Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 10)

January 1, 2011

Oh what a night! And day...

Yesterday, we arrived in a cold and rainy Dohuk. It was the only day with not perfect weather so no complaints at all… We wandered around town, which was the most uninteresting place we had been on the trip. We strolled through the market which was all around our hotel and made plans for the night. We would go to Dream City, the amusement park we had seen from the taxi and bring in the New Year doing something fun. We lounged around the room, took naps and decided to head to Dream City around 7pm. We were bored. The first time we had been bored the entire trip. We got ourselves a taxi and headed for what we had been told was the Disneyland of Iraq. Lonely Planet, which is getting more and more on my nerves, says “Dohuk’s most popular attraction is Dream City, a large amusement park/resort with a towering Ferris wheel and other thrill rides, plus a video arcade, bowling, swimming, restaurants, hotels and vacation homes. The place really gets cranking (who says “cranking” anymore??) on Thursday and Friday nights, when local women turn out in their colorful traditional dresses.” It sounded perfect. It was Friday night and New Years Eve. We were guaranteed a fun and interesting time.

We arrived at a shopping center with an amusement park behind it. It was raining. We went to go inside and discovered we needed to pay an entry fee. Not much, but enough to make us ask what rides were open. Turns out, there were no rides open, just the arcade and for 1500 Iraqi Dinar (about $1) we could go in and hang out in the arcade. We declined and decided to check out the shopping area where we thought we might find a restaurant or bar.

The shopping area turned out to be nothing more than a watered-down Walmart and uncomfortably full of people buying oversized cans of shaving cream and boxes of cereal. I decided to make the most of it and look for the Iraqi football team shirt I had been looking for since we arrived. There were football jerseys from Milan, Barcelona, Manchester United, Ajax and others, but not a single one for Iraq. When I would ask for them, people looked at me as though I asked if their mothers were prostitutes. I was just asking for a shirt. Again, I hit the same dead end and I left shirtless. We decided we had had enough and spotted Dophuks only 5-star hotel across the street and made a mad dash across the almost non-existent Friday night traffic and into the hotel. We were stopped at the entrance. I asked for he restaurant and was told it was closed for a private party. I asked if we could just have a drink and was told it was not possible. I asked where we would go and we were given an address on Nohadra Road, which he told us what “THE” place to go for pubs and clubs.

We arrived on Nohandra, and there it was, the one and only bar we saw during our entire trip. We went in and ordered beers. Not just any beer, but super yummy Lebanese beer, Almaaza. We were also told the bar would close at nine. We had one hour. And we made the most of it. We toasted and reflected and talked about the trip while ordering drink after drink before they kicked us out. And all too soon, it was closing time. Yes, we shut down the bar in Iraq at the wild hour of 21:00. There was nothing open except a restaurant and so we went, had some food, our last kebab of the trip and headed back to the hotel for some sleep.

We got to the hotel and met a group of Czech people (three guys and a girl) who were also staying there. They had met “a really cool Iraqi guy upstairs” who had invited them and us (they heard there were other foreigners in the hotel) up to his room for a New Years party. An hour later, we headed up to room 210 and found a seat on one of the twin beds. And that is how we brought in New Years, two Americans, four Czechs and an Iraqi guy named Abdul. It was a great evening. We bibded our time until midnight drinking more Lebanese beer and then it was onto the “Industrial Strength Jordanian Whiskey” which was little more than glorified paint thinner. It was then that we got on the subject of Abdul wating to go to San Diego which resulted in the following exchange between him and I:

“I am planning on going to San Diego”
“San Diego is amazing. I used to live there. And when you go to San Diego, you must go to Tijuana”
“No way, man, Mexico is too dangerous.”
“You do realize you are living in Iraq, right?"
"Yes, but I will get killed if I go to Mexico."

I thought it was funny that someone in what most of us think as one of the most dangerous countries in the world is actually scared of Mexico. I told him those incidents of horrific crimes were confined to certain areas and that Tijuana would be ok.

This morning, there was a knock at the door. It was Abdul. He had promised to go with me to the market to find an Iraqi football shirt. He said he knew where to get one and soon Preston and I were tagging along as he dragged us from store to store, basically reliving the same quest I had been on for the entire trip. Finally, we were directed to a little place on a nondescript alley of the market and found the shirt. It was about five dollars and Abdul bought it for me as a gift. And it came with matching Iraqi football team shorts!

It was soon time for Preston and I to go, so Abdul offered to drive us to the garage for a taxi to the border. We carried our luggage a few blocks to his truck and we were on our way to the taxi stand, which turned out to be just around the corner from our hotel. Abdul negotiated a price for us to the border and a few minutes later, we were speeding towards Turkey. 

Getting into Iraq was easy, calm and relaxed. Getting out was another story. To get out Iraq, you have to take a taxi to the border. When you get out of the taxi, you are bombarded by drivers to take you across the border. Suddenly our bags were being grabbed by countless people, with each person pointing in a different direction. Prices were shouted out and finally we settled on one that we felt was not only giving us the best deal, but made us feel the most secure.

From there, we had to go into the immigration office and push and shove our way to the front of the line. My 3 ½ years in India served me well and I was in front of the window in no time. It took us about thirty minutes or so to get our passports back and then we were loaded into the car and driven to the next part of the border crossing, the car inspection. We got into the line and we sat there. We sat some more. Then a little longer. Finally, we decided to go into the duty free shop to kill some time. And suddenly, there it was, the M&M’s stand. I have been craving them since arriving in Turkey and they are pretty impossible to find. And now it was like the mothership of M&M’s had landed just for me. A bag of each and I was on my way.

By the time we left, the car had reached the inspection site and everything was being unloaded and counted. Extra cartons of cigarettes out driver was trying to smuggle across the border were tossed in the bin. We passed the inspection and drove out of Iraq, across the river and then into Turkey. Now the real wait would begin.

Getting passports taken care of was no problem. What slows everything up, is that every item has to be removed from the car and scanned via an x-ray machine. This took several minutes per car, and longer for trucks. All in all, the border crossing back took us about three or so hours. Not so bad. A little while later we were on the bus to Mardin and tomorrow, we get our flight home.

I can’t believe the trip to Iraq is finished. For now…

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 9)

December 31, 2010

Last night, we had a pretty relaxing evening. We went to Pasha Café for another nargile, but they were out of fresh grapefruit so we had a normal one while watching some Jackie Chan movie in the smoky café. We had a last walk through the empty streets in the early Sulaymaniya evening, my stomach doing tiny flips thanks to too much nargile. Hard to believe that tonight is it, our last night in Iraq.

Today, we left our hotel at about 5:30 this morning and got a taxi to the garage so we could hire a car to Erbil, where we would spend New Years Eve. We decided to do this as Erbil is only a few hours from the border and the bus company office is there. We had tried to email them for information about getting across the border and for the bus schedule, but have so far received no reply, so we decided to go to their office. Our initial goal was to find a taxi that would take us to Erbil without going into Arab controlled Iraq. Yesterday, while walking around in Sulaymaniya, an Iraqi guy started talking to us and warned us not to go to Iraq. I asked him to repeat what he said since I was pretty sure I heard wrong. Again he said “Don’t go to Iraq” to which I replied “I think we are already in Iraq.” Then he said, “Don’t go to Iraq. You die. Iraq very bad” as he drew his finger across his neck which seems to be the universal sign language for death. We told him we had no intention of going to the “bad” part of Iraq and he seemed a bit happy and then went on his way.

So we got a car to Erbil and by 6am we were on our way. It was a drizzly morning and I passed the time looking out the window, snapping pictures here and there while Preston listened to music and tried to sleep. Once again we passed through Kirkuk. I was hoping we would pull into town, stop for gas and we could have a quick peek, but we drove through without the driver even tapping on the brakes.

When we approached the outskirts of Erbil, we had a thorough security check which involved opening luggage and having everything checked. They even made Preston unpack his transparent bag of toiletries and the soldier looked at the toothpaste with obvious suspicion.  I was carrying nothing more interesting than three packages of “Family Sauce” which I got hooked on the first day at Istanbul Café. Since then, I have been eating it on everything.

We arrived in Erbil and took another taxi to the office of the bus company. It was just about 8am and they were still closed. It was drizzling, so we went into the little brick security hut and called the number on the card. We were informed by a cranky man who informed me it was 8am, that the office was closed since it was Friday and he was not sure if a bus would go the next day or not and he wasn’t really sure why I was calling him and what I expected him to do. I told him this was the number on the hard and that I expected him to sort something out or give me some accurate information. I didn’t really get anywhere with him except learning that suddenly we needed to figure out a way across the border. We decided to get a taxi to Dohuk, a town quite close to the border and then figure it out from there. We were just picking up our things when there was a loud bang that to me, sounded like a small explosion and I saw that was left of the bus stand just a few meters away flying through the air in pieces. My first thought was that it had been a bomb. I didn’t see anything else and it seemed the only logical immediate reason as to the flying pieces of a bus stand.

Preston saw the whole thing and began chanting “Did you see that? Did you see that?” A car had lost control, ran off the road and through the bus stand. The bang we heard, we saw a few seconds later, was the car hitting the wall. It hit it so hard, that the car went through the wall and was half-way in the garden of the house on the other side. Then reality sunk in. We had a close call. We were just about 10 meters from the bus stand. If we had started walking 5 seconds earlier, or he had turned a micro-second earlier, we would have been killed. We stopped for a moment to take it in, then we got our things and walked to get a taxi. Again, I wanted to take pictures of the accident, but didn’t. The driver got out of the car and seemed perfectly ok. No blood, he was talking and two other guys took him into a house. We got our taxi and headed to the garage to arrange a car to Dohuk. It was only 8:30am and we already had a near-death experience. The day could only go up from there.

We arranged a shared taxi to Dohuk, were given what we thought was a fair price and soon we were off, near-death experiences behind us. I was a bit sad to be heading towards the border so soon. The trip so far had been excellent and I was and am not yet ready to return to Turkey. Again, I passed the time staring out the window, watching Iraq pass by, unaware that we had gone back into Arab-controlled Iraq.

And then I saw it. The sign of dread. The sign that read “Mosul 10 Kilometers.” Mosul was the place we had been most warned about. The one place every blog and every advisory post and every person in Iraq said we should avoid. When people mention it, they usually include words like “death”, “kidnapping”, “beheading” and several others one never wants to here in a sentence directed at them. According to Lonely Planet, “Mosul and Tal Afar was one of the last strongholds for Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other terrorist groups, making it one of the most dangerous cities on earth.” And we were driving right for it, less than 10 kilometers to go.

I was both scared and extremely excited. Preston and I had talked about wanting to go, but we knew it was impossible, absolutely out of the question, and suddenly, there we were. Mosul. We didn’t go into the heart of town, but we did skirt the edge.

It was a forbidding looking place. The whole area looked gray. Small plumes of black smoke rose here and there from what I think were trash fires. Each house and building had black flags flying and several of them had flags with faces I didn’t recognize and text I couldn’t read. I snapped a picture, but only one. I didn’t want to draw attention to us. All the warnings of kidnapping, beheadings and all the other dangers came rushing back. I wasn’t scared as much as full of adrenaline. I felt so alert and aware and alive. Maybe it sounds silly, but I wanted to stay, explore and check it out. I was ready for an adventure. But I stayed in the car, imagining myself a photojournalist, wandering the mean, angry streets of Mosul, snapping Pulitzer prize-winning photos that would ultimately land on the cover of Time or Newsweek.

We arrived at a security check which was far different than any other one we had seen previously. Until that moment, security stops ranged from a bump in the road with a soldier waving people through, to mini, toll-booth like places where cars were stopped and passports checked. The one in Mosul was a whole different animal. Heavily armed soldiers, barbed wire and blast walls lined our route through the check. Heavily armed vehicles waited at the side. We slowly crept our way through. In the middle of the checkpoint, the road bent 90 degrees to the left and there was more of the same. I was desperate to take pictures, but resisted the urge. We needed to head towards the border in about 24 hours and I wasn’t taking any chances.

We made it through the checkpoint and there was a part of me that had hoped for a bit more drama. We could at least have been taken out of the car, searched and questioned. It would have made for a better story, but we made it through safe, which is the important thing.

The drive from the checkpoint to Dohuk was beautiful and uneventful. It was somewhere between Mosul and Dohuk that we realized tomorrow is January 1. Would the border be open? We didn’t know. Should we head to Turkey immediately and get across the border? We weren’t sure. The driver called a friend of his who spoke about 3 words of English and we tried to find out if the border was open or not, but he was no help. All he heard was “border” and that meant extra fare for his friend who then kept asking u if he could take us to the border. We finally decided to put a security check to some informative use and asked a soldier at the next stop. He assured us the border will be open tomorrow and that there will be no problems. Great! Maybe. Maybe he was wrong. We decided to take our chances and stop in Dohuk.

Like the other trips, the taxis left from a designated garage and then dropped us off in what always seemed to be deserted fields or the side of some unknown road, leaving us to fend for ourselves.  The only difference in Dohuk, was that it was raining. We were left on the side of the road, not a restaurant or anything but a park nearby. The entrance of the park provided a bit of shelter from the rain, but it was on the opposite side of the park. Fortunately it was not so large and we were soon out of the rain and digging out the Lonely Planet for possible hotel tips and a map just so we knew where the heck we were.

A policeman came over and took us inside a heated hut so we could sort everything out in warmth and fifteen minutes later, we were heading to Hotel Parleman in the middle of downtown Dohuk. On the way to the hotel, we spotted an amusement park in the distance, and as I am powerless against the gravitational pull of a rollercoaster, we will be going there tonight.

What a day. And it is just noon.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Iraq Diaries (Part 8)

December 30, 2010 - Continued

We arrived at the garage where we found dozens of taxis and buses heading in various directions. As all the signs were in Arabic, we asked some people for help. I was armed with the Lonely Planet, which had the name of Halabja written in Arabic, which I assumed would be of some help. It wasn’t. The Arabic guys didn’t seem to understand. It turns out there are two towns with almost the same name. Finally we got it sorted and were soon smashed inside the minibus and on our way. A few little security stops and soon we were at the base of the mountains that separate Iraq from Iran. I am sure Preston was thinking the same thing I was, wondering when we would ever get across those mountains in into Iran, a plan we both have.
We stepped off the bus with a plan to take in the local sights. There was nothing that gave away the horrors from 1988. I tried to imagine it in my head, what it must of have been like, but it is so far beyond anything I can conjure up. Within two minutes, we were stopped by armed guards. They asked for our passports and within seconds we were being escorted somewhere. We weren’t sure as nobody spoke English. I wasn’t scared, but I was nervous. Had we done something wrong? Did we need a special permit to be there? There was nothing to do but go along with what we were told and hope it would sort itself out in a few minutes. We are crossing the border back to Turkey in two days, so as long as we make that, everything is fine.

We were led to a building now serving as an office of sorts for the military. We were escorted in and asked to sit while they found someone who could speak English. Four soldiers came in, all very friendly. They asked us where we were from and what we were doing in Halabja. We told them we were there to see the monument. They asked us if we had any plans to go into the mountains. We assured them we didn’t. They asked us again. It seems that three American tourists wandered into the mountains just a short walk away and accidentally wandered into Iran and, well, you know the rest if you follow the news at all. From what we can make out from the information we got from the soldiers is that they left either from Halabja or an area close by.

We assured them we were just there to see the monument and we would be on our way to Sulaymaniya. One of the soldiers looked through all the pictures of my camera, which at that moment only had photos of Amna Suraka and the drive to Halabja. We were told that we would have a soldier to escort us around town. I thought it was quite unnecessary and I think the other soldiers thought so as well, and within minutes we shook hands with everyone and were released. We were followed from a distance, but I am sure they had no problem keeping tabs on us as we were the only tourists in town.

We walked towards the monument and stopped for some tea and bread on the streets. Like everywhere else, the people were super friendly. Again, I tried to imagine the chaos and terror of 1988 and again it escaped me. It was the middle of the day in the center of the town and it was almost deserted. The life seemed almost vacuumed out of the place. No children played, vegetable stands stood full of vegetables but no customers. Men congregated at tea stalls and women were once again almost non-existent. After tea, we made our was slowly down the main street towards the edge of town and to the memorial.

Halabja is a little town snuggled at the base of the mountains. It is the kind of place people would probably never visit or even hear about. It might have been one of those places where things go on the way that had gone on for centuries. A place where families had known each other for longer then they could remember. And that was probably the case for Halabja until March 16, 1988, the day when Saddam’s regime dropped canisters of gas and chemical weapons on the town. Within thirty minutes, over 5,000 men, women and children were dead. We had come to this town to see the memorial and pay respect to the people that died there. Many of them dropped where they were standing. Mothers still holding their babies. Children holding hands. People in the streets, in their homes, in the garden. These are all captured in pictures by journalists who visited the area a day or two after the attack to document what remained. Many of the images are on display in the memorial. It was hard to look at them and even more difficult to imagine what they must have gone through. In the center, which is round, are names of people who were killed that day. Preston and I walked around in silence. What do say in a place like this? I wasn’t even sure what to think.

I read that there was a local couple that always wanted a son, but had only girls. After years of trying, they finally had a son. During the attack, the father tried to protect him but they both died. The picture of the father and son was turned into a sculpture. It is that sculpture which everyone passes when entering or exiting the memorial.

We decide to visit the graveyard where many of the victims are buried and a local Iraqi woman, who we met at the memorial and is studying the massacre for a university helped us arrange a taxi to take us not only to the graveyard, but back to Sulaymaniya. We arrived at the graveyard and were met by a sign that reads “Baath’s Members Are Not Allowed To Enter.”

The bodies are buried in mass graves in white marble blocks. Each one bearing almost the following inscription (misspellings not corrected): “A prayer for the 1500 bodise in this grave. These are some of the victims of that ruthless attack by chemical weapon on the city of Halabja by Saddam’s regime on 16 March 1988. May God bless them.” There are many others that are not in graves, people who survived but are still suffering from the effects of the attack. I have read that problems have also been passed to children born after the attack to parents who survived. I wish I could have talked to some of the people, but I would not have known what to ask. If I ever go back, I will stay longer and learn more.

We walked around the graveyard for about fifteen minutes before getting in the taxi for the almost silent journey back to Sulaymaniya. It was a heavy day and my mind and heart were quite overwhelmed. 

Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. We will head to Erbil and ring in 2011. I have made a friend on the Internet via our blogs and hopefully we can meet tomorrow. He is Iraqi and I am full of questions…

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Temporary End

I woke up this morning to discover that Turkey has banned Blogger and it will go into effect sometime in the next day or two. A few people have posted clips of football matches. Instead of handling the handful of sites, they are blocking the whole thing, which means I may not be able to blog here for the indefinite future. So, if there is sudden silence here, you know why...

For more information, you can read all about it here.