I hadn’t planned to cross the Turkish-Iraqi border. Our next destination after Hasankeyf is the Arab town of Mardin, close the Syrian border – I convince Yusuf hitching is the best way to get there. After being given a lift by three elders on their way to a funeral, we’re picked up by a guy called Ercan in large van. He tells us he’s on his way to Erbil in Kurdish Iraq and asks if we’d like to come with him. After thinking about this for about two minutes, we both agree “why not?”. On the road, Ercan stops at the frontier town of Silopi to go to a shop. As soon as we get out of the van, we get chatting to a group of inquisitive locals working in a bakery and they invite us to sit down for lunch with them. Such is the hospitality of this region…it doesn’t matter that they only know us for 2 minutes; they welcome us straight away and give up part of their lunch before we’re on our way. After passing miles of trucks heading to Iraq (most have to wait for a week to cross the border) and waiting a few nervous hours to see if we can get our passports stamped, we get through without any hassle and make it to the town of Zakho before sundown.There’s a different vibe here to north of the border – there are less women around and there’s a heavy military and police presence on the streets. Old peshmerga still wear traditional Kurdish clothes and pictures of Barzani can be seen everywhere. The Autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq is like a state within a state. It is relatively safe compared to the rest of the country, which has been utterly devastated by the US invasion and occupation and continues to suffer from vicious sectarian strife. The Kurdish region in the north has been the only part to benefit from the removal of the old regime. While having a coffee we’re joined by a friendly local called Azad (Kurdish for ‘freedom’). He takes the opportunity to practice his English and brings us back to his two room home to meet his six children (his wife passed away a few years ago). Azad’s parent’s were killed by Saddam’s regime but he doesn’t go into the details of it…he just says “I hate Saddam”. He then walks with us to some historic sites around the town before leaving us at a cheap hotel.
The next morning we go back to the border to find a Turkish truck driver that can bring us to Erbil. We jump at the first opportunity we find and hop in a truck going straight there but it happens to be one of the slowest vehicles on the road (loaded with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cars) and it takes most of the day getting there. Along the way the Kurdish truck driver stops and insists on buying us dinner. He drops us at the last checkpoint before the city (there are many such checkpoints from Kurdish soldiers along the way) and we get a taxi to the centre.
Erbil (Hawler in Kurdish) is dominated by the old city walls of the ancient citadel which overlooks the rest of the urban sprawl . We only scratch the surface of the rest of the city, exploring the centre and its busy streets. While enjoying shisha on our first evening, we get chatting to a local teacher/taxi driver and he takes us to his mate’s cafe. It’s owned by Adam, a businessman based in Whitechapel, London and he tells us how Erbil will be like Dubai in ten years. He’s the second person I’ve heard this from since I came here but I think it’s more an aspiration than anything based in reality. While there seem to be plenty of oil money around, this region and its rulers are bolstered by the US and heavily dependent upon it for protection. The facade of stability is a thin one; the presence of secret police and militia on the streets betrays the underlying tension of the place.
Peshmerga Militiamen on the streets of Erbil
The most common second language here, apart from Arabic, seems to be Turkish rather than English (due to the popularity of Turkish soap operas and the large Turkmen minority here). From Yusuf’s translations, I get to hear more stories from the locals about their lives. The brutality of Saddam’s regime is a common theme. Generally people seem happy with the current situation though and I don’t blame them. While ethic and religious minorities here are protected under law, the place seems much more capitalistic than Diyarbakir and the ‘freedom’ people have won here is of limited value to women (of whom we see few and speak to none) who have to deal with more religious restrictions compared to ten years ago. The Kurdish nationalism here is also of a different nature to north of the border, being more conservative and inward looking (many here we spoke to hadn’t even heard of the hunger strikes). Barzani’s regime (no doubt at the behest of the US) allows the Turkish government to bomb PKK guerrilla bases in the mountains, so if there ever was an independent Kurdistan, I think it’s safe to say it would be bitterly divided and quickly descend into civil war.
After a night and day in Erbil we decide to head back to the Turkish border and get a taxi back to the checkpoint outside the city. A helpful soldier arranges a lift for us from the cars he stops. The driver, Ibrahim, brings us to his local city of Duhok, and threats us to dinner and puts us up in a decent hotel for the night. He’s a well-off but humble, unassuming businessman who speaks five local languages and again, we feel a great deal of gratitude for Kurdish hospitality (how many times have I said that now?). The next day we make it back to Diyarbakir and find out that the hunger strike ended the day before (on the 68th day…Bobby Sands died on his 67th). The day before it ended, all the shops in Diyarbakir closed in protest, which makes one think about the economic/political power of a whole city on strike. A secret deal was made between the Turkish government and the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan. The atmosphere in the city is more relaxed and people seem relieved that it’s over but as my host said, the peace talks still haven’t started and it remains uncertain how much longer the Turkish government can keep stalling them without the conflict escalating. The next day I say goodbye to Yusuf as he heads back to London and I stay another day in Diyarbakir before setting off northward towards the Caucasus.