Friday, 29 July 2011

Chapter 28: Kurds and Survey - Good Morning Kurdistan

Saturday 26th May 2001

I was awakened by the sound of car horns emanating from the street. The room was brilliantly lit by sunshine and already hot. I rose, pleasantly relieved to have finally reached my destination. My work colleague, who I had found at a swimming pool the previous evening, intercepted me in the hallway and promptly introduced me to the workings and idiosyncrasies of a Kurdish bathroom.
After a cautious shower I met him in the kitchen to reacquaint over a breakfast of flat bread and yoghurt. I sensed immediately that weight loss would be one of the many new experiences I would encounter during this visit.

He suggested I stay at the Chwa Cha Hotel; premises which were situated in Erbil that had been approved by UNDP to provide accommodation for international staff. At thirteen dollars US per night it could be an inexpensive interlude until I found rental accommodation within Ankawa itself, he recommended.

After breakfast we walked a short distance along dusty concrete streets to our office which turned out to be a regular Kurdish home positioned a few blocks away from the main UNDP offices. On the way I couldn’t help but notice that the streets had no signage and as far as I could tell no names.

On the way up to our room on the second floor my colleague led me throughout the ground floor introducing me to many of the local staff engaged on the project. I was acquainted with the messenger boy, the cleaner, the draftsperson, a secretary, a geologist, a surveyor, two engineers and the national project manager. The messenger boy, in this fossil fuel soaked country, was cooking a small pan of breakfast over a tiny portable gas stove as a woodcutter would cook his breakfast over an open wood fire in a forest.

With the introductions to the local staff dealt with I was led up stone flagged stairs to where the international staff were housed. I was overcome with pride to find my name and title already attached to the door of my office, although the faded, dusty paper suggested it had been placed there six months ago when I was first expected to arrive. After a brief greeting with the international project manager I was shown to my desk and the main briefing began in earnest.

I was told about the Oil-for-Food Programme established by the United Nations, under Security Council Resolution 986, to protect the welfare of ordinary Iraqi citizens affected by the international economic sanctions imposed in the wake of the first Gulf War. Revenue was derived for the programme by allowing Iraq to sell oil on the world market, a portion of which found its way to funding the United Nations Development Programme’s Electricity Network Rehabilitation Programme (ENRP). My colleague went on to say that UNDP/ENRP was mandated to address the need for basic humanitarian levels of electricity supply throughout the northern governorates of Iraq namely Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah (population 3.5 million). It seemed the governorates of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah were cut off from the national grid and had to rely on two hydro power stations whose generation capacity was insufficient to meet the demand, particularly during drought conditions. The governorate of Dohuk still continued to be linked to the national grid but received limited supply.

UNDP’s role in northern Iraq was unique in that it engaged a team of international consultants directly to implement ENRPs obligations which were the basis for our involvement.

My colleague then explained to me the organisational structure of UNDP/ENRP pointing out the key personnel. Gradually all the names, terms and abbreviations which I had been subjected to over the past six months became clear. Finally he added our small project to the mix, enigmatically named Z70, and its role in the overall scheme of things. We were to build mini hydro power stations in the mountains enabling small remote villages to have access to an electricity supply. 

It was explained to me that in my capacity as a cross governorate international surveyor I was responsible for training and supervising the three teams of local surveyors and draftspersons in each of the three northern governorates, to establish site control at each of the selected locations and produce data and drawings for the feasibility, design and construction of the small schemes.

As the contract was for three months on, and one month off, my next break I duly figured would be September.

Finally, as the briefing was drawing to a close my colleague offered me a warning, “but the two most important things to remember is, firstly, don’t touch the local girls and two, make sure you get a land-mine induction from UNOPS.”

I was well aware of the temptation contained in the first warning having seen an abundance of pretty jet-black haired young girls the previous night strolling the streets wearing merely T-shirts and jeans in the hot evening air. I asked what the consequences would be if the first warning was ignored.

“You could end up dead,” was the terse reply.

The second of my colleague’s warnings, I thought, needed no further explanation. 

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Chapter 27: Behind the Moustache - Kurd Country

Thursday 24th May 2001

“Hello Mr Peter,” I heard through the heavy black bakelite handpiece that I held nervously to my ear. “My name is Kak Barcode (name changed to protect identity). What time will I pick you up tomorrow morning from your hotel?” the voice was upbeat and filled with enthusiasm.

I paused to digest this new reality. I suddenly felt threatened and uncomfortable. It felt like I was being watched - like someone knew my every move. I had been travelling alone for several days up until this point through foreign lands, but now someone knew the precise moment I had entered the hotel. Who would know that I had just arrived in Baghdad and had just checked into this hotel? How did they know? The next day was Friday which I had been told was the Islamic weekend, so I was expecting a day of relaxation at the hotel preparing for my travel north on Saturday. Who was this person, I wondered?

The voice sensing my pause continued. “I am your UNDP driver, Mr Peter. I am driving you to Erbil.”

I relaxed. I was not an unsuspecting character in a spy novel after all, merely being gently enveloped into the waiting hands of UNDP operations. My journey north must somehow have been rescheduled for the following day. I tried to collect my thoughts in a tired mind.

“How about 8 o’clock?” I queried cautiously.

“Very well Mr Peter, goodnight.” The phone went dead.

Friday 25th May 2001

With the room devoid of a mini bar, telephone and TV, and in the absence of credit cards, check-out was a simple and straightforward affair. Thirty-three dollars in US currency underneath my room key on the reception desk was all that was required and I was on my way. Manuel who was back on the job, or who had been on the job all night – it was difficult to distinguish - helped me load my belongings, with as much disinterest as the previous evening, into a white Nissan Patrol which had arrived in the lane outside the hotel punctually at eight - emblazoned with UNDP insignia. Mr Barcode, donning a livery of dark blue pants and a light blue open neck shirt, greeted me warmly before ushering me into the vehicle.  He then skilfully manoeuvred the vehicle through narrow, congested streets until we reached the Tigris River. There we veered right and skirted northward along its eastern, tree-lined banks for a time before suddenly turning right again and pulling up in front of a heavy metal gate watched by a sleepy guard. The driver and guard exchanged quick pleasantries before the guard swept underneath the vehicle with a mirror attached to a long pole checking for explosive devises. When none, thankfully, were found he opened the gate and beckoned the car through. We cautiously made our way through into a courtyard before a large, rectangular, concrete building and pulled in beside a neat row of similar looking vehicles to our own.

We were welcomed into an office occupied by a middle aged man who laid casually back in a comfortable chair against the far wall speaking slowly and deliberately all the while adjusting his suit and tie in an authoritative fashion and a younger woman who sat bolt upright at her desk working and talking quickly and efficiently. She was tall, dark haired and smartly dressed.

White boards covering the walls of the office revealed the logistical juggling act that the pair engaged on a daily basis - relocating UNDP personnel within Iraq and coordinating a continuous stream of international staff and consultants moving between Amman and Northern Iraq via Baghdad. It was a ceaseless and unrelenting mix of visas, logistics and diplomacy. The James Bond analogy that I had divertingly nurtured in my mind since leaving Australia quickly evaporated as the contents of the boards revealed that my fate was being carefully planned and coordinated. I winced at my paranoia of the previous evening. Of course they knew when I arrived.

We waited on a low couch against a wall drinking strong sweet tea watching the activities of the office until our travel permits arrived. Then we were promptly bustled out of the office by the woman who appeared intent on having at least part of her weekend off and were soon back on the chaotic streets of the city on our way north to Kurdistan.

After having had a good night’s rest I was able to observe my new surroundings with renewed interest and vitality. Again I marvelled at the splendid Arabic architecture and the magnificent fountains playing gracefully in the intensifying morning heat. At one point the breathtaking turquoise tiled domes of the Shaheed Monument rose from the congestion of the city on its platform sitting in an artificial lake. The sun reflected brilliantly off the forty metre high commemoration to fallen Iraqi soldiers during the Iran-Iraq war. It resemblance to a giant egg shell cut in half and moved slightly sideways and ajar was unmistakable. I was to learn later that the inward facing domes protected an eternal flame.

My love affair with Baghdad would continue for the remainder of my time in Iraq. I always welcomed the brief encounters I had with this intriguing city on my travels to and from the north. Occasionally in the event of logistical hiccups I would be forced to spend extra nights which I would relish - spending time with colleagues at restaurants or attending private parties. I would listen with delight at the stories told by veteran expats of the exceptional times which were to be had in this magnificent city in past years. I could never recall a city in the world which I had visited where I had felt more comfortable and secure.      

We soon reached a motorway which helped us shake off the city behind us. We were stopped at a checkpoint on the outskirts and upon inspection of our travel documents the guards allowed us to pass.

I found the countryside similar to the previous day - flat with small clusters of earthen box like homes surrounded by simplistic agricultural activities and an assortment of domesticated animals. Large transmission lines occasionally draped across the landscape, appearing out of one horizon and disappearing over another, and at one point almost half an hour north of Baghdad we passed through shady plantations of date palms.

Since the warm and enthusiastic greeting outside the Hotel Petra, Kak Barcode remained mostly silent and made no attempt at conversation. I did learn that he was indeed Kurdish and was employed by the UNDP to chauffeur international staff but after that brief inquiry I allowed him to concentrate on his driving duties, which included frequent radio checks completed with methodical precision, without further interruption.

As we approached a particularly large road junction Kak Barcode’s radio conversations became more intense and we eventually veered off to our left crossing a large concrete bridge which took us to the western side of the Tigris River. My driver informed me that we were to reach our destination via Mosul, a detour that was necessary due to the vehicle shooting which occurred a few days prior. I recalled the conversation which I had overheard in the office in Amman. The reality of being in this country was dawning.   

We drove on in silence. I was adequately entertained watching this unfamiliar countryside drift by and observing the outside temperature gauge which had already climbed to well above 40 degrees Celsius.

After travelling almost one hundred and forty kilometres north of Baghdad we reached the turnoff to Tikrit. My driver broke his silence momentarily to point down the road towards the town saying, “Big Brother’s town.” I had the good fortune of learning the previous evening the meaning of Big Brother so I suspected my driver was offering a small snippet of tourist information by indicating the town was where a boyish Saddam Hussein had spent his youth.

Further up the road Kak Barcode also gestured towards oil fields in the distance with candle like towers burning off gas. It was not long after that the stench of crude oil perpetrated the air-conditioning of the vehicle.

Finally by mid-afternoon we reached the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, stopping to rest. My driver purchased a couple of bottles of soda and some candy, which resembled Turkish delight, from a street vendor. I decided to try it knowing that my stomach would soon have to adjust to this new diet regardless off the repercussions.

After a further hour of travelling east from Mosul we came across a long, metal bridge crossing the Greater Zab River - a youthful looking tributary of the Tigris River springing high in the mountains of southern Turkey and draining across Kurdistan into Iraq. We stopped before a dusty guard house made simply of concrete blocks stacked one upon the other topped by a concrete slab pertaining to be a roof. Several Kalashnikovs leant against the outside walls. Our travel documents barely aroused any interest from the two guards who were numbed by the heat sitting inside.

Crossing the bridge brought us into the northern Iraqi autonomous region known as Kurdistan, and the driver sensing that he was nearing home drove with more conviction and urgency quickly losing patience with all the battered cars, mangy dogs, donkeys and dilapidated trucks cluttering the road.

Then after almost seven hours since leaving Baghdad we topped a small hill and I had my first glimpse of the dusty plains city of Erbil baking in the hot sun in the distance. It straddled the ancient raised citadel like onion rings with the small Assyrian town of Ankawa sitting like a moon orbiting its planet just to the north. Scattered throughout Ankawa I could see the light blue flags of the United Nations fluttering lazily in the hot afternoon breeze. Mountain ranges straddling the Turkish – Kurdistan border stood guard in the haze behind. I was suddenly compelled into thinking that I was joining the throngs of other travellers and traders that had come before me over the many thousands of years, thankful to lay weary eyes on this city offering rest and nourishment after their long tiresome journeys.

As I gazed at the vista stretching before me I realised this would be an adventure like no other. It was certainly not one that could be purchased in a travel agent’s office - there was not a tourist to be found. This politically and geographically isolated outpost was to become my home for an undefined period of my life. This strange far away land with its intriguing inhabitants was to become intimately entwined into the fabric of my life. What lay ahead I could not possibly imagine.

Kak Barcode waved a hand across the dashboard of the car. “Erbil,” he announced proudly before we began our long decent.