Tuesday, 19 January 2010

On the Road

Flying into Kurdistan and out of Dubai highlights perfectly the extremes of the Middle East. I won’t really go into it here, but leaving one for the other is a wake-up call, a reminder of how neighbouring countries can change so much and grow apart in so many different ways and also how the region has become such a paradox. My story isn’t about Dubai however nor should it be; Dubai offers little in the way of self-expression and little adventure. I hope that what follows will.

Our adventure began just after transferring from one terminal in Dubai to the next. From the new, gilded Emirates hub to the provincial rundown building across the road, that services passengers travelling to those ‘other’ countries.

I was curious about something as we entered. Who else was travelling to Iraq? Who else was choosing this way. It looked to me like a motley group of contractors, soldiers, spies, budding filmmakers and intrepid explorers (ourselves). At first we all exchanged only the occasional polite smile or covert glance, but when a few hours later we were being thrown around in a cramped plane, united by a sense of trepidation and excitement we had become best of friends.

Two hours after leaving Dubai and soon after passing over Baghdad we began our descent into Erbil. The turbulence was atrocious; the plane was rickety, loud and old. The pilot kept dropping altitude rapidly every time we turned, and he thundered down at a hell of a pace. Whether or not this would confuse an insurgent I don't know, but it certainly had the passengers holding on for dear life.

From far above, the Iraqi landscape looked scorched. Black lines streaked across the brown earth and through the haze all we could make out were fires that peppered the landscape. We’re not sure what these were: rubbish dumps or oil wells. Suddenly in the distance two bright flashes erupted upwards, again we don’t know for sure what they were.
To be honest the whole scene from above was somewhat haunting: this was the land ravaged by Saddam, the land which had ignited some of the worst conflicts and atrocities of recent times, and a land also in which we were about to arrive.

Armed however with an invitation from the First Lady of Iraq, a bag of Imodium, and a bottle of whisky (which we smuggled across the continent on the advice of John Simpson) I was sure we were equipped to handle what lay ahead. As I sit here now at the end of our first 8 hours, in a room with a gaping hole where the balcony should be, having chased bats around, having narrowly avoided death on the roads, and having being ripped off - I believe we still are. This is on its way to becoming everything I had dreamed of, everything I hoped for. AK47s, check points, angry soldiers and a feeling of the unknown are proving me right. These are people who are warm, welcoming and proud. I cannot wait to continue. Benji.

Feetfty Cents, big idol

Children’s centre for incurable diseases, torture cells, rap palace and Bach recital. It has been quite a day, and one which again has shown me the resilience and kindness of the Kurds, but also the dark side of this country.

Despite our troubles yesterday, today ran smoothly. This morning, we were met as promised by Rizghar, our rather quiet translator, and our driver (who bizarrely has spent time in Banbury, Oxfordshire), they will both be with us all week. We are lucky because Rizghar has been subcontracted from outside the PUK, therefore does not mind talking openly about politics and issues that plague this country. When someone talks for a minute though he translates for 15 seconds. I will be keeping my eye on him.

(p.s - Looking back at this, Rizghar has turned out to be wonderful. A great person, who I hope to work with again)

The Children’s centre this morning was the first harrowing event of the day, and brought to focus many things that are missing here. I have been wary of disabled children ever since being attacked by one at a French monastery as a child, so this, I was nervous about.

It is the only centre in Iraq that helps spastic children (their terminology), autism, cerebral palsy, polio victims and many other horrors. I wish I could accurately describe how far behind they are in understanding these diseases but the list is too long. They have blacksmiths, carpenters and leather smiths making toilets, wheelchairs, casts and special shoes for the children, on site. They literally hammer metal into shape for the children to wear and sow shoes by hand using pieces they can scrounge. They get no support from the central government, or from the red cross who have ignored their letters. They can barely afford to stay open and at one point while talking to the director (who doubles up as a paediatrician a cleaner and a nurse) there was a power cut. He didn't even skip a beat and just kept talking until the lights came on again – a regular occurrence throughout the country.

The centre has 15 – 20 staff who take care of 7/8000 patients around the country. They have 19000 on record. The problem is that the wider community does not fully understand these diseases and they are considered taboos. The saddest thing is that these children laugh, they play, they want affection but are treated as outcasts. I cannot really say any more as I do not know where to begin. It was not easy being there.

Next we visited the Amnasuraka security building – Saddam’s regional torture facility. The building itself, a grim communist style square is in ruins; pot marked by bullets from the outside and blackened on the in. When it was finally overthrown and everyone inside had been kicked or stamped to death there was still such anger among the people that they took it out on the building. When in use nobody would walk near it for fear both of random cruelty and to avoid the screams. Next door the torture chambers survived and have been left as they were. Blood marks the floors everywhere; the weapons used for torture are still there. Glass bottles for insertion, nails for driving into skulls, metal rods, electricity – the list is limited only by imagination.

For every person found guilty of being a peshmerga the whole family was raped and killed, their house bulldozed, and anyone left alive forced to pay for the bullets. The centre has life-sized sculptures recreating the horrors. Usually recordings of genuine torture are played at full volume (courtesy of Saddam’s extensiv archives) but today, thank God, the system was broken.

Our driver, our translator and our guide had all lost family members there – they were in tears. While interviewing someone about the chemical atrocities my battery ran out. I didn’t have it in me to ask him to stop and just held the camera till he finished. In a weird way it felt like that scene from true lies. I have been to Auschwitz, I have been to Rwanda, I have been to S.E Asia, I have seen or heard little like this.

After more meat, rice and beans we drove outside the city to meet up with our budding rap artists. This centre is for any and all forms of music and dance. The diversity was amazing. From traditional Kurdish music (we met the classical finalist of Iraqi idol) to western stlye rappers, Persian rappers, flamenco guitarists, Bach pianists and break dancers. There was of course a varying degree of talent among them, but I thought it wise not to tell Iraqi gangsta rappers they didn’t have it in them. Some of them however are the funniest little people I have met; bandanas, bling and bass. “Feeefty sense big idol”

What I saw here was a microcosm of Iraq itself: the new against the old, the east against the west. There was a longing to express oneself and to be recognized. I was curious about the difference between the artists and their respective genres and was told that each group tolerated one another, but did not really interact.

The whole scene was both surreal and incredibly entertaining, yet had amazing undertones of the country as a whole. Like in domestic government there was a lack of leadership among the kids; everyone wanted control so nobody had it; everybody wanted to talk but they didn’t want to listen. At some points it descended into chaos; at others they got on with their own business. Once again we got mobbed, once again we survived. I could get used to this.

Contacting our Contacts

I can’t help but feel that today I became part of the propaganda machine. I had been warned before leaving England of a tendency here to show visitors only success stories, and today I became one of their tools. I had also been warned of the Kurdish affinity with making people wait, and putting obstacles (advertently or otherwise) in their way – this too was no fallacy.

After a sleepless night of thunderstorms and Adhan I spent the morning hunting down our contacts who as yet had not appeared. It seems almost a right of passage to go through 10 people before finally arriving where you want to go. I must say though that in general when you finally meet someone they are the epitome of politeness. This is inherent throughout the middle east.

We had one particularly uncomfortable meeting with the head of a government program. He sat in silence at one end of his room while we battled through half an hour of awkward silences and desperate monologues. Finally we were served tea by his decrepit mother and ushered away without a word of help. On we went.

Finally we worked our way up the ladder and now seem to have sorted out the rest of the trip. Refugee camps, settlement villages, battle zones and mass graves – with a mountain picnic thrown in. A very nice man helped us arrange everything, and having checked our credentials he sat us down in front of youtube to watch Susan Boyle – his favourite Britain’s got Talent entry. It doesn’t really get more surreal than talking about death camps and murder one minute, followed by a 60 year old iraqi giving a rendition of Les Miserables. He then insisted on taking us to lunch where again we were mobbed by children.

Amazingly it turns out that these were the young founders of the Sulemaniyah gangster rap palace and break dancing troupe. Tomorrow we are off to impart with some british hiphop in exchange for which we have been promised the best robot dance in the world. Certainly not what I had been expecting but perhaps somewhere in this is a great documentary.

We spent the rest of the day visiting schools. It's rather awkward being ushered from room to room, surrounded by people tugging you and then waiting for you to say something groundbreaking. Through translator - back again – nods of approval – back again and on and on. I found myself my repeating simple questions just for a lack of anything else to ask 8 year olds. One of the centres took young children off the streets to prevent them being molested by under sexed adults at the bazaar - a problem that is not as bad as it used to be.

This afternoon Rick and I set off alone through the bazaar, we needed our own impressions and we needed to be rid of official eyes. My first advice has to do with cameras and soldiers which do not go well together: you should expect some shouting and gun waving. Faining ignorence however has so far extricated us nicely from this, so we will continue to do so with caution.
Again, it can be claustrophobic when surrounded by so many people. Most of them have only seen westerners on television or in camoflage so we certainly attract a crowd. At one point we were trailed by an enormous and vicious looking soldier hiding his uniform under Kurdish robes. We did the old double back and then in exchange followed him. Our evening's entertainment.

Everyone wants to talk, everyone wants to shake hands everyone wants to glare. One old peshmerga got rather agitated, storming towards us, his hands flailing and shouting loudly. We’re not sure whether he was mad at the American invasion ("americanski, americanski") or as one man said “just donkey mad”. Either way we didn’t stick around to find out.

It is nice to have sanctuary at the hotel for a few hours in the evening, however every day is a new excitement.
Until tomorrow.

Love and Honour Killings

I can think of no place where I feel more vulnerable, no place where I feel more at ease, no place where I would rather be. There is something about the unknown that is thrilling.
I have spent the afternoon with a young Iraqi soldier who speaks not a word of English and can barely write. Yet like myself and like so many other people here, he just wants to learn about that which is new and foreign to him. So this afternoon we sent away our entourage and set off with Soran Ali Raza to explore the city. Heading into the unknown we eventually wondered if perhaps he was taking us to sell (westerners are worth a lot of money here). Suddenly though we turned into a park and realised that all he wanted was to take pictures among the flowerbeds. Never before have I been more surprised, never before have I been so relieved.

On Soran’s left forearm was a large heart shaped tattoo bearing his initial and the initial of the girl he once loved – she has left him recently. In this culture that is punishable by death. Coming from the countryside both of them risk having their throats slit by protective fathers or brothers: honour killings are very much a way of life here, though barely talked about.

This highlights a theme that I have been watching closely. Earlier in the day I spoke to a young Iraqi from Kirkuk. We were sitting in a ruined 12th century fort overlooking Dukan lake, and I asked him what his dreams were and what his fears were. His answer to both questions was “love”. This is no exaggeration – it is for them a matter of life or death.

Yesterday we spoke to a local friend who we met a few days ago, Juuan. He also spoke to us about honour killings and the need to respect women; the extent to which couples must honour their families and above all how they must abide by strict Islamic law. He then went on to talk happily about tits, sex and alcohol.

Just 10 minutes ago we were speaking to a Swedish / Iranian mercenary who had come from Baghdad to see his very beautiful Kurdish wife. The commander of the local unit, an old peshmerga, drooled openly over her then gave some pelvic thrusts as she left. I guarantee he looks down on sex before marriage however has adopted such crass western behaviour. (Prison Break and 24 among others, are both big over here- Jack Bauer is spoken of as a real person)

All of these cases point to one of the many paradoxes within in the country. Society in many ways is at odds with itself. Many people we have met (excluding the old guard) lives one way, yet dreams another. I would say western influence is forcing a restoration on this country that it is not ready for. The cities are moving at a pace that the rural areas cannot, and do not want to keep up with.

I have been looking closely at western influences here and can see both positives and negatives – people struggling between the two to find their new identity. It is not a new story; in many ways it is like post war Japan and their struggle to cope with occupation.

Today was very laid back. We went to Dukan Lake to see how families spent their days together. We sat and talked to them surrounded by landscapes the likes of which I have rarely seen. It is stunning - this country is stunning. High on a mountaintop was Talabani’s new palace and this brought our conversation round to his accumulated wealth. Rumours of multi billion dollar corruption, of private oil wells and of a move away from the values that made him great, abound. Most think he is no longer in touch with the people and that their needs come second to his. I was told by one person that you can judge corruption here by the size of an entourage; I didn't see Talabani but I have heard his entourage is regal.

Corruption in the country is rife and most new buildings in the city remain unfinished. The government does not even have plans for many of them; they have simply been built and left empty as statements of modernization and westernisation. It seems to be a case of, if you build it, they will come.


Ups and Downs

The lift in our hotel has a mind of its own. Arriving on the floor you want is more of a lottery than anything else. Just a few minutes ago I was about to get out when the doors opened half way then suddenly slammed closed. They then opened again, but only an inch and I was forced to pry them open myself. Yesterday I got in only for the whole thing to turn itself off. The funny thing is, bearing in mind what’s going on outside, I use it without concern.

The roads are equally treacherous. There really is no such thing as lanes, and drivers are forced to fight for their own space. We have had a few near misses and seen countless people driving the wrong way down motorways. And never overtake an American convoy, you are liable to be shot. Again though compared with what we saw today this just seems like an occupational hazard, and there’s not much we can do about it anyway.

We spent the day in Halabjah, the scene of Saddam’s chemical attacks. On the way we drove through Arbat which Rizgar told us proudly was famous for its scorpions. The road we took was the same followed by hundreds of thousands of Kurds during the exodus of ‘91, when they were forced to flee Saddam’s reprisals. To this day the town and the people are scarred.

First though we went to another community centre. To be honest I have now seen my fair share, and while they are all very impressive as examples of progression, they are also all alike. But how can you say no when the children have been practicing for months hoping that one day a westerner will visit. Once again we smiled and nodded our appreciation. “What’s your name? How old are you? how nice”

Next we were taken to the mass graves to see row upon row of tombstones. Everyone we spoke to recounted stories and broke down in tears, and as we arrived as if on cue, the imams began calling from the mosques. It was touching and it shows just how deeply these people are still affected. From there we went to the Halabjah chemical memorial. Looking at pictures of skin peeling from blackened faces, bloated babies and calves suckling from their dead mothers (which happened also in human cases) I couldn’t help but feel detached. I wanted to feel more, I wanted to understand what they had gone through; yet all I felt was numb. It’s strange.

You see the scars on people in the streets and you hear horrible stories. Many new babies are still born with horrible illnesses or just still born, and yet this town has been largely ignored by the Kurdish government. Everybody spoke of their anger: They wanted to know why more has not been done for them? Why they still live like before, and why no one listens. Last year in a desperate cry for attention they razed to the ground the very memorial that had been built in their name. Today, it is the only thing to have been rebuilt. Something here is wrong and again corruption is playing its part.

I’ve got a bloody big welt in my mouth and it hurts. But who cares, I’m alive.

"Welcome to Hell"

Kirkuk sits on one of the largest oil reserves in the Middle East. Because of this it is one of the most disputed cities in the country – it is also one of the most dangerous and sadly one of the poorest. This meant that today we had to increase our security and travelled in convoy with six new guards who fanned out around us. Kidnappings are common and so we had to keep moving. Yesterday a young Syrian suicide bomber was caught nearby and they were expecting another. Again we moved quickly.

We were there to visit the football stadium, which has been transformed into a refugee camp. I say refugee camp, but that implies they fled from somewhere worse. The truth is these people moved back after the liberation hoping to reclaim old homes. This has not happened and now 16,000 families have nowhere to live. They are encouraged to be here in an attempt to change the demography of the city, which would lead to an election victory for the Kurds and in turn win them control of the oil below. Every side is sending its people back in for the same reason and so the election has now been postponed indefinitely. This happened even under Saddam.

The city is split in three: the Arab part, the Kurdish part and the Turcamen part. All three lay claim to the area and all three are at each others throats. Nobody has anywhere else to go, nobody can afford to move or buy a house and everyone is getting angrier. It is a catch 22 – even if they wanted to leave now, they can’t. The worst off seem to be the Kurds but then I wasn't allowed to talk to people in the other sectors, merely drive through - quickly.

Like everywhere else in the country people here are not happy with their leaders, they blame them for many of the problems. However neighbouring countries are also to blame and the vast wealth within the city means that Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and Turkey are all sponsoring terrorism in the region. They want either to prevent others from gaining oil, prevent the creation of a larger Kurdish state or simply want to exact revenge. Until security can be improved (which for many reasons seems impossible) no investment will go in, no aid will arrive.

We made it to the Stadium. Never before have I seen such abject poverty and such sadness. The people here live in squalid dark hovels, with no running water and barely any electricity, they often survive off what scraps they can find. They are surrounded everywhere by putrid rubbish and their own waste covers the floor. Everyone here is dying and the stench is unbearable. Almost everyone we spoke to has a terminal disease, is blind or is disfigured. A retarded child huddled in the corner.

Most people wouldn’t talk to us: they are fed up of being promised help yet receiving none. Last week they pelted journalists with rocks because they were sick of people visiting them and nothing happening. It was not easy to film today – in so many ways it felt disrespectful. I felt like a voyeur poking my head in to other peoples misery. Knowing that I would run away and type it up on my shiny laptop only made it worse. However I believe some good can come from this so I continued and spoke to anyone willing to talk back.

One man had an open sewage trench running through his hut, he regularly cements it over, but about every month or so it burst through leaving the whole family knee high in shit. I am not exaggerating – as our translator said when we drew near “Welcome to Hell” - he was right. The city is surrounded by oil wells and black smoke drifts across from all directions. Even as I write this I can only shake my head.

How does one interview people in this situation, what does one ask them? “What needs to change? Is anything being done? How do you feel? Who is to blame? What do you need? Is there any hope?” Such obvious questions, such obvious answers but I asked them anyway. I have a lot to learn.

In another part of the city we were suddenly confronted by police. It’s not unusual for extremists to wear official uniforms and our own guards immediately jumped between us. In the end it turned to be only a matter of jurisdiction but the atmosphere was tense and we were ushered away. Soon after we were stopped at a checkpoint and Rick and I again taken inside for questioning. We were let go in due time but everyone here is nervous, everyone expects the worse.

Sticking with the day’s theme of depression, we moved on to the Shoraz collective town, one of many vast areas built by Saddam to house victims of his Anfall campaigns. In contrast to Kirkuk Stadium this was like paradise but still a long way from civilization, and still decrepid.

There is so much money in this country - you can see it in some of the cities – but in Kirkuk, the richest of them all no aid is arriving and no one is listening.

Days like today are tiring.


We spent the morning back with the autistic children again - as the director of the centre says "We are trying to de-spastify them". They were being forced to take part in music therapy which meant being shouted at and forced to bang drums. Most of them didn’t know what they were doing and looked rather scared, some just sat there drooling. The noise could not have been helping but they believed the vibrations would reverberate in the body.

Next we watched some physiotherapy – this involved taking children who couldn’t move their limbs and forcibly bending and unbending them. The children wailed and screamed in agony– it was uncomfortable and in many way rather medieval. The centre is trying its best and I applaud it in many ways. But it lacks expertise and none is arriving.

We then drove to the mountains where I am now. Too tired to write more . See tomorrow.

Tribal Regions

I thought that we were getting closer, and I thought we were getting beneath the surface here, but it’s going to take longer - there is no black or white, there is even no grey. For every truth there is a counter truth and then another and another; you have to fight through the layers and create your own larger picture. People switch sides, form alliances, spread rumours and exaggerate facts. There are improvements, but there is also deterioration.

We have come to the mountains for a few days. To the minefields and the battlefields of the Peshmerga fighters, and for the first time I believe the things I hear. These are humble, honest people and kind people. They are also battled hardened in a ferocious way – so it is amazing to see how warm they are. They are tight knit, and were I not here with someone they respect – well I couldn’t be here at all. We are staying with a Scottish friend who lives here part of each year working on an amazing community project. He is Ex French foreign legion, and a great war photographer. There are 5 of use in the bedroom sleeping basically on concrete floors; The shower is freezing and all the lights in the city turn off at midnight. The streets are mud and I love it every minute here. The sky, the peace, the people, the company, the solitude are all welcome.

We have been hearing more stories of cruelty; more stories of bravery and more stories of corruption but none of them really surprise me any more. They all fascinate me and they all shock me but they are part of daily life here. In the same way that at the beginning of the week we spoke about death camps one instant and tv the next, so now we regularly talk of torture followed by fun. It is not abnormal.

Around us are the hills in which Ansar Islam held out against the allied forces in 2003, where during the last stand they tied their legs to posts in the ground to prevent themselves from running away – they were there to die as Martyrs. These are the same people who beheaded dozens of people at a time for lack of support, or simply because they were in the wrong place. These are the people who wanted regression, people who wanted blood.
We went to the abandoned villages and to an old Islamic training camp surrounded on all sides by minefields. The landscape on the Iranian border is covered with trenches and foxholes, rusting bullets and helmets. Tank battles, mortars and RPGs have all left their mark. Yet it is beautiful – poppies cover the hills, long grass ripples in the wind and birds sing all day.

We were taken by a local peshmerga hero called Wusher – an incredible man. He has lost both his legs and now walks on prosthetics that he had made in Japan. He has been shot 4 times in battle but returned to the front within days. He is known as the mine man and has disarmed over 2 million himself. He goes up every week on horseback and continues his work methodically. As he said to us earlier, he has sacrificed half his body, and will sacrifice the other. We visited the graves of his parents, his brothers and his sister which all lie under a wide tree overlooking the valley.
On these hills he lost his legs and 3000 friends fighting first against Saddam then against the Islamists. His pride and joy is his 1980s R24 rifle from the Shah’s army. As with everyone else we meet, he was born to fight, he is a born soldier and he will fight again if he must.

This afternoon we spent a few hours playing football with about 30 children. They are peshmerga in the making and have beaten me well. I can barely walk and can think only of my blanket and my concrete floor.

Adorable Nippers

There is something unnerving about 10 year old supporters of Junde Islam, and their jokes about decapitation. The simulated tongue, lolling out from one side of the mouth suggests they have all watched these snuff videos and indeed the Bazaar is full of them.
The region we are in is strictly Islamic, and although the extremists were defeated in 2003 there is still much support for their ideals, though not always their methods. We have been helping at a centre that is building an adventure playground. Its aim, among others, is to offer the kids a glimpse of a childhood free of religious restrictions while also encouraging them to help themselves rather than relying on outside support. As such we have spent a lot of time with them over the last couple of days and have been observing their lives.

Among their favourite pastimes are taunting one another; playing leap frog; praying; throwing bricks at animals (ourselves included); chopping snakes and insects up; and of course football. They are happy children and we get on well with them. On arrival we are mobbed, jumped on and generally treated as punching bags but behind these playful antics lies evidence of horrors past and of disturbing potential. They will wind you up, push you to your limits, and test you. They fight at the drop of a hat, rolling around on the floor until too tired to continue punching, then they simply walk away.

It must be said that there is something natural in their behaviour. Compared with the mollycoddling in much of the West they are certainly not breeding a pampered generation. However it is the ease with which they rebound, the fun that they get from destruction and their haunting stares that have more worrisome undertones.

Some of the children question you repeatedly about religious affiliation and are not best pleased by the answers. More than once I have hid behind the language barrier to avoid answering such questions, though generally I just agree in the glory of God; without specifying which one. Tattoos are a huge taboo, as are chains around the neck and one little kid has tried repeatedly to tear Rick’s off. Here again though appears the paradox that seems to crop up again and again. Last time they saw a tattoo it was of a naked blond. Having stared at it in amazement they returned the next day with bandaged arms, covering up extensive cuts and their own shoddy attempts to recreate the tattoo. Here again we see their fascination and admiration for all things western, even in the face of religious retaliation and 'god’s vengeance'.

The most worrying children here are those who believe they have nothing left, those who think they have no hope and that life has dealt them a losing hand. We have met a few who talk like this and they are the ones who would have been corrupted by fundamentalists bearing money, gifts, sweets and explosives. A few hundred dollars and the attention of someone from abroad was often enough to persuade then to strap on bombs, pick up AK’s and join the fight.

Let us hope that one government or another; be it PUK, KDP, KRG, the central or even a western one, gives them some support and a chance to aspire, before they are again swayed by the promises of the afterlife.

I want to reiterate that these children mean well - they want to live and be left alone. On settling down at night, exhausted and to a cacophany of snores, one cannot help but feel happy, and I genuinley believe that that these children are also happy. On many levels the simplicity of life here is enviable - on others it comes with untold sadness.

Ice Cold in Sule

We stumbled out of the mountains, into the city and past the guards at hotel security. Unshaved, unwashed, with straggly hair and covered in animal waste we marched straight to the bar and ordered a cold beer. I had been thinking about this moment for the last few days and had been dying to relive that scene from the classic film, Ice Cold in Alex; as John Mills staggers out of the desert to his long awaited reward.

However something wasn’t the same and I was finding it hard to put the last week out of my mind. Something inside felt different that not even a cold beer could fix. Perhaps the realisation that I would soon have to reconcile what I had seen with what I would be returning to was bothering me.

This was our last day and a large part of me didn’t want to leave. I will be returning to Iraq soon, but not until I have faced the cocktail parties and dinners of London. “How was it darling” they will all chime, as if an adjective or two could describe the poverty and the knot in your stomach. I have been saying for the last couple of weeks that people in Iraq seem to be emotionally underdeveloped, but in retrospect perhaps it is the other way round. So many people in the West are unable to grasp lives so different from their own – and perhaps that’s precisely what our large armies protect us against having to do. Feelings are all relative.

Let me return though to the previous day and to other awakenings - even on the eve of departure I am still learning. It began with a furious phone call from a fixer, angry that we had hired a different translator for the day. “He is spy, he will ruin us, and I will then beat him” he cried in his rather silly high pitched voice. It took some time to calm him down when we met later that day and even then his podgy fists remained clenched tightly. Ironically it is he who has connections to the powers that be, so perhaps what he really meant was “Only I can be the spy here”. If this is true then he has much work to do and many other people to beat.

For spies here are everywhere: following you in cars, working in hotels, even teaching at schools - this is simply an accepted part of life in recent history. Under Saddam many Kurds worked for the regime, often turning in their neighbours, even helping with the slaughters. They are called Jash and like in so many other parts of the country they have still not been brought to justice – tragically many of them are still in positions of power and are flexing their muscles.* We spoke to one family waiting to receive their ‘displaced family allowance’ ($10,000) and were told they had been sidelined while families of the Jash got their payoffs first. In recent months people have become vigilantes in order to right these wrongs, and the murder rate is growing yet again.

Fighting for both sides like this however was not always about preservation of the individual, but about preservation of the family and hedging ones bets. In many cases (just as in Scotland during its wars against England) families fought on both sides of conflicts thus guaranteeing the survival of at least half the family. This led to people switching sides at the final moments and to stories of soldiers turning their guns on each other when defeat was imminent. It has also led to a sense of kinship that is rare to see.

Today we popped into the gun shop – sandwiched between the baker and the butcher in the bazaar’s main street. It is really just a concrete room with guns lying in piles and covering all available wall space. It is here that you come to have your trusty friend repaired or to pick up your sons first weapon. Everything from immense sawn off shotguns to 1920’s British rifles are on offer, and they do a lot of business. It is illegal here to carry weapons but nobody pays attention. Everyone has lived so long with one by their side that they have become like extended members of the family – and family here is everything. Family protects, family punishes and family guides. In the West it is just one more value that has begun to disintegrate.

We have been fortunate enough to eat many a dinner with local families, indeed so hospitable a people are they that it is hard to eat alone. What I have discovered is a respect and a bond between them that is enviable. They all have opinions and are usually only too happy to share them, questions they would rather not answer are replaced by a simple shrug of the shoulders and a polite hand to the heart.

So how do I feel sitting here, with my western beer and my own home just a flight away? Having seen both good and bad in both East and West? Well I feel privileged in every way and grateful everyday for what I have. If only everyone could understand how fortunate we are and what we lack.

See you all in England.

*There are other high profile Baathists who have not been brought to justice including Ali Hassan al-Majid’s (chemical ali’s) second in command and other senior intelligence chiefs. They were given immunity by America in exchange for testimony in the top few token cases.