Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Chapter 35: The Walk to a "Village-too-Far"

Finding something to do on the Friday (weekend) always remained a challenge. In a world completely devoid of cinemas, shopping malls, bars, fine dining, cafes, bookshops, sporting facilities, franchises and live entertainment the emphasis was on the individual to create ways to pass the hours on those quiet, dreamy afternoons.

The task was much simpler during the hot summer months when the pool attracted an easy patronage of water revellers. But that source of entertainment abruptly ceased with the advent of winter. The only other sources of entertainment, apart from returning to work, were the UN club or joining a group of predominately my co-patriots on long walks into the surrounding countryside.

At precisely 1pm a half dozen or so people gathered outside the UNDP headquarters, and armed with bottles of water promptly set foot through the streets towards the outskirts of Ankawa. The pace was brisk and I knew from the outset that these guys meant business. I silently assessed my physical condition to gauge my preparedness for such an endurance episode. I drew some reassurance from the fact that some members of the walking party were a little older although I was wary of false hope.

Once away from the streets of the town we emerged onto dirt tracks weaving through open fields and past solitary farm houses. The bare earth laid cold and dormant in readiness for next season’s wheat crop.

As we marched in a steady rhythm across the fields I became aware of the peace and tranquillity of the space, away from honking horns and belching exhaust pipes. Some of the group walked in clusters talking and sharing jokes and others moved ahead or behind preferring to walk in solitary thought. At the much slower pace than in a vehicle I found I could absorb and enjoy the spectacular vistas of the distant mountains, the hills and the far off metropolis of Erbil.

Occasionally we would pass through a small village and the children, with scampering chickens afoot, would swoop out to greet us. One member of our group would take their digital pictures and (as I found out the following week) distribute hard copies to each of them next time we passed.

Suddenly after about one hour at no particular location it was announced that we turn and head back. I noted at this point a large village far off in the distance but relieved that the trek had reached its half way mark I made no comment.

Arriving back in Ankawa I was already looking forward to the following Friday even though the rigours of the first walk were still very much apparent. I had inadvertently stumbled upon desirable companionship and good country exercise encompassing all the therapeutic benefits of placidity.

This Friday activity for me quickly turned into a ritual. The number of participants would swell and ebb as word of this alternate activity spread throughout the community and people joined and left our procession for whatever their reason but I noticed a core group of hardened walkers remained.

As the weeks past I discovered another enjoyable source of entertainment. With each week that transpired the fields across which we walked gradually transformed as the wheat crop was sown and finally the brown/grey earth became tinged with green as the succulent shoots poked through the clods of soil and reached for the sky. As the weather warmed the wheat grew higher until we were walking through a lush ocean of green. Then as the heat intensified the fields turned golden until finally we witnessed the harvesters combing the land to collect the precious yield.

With the coming of the hot summer months the walk became more and more gruelling. Water became a critical component of the endeavour. The number of bottles of the precious liquid each had to carry increased dramatically. However as our collective fitness increased the distance we could cover in the two hours grew and I noticed our reach towards the village was extending further before we turned around.

Our pace, the distance travelled and the heat soon reached levels unacceptable to the social walker who was seeking a stroll and a chat. It was serious walking and not for the faint hearted. The pool culture was a much more attractive recreational option.

On the extremities of one walk I suggested we push ourselves further and try one day to reach the village that shimmered in the heat at the end of the road. I was greeted with a luke-warm exhausted response but in the company of die-hard expats the challenge was upheld.      

And so became the “village-too-far”; and so each week our dedicated troupe of walkers trod across scorching earth, armed with a measured amount of water, in search of our “Everest”.

Each week we would push ourselves closer to our goal before exhaustion and heat turned us around. Some would collapse and break down on the journey home, the pace too quick for their tired bodies. The drawn, sweaty faces of the company sitting on the curb outside the corner store back in Ankawa drinking cold soda reflected the defeat of the day as each withdrew into one’s own thoughts.            

Then just as we thought the challenge impossible and unattainable the weather cooled slightly as the summer months drew to a close and with the weight of water reduced and the threat of heat exhaustion eased a memorable day finally arrived when our quest was resolved. In the individual search for activity and entertainment a small band of hot and tired Friday afternoon walkers, hugging each other with jubilation, finally reached the “village-too-far”.

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.”

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Chapter 33: The Day America's Virginity was Lost

I stood in an internet cafĂ© in Krakow (Poland) watching the computer screens while I waited for a terminal to become vacant. It seemed as if everyone in the room were playing a game together. Planes were flying into tall buildings on each and every one. The room was silent except for occasional gasps. I studied the images more closely over someone’s shoulder. I was absolutely dumbfounded when I realized that it wasn’t a game but was real life footage. The world had suddenly changed.

It almost appeared significant that I should learn about such a horrific act in a town with such a horrific past.

I wandered the streets of Krakow that night watching the town’s folk milling around bars and huddled outside electrical stores watching as the aftermath of the horrendous events unfolded; like everyone around the globe that night, united in their endeavour to come to terms with something that defied comprehension.

Checking my emails back in Berlin I read that my company wanted me to return home and abandon all thought of returning to Northern Iraq. I was to return as soon as possible by the safest and most direct of means.

I had in my possession return tickets to Australia via Amman so I decided to use them. Even though the world was in shock and the people responsible identified I could see no reason for purchasing new tickets.

I continually monitored the situation in Iraq and it appeared it was business as usual. I began to feel very downcast about having my return taken from me.

This was reinforced when I happened to catch a hazy glimpse the road leading to the village of Trebil on the Jordan/Iraq border from the window of the plane on approach into Amman. My heart was un-expectantly tugged.

I was told back in Australia that no one from the company would be returning to Iraq due the sensitive new world order. My colleague was returning home and we were to get back on with our lives.

But I couldn’t. My Iraqi visa was valid for another two months, until the end of November, and while that remained valid my desire to return remained as strong as ever.

I learnt from the continuing flurry of emails to Northern Iraq that my position with the UNDP was still open but only up until my visa expired and this could only be extended from within Iraq. Once the visa expired I would be of no value and the dream would be over.

With all prospects of returning with my Australian company vanishing quickly I realised that a significant decision was looming. My only hope of returning to Northern Iraq was if I resigned my position and worked direct for the UN. This had its tempting financial advantages but no longevity security particularly with the American government talking about retaliation.

One night I saw a documentary on television about Kurdistan. (I had heard there was a television crew in the region when I was there so I was extremely interested in watching. In one scene a black shopping bag blew across the road in front of the camera. I never properly knew how much I missed the place until I saw this article of discarded rubbish.

As the deadline loomed I spoke one night with my late Father on the phone. My Dad lived his life in a very safe and secure manner, erring on the side of financial security and avoiding risks. But as I briefed him on my predicament I braced myself for an inevitable lecture on why I should remain in the comfort of my present employer. I was surprised to hear him say just one word. “Go.”

With the decision made I went and bought a plane ticket. My visa expired on the 1st December 2001. The ticket was dated Tuesday the 27th, November giving me just enough time to slip inside the border.

I still needed to receive final confirmation before travelling commenced. It came midmorning on Monday the 26th, November. The phone on my desk rang and I heard what I needed to hear.

After replacing the receiver I sat at my desk contemplating my next move. I was truly in an awkward position. I had tried to give the impression over recent weeks that I had given up on my quest to return and was falling happily back into my work but everyone around me could see I had the temperament of a caged animal. My body had returned but my mind and heart was still in Iraq. But now I was in the predicament of securing a job in Iraq and I was to leave the following day. I figured the only option I had was to throw myself at the mercy of my manager.

My manager, a veteran of overseas assignments, listened to my plea and something stirred in his soul. What he suggested that day was uniquely brilliant.

I was certain I was the only person in the world, at that time, who was taking leave to holiday in Iraq.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Chapter 32: Kurds and Survey - The Way Out

Author standing atop Erbil's Citadel
People would often ask me what the food was like in Northern Iraq, and to answer honestly I had to admit that for me it was pretty terrible. A combination of UN sanctions and lack of restaurants made the search for food, for which I was accustomed, a challenge. The UN club in Erbil produced a limited menu of barely edible greasy food and the sight of the overweight chef on one occasion with sweat dripping from the end of his nose forever dimmed my appetite at that establishment.

The supermarket in Dohuk was always a welcome sight and a cafe in Sulaymaniyah which modelled itself in a small way to a McDonalds only with a Mac instead of a Mc still fell short of producing food for a western palate.

Two weeks before my leave break I was speaking with a colleague when the subject of the limitations of local food came up. “Couldn’t you murder a Big Mac,” he quipped.

I walked away from the encounter holding his parting comment in my mind. I have never been a convert to the fast food revolution and hardly ever eaten Big Macs but the thought of eating one at that time stayed in my mind and festered. I became obsessed. It overcame all my thoughts and reasoning during the final days before my departure. I even thought through my schedule once I was out and tried to calculate where I would encounter the first McDonalds franchise. I knew there was one in Amman but I wouldn’t have time to reach it, but I was sure there was one in the airport at Berlin. There would have to be. I decided I had to wait until then to satisfy my craving. 

The days leading up to my departure were stressful. All travel arrangements during the entire four week break had to be finalised as well as the transport out to Amman. Nothing could be left to chance otherwise it would not happen.

The journey from Erbil to Amman took place in the one day. It was practical so the thought of overnighting in Baghdad was never in anyone’s mind, and in any case by then I just wanted to get out.

A UNDP vehicle transported me the five hour drive to Baghdad and set me down at the GMC depot. There, as planned, a long distance taxi was waiting for me and we were soon heading for the border. It would be another eight to nine hours before we reached Amman - if all went well.

The drive to the border was uneventful in the excellent driving conditions. The sight of Baghdad again and the retracing of my steps from three months ago when I ventured into this country gave my mind an opportunity to come to terms with my location and situation.

In the late afternoon we reached Trebil and I had a glimpse of the arches at the border crossing in the distance. Thoughts of my previous fear-filled experience at these custom offices flooded back into my mind and I approached the dusty buildings with apprehension. This time to my great relief all went routinely and at the completion of a thorough inspection of my bags we were in Jordon.

I noticed straight away the upbeat and vibrant atmosphere at the Jordanian customs. There was more energy, more commotion and I was feeling a great sense of relief at my return. We stopped and had dinner in the dining hall where I had eaten lunch three months ago. Back then I remembered approaching the food with trepidation, this time, however, I embraced it and consumed every morsel.

Once back on the road my feeling of relief and wellbeing soon turned to absolute sheer terror. As night fell the same scenario presented itself as it had on the road into Baghdad but not only were we on a much lesser standard of road (one lane in each direction) we were also contending with the continuous stream of oil trucks plying the route. The driver kept his speed and moved over into the left lane regularly to pass the much slower trucks. To my horror many of the trucks travelled without lights which meant they could not be seen coming in the other direction particularly amongst all the other lights on the road.

I was utterly petrified. There was nothing I could do except prepare for death. To add to the nightmare the traffic slowed at one point to creep around the burnt carcass of a truck which had recently crashed.

Fortunately the night sky was clear and a moon soon bathed the desert surface in a silvery light which made the detection of the rogue trucks a little easier, although the undulating nature of the terrain still obscured trucks on the other side of crests.

I have never been so glad to see the lights of a city as I did when I saw Amman’s that night. When the vehicle slowed inside the city’s limits, I breathed my first normal breath in more than three hours. By now it was after nine in the evening and I was utterly exhausted.    
The hotel seemed a different world filled with bright lights, people, bars restaurants and an efficient modern reception desk. The first thing I was asked for was my credit card. My what, I thought? My tired mind had to think for a few moments to determine where I had placed it, so many months ago.

Once I had reacquainted myself with the western protocol of checking in I reached my room and after a blissful shower slumped exhausted onto a crisp, clean bed, but with my alarm set for four the following morning to catch an early flight to Europe, my delicious slumber would unfortunately be only short lived.

Chapter 31: The President's Speech

The following is a copy of a speech given by the Iraqi President on the 16th July 2001 relating to the north. It has been included in the context of historical interest only and to provide an insight into the ongoing political and diplomatic framework underpinning life in the northern autonomous region at the time of my visit.

It must be stressed that views and opinions contained in the text are not necessarily those of the author of this blog. 

Iraqi leader says Kurdistan enjoys autonomy; talks can take place later

In the name of God, and during a magnificent celebration which was full of feelings of love, pride and pleasure; and in the presence of a number of members of the Revolution Command Council [RCC], members of the Iraq Command of the Arab Socialist Ba'th Party, and the vice-chairman and secretary of the Legislative Council of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region and heads of the council's committees, leader President Saddam Husayn, may God watch over him, was decorated with the sash of jihad for the liberation of Palestine and its crown, Jerusalem. His excellency, may God protect him, was granted the jihad shield for the same purpose.
Due to his excellency's brave, firm and principled stand and the heroic jihad role, which is full of genuine pan-Arab spirit, and proceeding from the confidence of all the people - Arabs, Kurds and minorities - in the fact that the liberation of Jerusalem and its crown, Jerusalem, can only be achieved by the lofty Arab leader Saddam Husayn, the Legislative Council in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region has decided to grant his excellency, may God support him, the shield of jihad and the sash of jihad for the liberation of Palestine and its crown, Holy Jerusalem, in order to be part of the equipment of the war the Iraqis will wage under the banner of their unique leader to expel the Zionist invaders from the land of Palestine and to purge all Arab land from their filth, God willing...
[Saddam Husayn - recording] In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate. Nay, we hurl the truth against falsehood and it knocks out its brain, and behold, falsehood doth perish! [Koranic verse]
Thank you very much, brother members of the Legislative Council of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, for honouring me with this symbolic gift, the meaning of which I can understand very well. I also believe that all honourable people can understand the significance of this gift. We started talking jokingly, but despite our joking we were serious when we said that whoever serves his people faithfully, sincerely and fairly will be rewarded. He will be rewarded in the sense that the people will love and respect him. They will also obey his decisions, which, they believe, are for the benefit of the people.
You know that the autonomous region is in a special situation now. This situation was brought about in the circumstances of the 30-state aggression, particularly during the major aggressive military chapter of 1991. It continues until now, although, in terms of the real and direct response, this abnormal situation was changed, as you know, in the jihad operations launched by the people and the armed forces in the spring of 1991.
But why did the leadership leave this situation as is until now? Was it because it was incapable of correcting something which it felt should be changed for the better, or was it for other reasons? The answer is: for other reasons.
The basic thing we seek to achieve is to serve our people from the north to the south, be they in the autonomous region or in southern Iraq, and also in western or eastern Iraq. All of Iraq is, God willing, part of the nation. Each part of this nation can preserve its peculiarities so that we can serve the entire Arab nation after that. If such a service were not supported with absolute conviction by the people, then it would not be understood correctly. We know that the people, if they lack leadership, might lose direction for some time. The people themselves create or give birth to leaders, but people without leaders cannot find the correct path, so that they cannot grasp the historic opportunity as they should. We understand this very well.
But as regards our people in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, we wanted our people to deal with the events and the circumstances in detail, with the good and the bad, so that they will later reach a conviction, the conviction that relates to their genuine choice. We understand that their choice will not be anything but a genuine Iraqi nationalist choice. This is because the state of affairs of our people in Iraq is one, be they Arab or Kurds, and under any conditions.
This state was not arranged hastily, as some other states in the world, near and far, were arranged. This arrangement was dictated by history and not by technical considerations. The Iraqis have lived on this land for thousands of years as one, regardless of the diversity in language, tradition, customs and national peculiarities. However, they all meet at the great post of the big tent, which is Iraq. This tent forms the real shield that protects them against the evils of time. At the same time, it provides the cover that protects them from the climate changes which may kill some people, and I am speaking figuratively here.
So we wanted our people to cope with life for some time away from the little annoyances created by the traffic policeman in the street, whose actions, as some people with evil intentions might say, are instigated by what they call the Baghdad regime. And also away from the soldier, who might act in such a wrong manner that his bad behaviour is said to be part of the central government's policy. Such occurrences would harm relations among the one people and also relations between the people and the leadership.
Talking about the same idea, you remember that during one of my visits to the governorate of Wasit, which was less than two years before the 30-state aggression, as I recall, I said: Leave our Kurdish people for me, away from the interference of the security and intelligence services. I do not want reports by these services. You remember that. Leave our Kurdish people for me so that we can detect the imbalance, address it, and march ahead as one people. This is our fate in this area, as predestined by Almighty God and as dictated by history over thousands of years.
However, the Mother of Battles took place. Nonetheless, we have a will that is capable of resolving any situation that befalls Iraq. You know this and all the Kurdish people know this. We wanted the status quo to remain unchanged for some time in order not to lose any one of our Kurdish people. Later on, we will discuss things at the right time and put them in perspective. Every condition entails the use of certain methods, but the most important thing is the need to develop real and deep convictions by the well-intentioned nationalistic politicians, no matter what their leanings are, and by the [Kurdish] people in general. After that, people will be guided to the right solution.
There is nothing impossible, with God's grace, in front of your leadership and people. However, this solution should be one with minimum losses. It has to be nationalistic and initiated by our [Kurdish] people. For our Kurdish people, patience should not be termed desperation, nor should it be called submission. But when it comes to the foreigner, things are different. Differences among the one people are solvable. You can bear up with them and discuss them. The ultimate result is that we are one people, Arabs and Kurds, not two. We are one Iraqi country, not two. We want our people to be free and not to submit to anyone but God .
Now, what if it was said that the three governorates - which were originally two and the third was declared after the revolution - have become a state in northern Iraq? What will happen to the Kurds? Will they start speaking Kurdish? They already speak Kurdish. Who said otherwise? Will they start writing in Kurdish? They already write in Kurdish. This situation is different from the Kurdish situation in other neighbouring countries. You know them and they know themselves. One might argue that they want to think in accordance with their own culture. Let them do that. Another might say we want bodies to represent us, look into the local interests and be closer to finding solutions or proposing them. In other words, he might say that we want central councils. They already exist. There are executive and legislative councils. Another might argue that we [the Kurdish people] want to elect our local councils on our own free will. Let them do that of their own free will. Who prevents them from doing so? One might say: we would like to establish parties. Let them do that. If they want to establish new partes, other than the existing ones, let them establish other new parties so that they can reach the result that the ailment does not lie in the large number of parties. The most important thing is that one must represent the people out of respect for one's conscience and mind, not out of fear of the stick of the people.
Be confident, brothers, that if the people who claim that they rule the Kurdish people in the autonomous region had not thought of Baghdad's intervention, they would have opted for the harshest methods in dealing with the Kurdish people. However, many figures in the autonomous area deal with the Kurdish people out of their fear that Baghdad might use their maltreatment of the Kurdish people to seize the opportunity. They do not know that we wanted the Kurdish people to go through this experience so that they can come to realize who represents them in his conscience, mind and policies.
Convey my greetings to the Kurds, whether on top of the mountains, in the plains, in Klawhasan, Galialibay, Bikhal, Dukan, Darbandikhan, Dahuk and elsewhere. Please convey my warmest greetings. Tell them that when you become fully convinced and ready to indulge in a dialogue - whether through those who you believe can represent you - as one people and one team in order to reach what we aspire to, we will be equally ready. If we become positive that that this will not happen, then we will wait and tackle things in their course and at the right time. At this stage and until a later time, we want to develop one stand, one thought and one solution that fits the Iraqis. I am not talking about the people of Basra, Ninawa, Karbala or Salah al-Din, but about the entire Iraqis. The Iraqis must be committed to this stand in the future as they adhered to their unity over thousands of years. Those who are part of a state like Iraq are much more esteemed and honoured than those who live on a tiny and humble part that calls itself a state. God greet you, brothers, thank you and God bless you.
[Unidentified member of Kurdish delegation] Very profound statements, Mr President.
[Saddam] I have not made an effort to come up with these statements because this is a permanent state inside me. This vocabulary is available to me because they are the terms in which the interests of our people as a whole can be realized.
[Member of the Kurdish delegation] Sir, if you please. The Kurdish people are the same people they have always been, apart from the traitors, the agents, who are the majority at the time being. The people of the autonomous region have the same feelings that the people in Baghdad or any Iraqi governorate have.
[Saddam] Are you sure they are the same people? Why do the people of Maysan display the feelings we see, or the people of Ninawa? Why would the people of Al-Sulaymaniyah, Arbil or Dahuk not express the feelings they should? It is not possible to invent a description for a nation that is different from their historical description. It is one nation that shares the same cultures, kings, history, glories and swords.
Only a small-minded person would abandon a big clean sea for the sake of a corner or a stagnant canal that is controlled by foreigners who can deprive him of water whenever they wish, who can starve him whenever they want, who can also determine the manner in which he should work, act and take a stand.
A great nation is tantamount to a great armour, shield and sword. It is also tantamount to a big spade and a waterwheel for agriculture as well as a great protector of life. There is no substitute for a united nation. It is possible, however, to find some distinct features.
[Member of the Kurdish delegation] They can be found among the governorates.
[Saddam] They can be found in the governorates. The governorates have their own distinct features within the local government laws. As for language, culture, poetry and prose, the revolution has had its say in that regard. Everything has become clear. Only a small group of hunters of blind worms, not vicious creatures, will benefit from a state of disarray in Iraq, God forbid. These can be present among the peoples of any nation, at any time.
[Member of the Kurdish delegation] Our people will only be pleased when the sun shines again on Kurdistan. This will happen soon, with God's will.
[Saddam] We are only urging our Kurdish people not to allow foreigners in their country, by which I mean the land of Iraq, the land of the Kurdish people and all the Arabs. Basra belongs to the Kurdish people as much as Al-Sulaymaniyah belongs to people from Al-Najaf. Expel foreigners from the autonomous region and everything will be made clearer to the Kurdish people and the political forces. Patriots will come to the right solution. The agents will take their belongings and follow the foreigners who have been expelled.
It is not wrong. It is not incitement. It is not out of line to say that every honest Kurdish person should expel every foreigner he sees from the autonomous region. They should be expelled. As for the Iraqis, whether they agree or disagree, it is their internal affair. No foreigner should be allowed to remain. The Kurdish people are harbouring foreign intelligence under various names and descriptions, of which they are aware. There must be no foreigners in the autonomous region. There are no foreigners in the other governorates in Iraq, apart from those who perform services to the people according to certain procedures. These services are carried out using Iraqi money, not these foreigners' money. We pay them money to perform certain services.
Foreigners in the autonomous region are all spies. If foreigners here are given a chance they will become spies as well, in the same way the dogs, members of UNSCOM, were spies in Iraq, in Baghdad and Al-Najaf. Members of UNSCOM acted as spies in the autonomous region as well. You know what happens to spies who are exposed. So, banish foreigners. Focus on expelling foreigners. Foreigners only go to the autonomous region aiming to deceive and play a wicked role that aims at bleeding Iraq to weaken it.
I interrupted you. Excuse me. We have not had a chance to discuss the cause of our people in the autonomous region for a long time...
[Saddam] Our Kurdish people know that at the outset of the Mother of Battles, and before the beginning of the showdown, I chose a purely Kurdish brigade to protect the presidential palace.
[Kurdish official] Yes, sir.
[Saddam] I also chose another brigade to protect the National Assembly.
[Kurdish official] Yes, sir.
[Saddam] These are the two major presidential palaces.
[Kurdish official] Yes, sir.
[Saddam] Our people should know this.
[Kurdish official] Two infantry brigades that are entirely made up of Kurds. This is the way I deal with our people. I deal openly with our people. In order to improve our people's standards, it is no longer useful to them to say this is Kurdish, that is an Arab, this is a Shi'i and that is a Sunni, or I fear that this and that is impossible. This should not be the case. He who does so wants to be a ruler. If the issue is to be a ruler, then we can become rulers just like them, and they are well known [not further identified]. I do not refer to them by name because they might become angry and our comrades do not want us to make some of them angry. We do not want to become rulers. Had we wanted to become rulers, we would have been defeated a long time ago. We are strugglers. We are in the middle of our people. If they carry a rifle we will carry the rifle with them; if they carry a shovel we will carry the shovel with them; if they ride a tractor [preceding word in English] to plough the land we will ride a tractor to plough the land; if they resist all evil in the world we will resist all evil in the world. Sometimes we are in the front and sometimes we are on the flanks, and at other times we will be where we should be. We do not have the standards of the rulers who want to spend some days in order to take a salary or to earn illegal money, illegal reputation or illegal stands.
[Kurdish official] May God grant you victory. God willing, the Kurdistan Autonomous Region will be liberated. We are your faithful soldiers.
[Saddam] The Autonomous Region is liberated. It will be liberated when the individual becomes liberated from inside. When every Kurd becomes aware of his patriotism, he will be liberated. Regarding the other procedural issues, they are very easy. We want our people in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region to have in their mind and conscience the people who are part of them and of whom they are part , and the people who seek to plunder their resources to put them in Swiss banks and live there. The Kurdish people are Iraqis and the Iraqis have a long history. So, they can use their intuition to understand the situation. So, how would it be if the situation were exposed to them? They can now understand those who are part of them and those who are like leeches that suck their blood and make investments even if they raise legitimate slogans. I would raise all the slogans that the other sides raise if they do not raise them. However, I raise them for dialogue and discussion. I see what is right and wrong in them within the framework of the one people, the one state, the one stand, the common eagerness and the one history. Slogans can show who is sincere and who is a liar. But this can only be done by action, deeds, stands and behaviour. These are the only factors that determine the final results and the points of success or failure. May God grant you success...
[Saddam] This is our approach. Someone can be a disobedient son for some time. If he wants to correct his stand, please help him do so. Rancour and revenge cannot solve the problems of the one people, but tolerance can do so. However, right is right and falsehood is falsehood...

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Chapter 30: Kurds and Survey - Erbil in Heat

UNDP-ENRP Headquarters in Ankawa
In one of my early emails home I referred to my new surroundings as having all the trappings of a surreal, late-night, B grade movie that doesn't make a scrap of sense. At the time of writing, I know doubt was still on an emotional roller-coaster ride wildly swinging through the spectrum from intense fear to sheer joy and exuberance. I was in one bizarre place and on one bizarre merry-go-round.

With the passing of the weeks, my emotions settled and I was able to analyse my environment more objectively.

Under cover market in Erbil
It still, however, remained a surreal and perplexing place. Erbil I came to discover was a low, sunburnt, dusty, dirty and noisy place. One day I did drive pass the “official” tip but the boundaries were blurred beyond recognition. Litter was everywhere throughout the city and so were small black shopping bags which blew across the landscape with careless abandon.

On one occasion when I challenged a driver for throwing rubbish out of the car window degrading the environment his reply together with a shrug was, “what is the problem, Mr Peter; it’s already stuffed?” How could I argue with that? 

With petrol and diesel at only a few US cents per litre the inhabitants could not get it through their vehicles quick enough, and in most cases accompanied with belching plumes of black smoke.

The sight of countless numbers of machine guns and several bombed and shrapnel pitted buildings reminded me that things could be turned on if necessary and quickly as well. I had an uneasy feeling that it was quite possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The bombed remains of a hotel in Erbil
The bombed remains of a hotel in Erbil
Occasionally a car bomb would arrive from the south, managing somehow to avoid detection at the checkpoint, and I did have the pleasure of hearing a couple of them go off whilst seated in my office, although in each case the damage was usually minimal.
Once I began using the “front” roads to reach the other governorates I was shocked to see tank installations to the south of the road. They may have appeared Second World War vintage but I would sometimes spend restless nights calculating how long it would take for them to cover the ten or so kilometres to Erbil.

The political significance of the region was continuously being reinforced by the sound of American and British jets flying overhead high in the sky. So high in fact they were impossible to see even through the telescope of the theodolite.

Roadworks in Ankawa
And then there was the heat. When it reached forty-five degrees I was informed by my national staff that it was to get hotter. It still had to reach fifty degrees they said. I wondered what on earth the difference was between forty-five and fifty degrees. I couldn’t imagine it getting any hotter. But it did, and I was soon to find out that there IS a difference between forty-five and fifty degrees. The heat was indescribable. Hair and clothes felt like they would ignite. They were almost too hot to touch. It was like being baked in an oven. The highest reading I saw was fifty-two degrees. For three months the temperature remained above forty degrees and I saw not a single cloud in the sky.
I also witnessed something peculiar happening in the high temperatures. Most houses had a reservoir on the roof for the cold water supply. Through this period of scorching hot days the cold water coming out of the cold tap was hotter than the water coming out of the hot tap which was heated by a gas burner.

Many internationals struggled in the searing temperatures and I knew of one instance when someone left the project due to the heat.

Bread Shop in Ankawa
A device developed in the region to combat the heat to enable sleep was a bulky, clumsy device which when connected to an electrical power source would turn a tumbler which forced air through a wet matting subsequently cooling it. But with the houses without any form of insulation, constructed entirely of glass, metal, concrete and stone, the effect of these cooling devices had limits and I found sleeping in the heat preferable to the machine’s constant rattling noise.

The hot nights encouraged alfresco dining in the front yards of the Kurdish homes surrounded by the orange trees. With entertainment limited to the UN club, dinner parties were a popular social occasion amongst the international community. At one such party I met a Mongolian woman who said that she had experienced minus fifty degrees in her homeland. Here she was subjected to plus fifty degrees. I marvelled at human adaptation and resourcefulness allowing survival through a hundred degree temperature range, the difference between water freezing and boiling.

But the true delight and joy, I discovered, of being in the region (and it was certainly not the food) was the Kurdish people themselves. My experience found them to be gentle, kind and welcoming with an extraordinary sense of humour. They would find the lighter side of any taxing situation. And to me at least they were a constant source of entertainment and amusement.

The hot summer evenings would find them sitting in front of their homes, on the pavement with their backs to the high concrete fence, panting in the heat hosing their concrete driveways with copious amounts of water. Why they did this I was never able to determine but I imagined it was to cool the concrete and possibly the air above it.

On one occasion after a long hot day of travelling I returned to Ankawa and we pulled in, expectantly, beside a group of children standing on the footpath. My window was wound down by my driver and a rapid loud exchange of words took place between him and the children with me sitting in the crossfire. I was hot, stressed and exhausted and finally my nerves snapped and I urged the driver to tell these @#*!%$ kids to #$@*&! off. Without a change in emotion or tone he switched to English and said, “Mr Peter, I would like you to meet my children.” I could only slide down in my seat with embarrassment.

On the way to the UN club one balmy evening I saw a man sitting on a chair in the middle of a vacant building block getting his hair cut complete with barbers shawl. 

A church in the Distance - Ankawa
Another time I came across a man standing on top of a fuel transporter inspecting the portals, smoking.

Boy catching a lift atop an oil Tanker
One day when I was walking back to my office from the club after lunch I came across a sight which I just could not comprehend. A man was at the top of an aluminium ladder tampering with the electrical wiring above the street. The ladder was in the middle of the road and was being held upright by several of his friends below. I could not see this ending at all well. Either the man would touch a live wire and the current running down the ladder would throw his friends away and the ladder with man atop would come crashing to the ground or a car would come around the corner startling the helpers who would scatter, again leaving the ladder and man to come crashing down. I did not wish to be involved in any of this so I continued on to my office without ever knowing the outcome.

Then there were the simple joys of sitting on the roof of a colleague’s home drinking beer and watching the sun set below the horizon in magnificent reddish splendour (made all the more brilliant following a dust storm) or just lounging beside the pool on a Friday.

But what was most surprising of all was that it was with this bizarre, surreal, quirky world with its enchanting people that I was unknowingly falling hopelessly in love.