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.