Segwan is visibly uncomfortable when we visit Barmany, the village where he grew up. He hides it well, with his usual overwrought humour. ‘You want to visit my house? We will have to ask the people who live there now.’ He tells us to watch out for mines as we step off the road.
We drink at a teahouse owned by his cousin. It is beautiful here, halfway up a mountainside in the height of summer, drinking tea in the shade. We look down over trees struggling to keep their grip on the steep earth beneath them, to the old airstrip below where a Turkish armoured division tries to look inconspicuous. They are here to pursue their blitzkrieg war against the anti-Turkish PKK movement, who are active in these mountains that separate Turkey from Iraq.
‘I don’t come back here very often,’ Segwan says – not since the troops came from Baghdad to crush the Kurdish uprising that followed the Gulf War. The Kurds were counting on American support, but realized their mistake fairly quickly. There was no cavalry riding to their rescue and the Iraqi army put down the rebellion easily and brutally. Everybody has a war story; Segwan and his family walked across the mountains to Turkey, taking only what they could carry, returning only when the Iraqi troops had left.
The Kurds have no history, only a strong sense of deja vu. They are proud but divided, and their freedom belongs to anyone who can be bothered to take it; the British, the Syrians, the Turks, the US, Baghdad. Spread across four countries, their nation (such as it is) is an outlandish jigsaw puzzle that will be impossible to finish, since it consists only of edges. You can make out the corners, put together the shape and content of the puzzle, but the middle will always remain a mystery. The sad truth is that now there is no Kurdish heartland, no vital organ in the midst of the scattered pieces that can be successfully identified as the essential Kurdistan.
One of the more curious and depressing aspects of Iraqi Kurdistan is the almost complete lack of wildlife in the countryside. Years of hardship, increasingly intensive farming, random and barely relevant mine-laying by every faction that appears – all of these have led to the denuding of the countryside. Even the shrubbery is beginning to disappear at the ragged edges of the roads as the PUK follow a scorched earth policy against the insurgent PKK terrorists from Turkey. While traditional farm animals make their normal appearances, wild animals are all but extinct here, and birds are far fewer in numbers than you would expect.
We stop to drink more tea at a roadside restaurant just outside Dohuk, all picnic chairs and parasols. Close to our table is a caged eaglet, barely fledged and miserable, obviously picked up by some driver in the hills around Dohuk. Halfway through my meal, I am heartened to see that it has somehow escaped the confines of the cage and is hopping around the thatch at the side of the restaurant. The local Kurds are periphally amused, making half-hearted attempts to get it back into the cage, but content to watch it trying to fly.
As it wanders over the thatch it looks longingly upwards, knowing that this is where it is meant to be, but unable to marshal enough strength to fly. The few other birds in the valley recognise it for what it is, the air filling with shrieks almost as soon as the eaglet emerges from its cage. As the eaglet spreads its useless wings and hops higher, the attacks begin. Just as in the Hitchcock film, the birds swoop noisily on the earthbound captive, forcing it to duck and cower in a way guaranteed to cause hilarity amongst its Kurdish captors.
Segwan doesn’t even notice as the eaglet fails in its attempts, flapping useless wings as the birds swoop noisily. Confused, it tries harder to take to the air and is rewarded with increasingly vicious attacks from birds that, in other circumstances, would have been its prey. At the time, I thought that this scene couldn’t have been more symbolic – the young Kurdish nation-state under constant attack from its powerful neighbour – but as the years have passed I have realized that these symbolic moments are pretty much worthless. In these places, almost everything is symbolic if you look hard enough, every story is worth telling, and in the end you develop a symbolism filter so that you can just get on with the work.
On the way back, I stop to play volleyball with a group of the younger Kurdish staff. The violence and the poverty seem far away, even though the court is only a clearing next to the road, the net a rope strung up between the trees, and the ball an old football that had been pulled out of the box of one of the 4WDs. It is Saturday afternoon, one of the few chances to relax and, even though my volleyball skills could be charitably described as atrocious, I join in happily.
Twenty minutes into the match, one of the opposing team launches himself at the net and spikes the ball. Unfortunately the ball goes wild, whipping past my head and popping off a tree. As it disappears out of sight, I shout to nobody in particular, ‘I’ll get it!’ and dash off after it. The man standing next to me reaches out to stop me, but can’t get a grip on my shirt. As I bound down the hillside after the ball, I wonder why the rest of the players are shouting at me. It’s mainly Kurdish, but I can clearly hear some of them shouting ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’ But, leaping over tree roots and rushing through bushes, I can see the ball in front of me, slowed by the undergrowth. I keep going, catch it easily, then turn to walk back up the hill.
Only when I look back up the hill do I realize what I have done. I hesitate for a moment, then begin to make my way back to the volleyball court, trying to retrace my steps. It feels like forever to cover the distance. The players on the court are nearly silent as I approach. Nobody knows how many mines have been laid by the Iraqi army and their Kurdish opponents over the years, but the UN Office for Project Services believes that one in four of all villages in Northern Iraq has been affected socially and economically by landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXOs). The UN Mine Action Service is clear that ‘Iraq might be the most EO-, UXO- and landmine-affected country in the world.’
But I make it back to the court unharmed, and the game continues – although now all the players are more careful with their shots. As we play, I look at my team-mates with new eyes; subtitles appear beneath each of them, as if we are playing out the final scene of a movie. The subtitles simply give their names, ages and eventual fates: Amed, 20, killed in a firefight between PUK and PKK; Mehvan, 19, killed in a mine strike; Segwan, 23, left for Europe as soon as he could.
Segwan loves his country and cannot wait to leave. On the way back to Dohuk, he turns to me and says, ‘In a year’s time I will have saved enough money to go to Norway and stay with my father. Which do you think would be the best route to take?’ I can’t think of anything to say. Segwan persists. ‘The immigration in England is quite easy, I think. I could get there and then go to Norway. Or through the Netherlands. My friend went through the Netherlands.’ Segwan is lucky, with his university education (BA English Literature, Mosul University, 1994) and a job with an international aid organisation. Most Iraqi Kurds are not so lucky.
Most of the educated Kurds that I meet want to leave their homes, just like Segwan. Yet here I come over the horizon, willingly giving up the comforts of my own home (for instance, the luxury of playing volleyball without worrying that I might get a leg blown off), actually wanting to visit these places without being able to articulate why. Of course, a desire to help people is at the root of my work, but let’s face it, I could have just as easily have become a social worker (although, from what I now understand, that would probably have been more dangerous than playing volleyball in minefields). Charity begins at home, as most of my family and friends waste no time in pointing out to me.
So what the hell am I doing here? Ostensibly I am here to visit the country programme run by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) that I work for, HelpAge International, to familiarize myself with our work and to carry out an advocacy workshop for the national staff. In reality, I am receiving the next lesson in my humanitarian education, while at the same time taking notes on the political situation of northern Iraq and enjoying the experience of a truly different culture.
NGOs are not allowed to work in the north without the permission of the Baghdad government. HelpAge International does not have the permission of the Baghdad government, which explains why I have to be smuggled into the country illegally. I enter northern Iraq via Syria, breaking a number of laws and an international sanctions regime to get there. The final leg of the journey involves being woken up at dawn by a small man who has somehow acquired my passport, being driven to the banks of the River Tigris in a minibus equipped with electric curtains, and crossing with my luggage in a small motorboat. Welcome to Kurdistan, Mr Bond.
The real money crosses the river in the opposite direction. The Kurds generate most of their income by smuggling oil out via Turkey – in breach of international sanctions, of course, but with the international community turning a blind eye. The route into the regional capital Erbil is choked with oil, slick and pungent; the roadside lined with containers, Kurdish entrepreneurs stockpiling plastic drums and feeding the trucks that crack gears all the way from here to the border. The border leaks like a sieve, because the Baghdad regime has no control over these three northern governorates.
The north is a no-fly zone, which means that US and British planes cruise overhead on bombing runs every day, while the Iraqi army regularly shell the hills outside Dohuk. Iraqi Kurdistan is administered by two fratricidal Kurdish political parties, underwritten by money from the United Nations Oil-For-Food Programme. The United Nations, flush with funds from the Oil-For-Food programme, has so much money it doesn’t know what to do with it all, and definitely doesn’t have a clue how to spend it sensibly.
Amongst the many apocryphal stories I heard was that of the UNICEF effort to provide the Kurds with school textbooks, using the standard Iraqi textbooks as templates. It sounds sensible enough, until you open the front cover of the textbook to find Saddam’s smiling face staring back at you. Needless to say, the textbooks couldn’t be used and sat, thousand upon thousand, in a warehouse in the empty places of Kurdistan. I was never able to confirm the story, but the fact that it was told at all was one of my first clues that not everything runs according to plan in the world of humanitarian assistance.
On my last night there is a party for the outgoing Country Director, where the national staff cry over his imminent departure, dance traditional dances and eat far too much of the excellent local food. We line up on long tables, beneath strings of lightbulbs powered by an intrusive generator at the back of the small hotel, on a hill overlooking Dohuk. The call of the hotel generator is answered by the generators in the town below, their erratic lights winking at us like magic lanterns.
Towards the end of the evening, the cameras come out and the photo sessions begin. In the endless whirl of eating, crying and dancing, the young soldier that has been acting as my bodyguard during my visit comes up and waves a camera at me, indicating that we should have a picture taken together, and I agree.
Somewhere in a photo album in Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, there is a picture of me surrounded by Kurdish fighters, clutching an AK-47 that has been thrust into my hands and staring wildly into the camera. From the manic grin on my face, it is obvious that I clearly have no idea what I’m doing there. I just clutch my gun and smile for the camera.
What is less obvious from the look on my face is that I clearly have no idea that in the next four years I will find myself in situations far more bizarre than this, and far more dangerous, and still have very little idea what on earth I am doing there.