The Unity of Kurdish Purpose in Sinjar in May – Now Under Threat


I wrote this back in May, and although I met with no KDP Peshmerga, the Kurds fighting on the frontline were united. With the Peshmerga Ministry yesterday announcing that no fighters from the PKK, YPG etc would be allowed to participate in the Sinjar operation, it seems a good time to revisit what might be lost.

 

As our driver carves down the final descent from Mount Sinjar into the town below, we pass ten or more upturned cars, some with clothing spilled onto the side of the road. The burnt out husks are testament to those that perished at the hands of Islamic State (IS) as they fled their homes in the town below in August of last year.

The Yazidis that sought refuge in the crucible of the mountaintop endured extreme temperatures, fatal thirst and constant insecurity.

A Yazedi Peshmerga A Yazedi girl

IS have advanced up the mountain, only to be forced back, and Kurdish forces now control a frontline on the northern outskirts of the town. Thousands have been killed, and up to 5,000 women and girls kidnapped, to be traded as sex slaves in markets in IS territories.

It has been a terrible 11 months in the history of a people that chart their history in tragedy. Those on the mountain are waiting, with another blistering summer already begun, to go home. They want to trek down the mountain and breathe life back into their community.

Amid accusations of power plays between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, and even political divisions within the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, it is difficult to see how Kurdish forces can take back and then protect Sinjar town.

The PKK have been locked in a guerrilla insurgency against the Ankara government for 30 years and recent attempts at establishing a lasting peace have faltered. Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) enjoy close economic ties. However, since the attacks by IS, and the response in Sinjar of the PKK and closely aligned People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Syrian Kurdistan, broader Kurdish relations have improved. The Turkish government even allowed Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga through its territory to support the PKK and YPG in Kobani at the end of 2014.

BasNews is welcomed to the Kurdish forces base by Commander Muaed Tofiq, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) 70 Division Peshmerga. The PUK are seen as more traditionally in agreement with the left wing sentiments of the PKK.

Tofiq is unconcerned by the perceived allegiances the fighters under his command may have – in the short trip to the base the flags of the MLKP, YPG and PKK were clearly visible. One man at the base is wearing a t-shirt bearing the face of Mam Jalal Talabani, the PUK leader and former President of Iraq.

Kurds from several forces on the Sinjar front

There is no problem between the forces, they are supporting each other. The Minister of Peshmerga is responsible for all of them.”

Of greater concern to Tofiq is the lack of effective weaponry and equipment. It’s apparent that all the fighters here are under-equipped. Less than a quarter are wearing adequate shoes, with many fighters clambering through mortar debris in cheap flat soles, the backs flattened down. The only weapons are ageing AK-47s.

We need weapons and bullets….we want anything that can help us fight IS. Our forces are wearing cheap clothes.


“It’s war time, we need fighting equipment. We bought these weapons ourselves, we were not given them by the government.”

When asked about the G3 and G36 rifles gifted to the Kurdistan Region by the German government, Tofiq’s spirit is unbowed.

We are not getting any weapons. It’s not related to KDP or PUK or anything, we just aren’t getting any weapons. We have had no training [from the coalition]. We buy our own weapons and ammunition. Gratitude from Europe is not enough,” he says without bitterness, but perhaps just a slight crease of confusion on his brow.

In his immaculately ironed uniform and leather belt and holster, Tofiq leads us to the frontline, to meet the Kurdish forces that have been ordered by President Barzani to hold the position, not to launch an offensive.

As a shot rings out, Tofiq explains that there is no Peshmerga sniper at this position to return fire. “There is no sniper here, but we have a fighter with a BKC [a medium-sized machine gun]. We coordinate with the PKK sniper.” It appears that there is a Kurdish coalition fighting IS on the edge of town.

We are taken to the BKC position, on the first floor of a traditional house, climbing to the nest from a courtyard. The operator of the weapon, wearing the unlikely combination of a straw fedora and bayonet strapped to his chest, explains to BasNews how the Kurds are working together.

This morning three Peshmerga and a PKK fighter coordinated, they went to bring back the body of a comrade killed by IS. When they went, IS shot at them. I helped them by covering with my BKC. They came back without the body, but safely.

The PKK wanted to retrieve some IS equipment that had been left in the field. They got a BKC and an RPG, one of the IS fighters was killed by the Peshmerga in the operation. We are not PUK or KDP, we are KRG Peshmerga.”

Outside, fighters are sitting in the shade at the back of the house, safe from the attentions of IS snipers. Some are drinking tea, others are observing the Ramadan fast and won’t slake their thirst until iftar. The music of Rojava singer Mohammed Sherko leaks with tinny imperfection from a mobile phone.

A PKK fighter arrives, dressed in traditional sharwal trousers. He looks old enough to be carrying a weapon, but not by much. BasNews asks how old he was when he joined the PKK. Sheepishly Shevan (not his real name) replies that he hoodwinked the PKK command to join up, two years ago,

I’m 20 years old, but I told the PKK that I’m 22 because there are some rules with the military command; they won’t accept anyone under 20, and I’ve been in the PKK since I was 18.”

He’s been in Sinjar for eight months, and refuses to leave for rest, even missing the chance to vote for the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in his home city of Mardin during the Turkish general election earlier this month.

The HDP is Apo’s project, which wants to collect all Kurdish ideas in one party. We’re really happy about the election, the HDP is very strong. The HDP will fight those who try to suppress Kurds in Turkey.”

Shevan is extremely distrustful of the Turkish government.

If we say IS is our enemy, the real enemy is Turkey and Iran, they have always wanted to fight the Kurds. IS want to fight the Kurds, and of course in this case Turkey want to help IS – we have proof that many times Turkey has helped IS forces,” he says, without elaborating on the evidence.

Black smoke starts to rise from IS houses 80 metres away, and we are ushered away. IS snipers have set fire to tyres, to give them cover from jets overhead as they move positions. This action is almost always accompanied by an increase in activity, and soon gunfire is cracking through the air. Tofiq later explains the tactic.

The problem with the snipers, they don’t fight from a stable position, they are moving every day, every night, every hour. When they burn the tyres they are changing places.

They have dug a lot of tunnels in this area – in the night they are coming, very close to the Peshmerga and then returning by tunnel, not overground. Sometimes the coalition drop heavy bombs when they know that they’re using the tunnels, but not very often,” he says.

We move to a compound shared by the PKK, YPG and the female units of the YPJ. There is a large hole in the garden, from which earth is used to fill sandbags. In the corner a PKK fighter cuddles an albino rabbit, almost completely obscured in his hands.

A PKK fighter with his pet rabbit

Two women from the YPJ tell us that they have been in Sinjar for 45 days. One is from Amedia, the other from eastern Turkey, or Bakur, as it’s known in Kurdish. Like Shivan they remain in Sinjar when they are given leave – they tell BasNews that they are here to free the town, and won’t leave until they have.

We head back to the base for one last chat. Over a glass of tea Tofiq explains how the Kurds are trying to combat IS with limited equipment.

Sometimes there is a conflict between IS and Kurdish cells [radios] and sometimes we hear them speaking in code for movements – ‘The seller is coming! The seller is coming!’ When we hear the voices, some of them are speaking in Turkmen, they are from Tal Afar, but the PKK understand them!” he says gleefully.

Sometimes we hear their voice without radios, because they are so close; at night especially.” A fighter interrupts to lament the lack of night vision equipment – although one PKK fighter has a set.

We leave the base to take the switchbacks up the mountain, once more passing the cars and clothes. As we pass the ridge and drive down into the long valley which is now home to several semi-permanent tent villages, the translator turns and tells me that the Peshmerga are often insulted and harangued when they travel through this area. Many Yazidis blame them for abandoning Sinjar when IS first arrived in August last year.

The view of the city from Mount Sinjar

But for now, on the front at least, there is Kurdish unity of purpose. Fighters from different militias are joining to confront the common enemy, sharing limited resources, good humour and linguistic skills.

Stroud Farmers’ Market Needs Syrian Cuisine


As of the latest census 115,000 (or thereabouts) people live in the Stroud District. It’s not the world’s most cosmopolitan area, but it’s full of diverse, accepting people. Sure, there are one or two pubs where darts seem to hang mid-air when a non-local walks in, but in my extensive research not one of them is actively unwelcoming.

But it’s about time we addressed The London Problem. These out-of-towners coming here, with their ToffRoaders and odd ways, buying all the best cuts at the Farmers’ Market. The result of the general election proves that UKIP doesn’t go far enough, and if we don’t stop these cross country immigrants heading over to the Five Valleys for the unspoilt air, soon there won’t be enough to go around.

Again, I’ve done thorough, faultless research. There are at least 10 families that have moved from outside Gloucestershire into Chalford, in search of “a better life”. Children are polluting the purring burr of thick Gloucestershire brogue with jarring estuary ‘English’ in classrooms across the district. Mothers are taking part-time jobs, in some cases even creating jobs to satisfy their lust to turn the High Streets of Stroud, Dursley and Nailsworth into some sort of ‘Little London’.

If we don’t stop this now, our culture will be diluted beyond repair. We almost lost the cheese-rolling because of this ridiculous notion of mass-media, better we roll-up check points on the constituency boundaries, issue ID cards and keep the filthy hoards at bay. Outsiders, and I’ve done wide-ranging research, bring absolutely nothing, and history proves me right.

I could labour this point, probably already have, but as a resident of both Stroud and Iraqi Kurdistan, I want to appeal to our community here. I’ve seen, in the last four years, the effect of the complicated war in Syria, and subsequently Iraq. People that have sought sanctuary anywhere away from the conflict.

For some, that sanctuary is in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where hundreds of thousands are living in camps where they survive. There is no thought of a future, and hope is a scare commodity. In temperatures nearing 50C this summer, resource-heavy air coolers were at best discouraged, at worst banned – both water and electricity hungry, they are wasteful in a region short on both.

Iraq hosts 4 million refugees and internally displaced people. Rather than the numbers, it’s best to look at the language. A refugee is someone much more than a migrant. I’m a migrant. Despite what friends and acquaintances may say, I’m not actively fleeing something. In fact, I’m a lifestyle migrant, living in Iraq because it, on the whole, suits me – I’m enjoying a career change I would have found far more difficult in the UK, and I’m learning about another culture, doing my best to assimilate and bring the best of my upbringing to a strange country without imposing what I think is right.

However, it was my choice. Those people boarding trains in Budapest? They don’t see a choice. They survived perilous trips across the Mediterranean, ploughing life savings into the pockets of unscrupulous traffickers, all for a little hope. Look to Turkey, where millions are already camped, Lebanon where the population is almost half refugees. Jordan which has accepted refugees for years, where the second largest city is essentially a tent encampment. These people don’t have the means to go any further, and if they could, they would.

People move because they are scared, and Europe is the safest, closest place to come. They want a future for their children, and are willing to risk the lives of them to get here. And guess what? If they’re spending $5,000 per person to risk this, they know how to make money. For all the people that believe that these hopeless people are seeking light in Europe merely to hit the non-existent benefits gravy train, give them an opportunity to shine.

And it’s about time The London Problem was challenged. For too long lattes and mochas have been the drink of Stroud High Street – it’s time for glasses of sweet chai and refreshing icy ayran to offer an alternative. The tasty Thai noodles of the Farmers’ Market must go up in a head-to-head-everyone-wins battle against freshly prepared tabouleh and babaganoosh.

So I propose the Stroud district welcomes its fair share of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. I’ve done the maths, and it’s terrifying.

Let’s go crazy and say the UK takes in 100,000 refugees. Hold the ‘paper still, I felt your shudder. Let’s say combined districts with a population of 15 million are for some reason unable to take refugees. So 100,000 divided by 50 million is a satisfying 0.002

Stroud’s population is about 115,000 as I said up top. 0.002 x 115,000 = 230

These figures are the absolute most absurd I could reasonably come up with.

To be humans, to care and to respond to a crisis none of us can, or would ever hope to, imagine, we need to find room for 230 people.

Sorry, not find room. We need to welcome 230 people, learn from them, support them and enrich our society – oh and feel good. Because this is the stuff of life.

Let’s make Stroud a beacon of hope, acceptance and fearlessness.

Rojava: Political Structure Obscured By Headlines


In recent weeks, as the world has watched the siege of Kobani enter its third month, the narrative followed by the media has centred on the sensational elements.

Glossy magazines have run articles praising the bravery of The Female Fighters Of The YPJ.

Stories of foreign fighters who have joined the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) abound . As new recruits to the cause join daily, the press is beginning to question the motivation of some soldiers, incorrectly identifying two British fighters as mercenaries. None of the ‘Lions’ are receiving payment, but they do get advice on what to bring; a minimum of $5,000 to purchase weapons, armour and supplies.

The fetishisation of the Kurdish women defending Rojava from the Islamic State has been depressing. I don’t question their heroism, in fact I’m deeply impressed by all with the courage to fight an enemy that has struck fear into supposedly stronger forces. Their resolve has remained intact, although reports suggesting that as much as 80% of Kobani is under Kurdish control appear to be wildly inaccurate. Refugees on the border claim the opposite is true. They say that the only area held by the Kurds is the highway to Turkey, which IS will not attack for fear of finally snapping the patience of the Ankara government.

The Marie Claire article that did the most to highlight the women battling IS in Rojava was hastily, and to their credit, publicly amended shortly after publication. Of the 12 women profiled, two were girls of just 12 and 14 years old. Naturally this caused something of an outcry, with accusations that the magazine was, if not celebrating, tacitly condoning the use of child soldiers.

Fewer commentators have tackled the way the article patronises women, the implication being that gender has an effect on the desire to protect your home and family. It’s certainly not as overtly misogynistic as Greg Gutfeld, the Fox News presenter who ridiculed UAE pilot Major Mariam al-Mansouri. Perhaps we should be thankful that the editor chose not to illustrate the article with the cultural appropriation of Peshmerga clothes, for which retailer H&M was forced to apologise in October. H&M claim the style and timing of release of the belted khaki jumpsuit was a coincidence.

But the Marie Claire article doesn’t ask about the politics of the women – there is not a single enquiry about what the Democratic Union Party (PYD) or even the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) stand for, merely the compulsory references to the 30 year struggle in Turkey and the identification of the PKK as a terrorist organisation. Without that, all the article exists for is to highlight that women fight, just like men (there is no mention of the fact that Kurdish women have been involved in armed resistance for decades). By reducing the role of women in the struggle in Rojava to just a military one, Marie Claire misses the true quest for equality happening in the region. A light shone, however briefly, on the fact that the three cantons are run by two elected leaders – a man and a woman – would have been apposite. Quotas in local government insist on 40% of positions being filled by women. This commitment to women’s liberation has been adopted in Rojava from core principles of the PKK and PJAK in Iran.

On the whole the world’s press still prefers to illustrate the women of the cantons with a fighter in fatigues holding an AK-47, rather than a 30 year-old engineering graduate marshalling decrepit oil fields. That a genuine attempt at social gender equality is receiving little attention is incomprehensible, especially in this region.

Elsewhere in the world, where women have been involved on the front lines for years, media speculation is less intense. A Canadian soldier, Captain Ashley Collette was awarded the Medal of Military Valour for her leadership of an all male platoon whilst in Afghanistan, and nine other countries, including Germany, permit women in all combat units. In Israel, single and married women without children are required to undertake mandatory military service, and are able to serve in light combat roles.

One such soldier is Gill Rosenberg. The 31 year-old served for two years in the Israeli Defence Force when she emigrated to the country in 2006. She travelled to Syria via Erbil airport last month, joining the expanding ranks of international fighters within the YPG and YPJ.

She followed Jordan Matson and Brian Wilson who generated headlines as the first Americans to sign up with the YPG, and Matson especially has maintained a high-profile as the face of the social media recruitment campaign, The Lions of Rojava. The Guardian reported last week that two British men, Jamie Read and James Hughes have travelled to Syria as mercenaries, a claim flatly denied by Graham Penrose who knows the men.

“They are volunteers and brave men like Jordan Matson and Joshua Bell, whose conscience has motivated them to apply their skills to assist innocent people who have been left to their own devices in the face of terror from IS and to report their experiences so that Western European audiences can understand the imperative of assisting the Kurdish nation resist IS,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

Joshua Bell comes with a superficially interesting back story. A former contestant on the Discovery Channel’s Naked & Afraid programme, Bell is an ex-Marine, serving as a sniper with the YPG. Colourful characters one and all, and risking their lives for a cause that many would feel is not their battle.

Of course this is awesome copy – but it feels thin, and as I say, superficial. What would be fascinating is a glimpse into the personal motivations of the recruits. Do we want to know, above and beyond the slogans (“Better to live one day as a lion, than 1,000 as a lamb” and “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”), the ‘why’? For example, how do the right-wing politics of America chime with the decidedly left-wing principles at play in the PYD?

And what of those politics? Rarely reported, and with the focus squarely on the fight against the encroaching Jihadis, what does the Western media care for the type of autonomy that Rojava and its people wish to carve in a post civil war Syria? The head of the PYD, Salih Muslim, has been around the world canvassing support and weapons for the struggle, and yet the Kurdish Supreme Committee’s plans for elections in the next two months are mostly left unreported, and even in longer pieces about the cantons, little in the way of ideology is addressed. It appears that interest is focused only on the conflict, and not what comes after (or even during). Surely there must be an appetite for the political system developing in Rojava? No? Just me?

John Cantlie, British Journalist Held by Daesh, Reports From Kobani


Islamic State have released a new video of British hostage John Cantlie, who has become the English speaking mouthpiece of the organization after over two years in captivity.

Cantlie has been the presenter of a series of news-style reports over recent weeks. Filmed wearing an orange tunic, he has delivered propaganda pieces direct to camera, in a series entitled Lend Me Your Ears. Episode 5, released Sunday 26th October, claims that hostages have been waterboarded, and in previous episodes he has spoken of being abandoned by his government.

Until the video from inside Kobani, released 27th October, it was difficult to ascertain if the Lend Me Your Ears series was shot in one sitting – current events in the fight against IS are not mentioned.

Now, however, Cantlie directly references news reports from the BBC on the 17th October, and is wearing a much fuller beard than that seen in the videos, which remains uniform throughout the five episodes of Lend Me Your Ears, suggesting that they were indeed shot at one time.

The Kobani video opens with footage from a remote controlled multi-rotor helicopter, surveying the damage done to the city, before it cuts to Cantlie.

He opens, “We are here inside the so-called PKK safe zone that is now controlled by the Islamic State.

“Despite continual US air strikes which have so far cost nearly half a billion dollars in total, the mujahideen have pushed deep into the heart of the city. They now control the eastern and southern sectors.

“The western media, and I can’t see any of them here, have been saying that the Islamic State are on the retreat. In the last 48 hours, hundreds of Islamic State militants have been reportedly killed in air strikes according to the IB Times on the 16th October. ‘We know we’ve killed several hundred of them,’ said John Kirby the Pentagon official. The Islamic State is retreating from the city of Kobani, said the BBC on October 17th, while Patrick Cockburn said in The Independent that despite suffering serious losses, the Islamic State was continuing its assault on the city.”

He also mentions the arrival of Peshmerga, dating the video to within the last seven days, “Kobani is now being reinforced by Iraqi Kurds who are coming in through Turkey while the mujahideen are being resupplied by the hopeless United States air force, who parachuted two crates of weapons and ammunition straight into the outstretched arms of the mujahideen.”

Cantlie then addresses the lack of on the ground reports leaving Kobani, “Without any safe access, there are no journalists here in the city, so the media are getting their information from Kurdish commanders and White House press secretaries, neither of whom have the slightest intention of telling the truth about what’s happening here on the ground.”

However, this is contradicted by a report on NBC from Iraqi Kurdish journalist Shirwan Qasim. Qasim spent three days in Kobani last week, where he reported that whilst Kurdish fighters are in good spirits, there are no safe areas in the city.

Kobani is, Qasim says, a ‘ghost town’ of just several hundred people.

Cantlie appears to confirm this, but claims the city is in the hands of Islamic State militants.

“The battle for Kobani is coming to an end, the mujahideen are just mopping up now, street to street and building to building; you can occasionally hear sporadic gunfire in the background as a result of those operations.”

He finishes his piece with a flourish of propaganda now expected from the Islamic State media machine, “Urban warfare is about as nasty and tough as it gets, and it’s something of a specialty of the mujahideen.”

Dabiq Issue 4, I’ve read it so you don’t have to.


About 20 years ago, I was in the pub in my home town. I was sat with my girlfriend, who was about 9 years older than me. Me an impressionable young man, desperate to impress her friends – a gay couple visiting from France. Guy had recently completed his theological doctoral thesis on a subject way beyond my understanding, something to do with explaining the Big Bang in terms of Christianity.

I mentioned to Guy that some friends of mine had been reading up on the Mayan predictions of the end of the world in 2012. Of course he scoffed at my naivety and suggested that the only likely way this astrology would be proved correct would be through a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was the first time I’d heard the phrase.

Pub. Girlfriend. Gay. Christianity. Astrology. Things way beyond the tolerance of Daesh.

I’ve spent a day sifting through the latest issue of Dabiq, Daesh’s version of the western magazine Hello!, probably best charicatured as Jihad!. It is, as you’d expect, a disturbing read. Propaganda glorifying recent victories and the establishment of two new wilāyah or administrative districts. Photos show engineers restoring power lines, markets selling shuti (watermelons) and checkpoints, so common to this part of the world and not that different to those through which I pass on my way to Sulaymaniyah, just the black clothes and heavy beard of the guards belying their true identity.

Several pages are given over to spoils of war, with photos illustrating weapons seized in their recent victories. Some of the pictures are highly-stylized, as one might expect a legitimate arms manufacturer advertise their wares to governments; they sit comfortably on the pages of the ‘glossy’ PDF. Elsewhere, to remind us of Daesh’s strength and ability to use these heavy guns and canons, the photos are altogether more action based, with flames spitting from the nozzle of large calibre machine gun, and a recently discharged canon erupting volcano-like.

There is the proud news that Ansar al-Islam has pledged allegiance to the Caliphate, with pictures of joyous men (of course) hugging after the bay’ah (religious pledge of allegiance) and a short statement by Ansar al-Islam, typically hyperbolic and praising Daesh for rubbing the ‘faces of secularist Kurds in the dirt’.

About half way through, we come to a report on military operations; there is no shying away from their murderous actions, with photos of 100s of captives being ‘marched to their death’, images of dead ‘PKK Apostates’ and executed Peshmerga in Daquq.

As if to sugar what they see as the necessary pill of death, we are then treated to a few pages on the welfare state Daesh is bringing to the caliphate – evocative stories of childhood cancer patients, homes for the elderly, reconstruction; all naturally illustrated with unverifiable photos.

There are profiles of various world leaders, of the enemies of the caliphate. Specific religious teachings, although all of the magazine is imbued with the movement’s interpretation of Islam.

An interpretation that admits to and justifies the taking of Yazedi women and girls as slaves. As followers of the pre-Islamic faith are regarded as mushrikīn, roughly people that worship a god other than Allah, there is no room for paying a tax like Christians or Jews, but rather they were taken and divided among Daesh fighters. They are sold on, and the entire 1,500 article is a sickening, bland religious justification for the enslavement of women. They do mention that other scholars of Islam refute their interpretation, but of course they don’t argue, merely dismiss it as incorrect, a softening of teachings to coincide with our modern world. The abandonment of slavery, they argue, has led to an increase in fāhishah – adultery and fornication; pretty ripe coming from a group that has, without doubt, committed mass rapes of women, girls and boys.

Finally, they declare that the reintroduction of slavery is one of the signs of al-Malhamah al-Kubrā – a final Muslim v Muslim war that will take place after their victory in the current conflict. It all resonates as apocalyptic and end of days. That we are all soon to be judged in the eyes of Allah, according to prophecies.

And to that, one thing gives me hope; that Daesh, in their hubris, will fulfil their own prophesy and disappear, taking their violent, ultra-misogynistic, brutal interpretation of Islam with them.

This Morning In Kurdistan


When I first arrived in Iraq, I hid in a hotel room for a week. I didn’t understand that the Kurdistan Region is the ‘other Iraq’, the safe Iraq. My new employers had assured me, but then left me to my own devices in a grotty hotel under the citadel. I would take a brief walk every day, scoping my surroundings and getting used to the entirely new world of the Middle East. I had never planned to be here, and in those early days I thought only of my next move.
Over the following months, when I accepted that I was indeed in the safe Iraq, I started to make friends, both local and expats. I very quickly came to understand that to be Kurdish or Iraqi was to have a troubled recent history, and without exception families are scarred by loss resulting from one of the many terrible conflicts to have befallen the place over the last 40 years.
And now, personally affected by the current conflict, the advice of everyone I speak to is, “get out, go home, why would you stay when you have a British passport?”
For the first time, I’m considering leaving. As much as I love and respect those that have welcomed me over the last three and a half years, this isn’t my war. It isn’t theirs either, but I have an option. There is a new nervousness amongst expats, a feeling that perhaps the Peshmerga aren’t as skilled as we’ve been led to believe. More worryingly, Islamic State seems to be far more organised than anyone predicted. The ease with which they have pushed back Kurdish forces in Sinjar and surrounding areas, and the following horrors, is extremely disturbing. And if they take control of Mosul Dam, their power over anywhere downstream on the Tigris is complete. They can easily stifle agriculture. They can flood entire cities – and this is the frightening thing. Cities could be flooded by design, fuck knows these people are capable of such a monstrosity, but more likely by accident as they fail to maintain a dam so fragile that it needs constant maintenance and regrouting.
In the basement newsroom where I copy edit, this morning has been a grim roll call of Yazedis massacred in Sinjar (88 today alone), up to 2,000 women missing, and 8 children dying overnight on Sinjar Mountain, where those that have fled the town find themselves without food, water, medicines and the phone coverage cut by IS.
Yes, if I get offered the evacuation plan by my employer, I think I’ll take it.

For Al Jazeera – “Iraqi Kurds Look To Erbil For Tourism Boost”


Erbil, Iraq – The citadel that looks out over Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdish region is often claimed to be the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in the world. The mound on which it sits has evidence from Assyrian and Sumerian times, and the structure is imagined to contain the Temple of Ishtar, deep below the ground.

The citadel was granted World Heritage status at the recent session of UNESCO in Doha, finally upgraded from the “tentative” list, where it had sat since 2010, a decision welcomed by Dara al-Yaqoobi, head of the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalisation (HCECR).

“The World Heritage Committee recognises that Erbil Citadel has met its conditions and criteria and the site has outstanding international value, it deserves to be inscribed. Being a UNESCO World Heritage site is very important,” Yaqoobi told Al Jazeera.

As increasingly troubled political realities plague the region, World Heritage status has been proclaimed as “a gift … to the people and all communities of Iraq”, by a member of the Iraqi delegation to UNESCO.

The citadel, which is being touted as a major tourist destination in Iraq, joins three other UNESCO sites in the country: Ashur, Hatra, and Samarra.

Dara al-Yaqoobi said $35m has been spent so far on revitalisation projects around the citadel [Luke Coleman/Al Jazeera]

The citadel is not the only structure undergoing preservation work in the area.

A large building near the north gate is being re-purposed as a visitor and information centre, and Yaqoobi said homes and businesses would also be built.

The project to revitalise the visitor centre is in the first five-year phase of a 15-year plan. Yaqoobi said that $35m had been spent by the Kurdistan Regional Government so far over the last three years, and that the HCECR was investigating the feasibility of public-private partnerships to raise more funds.

Another major project near completion is the reconstruction of the main gate. In the 1950s, the Ottoman-era gate was demolished as it was deemed unsafe. “They didn’t know how to conserve it,” Yaqoobi said, “so they did the easy thing and removed it”.

The area remained empty until 1979, when the municipality constructed a new gate. After a year of research by the HCECR – using photographs, first-person testimonies, and archaeological examinations of the original foundation – a decision was made to rebuild it using the previous design.

There is a large amount of construction, maintenance, and preservation taking place in the citadel itself. “It means bringing life back to the citadel. We have to have good conditions for residential and other activities,” Yaqoobi said.

In addition to being at the centre of the capital, the citadel is regarded as central to long-term tourism plans for the region, with discussions taking place about adding restaurants and shops to the textile museum which was recently opened within its walls.

Alongside UNESCO, the HCECR will undertake a study looking at a viable strategy for tourism development. The details of this new plan remain unknown at present.

But will international recognition have a positive effect on tourism?

Mohammed Yaseem Jamal, the proprietor of a shop selling honey, perfumes, and gifts at the base of the citadel, is unsure. He has been doing business in this area for 45 years.

I’m proud to have my shop here and happy about the UNESCO decision… But people don’t come because they are scared of the name Iraq, even though we know the [Kurdish] region is very safe.

“I’m proud to have my shop here and happy about the UNESCO decision. I think it is a bit late, because it’s important for people to know what life was like in the Citadel. But people don’t come because they are scared of the name Iraq, even though we know the [Kurdish] region is very safe,” he told Al Jazeera.

Heja Baban, co-founder of Meydan PR & Marketing which recently completed a project for the KRG Board of Tourism, said that recent violence across Iraq has negatively impacted perceptions among potential visitors.

“It affects how the rest of the world sees Iraq as a whole. The first thing you think as a tourist is ‘Am I going to be safe?’ And if that is not 100 percent clear, you will have second thoughts. Even though it is safe, it’s not considered as safe as it was two months ago, and that’s enough,” Baban told Al Jazeera.

According to figures from the KRG Board of Tourism, approximately 2.2 million people visited the region in the first eight months of 2013. Yaqoobi is unsure of the effect the current conflict will have on tourism, “because it is so recent we don’t have any clear statistics and we won’t know the effect for some time”.

So far, the citadel alone has not been enough to attract large numbers of tourists. “I hope this brings people, perhaps more will come when the museum is built,” said Jamal, referring to the proposed Kurdistan National Museum, which is designed by Daniel Libeskind.

This museum project has come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the World Heritage inscription, as it is planned for an area within the protected buffer zone around the base of the citadel. But UNESCO-imposed restrictions, including building regulations which state that the structure cannot be taller than three-storeys, may make development around the citadel difficult.

The International Committee On Monuments and Sites, which advised UNESCO on the award of World Heritage status, made reference to the contrast of the museum’s very modern design and the citadel. Currently, the local government is considering whether to alter the design or move the proposed site.

Yaqoobi said: “If the museum doesn’t match those regulations or isn’t in harmony with the citadel, it may be modified a little.”

A Simplified View Of Iraq Today.


Over the last 6 days, Iraq has seen the rapid escalation of the Daash insurgency. Daash is the local name for what you might see described in the western press as ISIS or ISIL. Having come across the pourous border from Syria, this Sunni militia has had control of the Anbar province, more or less, since the early part of 2014. Whilst the province is majority Sunni, the local sheiks didn’t want the Sharia law that was coming with Daath. Initially they agreed to fight them with the Shia government of Prime Minister Maliki (as they did with the Americans during The Surge). However, that policy failed and the government is tackling the problem with barrel bombs dropping on the cities of Fallujah and Anbar. Of course this tactic has created many civilian casualties and deaths.

Mosul, further north in the province of Nineveh, has been a very dangerous place for a long time. Rumblings of Daash influence have been reported for many months – record shop owners being told to close their stores, this strict interpretation of Islam similar to that of the Taliban. On Friday 8th June 2014 they began an attack on the administrative buildings of the city, and by Tuesday 10th they were in control of the west of the city including the army base that was deserted, first by the commanders who appear to have had prior warning of the attack and then the lower ranks. The majority of these soldiers are Shia from Baghdad, Najaf, Basra and elsewhere in the south. Here is a photo of them queuing outside Iraqi Airways in Erbil today, Thursday 12th, desperate to fly home.

IMG_20140612_160356205
Credit: Brian Lione

Those flying to Najaf, a city of especial Shia signifance for its Imam Ali Shrine, might be advised to go elsewhere – Daash has stated its intention to march on that city as well as the other Shia pilgrimage city of Karbala and have surrounded the city of Samarra, the site of the Askari shrine. They also believe that they will have Friday prayers in Baghdad tomorrow.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that up to 80 Turkish citizens are being held hostage by Daash, with Turkey calling on its NATO allies to respond. Add to this offers of help against the Sunni Daash from Iran and Assad in Syriad, and there’s a confusing mishmash of offers and demands.

I had coffee with a friend from Mosul today. He has bought his family to live with friends in Erbil (those not sponsored are having to live in temporary camps outside city limits until they are verified to not be Daash). He is happy to be here, and I asked him about Mosul. “Everyone is happy”, he said, “because now Iraq army gone. I had six years in Mosul, when I came there from Baghdad. Now Erbil is home.” What about Daash, what are they like? “They don’t hurt people, but Sharia. No good.”

On their way down to Baghdad and Samarra, Daash attacked the city of Kirkuk, a place almost always described as ‘problematic’, ‘disputed’ or ‘strategically important’. It’s been coveted by both the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government for years, mostly because of the oil and gas reserves. It’s ethnically diverse, with Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds and until yesterday was guarded by both federal and Kurdish peshmerga forces. As with Mosul, it seems that the Iraqi army fled. However, the peshmerga are a much more highly trained outfit, who have the common cause of their homeland. KRG has always seen Kirkuk as part of their territory and it appears that Daash chose not to fight this battle, which now leaves the peshmerga allegedly in total control of the city. This could be significant.

Since the beginning of this year, Baghdad has refused to release the 17% of the national budget owed to the Kurdistan Region. Public sector workers have gone unpaid or are working on greatly reduced salaries. The argument is about whether KRG has the right to sell its own oil. The constitution of Iraq is argued back and forth and Kurdish politicians bang the independence drum before elections, whilst everyone accepts that this can’t happen for a few years, at least. The oil wells are new, and the pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan has only just opened – two million barrels have filled two tankers, which have struggled to find buyers, although rumours abound daily.

The violence in the south, the apparent disinterest of Daash moving towards Kurdish territory and the strength of the peshmerga, coupled with the confidence that comes with a growing economy are bound to lead to speculation about the possibility of independence. For now all that matters is that the region is safe.

This is a fluid situation, that has moved extremely quickly. Only a fool would make strong predictions about the following days, weeks and months.

Fiddling While Rome Burns or Let Them Eat Cake


I have two phrases that I use when I find myself slightly confused by something Kurdish.

The first, “Zor Kurdi” (Very Kurdish) I used when a Kurdish friend of mine insisted that we enter the memorial museum in Halabja via the clearly unmanned security kiosk. It wasn’t a big diversion, but it seemed unnecessary and smacked of the kind of indoctrinated behaviour I naturally rail against. A small thing, we can agree, but so are the mosquitoes currently feasting upon me.

Secondly, “Bexerbet Kurdistan” (Welcome to Kurdistan) I use to illustrate something that feels unique to the region. On the roads, for example, when taxis creep to an almost imperceptible speed going over any crack in the road; a regular driver of mine once slowed for a shadow cast by election bunting. Or the honking at the lights, three seconds before they turn green – such patience for speed bumps, and glorious anxiety to get on the move elsewhere.

These oddities don’t annoy me; they almost always cause a wry smile. It’s a part of travelling and living abroad, to appreciate the differences. And as a guest here, I try to steer clear of criticising my hosts. I am sensitive to both the hard work that is being done to improve a young proto-state and to my own privilege of having been bought up in a country with a long-established (admittedly now creaking under successive self-interested governments, but enough of that) social and physical infrastructure.

A street nearby in Ankawa has recently had the start of a sewerage system installed. My mind struggles to conceive of the enormity of this project, of the necessary chaos the groundworks will bring. It’s brilliant that it’s being done, and whilst I have very little knowledge of the intricacies of such an operation, I hope it’s being done with foresight and to the highest standard possible. These literal foundations are going to define the KRG, and a poor job is going to reflect laughably on a city irritatingly labelled the ‘new Dubai’ – Hawler has history Dubai can only dream of, and in the rush for riches must not forget its personality.

So when a headline as unlikely as “French firm to build small Eiffel-style tower in Iraq” pops up in my daily Google alerts, my heart sinks. Why in the world does any city in Kurdistan, let alone Sulaymaniyah with its skyline defining Grand Millennium, need a replica Eiffel tower? Under the headline, something more annoying becomes clear.

“In line with investment laws in Kurdistan, foreign investors are asked to carry out a tourism project in the city where they intend to invest,” according to Yousuf Yassin, director of Sulaymaniyah municipality.

I understand the focus on tourism, I see that it’s a pillar worth building the new Kurdistan on. It’s a beautiful country, with some good quality hiking in the areas safe from mines. And the 300 square kilometres that remain dangerous are being cleared, slowly. Perhaps the French firm should be required to make a substantial donation to MAG or one of the other organisations working in this arena?

The streets of the cities and towns in Kurdistan are regularly and well-maintained and in the capital there are moves to create more green spaces to compliment the parks that are already here – but what of the can and bottle strewn disasters on the mountains of Goizha and Azmaar? Why not have investors plunge their social responsibility funds into public education films and litter-pick initiatives? Perhaps a larger, more comprehensive education programme that addresses water scarcity and the folly of hosing down streets?

As I approach the end of my third year living here, I’m asked how long I intend to stay. My answer is that I will stay as long as I’m welcome. I use an idiom, ‘if it’s not broken, why fix it?’ to describe my situation. That doesn’t apply to the region though, and whilst measures are in place and initiatives have started, I can’t help but think that some of the foreign investment could be put to better use.

And then, something zor Kurdi will be most welcoming.

Eastern Turkey By Bus


For those of us who pay our own way in and out of the country, there is a common grumble about the cost of using Iraqi airspace. When I explain to friends back home that a straightforward return flight to the UK can set you back somewhere north of $1,200, they look at me blankly for a while. Then it dawns on them.

“Hold on,” one considered during my recent Newroz holiday in England, “I could fly to New Zealand and back for that money.” I could see the steam coming out of his ears as he bought up a mental world map. “Isn’t Iraq on the Turkish border? I flew to Bodrum last summer for about £100 return. No wonder you only come home once or twice a year.”

I try to explain that there’s probably some insurance issue, and that the airlines can afford to charge that because the majority of people flying in and out are doing so on business. But really, I find that I’m just kidding myself, and that I don’t know the real reason that the airlines are able to take such blistering liberties with the cost. And, after all, even if I did know, it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. My ignorance doesn’t mean I am missing out on deals. But, necessity being the mother of invention, the price has led me to finding alternatives.

Last month, I decided to trade a week at home for a week in Turkey, travelling overland to Istanbul from Erbil. I spent some time in Mardin, Sivas and Istanbul before flying to London on a cheap flight. I returned via Dusseldorf, having spent a couple of nights with friends in Amsterdam. In all, I saved around $400 and racked up some fun in other countries than my own.

So, I’d like to heartily recommend the less visited areas of Turkey, or Northern Kurdistan if you prefer. I’ve crossed the border at Ibrahim Khalil a few times now, into Silopi and then taking bus onwards. The crossing can be the most exhausting and infuriating part of any journey in that direction. I’ve once sailed through in an hour, but more often than not it takes around 6 hours. A good book, a full iPod and a packed lunch are essential. For this reason, booking any onwards travel in advance can be a little optimistic. Silopi bus station is the best thing about the town (in that it’s the quickest way out), and services most of the cities within a 12 hour ride, as well as Ankara and Istanbul. Depending on your luck, you can usually find something going your way within a few hours – whilst it’s not a very inspiring place to be stuck, there is a small shop, a fairly decent restaurant and the bus companies are happy to share their WiFi.

Mardin is forever a fantastic place to start a trip around this area. The old city, thought to have been settled as early as 4,000 BC, clings to a mountain looking south to Syria. In the spring the plain feels almost like some verdant sea as it disappears to the horizon. Madrassas, churches and mosques can be explored, whilst Turkish, Kurmanji, Syriac and Arabic are all spoken.

From here, heading west is the historic capital of Kurdistan, Diyabakir. The old city and its walls are a great way to lose a day, although if you suffer from vertigo, a walk along the top of those walls can be daunting. Yet further west is Ganziantep, a city on my list to visit, as are the ‘beehive’ houses of Urfa to the south.

East of Mardin is Hasankeyf. Simply put, you don’t have long to visit this town, seven times the capital of Mesopotamia. Over the next couple of years, once the Turkish government have finished damming the Tigris river upstream, it will be flooded. Byzantine bridges, ancient minarets and historic hammams are all set to be lost. The caves’ walls, deeply inscribed with cuneiform carvings, will be lost forever, whilst at the moment many of them are freely accessible. These caves have only recently been abandoned – in fact I know a shepherd who still lives in them, the final resident of a lifestyle set to disappear.

One final town I’d like to recommend is Van. Sometimes a place gets under your skin, and for what reason you don’t know. This happened to me when I visited Van last year. On a very high elevation, the ski resort is open for at least half the year. A mineral lake plays host to visiting flamingos in the summer. The breakfasts are amazing and the old fortress a treasure. You may remember that there was a devastating earthquake there in 2011, and it was impossible to avoid the evidence when I visited. That said, there was plenty of reconstruction to witness as well, and the place seemed determined to grow. As a border town with Iran, it has an edginess as well, a feeling that much of the money made springs from an illicit economy – certainly some of the cars I saw there were of a different class than those I’d seen elsewhere.

The thing that links the cities of Turkey is the excellent coach network. Every bus provides tea or coffee, makes regular rest stops and there are TVs on the headrests. Many now have WiFi as well, which for me meant I could listen to English radio as I didn’t understand any of the TV channels. Sure, this isn’t first class, but it’s a comfortable and economical way to explore one of the greatest areas on earth – and if there’s a cheap flight back to England at the end of it, I couldn’t be happier.

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