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.

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 Salon.com 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.

Technical issues resolved

CIZRE, Turkey — Thanks to the extremely helpful folks at Iridium, the sat phone is again working. Sorry for the radio silence, but it finally ended on a hotel’s rooftop in southeastern Turkey after Ilfan, the bellhop/electrical engineer (I’m not kidding), spliced an extension cord to provide power while I alternated between cursing the cruel fates for creating satellite technology and calling Iridium and talking to either Chad, Adam or Karl. We’re on a first name basis now. Adam finally found the magic formula and we’re back up and running. Thanks also to J., who has some experience with Windows machines.
It’s now very late. Tomorrow is a big day. More reports will be forthcoming.

Diyabakir sadness

DIYARBAKIR — Sunday night in Diyarbakir is actually a lot more entertaining than it sounds. Emre has become our constant companion, translating for us, joking with us, showing us around. And while J. and I wait for our press passes, Emre decided to cheer us up by taking us to a Kurdish bar. Leading us down rickety wooden stairs, as soon as he opened the door, the zinging sounds of the saz and the wailing, eerily beautiful singing style of the musician swirled around us.

DIYARBAKIR — Sunday night in Diyarbakir is actually a lot more entertaining than it sounds. Emre has become our constant companion, translating for us, joking with us, showing us around. And while J. and I wait for our press passes, Emre decided to cheer us up by taking us to a Kurdish bar. Leading us down rickety wooden stairs, as soon as he opened the door, the zinging sounds of the saz and the wailing, eerily beautiful singing style of the musician swirled around us.
Emre and I sat and talked while J. luckily found a friend in a Kurdish engineer. While they happily discussed Diyarbakir’s building codes and earthquake preparedness, Emre told me about the music.
The singer played a saz, a lute-like 7-stringed instrument with a long neck and deep body. With the addition of electronic distortion on the sound, the strumming and picking took on a droning, trance-like sound, almost like a bull-roarer but higher pitched. A backdrop of green and red fairy lights, the Kurds’ national colors, framed him. The bar itself was low, covered in Kurdish weavings, the walls covered by muslin. Above my head hung an ancient rifle.
“As I walk over the snows…” sang the musician, and groups of young men rose to clasp hands, link arms and joined in the traditional circle dance called the halay. They jumped and stomped in complicated unison, as the performer sang of love, fun and freedom.
“This is a song of freedom,” Emre told me. It sounded sad and longing. Only the men danced and sang on this one, and some in the audience even held their lighters aloft. I giddily thought of rock and roll shows in America. On the other songs, women joined in.
Freedom for Kurds seems always to be a dream for this people, and it’s a sad one for seemingly being out of reach. There’s a wistful tone when they speak of northern Iraq, which they never call Iraqi Kurdistan, as if they can’t bring themselves to say the word for fear it will disappear in a cloud again. The Kurds of Iraq have created something wonderful the Kurds in Turkey feel, but it is a fragile thing, protected only by the United States and Britain for as long as it’s useful to them. After Saddam is gone, what then?
Turkey has massed thousands of troops on the border, and every day seems to bring new confusion from Ankara as to whether Turkey will or won’t reinforce its troops in Iraq — said to number between 3,000 and 17,000, although Mehmet, the journalist, told me 13,000.
If the Iraqi Kurds are allowed some measure of autonomy in a post-Saddam Iraq, some Kurds in Turkey worry that the Turks will move in after the Americans leave, to “preserve security” as the government says every day.
And so they sit in a smokey bar in Diyarbakir, drinking chai, surrounded by the smells and sounds of a nation without a country. Their songs of freedom are songs of mourning, both for what never was and likely will never be.

Chris is experiencing technical difficulties

Chris apologizes for the lack of updates over the past few days, but he’s been having some technical difficulties with the satphone he’s using. He is working on fixing these problems, but is having little luck so far. He is healthy and safe, though, and thanks you for your understanding.
On a lighter note I don’t guess he will give this model of satphone a very good review.
Michael

Paperwork dreariness

DIYARBAKIR — I’m reading reports that the U.S. assault is taking a week’s pause to toughen up the supply lines to the front units as they prepare to hit Baghdad. Also, everything is bogged down thanks to problems with the Fedayeen militia and other harassing Iraqi units, that Iraqi resistance is tougher than Rumsfeld & Co. expected. Maybe these reports are true, maybe they’re disinformation from the Americans in preparation of a lightning assault.

DIYARBAKIR — I’m reading reports that the U.S. assault is taking a week’s pause to toughen up the supply lines to the front units as they prepare to hit Baghdad. Also, everything is bogged down thanks to problems with the Fedayeen militia and other harassing Iraqi units, that Iraqi resistance is tougher than Rumsfeld & Co. expected. Maybe these reports are true, maybe they’re disinformation from the Americans in preparation of a lightning assault.
I do know this, however. In Diyarbakir, the IV Press Corps has ground to a halt.
This place is crawling with journos, all looking for the same thing: A way in. Until that can be procured, Diyarbakir has turned into a press town in a wartime economy. Tempers are flaring. An italian camera-woman berated the poor desk clerk at my hotel yesterday morning because something (I’m not sure what) wasn’t cleaned in the morning.
“And I asked for it to be cleaned this morning and it wasn’t!” she snapped, jabbing her finger at the clerk like it was a stiletto.
But luckily, J. and I caught up with Beth and Rita again, and this time, the conversation was much more pleasant. I also discovered that since it looks like we may be here for a few days, I need to get a Diyarbakir press credential. I had to do this last year, but the region was still under special military rule. This time, I wasn’t planning on staying more than a day and I wasn’t going to be working, so I didn’t feel there was a need. Au contraire! If we want to travel around the region south of here, which, aside from the northern half of Kuwait, may be one of the most militarized places on the planet, we need those cards. So now, I’m waiting on a letter to be faxed from a U.S. Embassy to my hotel so I can present it along with my other bona fides. Bother.
Thus, this will be but a short update. We’ll be wandering around the Old City today, although not taking pictures. Without the press cred, there’s a good chance a cop will see us and make trouble for us. While it may seem cowardly, I don’t want to risk that. It would be pretty stupid to have the Back to Iraq mission end early for a reason like that. Once the credentials are secured, however, we should be OK. Unfortunately, the waiting is the hardest part.

The Dreams of a Kurd

DIYARBAKIR — Ah, Diyarbakir. This is an ancient city, almost 4,000 years old, one of the oldest on the planet. Last time I was here, the oppression stuck to my skin like humidity in a rain forest. Armored personnel carriers roamed the streets and the cops beat the hell out of a crowd of Kurds when they came to a cemetery hoping to memorialize a democracy martyr’s death from the early 1990s.

DIYARBAKIR — Ah, Diyarbakir. This is an ancient city, almost 4,000 years old, one of the oldest on the planet. Last time I was here, the oppression stuck to my skin like humidity in a rain forest. Armored personnel carriers roamed the streets and the cops beat the hell out of a crowd of Kurds when they came to a cemetery hoping to memorialize a democracy martyr’s death from the early 1990s.
This time, however, the APCs were parked off the streets. There is a notable lack of gendarmes, Turkey’s internal security police and the primary force responsible for keeping order in the southeast for the last 15 years. The sidewalks are cracked but bustling. Merchandise — whole fish, shoes, scarves and fabrics, toys and sweets — spill out onto the sidewalks, forcing older women in headscarves and traditional dress, men in kafiyehs and the Kurds’ trademarked baggy trousers to compete for walking space with teenagers in Nike sweatshirts and young men in leather jackets trying to look tough. Or they could take their chances in the street with the taxis, zooming madly, beeping their horns in staccato blips as warnings. The cacophony is thrilling, exhilarating, and even now as I sit in my hotel room, I can hear the merchants in the bazaar calling out, the horns, the traffic, snippets of conversation that echo up the alley walls and slip into my room.
Turkey lifted the emergency rule a few months ago and the difference, to me, is dramatic. This is a city that feels newly alive.
But not so to some of the younger Kurds. Emre, a 17-year-old English student, found me as I was trying to reach the KDP’s Damascus office. Slight, with delicate features and a mustache that was shyly announcing itself, he was interested in my satellite phone. As we struck up a conversation, he took to a caravansarai — a trading post built 500 years ago by the Seljuk Turks — that now served as a tea garden. It also served as a mini-bazaar, with merchants in each corner running shops selling carpets, silver-work, scarves, kafiyehs and even old Iranian rials.
Sitting down among intricately knotted carpets exploding with color — note to self: come back and ship one of these home when you come back through — that hung from the walls and ceiling supports, Emre, J., myself and Emre’s friend, Necati, sat down to some of the ubiquitous tea.
He was against the war, of course — basically everyone in Turkey, 94 percent, is against the war — but I asked him if things were better now that emergency rule had been lifted. He said it was only a little better. I asked him if the Turks were justified in worrying about its own Kurds attempting to break off and dash for independence if the Iraqi Kurds over the border attained their own country.
“Let me answer your question with a question,” he said. “In America, there are, what, 50 states? Does the black man want his own nation? Does the brown man?”
I said no.
“And why is that?”
J. spoke up. “Because they don’t have to. They are happy being Americans.”
Emre said that was his point. “If I can speak my own language, learn Kurdish in school, listen to Kurdish music and have the same democratic rights as the people in the west [of Turkey], why would I need my own country? We want the same economic development as in the west, too, we want to be as rich as they are. If we had all this, why would Turkey’s Kurds need their own country?
“But if we can’t have that,” he warned. “Yes, I want my own country. Yes, I will want a military to protect myself.”
*Technical notes*
I’ve since found out that some donors have been getting the B2I-Dispatch hours after it’s gone up on the Web site, which is exactly backward from the way it’s supposed to be. I’m truly sorry and I apologize. I will see what I can do about that. I’ve also discovered that I grossly overestimated the bandwidth available on the sat-phone. Which means there may not be many pictures until I get back. I haven’t taken many, however, since my focus has been on traveling, but perhaps Diyarbakir would be of interest to people.
Also, I read every comment that people make on this site, as well as all emails. However, because of time, bandwidth and other considerations, I may not be able to respond to everyone. Please don’t take it personally. I really, really appreciate everyone taking the time to write, and your notes of support keep me excited about all of this.
As for donations, I also don’t often have time to thank you all personally, but I have been forwarding your email addresses (as per PayPal) to Mike for adding to the list, which he is doing. So while you might not get a personal thank-you note, you are being put on the list. And allow me now to thank you all very much for your continued support.

Journalistic pissing match

ANKARA — Today started early: 5 a.m., when the call to prayer from the nearby mosque got cranked up. Just as well, as J. and I needed to get to the Syrian Embassy by 8:30 a.m.

ANKARA — Today started early: 5 a.m., when the call to prayer from the nearby mosque got cranked up. Just as well, as J. and I needed to get to the Syrian Embassy by 8:30 a.m.
After a quick breakfast, we headed over. A stop at the bank first, where I paid the $100 fee for the visa — and the teller creepily asked me if I was going to northern Iraq. Then we stood online outside the Embassy with the many travel agents dropping off packets of their clients’ passports.
While waiting, we met Rita and Beth, two obviously in-a-hurry journalists. Beth is American and Rita is Canadian. She chatted us up while Beth fretted about getting the proper forms to fill out. They’re trying to get into northern Iraq, too.
“You guys journalists?” asked Rita, sotto voce, as we waited in front of the Embassy and staffers paced back and forth nearby.
“What makes you say that?” I answered and glanced meaningfully over my shoulder.
“We’re on a tour,” J. added.
Rita got the hint and shut up.
At the window, the woman taking our forms quizzed me about my profession. I told her I was a teacher and a writer. (Both true.)
“What kind of writer?” she pressed. “Journalist?”
Last time I went into Syria, I found it useful not to advertise my status as a journalist, as that requires a press visa and takes much longer. I didn’t want to take any chances on delays.
“No, short stories,” I fibbed. “Fiction.” (Also true, just nothing published, mainly because they suck.)
She nodded, obviously not believing me, but unwilling to make an issue of it. She told me to come back at 1:30.
Up the street, at the corner, Beth joined us. She’s a reporter for U.S. News and World Report, while Rita is a freelance photographer. Beth and I exchanged gossip, and I found out that Rita has a contact on the Syrian/Iraqi Kurdistan border who will take her party across for $1,000 per person. I wondered aloud if J. and I could get in on that action. Beth didn’t know and worried that Rita’s smuggler wouldn’t like it if she showed up with two extra guys. I’m skeptical about this, since these guys are rarely in business to limit their income.
Beth asked me who I was with and I told her Back to Iraq.com, that I was an independent journalist, had been to Iraqi Kurdistan last year and that I am one of the Web’s first war reporters. Her demeanor immediately changed and the patronizing began.
“Back to Iraq.com!” she exclaimed in mock enthusiasm. “Neat!”
It’s an attitude I’m used to from “real” journalists, one that I can usually defuse by explaining my vision and my 13 years of experience and my stints at the Associated Press and the New York Daily News. But today I didn’t feel like swapping resumes. I just smiled and said, “Yeah, actually. It is.”
After a quick spin back to the hotel and a stop to the Internet cafe down the street, we picked up my visa. No problem, as they say here. We ran into Beth and her crew again. This time she was nicer and invited us to share the ride to Diyarbakir with them. Now there was a problem. The car had to fit five people (and their gear) in a space the size of a Ford Festiva. Also, we had to be ready in 10 minutes, Beth said. That was impossible for us, so we told them we’d fly tomorrow and catch up with them in that ancient Kurdish city.
We leave at 10 a.m. Saturday for Diyarbakir and then sprint for the border at Nusaybin/Qamishli. Getting into Syria should be no problem now that I have the visa, but the border with Iraqi Kurdistan is closed, a woman in the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s Ankara office told me. J. and I are hoping we can hook up with Beth and Rita’s friend who can get us across. Thankfully, the KDP said we would be welcome — if we can get across the border. I have talked J. out of a commando-style raid across the Tigris in an inflatable raft — madness — and instead we’ll try throwing some Yankee greenbacks around. That usually helps solve problems.
If things go very well, we could be in Duhok — or possibly even Erbil — by tomorrow night.
*Parting thought*
One of the problems of this endeavor is that I’ve lost that bird’s-eye view of what’s going on. I watch BBC in my hotel room and check the Web at the Internet cafe, but with limited access, I feel like I’m missing some major context. Beth told me that a Yemeni arrested in Somalia was briefly thought to be Osama bin Laden, but that turned out to be false. (This was why she was now looking to get into northern Iraq; she needed a new story.) I’d heard nothing about this at all! Turns out this broke yesterday, she said, while I was traveling. Very frustrating. My view has shrunk from a wide-angle lens to something resembling looking through the wrong end of a telescope.