Friday, 31 July 2009

"Back like cooked crack" !?

There is something about being Western here than flings doors open for you. Quite literally. Yesterday evening as we returned home we past a large heavily guarded party for about 1000 people. There were as many guards, soldiers, range rovers and mercedes around which we know immediately means government. Having decided to run the gauntlet we marched straight to the entrance, through the amassed forces waving our cameras ahead; sure enough we were let in. We had entered Presidents party.

Straight onto the dance floor with cameras rolling, we then jigged and jived with the cream of Kurdish society. It took only 15 minutes for security to bundle us out though and we were roughly turfed back onto the street. Rick was forced (again) to delete his pictures though this time I remembered to swap out my tape and give nothing.

Later in the night we joined the far more inclusive street party as people here continued their election celebrations. Once again we found ourselves surrounded by soldiers, accused of various things, and man handled by a crowd of both angry and jubilant iraqis. Once again though we made it out. There were of course continual scuffles as opposition supporters clashed with kurdistanis, and certainly there were some tense moments throughout the evening but although there were fireworks, they were not of the violent kind. Some idiot lit a box of rockets upside down and they veered towards us. No sooner had we scattered and hit the ground, than people ran back to do it again.

It seems now as if the squabbles here are among the leaders and their milita rather than the supporters, who are content with to have watched the democratic party. At one point we hopped into the back of a pickup truck for a ride elsewhere and were amazed to see flags from both parties trailing from the windows. The car was full of friends supporting different parties: but no one cared, the only wanted to celebrate

We also saw the American special forces again, patrolling the streets and moping in dark corners - this time we were given nods though we can still not ascertain if they talk. At the end of the night when everyone had shouted themselves to sleep we befriended some local soldiers and got driven home in military convoy. Browning 50 cal machine guns on the roof, sirens blaring and 100 miles an hour down the wrong side of the road. I could get used to this.

This morning we had trouble getting to Erbil so stayed in Sule. I have been asked to appear on the panel for a political show so will try to make it tomorrow instead. Today though we drove up into the surrounding hills for a better view of the city. So much sand has been picked up in the surrounding deserts that all we could see was a blanket of yellowy grey. We passed couples kissing in cars (taboo), saw Talabani’s city compound (a city in its own), played football with some bottles and then smashed some glass (which seems to entertain people here for hours).

We also received some breaking news about party politics. Goran radio announced that the KDP will be offering only 12 of its 56 seats to the PUK. This may have serious repercussions here. They had entered the election as a 50/50 coalition, but the KDP place all blame of their poor results firmly in the hands of the PUK. This may well result in a split within the coalition and if this happens and if Goran joins forces with the Socialist / reform party, majority leadership will change hands. In a matter of 10 days the political arena here has been turned upside down and the Kuridstani coalition may be imploding. Although they won't let that happen.

It is rumoured also that the PUK has been sacking some of its people and blaming them for the loss. We have heard about editors of their papers and other people in charge of propaganda being the first to go.

But once again there was no sign of political disruption today in the bazaar and almost no military presence. The usual gaudy pointed bras were on sale, along with the awful designer knock offs, the football paraphernalia, the nuts and the toys. Labourers with their own pneumatic drills lined the streets waiting for work and people were as welcoming as ever. On the surface at least normality seems to have returned. Parties are expected again tonight so we shall see if PUK / KDP tensions flare.

Rick found a t-shirt in the Bazaar that said “I’m back like cooked crack”. Bizarre bazaar.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Tired but content

The last few days have been hectic to say the least. Yesterday we travelled to the disputed city of Kirkuk to interview the Governor. It was 50 degrees and smoke from surrounding oil wells made it unbearable. Entering the governors compound was equally challenging, and took a good half hour to get through all the security checks. Soldiers here wear balaclavas such is the risk to their own lives when working for the government. We were not allowed to stop for pictures, or even put our lenses out of the window. We did anyway.

When my interview finally began one would not have believed that we were in one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq, because as with every other interview we have had the governor painted a picture of absolute bliss. I questioned him repeatedly on the tensions between arabs, kurds and turcomans but all I could get was a pass the parcel like blame game. When I asked about infiltration of the armed forces he merely said that it was the same everywhere in the world. When I asked him about inter faction violence he blamed it on foreign elements and claimed that all sides got on well together. When I asked about the rise in bombings that coincided with the Americans departure he denied it. It was frustrating to say the least, but then I have come to expect it. In truth I can now answer 90% of interviews myself and sometimes wonder why I bother.

However sometimes you get choice snippets. For example the leader of the socialist party and the Islamic league leader both blew up (they got next to no votes) and shouted loudly for a while flailing arms (poor translator tried to keep up). Today we met the second in command of the gorran party (the leader’s brother) and got an admission that he had dealt with the Americans during campaigning. He denied it out right during the formal interview so we stayed and had coffee with him during which he accidently let slip that despite regular contact with the US they had not sent observers to monitor the elections.

Last night got a little worrying. Official results were released and supporters of both parties took to the streets. At first the mood was jubilant. We were in the middle of a Kurdistani street party and 100s of soldiers danced around guns in the air, wooping and shouting. Hundreds of cars drove past with flags flying and horns hooting. I jumped in a passing tut tut and sped off down the road filming.

Then I came to the PUK headquaters and the mood began to change. Gorran supporters started appearing, then just in front of me one got out of his car to taunt hundreds of loyalists soldiers. As would be expected they jumped on him threw him to the ground beat him with their rifles and then started dragging him down a dark side street kicking and screaming. I filmed it all. My camera was pushed down, but I ran ahead and continued filming. As the mood got worse and others began to be attacked I knew I had to get out of the throng. Suddenly someone grabbed me. I was pushed to a corner, surrounded by soldiers and police and held up against the wall. Everyone was shouting. They tried to take my camera which wasn't going to be pried from my hands. I waved my passport and shouted journalist over and over. Before things got worse someone appeared who spoke English and he demanded I follow him inside the police headquarters. I absolutely refused. If they were going to talk to me or shake me down I wanted it to be done in public where I felt safer.

After stubbornly refusing to give over my tape for a good 20 minutes they started to get physical and I had no choice but to agree and record over it. By this time though I had secretly rewound the tape to an earlier shot so recorded over something else instead. They figured this out too though and in the end most of it was deleted. I may have saved some at the end but have not yet checked the footage.

Rick and I had been split up earlier but we met up right afterwards and will not loose each other in crowds again. An important lesson.

Later that night down the road, we stood with the riot police between both sides. I must say that despite the earlier episode nothing happened. They shouted, but that was it. A few stones landed around us and many water bottles, but perhaps they realised how bloody thirsty we were, the night was heavy. Then we noticed a group of enormous western men kitted out to the hilt. They were American special forces and another four of five of them hung around in civilian clothes. They were on high alert and would not speak to me. One of the civi’s came up and told us not to talk to ‘his boys’ but we hung around them anyway. They are of course supposed to be pulling out, but there is a base nearby and they were expecting trouble.

Despite the earlier episode which makes the evening sound very dangerous, for most people it continued to be joyous. Women took evening strolls around the crowds with the babies, people sat at cafes talking and looking on and even the cd stall remained ope. It was strange indeed to see how normal this was for everyone.

I have now interviewed the leadership of all parties. The mayors of various cities and villages. Political leaders, government heads, ambassadors and supporters on all sides of this election. I am impressed greatly by the response to what was no doubt a fraudulent election and the methods with which the opposition are fighting for justice. Only a few years ago things would have resorted to serious violence, but now people merely come out and hoot their horns. Democracy is slowly taking place here and it is wonderful to watch. Had the supporters of two opposing football teams in England faced off like this yesterday many more would have been injured, many more dead.

Also visited a new autism centre, the emergency department of the city hospital and tonight we go to the park. I think tomorrow we head to the capital, Erbil.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

What is this life if full of care...........

Yesterday had been very very long and I was getting ready for bed. Out of the silence their came suddenly a series of loud sharp cracks which jolted me back to life. I sprinted to the balcony and stood there, my heart racing, waiting for more. I ran back in grabbed the phone and called down to Rick. “Mate, did you hear that, did you hear that? I’m sure it was a machine gun”. But Rick had been listening to music; the police outside had not rushed away and my failed air-con unit was still making strange sounds. “Must have been something else” I huffed regretfully, “see you in the morning”.


We had spent three and a half hours earlier in the night having dinner on the central strip (Soholaca) waiting for some clashes. The mood had been joyous but not many people were out and we assumed the worst would come a few days from now when results are official. It was only this morning when we met our fixer that we found out the news. One dead, numerous wounded and clashes between police and soldiers just 500m from the hotel! Yet the 15 soldiers at the roadblock outside who we had spoken to just an hour previously had not rushed off; I had heard only one siren all night and the local tv was not reporting nothing. We had missed it by 15 minutes!


We spoke to some other journalists this morning who had been equally unaware. As they told us though, this is a game of luck and a waiting game. Right place, right time sort of thing.


This morning we delivered leaflets to the Children’s rehabilitation Center. We had spent a good amount of money making them and my sister had put in some hard work designing them. We were expecting a heroes welcome but instead the sour faced director looked at them silently then told us that one of the labels should have been bigger. A subdued handshake later and we were off, no gratitude at all. It’s the last time I do anything for them! So moving on…


We moved across the Ctiy to interview the head of the Islamic league party and a deputy director of the Socialist party. These two have been working as a coalition trying to get together more votes, but have lost out this time in a big way. In the past anyone upset with the government had few other options to choose from so they picked any alternatives they could. As such the Islamic party had done well in the last election but this year with the arrival of a serious alternative they received barely any votes.


They were not in the best of moods when we arrived, and with me asking pointed questions about their future the meeting became rather heated. Their voices got louder, their movements became erratic and suddenly they began to shout. To be honest it was really quite exciting, I have been trying to get a response from normally stone faced politicians all week and here it finally was: “Fraud fraud fraud”, they cried at one point as my softly spoken translator did his best to keep up. By the end I was unable to get a word in edgewise. They left in a huff to meet with Goran – presumably to decide how their parties might help each other in the future. There were many things I still wanted to know; such as how their close partnership with the Iranians would play a part in Kurdish politics, and how they would recover from such a horrible defeat. I am seeing them again in a few days and will not let them out.


What I did learn from them however were some interesting statistics. Of course these must all be taken with a pinch of salt but they told me that they had heard reports from kurdistani members that 693,000 illegal votes had been cast. Either by people voting twice or by people voting using the names of those who hadn’t reached the poles.


We had lunch with some friends from the Save the Children fund and along tagged and NGO worker from Texas. He cornered me immediately and talked all meal long. When I asked who he worked for he gave me his spiel in a rather high pitched strange sounding voice - he was weird. “We don’t like to believe that the way to rescue our communities at home is through pre-emptive strikes. We believe it is through pre-emptive love”. I wanted to burst out with laughter. Despite my outwardly calm face, I was finding it very hard to contain myself. Pre-emptive love??????? My next question was who funds you, but I already knew the answer was some Christian evangelical group. Sure enough I was right. The amazing thing to me is that all his congregation are the same people who backed Bush to the bitter end, yet they now feel bad about what his policies did. This is a world of contradictions.


After dinner tonight we broke back onto the roof as we have done every other night. This time there were 20 heavily armed special forces soldiers with sniper rifles. As we reached the top of the long ladder and poked our heads through they crowded round us wanting answers. Again, our student ids paid off. We arranged them in row, told them to smile, made them part of our footage and left quickly just as they began to cotton on.


Tomorrow we head to Kirkuk. xx

Sunday, 26 July 2009

A view from the Hill

Voting is over, and much sooner than expected results are coming in. Varying reports have reached us but it seems as if ‘Change’ has indeed become a serious political player. In this city, now their stronghold, they have taken the lead from the incumbents. Car horns blared throughout the night and will continue to do so for some time. Throughout the rest of Kuridstan the party have come second, and this also is a great victory. Today we met some beaten and bloodied supporters who claim to have been attacked by Kurdistani forces. We have seen some stand offs between factions and we have tracked down stories of election fraud.


Kak Nashirwan, leader of ‘Change’ was also a founder of the opposing PUK. While still a member of PUK, President Talabani gifted him an imposing hill in the centre of town and $10 million. It can be seen from everywhere and on it he was supposed to build the headquarters of his large media empire. Instead he announced his split with the party, fortified the hill and began campaigning under a new manifesto - that of transparency and an end to corruption. To do so was indeed brave and there is no doubt he is a clever man to have pulled together an opposition here without arousing suspicion, and while converting high ranking colleagues.


Today we visited his 'fortress' and at the gate told them our translator’s brother was a party member (he isn’t). Having persuaded them we had an appointment we were allowed in. The road snakes up and up to the very top; lined with guards and offices it is an imposing place. The feeling inside was electric – hundreds of people were milling around, security was intense but the joy could not be contained. We succeeded in getting an interview with the party’s head of foreign relations, who coincidentally had held the same job in the PUK some years earlier. We had to force our way through the throng to reach his office.


He was delighted by the results but he also had many issues with the election. He told us that 1000 people had been ‘purged’ for switching parties and that many people had been threatened with losing their state pensions. Most worrying, he said that the PUK has moved its militia into the city and it is they who will cause any trouble that lies ahead. He also told us that voting hours had been increased to force people in, and that many people who hadn’t voted had their ballots filled in for them.


During the interview some other officials joined us. We had managed to find ourselves in a room with the ex Kurdish Prime minister and the ex interior minister. Both of them are hugely wealthy and had partly bankrolled the campaign. I asked what safeguards were in place to avoid them becoming another corrupt party, and to be honest I didn’t get a great answer, something about following the constitution. The only problem is that so many people are ex PUK with corrupt backgrounds, that there is no way of telling yet whether this movement too will falter.


I also asked about American support for the Party. I was told that while America had not said anything publicly yet they had been in regular contact and that now they had won a serious voice they would be given backing and advice. I was told also that the Prime Minister of Iraq; Al Maliki would soon be voicing his support - we will wait for that. The central government thought does not want a unified Kurdistan, neither do surrounding countries, so perhaps this is their way of splintering the region’s political power. America however does want to show democratic changes so they can pat themselves on the back and push for troop withdrawals in the South.

As we left we came across a man covered in blood and bandages. He had been in prison all night having been beaten with rifle butts for celebrating. Tonight we will eat by the café where it happened and where more demonstrations are expected.


This morning we interviewed a local head of the PUK. He was the first person in a position of power who has acknowledged to me that there are problems with his party – when pushed though he would not elaborate. Part of me thinks that he also supported Change, and indeed as I sat there he was brought the preliminary results straight from Baghdad. His only response was a shrug of resignation.

A Furious Vitality

It has been suggested to me that intricate political rivalries within Kurdistan (such as described in yesterdays blog) are interesting only to those who care about this small part of the world. In response to this I offer a change. Firstly I will explain just how these details affect comfortable middle America, secondly I will tell you more about breaking past Iraqi soldiers, 10 year old gun owners, opium smuggling and the secret habits of war correspondents.


It is widely accepted among those travelling to war torn parts of the world that the horniest lot are cameramen and photographers. I can offer a variety of reasons for this, some of which I have experienced first hand. Firstly the first person running into any inhospitable situation is a photographer. While reporters can observe from behind a car, or step gingerly out once the blood has settled, photographers need it fresh, they need to capture the agony. For them, close ups of death and destruction are their bread and butter / their Pulitzers. It is this sense of adventure that separates them from others –it is a far more adrenaline-based sensation than that felt by an eccentric writer. I have seen them run into a building without knowing what’s inside; I have seen them ignore the cries of armed and angry guards; I have seen them live on the very edge. This then means that the danger posed by sleeping with a crazy girl or of incurring her wrath (most women in war zones are unhinged) is no deterrent to them and they seem all to act as if each night may be their last.


I saw this very case today. I arrived with Rick at a rural polling station, dust and sand everywhere, heat unbearable, and surrounded by 1000 excited Iraqis of all parties waiting to vote. 150 of them were soldiers loyal to the current corrupt government. We had no pass to cover this little known rural district and our translator was unwilling to help in the melee. So a few establishing shots later, taken from the top of a water tanker and off we were heading. Suddenly, of course we realise that Rick has gone. Bored of the photos outside, he had marched straight through the crowd of guns waving an old id card. Faced with a crazed red head waving a university of Westminster card, they had given in and let him pass. Having allowed Rick to dip his toe in first, I followed suit. With only a passport and expired BBC visitors card raised high above me, in I went. Pushing a bemused Iraqi ahead me as if to interview him I continued past the guns and with repeated convictions insisted I belonged. Amazingly enough it worked – we were in!


Talking about it later, Rick and I concluded that the 70% illiteracy rate may have helped. Never before have I revelled in someone’s lack of education but over here people here would rather fain understanding than appear ignorant. Any documents in English can be passed off as official. It is in these rural, poor and generally uneducated regions of Kurdsistan that the new Goran party (using Obama’s own slogan of change) has its support. These are the people who have seen no progress or any of the oil wealth prevalent in cities. They are the ones who want change and transparency in government. They are the ones who want the oil fields in Kirkuk back from the central government and the ones who will decide the future stability of this country. Many of them today had to ask officials to help them with the ballot sheets so poor was their reading. This of course has led to more election discrepancies.


At a time when America is trying to pull troops out of Iraq the Obama administration are desperate for smooth elections here. Knowing full well that Americans cannot differentiate between north and south Iraq, they intend to use what has been (so far) a peaceful election, as an example of their success in the wider conflict. In reality however the two areas have nothing in common. The situation South of here is worse than ever, and will only continue to fall apart further should America leave. People are begging them not to go but this has little effect on domestic US rhetoric.


One important government member who we interviewed yesterday told us that he dreamt of a system like that of US involvement in post war Germany. It is everyone’s hope that America will have long-term bases here, and that they should act as peacekeepers while continuing to fix the situation. Another person we spoke to used the analogy of a china plate help up by a lone matchstick. Were the matchstick to be pulled away the plate would smash into a thousand pieces.


While I understand America’s desire to focus on domestic issues in the current financial climate, there are many other serious issues here which affect them too. Take the drugs trade for example and the smuggling route from Afghanistan through northern Iraq and onto Turkey, Europe then America. Allow this to flourish (as may well happen in a splintered Iraq) and the opium trade grows fat on Western demand. On my last visit here I met smugglers on the Iraq / Iran border. While you may imagine them all to be vicious, angry and aggressive they are merely plying the one trade they can. Most of them would rather sell wheat and I was even told by one that he dreamed of being an electrician. They are forced to smuggle because they have nothing else to do, because their families have been traders for generations and because America and Europe is fuelling the trade.


What else happened today? The streets were empty due to the curfew allowing us to drive around alone at 100mph. Restaurants list 100’s of items on their menus but only ever have 2 – chicken or meat. Our hotel does have taste; despite the faux gold frieze throughout the foyer they play Faure’s requiem every morning. Old men think that playing the piano means pounding the same 2 notes for 30 minutes straight (one of them is doing it now). The Swedish ambassador is a nice but rather boring man (we met him in the middle of the countryside as he observed elections). It can take only 3 days to drive from London to Sulemaniyah. They breed squid in a swimming pool here for visitors to eat. Most staff at the hotel are from Nepal.


We ended the day by breaking onto the roof with beers and re-enacting scenes from Live from Baghdad. Rolling around on the roof, peeking off the top floor of this high-rise we imagined ourselves watching B52s overhead. Then I made a tourist video for the country – just doing my bit to help. I have borrowed a firewire cable off the BBC team so will upload these soon. Welcome to the wide variety of Iraqi entertainment.


I know I promised something about 10 year olds and their guns so attached is a photo.


Until tomorrow.