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.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr. Benjamin Hall
    I am Namo Abdulla, the presenter of KNN's political Special Edition porgram, which is showed in both English and Kurdish.

    I just read your article about Kurdish elections in NYtimes. It was realy great and I liked it so much. And i also read some of your posts in your blog which are incredible. Therefore, I would like to interview you for my TV program to discuss political situation in Kurdistan and the elections. please let me know if you wanted to do that.
    It is much appreciated.
    best regards,
    Namo Abdulla

    Cell: 00964 750 495 7024