stop. This ‘blog, Back to Iraq, is a forum for the works of Chris Allbritton. It is not a free forum for other journalists to post their work to and get free publicity. If you feel you simply must post your works to Back to Iraq, and ride on the back of Chris’ hard work, then use the Back to Iraq Discussion Forums. If you continue to clog up the comments section of articles with off topic comments your posts will be deleted. Post a link to the external article, but stop posting the entire article.

Back to Iraq — at last

TEN MILES FROM THE IRAQI BORDER — J. and I are sitting in the middle of mountain valley, protected from surveillance by scrub and rocky outcroppings. Overhead the roar and rumble of bombers echoes against the mountain walls. Every now and then, we can hear the dull thuds of exploded ordinance — over Mosul? — as the sounds of the blasts roll through the valleys and off the sheer faces surrounding us. It is overcast, which is lucky. Tonight, we will ford one of the Tigris’ tributaries and then walk two to three hours on foot — with a guide — into Iraq.

Our guide is of indeterminate age, with teeth as exposed and raw as the crags of the mountains around us. In an hour, he will take us into the village below us and then across the river into Iraq. He is a good Muslim, with the heels of his shoes folded down so he can slip them on and off easily when he enters and leaves the mosque. He is looking at me as I write this, not quite knowing what to make of me. Every now and then, he makes a phone call on his Siemens cell phone. How he gets coverage out here in the middle of nowhere, I have no idea, and J. jokes that he’s on the smuggler’s phone plan, with super extended range.

The guide, whose name I don’t know and never will know, is part of a Kurdish network that has made a cottage industry of smuggling people across the border. After meeting up with N. and U. in Diyarbakir, who said they could hook us up, we spent three days in negotiations to get us across. It has cost J. and me $3,000 each, which N. is holding for us. If anything goes wrong, and we don’t check in, N. has said he will call in the cavalry in the form of the jandamra, which would be an ironic rescue, considering the three grand went a long way toward avoiding those jandarma.

The cost is high, but we’re in a hurry. Syria has closed its borders — except for night vision goggles and Arab fighters entering Iraq with the fevered wish to blow themselves up, taking a few Americans with them. Iran has been closed for some time. Getting a visa is impossible, I’ve been told. So we have decided to take the high-cost, medium-risk route across Turkey’s heavily fortified border with Iraq. We are mad.

If we are caught, it will be bad, but not disastrous. Turkey will throw us out of the country after holding us in a shitty jail cell for a night or two. And I’ll be banned from working in Turkey forever. However, compared to the stunt pulled by Philip Robertson, a writer, who paddled across the Tigris under the cover of night after hiding out from Syria’s secret police, this scheme is the model of sanity.

We have arrived at this point through a circuitous three days. We left Diyarbakir Monday in the company of N. and U., our driver. We set out after we got our Diyarbakir district press pass, and headed for Mardin. Our plan was to head to Cizre, near the Iraqi border, stay a couple of nights, meet up with our coyotes — the smugglers — and zip across the border. It’s been a bumpy ride.

At the first jandarma checkpoint, the guards ask us where we are going, what we are doing, who are we? Mardin!, we reply, smiling and goofing. The jandarma major does neither.

“Why are you going to Mardin?” he asked.

“To see the church,” I cheerfully lied.

He finally lets us through and we hit Mardin, where we stop for lunch. And the church. It turns out that we’re being followed by the gitem, members of the network of spies and village guards the jandarma set up around southeastern Turkey during its 1984-1998 war with the PKK. The gitem get money and weapons from the Turkish government and they keep the villagers in line. You don’t want to know how.

The church is a very nice church and we ooh and ahh at the appropriate moments. N. translates for us. At any other time, I would be really impressed — and I am — but I’m also anxious to get this game going. After a couple of hours of killing time in Mardin, we leave, passing a massive propaganda message carved into the side of a mountain to the south of town. “Happy is the heart of a man who is a Turk!” it proclaims. Right in the heart of Kurdish country.

After Mardin, there’s another jandarma checkpoint. U. has told us not to be friendly, and just be cool and dismissive. I don’t think this is a good idea, but I follow his lead. We’re asked to step out of the car.

Outside this checkpoint, which is a crumbling cinderblock building that looks like it could be collapsed by a man with a truck, a plan and some concentration, there’s one of the massive camouflaged painted armored personnel carriers that the cops and jandarma use. J., being the ex-marine and a California extrovert, is immediately clambering over the vehicle while the four or five troops laugh hysterically. The major, an asiatic man with high cheekbones, asks me to sit down.

“Where are you going?” he asked. He’s already quizzed N. and U. and he’s asking me in English to see if our stories match.

“To Cizre,” I said. “I’m a journalist and want to interview the people there. I hear they’re afraid of Saddam.”

He nods and then picks up one of our party’s cell phones on the desk in front of him. Behind him, the windows of the building are shattered. Iron bars are the only thing between the outside and the inside. It’s cold, but that’s not why I’m shaking.

He makes a phone call to the Sirnak jandarma post, the regional HQ, apparently. They’re checking our press credentials. He smiles at me. “In five, ten minutes, Christopher, you go to Cizre.”

“Great!” I said, and stood up.

“You will sit down, please,” he said. I did.

The major wanted to ask me a few more questions.

“Your name is Christopher, no?”

I nodded. “Evet,” I said. Yes.

He paused to think for a moment. Then he looked at me again.

“Who is that actor, in ‘Back to the Future’? With Michael J. Fox?”

“Christopher Lloyd?”

“Yes!” he said.

I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. The last time I was here, the authority figures of the region exhibited an intense curiosity combined with the air of menace. Here, being in charge means being feared.

After I explained the plot as best I could of the three movies — you have no idea how difficult that is, even with a translator — he asked me to explain the rules of American football. So I did, again, as best I could, turning yards into meters and downs into turns. He was thoroughly confused and by the time I got to the concept of a lateral pass, he’d had enough. He called the Sirnak station again.

After a moment he turned back to me. “Bye bye,” he said and smiled.

Finally, we continued to Cizre, arriving after dark at the Hotel Onsar. Walking in, it might as well have been the Al Rashid in Baghdad. Journalists as far as the eye could see. N. and U. got a room and J. and I got one. For the next two days, we would negotiate safe passage with the coyotes to take us to the border. Finally, on Wednesday morning, we were off.

On the top of a mountain overlooking Cizre, we said our goodbyes to N. and U., and piled into another taxi with two Kurdish men who didn’t speak English. After a short taxi ride, we were put into the back of a truck with high side panels that kept people from seeing in. Our drivers motioned us to stay still and quiet, and we would slip through more jandarma checkpoints. After 45 minutes of traveling, we stopped again, and got into the original taxi. We’d dropped our gitem tail.

After another two hours through spectacular countryside, framed by majestic, snow-capped mountains on all sides, our drivers dropped us in the field and left us with the guide. We’re leaving in 15 minutes. When next I write, I should be back in Iraq.