Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Chapter 34: Wintering in Kurdistan

I slipped through the border on the 30th November 2001. I had made it back in with just one day to spare. My visa could now be renewed.

A wintering Erbil could not have been in more stark contrast to the hot, sun-baked city which I had left. The faultlessly blue sky was now concealed behind a heavy layer of low sullen clouds stretching to each horizon. The sharp chill in the air suggested snow on the mountain ranges to the north. By the time I arrived in the late afternoon the city looked gloomy, muddy and depressing.

My reception at UNDP was equally transformed. I learnt that during my absence the Iraqi government had turned against the Z70 project and wanted it disbanded. After all they did have the final diplomatic say over how their siphoned (legal) oil revenues were spent in the north.

Line of oil tankers waiting customs clearance into Turkey
Some didn't make It
I walked the short distance through darkening streets to our project’s headquarters. The local staff were preparing to leave for the night. The welcome which they offered was overshadowed by concerns for their own futures. Without making comment I could tell they were fully conversed with the government’s change of heart.

Their brief of the past two months told me that they persevered with data collection and drawing production as best they could  but without international leadership and the deteriorating support from Baghdad they had finally lost their way and solely turned up for work each day waiting for the return of an international to the project. Dealing with my own gathering demons I bid them goodnight.

The project house fell dark and silent as they left so I ventured upstairs. The sight of my hurriedly abandoned office dropped my spirits further. Standing in the dimly lit room looking at the deserted shambles of what once was the thriving hub of the project it became clear what my predicament had become.

For some unknown reason I retreated to the toilet. Possibly seeking comfort from the small space. The cold seeped through the non-insulated concrete walls making me feel vulnerable and exposed. The sounds coming from the street appeared strange and unfamiliar. I had to make a choice.

My decision was essentially simple as there were only two options available to me. One choice was easy. Simply go back home and resume my life there. A life filled with security, familiarity, comfort and support. The other was to stay; a terrifying prospect of uncertainty, insecurity, loneliness, isolation and now cold; a scenario which would place me completely outside my comfort zone.

Sitting on the porcelain bowl in the small upstairs toilet I pondered my position deliberately and thoroughly for some time. Then I drew in a deep breath and made my decision. I would stay.


Initially I moved back into the Chwa Cha hotel. The rooms were small and could be heated to an acceptable degree. I soon discovered that many of the internationals were heading out for Christmas so there were plenty of options for house sitting to be had.

My second task was to restore my office to a functioning state and to catch up on what the national staff had been doing in my absence. With no other international staff working on the project I appointed myself acting project manager.

It was suggested to me the possibility of the project continuing adopting different methods of small stream power generation. With the project reinvented somewhat to appease the Iraqi government I engaged the respective international consultants and the national staff happily busied themselves with their new tasks. The project regained its soul.    

Forays into the hills proved my suspicion regarding the snow. The mountains were spectacularly draped in a white mantle providing many splendid and spectacular vistas. Snowfalls in Sulaymaniyah were quite common and snow almost fell in Erbil on one occasion.

Winters morning - Soran
As Christmas approached and the international population dwindled I moved back to Ankawa into a house generously offered to me by a departing colleague. However, I soon realised that the quest to keep warm would become a continuous occupation. The concrete and stone houses were without any form of insulation. A meagre power supply discounted any form of substantial electrical heating so in the tradition fitting of an oil rich state the most common form of heating were portable oil heaters which were hopelessly inadequate against the intensity of the cold and really only successfully achieved filling the rooms with a nauseous smoky smell.

Showers I soon discovered were to became a minimalist endeavour as the copious amounts of hot water which gushed effortlessly from both the hot AND cold taps during the summer months was now reduced to total dependency on the temperamental whims of mangled and twisted gas bottles which would regularly run out as soon as shampoo lather was in the hair. This meant a freezing journey outside the house covered in just a towel to change the bottles and if no more filled bottles were to be found then the day ended right there and it was off to bed to sulk.

Following the leader through a mine-Field
Mines in there Somewhere
Christmas was spent with the remaining handful of internationals at the UN club and New Year’s Eve was spent with the same handful of people at the same location. Bonds were formed by circumstance. The best way to keep thinking of home over this period was to work.

Finally internationals trickled back in and life returned to the north. Once my house sittings duties were fulfilled I decided to return to the Chwa Cha for the remaining weeks of my three month term. When/if I returned after my break it would be spring and the weather would have warmed sufficiently to consider renting a house again.
Curiously, although nothing was ever said directly to me by the international staff I knew my plight since the 9/11 attacks had not gone unnoticed. People kept the knowledge of my transfer of employment to the UN respectively to themselves. But they all knew that as a result of the chaos which prevailed in the final months of 2001 I had successfully, although mostly unintentionally, eliminated the “middle man”. It was an accepted fact in the close-knit, isolated community that my finances had improved considerably if only for the short term.

Delal bridge - Zakho in Winter
The nearest I had to having this pointed out to me was at a private dinner party held in Sulaymaniyah shortly before I headed out on leave. A co-patriot leant towards me and uttered drolly. “You’d be sending Osama Bin Laden Christmas cards wouldn’t you?”

I smiled as I grasped the meaning of this unexpected quip. “If I had his address,” I replied whimsically, “I most certainly would.”

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