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.

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