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?”
“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.