I am not going to lie. I was petrified going into Iraq.
Actually, we were going into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq which is semi-autonomous and not considered to be “Extreme Risk” like the rest of the country. Many governments mark it out as safe.
I did a lot of research, not only for Iraq but for the whole of South East Turkey. This corner of Turkey has a volatile history being largely inhabited by Kurds who seek independence or at least basic cultural rights. Civil wars have raged here in the past and care is advised.
“It is dangerous here”, said a Turkish border official as we re-entered Turkey from Iraq.
It was an interesting time to be learning about the Kurdish situation. In Syria, a Kurdish group had just declared autonomous government over part of the North East. They appear to have been fighting alongside (or at least not contesting) Assad and the government and in so doing were able to carve out a bit of land for themselves. Presumably the current issues in Syria have made the Kurdish ones less of a priority for its government for the time being.
The President of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region however denounced the Syrian group’s claim. In his view, the group was purely seeking power for itself and did not acknowledge other Kurdish groups. Human rights abuses against other Kurds were alleged. Social networks were running hot denouncing one or the other for seeking to further their own power rather than the Kurdish cause.
About the same time, that very Kurdistan Regional President had historically met with the Turkish Prime Minister to the chagrin of some.
The Kurdistan Region is wooing Western companies and tourists, and seeking economic deals, to further its economy. Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, has been named the Arab Council of Tourism’s Tourist Capital for 2014. There are malls, five star luxury hotels and a citadel now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A difficulty however is that Turkey, according to what I have read online, does not recognise “Kurds” as a cultural group or in its statistics although apparently 25% of Turkey’s population are Kurds.
Despite the Turkish Prime Minister taking a major step forward by actually using the word “Kurdistan” in a public address for the first time at the meeting with the Kurdistan Region President, many Kurds are highly suspicious of a relationship between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey. Again, some consider that the President is furthering his own interests (or those of the Iraqi Kurds only) while other Kurdish groups in Turkey, who lead the uprisings that potentially brought Turkey to the negotiating table in the first place, have been excluded from discussions.
On top of all this, in the Kurdistan Region, negotiations were still ongoing to decide final seats following a recently held election and, in September this year, the first terrorist attack in Erbil since May 2007 had occurred, with suicide car bombs and an armed attack against governmental security offices there.
All attacks in recent years however appear to have targeted government institutions, and in response to specific events, not civilians or foreigners. Further, I read that Kurds in Kurdistan actually love Westerners as the Americans assisted them to secure their semi-autonomous status during the Gulf wars and regime against Saddam.
After all of this reading, I knew intellectually that there was very little chance of an incident in Iraqi Kurdistan affecting my safety. I was as likely or more likely to die in a car accident, from a stress-related illness or from an attack in Moscow or London than from three days in Erbil! But, after a wee incident in a town-that-will-remain-nameless earlier on this trip where I had arrived in town just hours after a completely unexpected suicide bomb attack on a bus there, I was also well aware that bad things do happen in the most unlikely places and that life is precious!
My heart beat fast and I took many deep breaths as we followed the Syrian border, a fence right beside the road, along to the border crossing.
Perhaps from nerves or adrenalin, we broke all of the normal rules, unable to resist photographing the “Welcome to Iraq – Kurdistan Region” sign in immigration and were promptly told off. From that point on though, excitement took over and I felt completely safe (although a little wary when passing government offices or wandering in the Bazaars).
It was amazing to be in Iraq, albeit the Kurdistan area of it. It’s funny sometimes when you have no expectations of a place but when you get there you think “Of course its like that!”
Many men had traditional baggy pant suits and great cumberbunds. Moustaches a la [a certain famous Iraqi] were de rigeur. There were not so many women in the streets but those we saw ranged from full shador covered Islamic women to modern looking young women in western dress.
The area is said to be quite distinct from the rest of Iraq in that, for example, Kurds do not consider themselves to be Arabs and there is a large and historic Syriac Christian community there, as well as other non-Muslim groups.
We explored the citadel (6000 years old and, as with the rest of Mesopotamia, ancient and long inhabited….), rose gardens and parks, old minarets, an archaeological museum and a Syriac Christian community (Ainkawa) and museum. The town had a confident and proud vibe and we would have loved to stay longer.
Apparently the surrounding countryside is also stunning and there is a sign hidden somewhere on a river marking the start of a “Kayak to Baghdad”. That is now on the list for a future trip!