Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Ying and Yang. The Chinese notion that opposing forces will balance each other and reach a desired equilibrium. A lot of Chinese medicine works on this principle and the symbol of the black and white disk is well known. You might have seen it tattooed on the shoulder of some bint who thinks she's spiritual.

My chi has been upset of late. It has struck me that flying home to see the parents for Xmas was not the most adventurous decision I have ever taken. This little psychological thorn in my side grew larger after a few days of waving toys in front of my niece's face. My little foray into what is essentially a perfect honeymoon destination did not improve matters.

The inner feminine was taking over. I had done too much cute and sensible stuff of late and balance had to be restored. How could this be done? Simple. All I had to do was to harness the stupid in me and bring back the inner man.

Being in the Turkish part of Kurdistan I decided to void my travel insurance and go to a country that is often in the news. My 2006 Middle east Lonely Planet has a tiny, uninformative section on this country which includes a few gems such as "currently one of the most dangerous places on earth", "not safe for independent travel" and "Solo travellers: You'd have to be mad". I was off to the sunkissed paradise of Iraq. My passport was going to get the backpacker equivalent of a gang tat.

There is stupidity and then there is suicide. The fundamental difference between palying with guns and palying Russian roulette. In order to be able to show off about getting into Iraaq I had to get out alive. Hence I decided to stick to the Kurdish controlled area of Iraq which is the one place in that country that isn't a complete clusterfuck.

This was made a tad complicated by the recent Turkish commando forays and bombing runs of Iraqi Kurdistan. There had been a large bomb in Diyarbakir a week before I got here and Turkish TV news was full of scenes of the aftermath. To make things worse, the Turkish PM Erdogan had gone to Washington to see Bush and they both babbled on about terrorism. Erdogan because he probably wanted permission to enter Kurdistan in force and Bush because he hasn't got anything else to say about anything.

I spent a couple of days in Diyarbakir asking Kurds about how safe it was and, suitably reassured, I made my way to the bordertown of Silopi. The area has a border with both Iraq and Syria hence watchtowers every 200 metres for bloody miles. The closer you get tp the border the heavier the concentration of tanks and trucks. The tanks are there in case Turkey decided to have a pop and the trucks are there because of the huge amount of trade.

I crossed the border without any fuss except for the giggles of the Iraqi Kurds when I declared myself as a tourist. I went to the taxi station (the main form of intercity transport in Iraq) where I met the some Yank soldiers of some tranport Corps or another. They were a friendly bunch and quite chuffed to be in the north but conversation through razor wire can be tricky so I bid themn farewell and got into a taxi for Arbil. They were the only regular US soldiers I saw in Iraq.

Arbil is quite safe but unfortunately the road there goes via Mosul which most certainly isn't. As one Iraqi told me "You go there, you don't come back". The taxi driver had no more wish to die than me or my fellow passengers so, like most vehicles, he got off the main road just north of Mosul and started to take the backroads. This was the only time I was nervous in my little trip.

In less than 3 hours in the taxi I had already got used to that wonderful feature of Iraqi roads; the checkpoints. Mainly these were manned by regular soldiers (I presume Kurds) and these were quite chummy and all offered the same advice of sticking to Arbil and not going to Mosul or Bagdad. Near Mosul though the checkpoints were supplemented by groups of armed blokes. I was told these guys were local militia who spend their evenings at the entry of their villages now that the road there has become a major highway courtesy of the insurgency.

I was tense but mainly I was a bit saddened by these guys. What kind of fucked up world do they live in where they spend their evenings with an AK on their backs, freezing their nuts off and shining torches into strangers' faces and vehicles?

Anyways we went through several of these villages then rejoined the main road. The rest of the journey was uneventful except for when I we crossed the path of another depressing Iraqi staple; what I mentally called the mercenary traffic hold-up. We passed a convoy of large SUVs with flashing plod lights. 500 yards behind them followed a long queue of Mercs and Beamers.

These are fast cars who usually speed along the roads and overtake averyone. In this case their speed was limited by the sign on the back of the last SUV to the effect that coming within 150 metres of the SUVs would get them shot. A freaky bubble of death serving as a speeding deterrent. I wondered what genius thought that things will improve in Iraq if you have enough unregulated and unaccountable mercs who feel that it is justifiable to kill someone if they get too close?

Finally got to Arbil and then had the joy of finding a hotel in the dark as electricity is usually out at night and the streets are nearly deserted after 7. Luckily there were a few Iranian Kurds street sweepers with fantastic English to direct me to the general area and then I was again lucky to be spotted by a tailor leaving his work late who helped me out. Ahmed was to become a good pal in Arbil and the next day fed me and gave me more tea than I really like.

Arbil is safe but that does not mean travelling there is a good idea. There is no hot water or heating, electricity is sporadic and few bother to run the gennies after 9 (this is actually a good thing as they are louder than the muezzins). To boot my usual assumption that there is always a shop or restaurant open was wrong. Hence my first night in Iraqi Kurdistan was a dark, cold and hungry one.

The next day I nipped off to see Ahmed who gave me an ample breakfast and sourced some hot water for my morning coffees and then I went to see one of Arbil's few sights; the citadel. The old walled city is not really amazing but I did get to meet a few interesting characters. I ran into a bunch of American mercenaries who were not the friendliest bunch. Their interpreters were sound though and sent me off to, of all things, a French cultural outpost of sorts.

After chatting with the folk at the Arbil Centre Arthur Rimbaud I went to take some snaps of the city. I found a high spot at the South Gate and took a few piccies. The very short Iraqi soldier (mental name: Pocket Peshmerga) I salaamed might have though I was one of the mercs as he saluted me. A cigarette and assurances of my status as harmless fool relaxed me and we were joined by another chap in uniform who pointed at himself whilst repeating "Captain".

More ciggies were exchanged and I asked if I could take a Photo of them/ They accepted but Captain insisted I took it from the wasit up as he was wearing flipflops. Being consumate pros it took me about 4 seconds to coax the AK off Pocket Peshmerga for a silly poser pic.

I make Pocket Peshmerga and the Captain sound comical but in a sense they are the reason I could go to a country at war, get the stamp and leave with nothing worse than smelly clothes and greasy hair. They were both Kurdish and they are the guys who make sure Kurdistan does not sink into the barbaric chaos of the rest of Iraq. I could make a pun/point about the fact that the one area where the coalition is absent(or at least discrete) is the one place where life is more or less normal. I'll get back to this later on.

I walked around Arbil and then decided to get out. My dwindling stock of dollars, my desire for something better than a cloth wash and my angst at being away from the Turkish border made me backtrack towrds the border to the town of Dohuk.

Dohuk is a thriving trading town an hour or so from the border. It's lively and this means that people are on the streets up to 9pm. It felt quite Turkish to be honest and its only highlight was a large dam and the fact that the Iraqi Kurdistan flag was painted on the surrounding mountains. The hills around looked like prime hiking material but since these mountains were the area where the PKK hide out and the Turks bomb I decided to follow the advice of a soldier and not stray from the road.

The next day I made my way back to Zakho and had the joy of getting back into Turkey. Getting to Iraqi Kurdistan was a piece of piss but getting back involvedd no end of hassle. The military, customs and passport people all feel the need to ask shitloads of questions (usually the same bloody ones) and search absolutely everything. I was quite pleased with myself as I had sent the poser pic to mates as a backup (and to show off) and deleted it from my camera which the fuckers took 10 minutes looking at. To make things worse the taxi driver had tried to use us to smuggle ciggies. I told him to fuck off but the other passengers accepted. Of course customs caught them hence lots of shouting and disappearing round corners for bribes.

I managed to go a bit faster than others thanks to a large Central Asian stash of passport photocopies but this was in vain. I was sharing a cab with 2 Iraqis from Bagdad and the Turks were not going to let them in without a fuss. visa or no visa. Later I tried to repay the kindness Iraqis had bestowed on me by helping the couple once in Diyarbakir.

The Turkish zeal is due to the situation with their own Kurds and the PKK. This also illustrates a point about how tricky Iraq is and why Bush's ignorance is so destructive. At a glance Iraqi Kurdistan looks like the success story of the invasion. This quasi autonmous region was quite chuffed when the risk of Saddam moving back in was removed for good. They then ran the place quietly and made bloody sure the jihadis stayed out. Pats on the back all round.

However a closer look reveals the bind the Yanks have put themselves into. After 9/11 much noise was made about being with us or against us. What happens when those with you are against each other? This is the case here. Washington can't afford to destabilise the one part of Iraq that works and they can't afford to piss off their best Middle East ally after Israel. Do they annoy the Turks by refusing them permission to mount large scale ops or do they risk alienating the small part of the Iraqi population that likes them by letting Turkish troops rampage around? A classic Catch 22.

I could use my very short stint into Iraqi Kurdistan to justify adding yet another opinion on the Iraq war to the blogosphere. It's tempting but it's difficult. Difficult because in a sense I haven't been to Iraq.

I haven't been to a country ripped apart by the foolishness of men from far way. I haven't been to the horrible illustration of the notion that however bad things are they can always get worse. I haven't been to a country where the fear of a cuntish tyrant has been replaced by the equally justified fear of everyone. I haven't been to a place where hundreds of thousands have died because of an experiment in geopolitics. I haven't been to where the Anglosaxon West lost any moral highground and, possibly even worse, the perception of invincibility. I haven't been to a country that serves as a rallying cry and argument for any nutcase bent on killing for Allah. I haven't been to the country that is in the grip of one of the most pointless and stupid conflicts ever.

I apologise for the rant above but let me explain it. Usually I would look back on to what I wrote and delete a chunk of it. What usually happens is that I read what I have just typed out and let loose my inner censor on it. This little chap asks me if I want to sound like yet another armchair general. He asks me if I truly believe that I know better. He tells me it's easy to pontificate from the sidelines and with the benefit of hindsight. This little voice sounds of the killer question: "Do you think you could have done better?".

In this case the answer is Yes. If I had been in Bush's, Rumsfeld's or Btemer's undoubtedly expensive shoes I would have done better. My mates could have done better. Randdom people with a smidgeon of sense could have done better. A team of school debaters could have better. A fucking monkey using sign language could have done better.

Bush has said he will let history be the judge of the War on Iraq. History is not a sentimental judge. Utter bastards are legion amongst those we see as great. Even seriously degenerate monsters sometimes get a grudging respect for what they achieved in the long run. There is a tiresome debate about why Hitler is seen as the incarnation of evil when Stalin, who probably killed more, gets off lightly and is actually admired by some. Many arguments are put forward by I suggest a simple one. Hitler blew his brains out in a bunker whilst outside a once powerful country was being reduced to rubble. Stalin died in his bed at the helm of the world's second most powerful country.

History forgives a lot but not incompetence. A tragic fact is that suffering will be forgotten and the deaths will become just a numeral (that is once a serious bodycount is done as the Geneva convention demands). What will not be glanced over is the stunning collection of mistakes made in Iraq starting with the decision to invade in the first place. No one will give a toss whether or not the Bushies (and I include Blair in this instance) meant well. People will wonder if they were drunk when they took their idiotic decisions.

Historians of the future will probably name Iraq as a possible cause of whatever topic they are writing about. There will be a Before Iraq and an After Iraq. The Vietnam analogies will not be seen as shrill but as understatements. We haven't even begun to see the consequences of the Iraqi conflict. How America votes in November might mitigate things but only a truly exceptional being can solve the Iraqi problem.

Anyways I have now added my penny's worth on Iraq. My blog is now one of the many ill-informed rants on a horrible disaster. I however, have got the stamp to prove I went there and you may be sure I will wave it around when a drunken late night discussion doesn't go my way and I need some add some gravitas to my incoherent discourse.

Off to beg the Syrians to let me in with a quick stop in a city that, coincidentally, was quite important in a previous disastrous and misguided attempt to change the balance of power in the Middle East.

Next stop Antioch,

Take care,



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