Tag Archives: Kurdistan

A Tragically Common Story From Sinjar

There is no getting away from the overwhelming grief which continues to envelop the Yazidi community in northern Iraq. This is Kalash’s story. It is sadly not unusual.


Kalash with YPG fighters at an entry checkpoint to Sinjar. He credits the YPG with saving lives and preventing kidnappings.

I remember when the Peshmerga leader says to us, ‘Don’t escape, the force will come to save you. Don’t go anywhere.’ I was here [Sinjar]. What happened? Hmmm. Genocide. So, when ISIS coming, the Peshmerga raised the white flag and escaped, all of them escaped. All Shingal [Sinjar] area was under the control of KDP Peshmerga. For Sinjar, I see it’s very difficult because it’s not safe. The Arabs here in Shingal, when ISIS coming all of them fighting us.

Will you allow Sunni Arabs to come back? I don’t think so because all of them was with ISIS. Even if the government come and refuse to kill them, the Yazidi people will kill them.

Who will govern Sinjar in the future? I think Kurdistan Regional Government.

Will you be happy with that, after what happened? Actually no. Because the same leader now are in Sinjar and they say ‘we will protect Sinjar’ and we saw when they escaped without any resistance against ISIS, so we think….

Did you mark Yazidi New Year? No. Now my cousin, she is old 7 years, she’s in captivity with ISIS. Other my cousin, he was 17 years old, ISIS killed him. Other my cousin, she was 1 year old, she died from thirst in mountain in August when we escaped, because there was no milk and there was no clear water and she’s died in the way of going to Syria.

Did you go to Syria? Yes. August 15 2014, YPG opened border of Syria and thousands of Yazidis escaped through that border. If not YPG fighters I think there would be many more killed and more captivity and more crimes against Yazidis, but YPG opened border between Iraq and Syria and many Yazidis escaped through that point.

How long did you spend there? Three days. I went to Zhakho, then to Lalish and then in September 3 I come back to mountain so I help Yazidi fighters by my information on medicine or like that. In that time, I was not graduated, but I was a student, I have information about medicine and first aid, so I came. [Now] I have graduated from Duhok University, Community Health Department.

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.

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.

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.

Day Of The Dogs In Kangal, Turkey.

I said my latest goodbye to Mardin from the centre of the new part of the old city. The coach left at 5.30pm and got into Sivas at about 4am. I had this sub-conscious expectation of a run-down truck stop, dawn illuminating old men with white moustaches playing backgammon and drinking tea. I was fully aware that we were arriving at 4am, but my rose-tinted imagination had it that way. So when we pulled up to a modern otopark much like many of the others I’ve seen around the larger cities of Turkey, I was surprised and relieved – clearly I’m not as much of a romantic as my thoughts. Whilst I still feel this part of the world to be far safer and more respectful than Europe, carrying a large-ish amount of cash (spread across five currencies because I’m quite the jet, sorry, bus-setter) stops me from napping with ease. Even the overnight buses (honestly, so safe for a single man who growls rather than speaks the local language) find me watching the head rest TV rather than sleep. I laid down and watched the headlights of the arriving coaches dance through the semi-circular glass front of the station. The line of coach companies had yet to open for business, and I had a deep rumble in my gut. Cursing my choice of rice and spicy aubergine stew, or rather disappointed that I’d allowed my roadside appetite get the better of my golden rule, I donned my pack and searched resignedly for a crapper. Even in the most modern terminals, the squat drops are often a grim affair, at best wet from the buckets of water available for cleaning. Being so unpracticed, it’s difficult to shit without getting my trousers wet and then wondering. To my audible joy, there was a disabled toilet available in the men’s room and I sat down like a toddler as my feet couldn’t find the floor from the raised height. The Golden Rule to long distance bus travel in Turkey is always micturate when given the chance and grab a sit down defecation moment with both hands….well, you know, just take a shit when there’s a clean Western-style growler.

Moving on from what is excellent advice, I passed the next couple of hours reading a compelling but slightly nerdy fishing travelogue until a few of the agents sleepily appeared from the mirrored back offices. I’ve been warned not to rely on my limited Kurdish in this central region, and with no Turkish aside from ‘thanks’, I went from booth to booth inflecting ‘Kangal’ with a little accent and enquiry to no avail. Heavy-eyed clerks with weary dispositions seemed to implore me to give them a moment to adjust to waking up literally in the office. The open waiting area had fewer prostrate bodies now, all in need of tickets – north-west to Ankara and further to Istanbul, south to Gaziantep, back west to Van or Batman. One vendor indicated a bus to catch, but I missed it. My simple plan of grabbing a local bus to Kangal, just an hour away, was beginning to feel naive. Then another booth opened and I repeated my one word request. “Tamam” (ok) and he wrote me a ticket – 8 lira, 8 o’clock, bay 8. I have a numerologist friend, and I’ve no idea what he’d make of this, but I’m hopelessly superstitious when travelling and took it to be A Good Sign. A smaller bus arrived, and with the conductor looking at me askance as I puffed away on my e-cigarette, I stowed my rucksack and took my seat – 13, but I always let the darker omens go. I don’t remember leaving the station, I fell fast asleep. Woken by a pleading bladder and a slowing vehicle, I looked out of my window – a massive kangal, bushy tail coiled, standing like a show dog. It was a full two metres at the shoulder and cast from cheap concrete, but at least I knew I was in the right place. I did that confused panic thing that we all do when we’ve woken almost too late, only to be ushered back to wait until we were in the centre of the 11,000 strong town. It gave me time to get my bearings, take in a little of what is an unremarkable town, strung with the bunting that drapes the country at this time of local elections. Bunting, posters of men (in this town it appears to be a moustache competition, with at least two candidates who could represent Turkey at the world championships should their political ambitions stall) and cars blaring music rather than promises. In Mardin, with its heavily mixed population, I could understand this – Turkish music from the ethnically Turkish parties, and the reedier, faster Kurdish music from the BDP. In Kangal, a poorer town, tired amplifiers and speakers nestle in bungees atop older Renaults, and the distorted result grates somewhat.

When I did disembark onto the street, I was immediately tugged by a taxi driver. In his hands he held a ragged tourist information pamphlet and jabbed his nailless index finger almost through a photo of a spa. The type where little fish feed on your flaking skin. Should I be offended that he doesn’t see me as much of a man, or flattered that I’m clearly the type who takes care of himself. The truth is somewhere in between, and I wasn’t in Kangal for fish. There are pictures of the dogs absolutely everywhere, and given the chance I’d vote for them. But as they’re not standing and I’m not voting, I just pointed at one of the photos and looked at him. Now that I was in Kangal, my Turkish was down to zero words but he got hold of my intentions, so I trusted my gut. I pointed to a cheap looking hotel, he fetched the owner from the butcher’s below, I dumped my bag and we were off. Not even being able to ask the price, I pointed to my wallet and he just cheerfully said ‘meter, tamam!’ OK, whatever, he seemed a sure bet to find the dogs. A large man, he talked incessantly and his breath was not good. But he was friendly enough and locked into my use of hand signals to augment our chatter. 2km out of town, he swung right across the road and we parked at a kennels. The gates were locked and my corpulent ‘fixer’ snagged himself through a barbed wire fence, so I followed. There was a large poorly maintained house behind us to our left, but up ahead were 7 or 8 pens in which I could see the fawn bodies and dark masks of kangals. I motion-suggested to Yilmaz that we might like to ask first, but he just strode on and I followed for the second but not the last time that day.

I was slightly wary of the four or five large animals not in cages, stretching out in the sun of the spring morning. Aside from the puppies almost a year before, I have never met a pure kangal. Some friends have a kangal/German shepherd cross back in Erbil, a stately chap called Faisal. I’ve met him a couple of times, and love his temperament – gorgeous and enjoys a fuss, but not overly affectionate; just calm and the friendly side of brooding. However, research kangal online, and one finds the overwhelming amount of material is dedicated to their fearless nature. There is also a lot of material about them being amazing family pets, fantastic with children and coping with their place in a group of humans. However, to be faced with five untethered on their own patch as an introduction is a striking proposition. As it happened, they lifted their heads, barked their deep welcome and got back to the sunning themselves. The pens were about 2.5m wide and ten deep with shade and a kennel at the back. They needed a clean, but I’ve seen worse conditions. Each housed a dog and a bitch. In the first, an older dog lifted his shanks and stretched his fore legs, before yawning and pacing up to the thick wire between us. He was a dark fawn colour, a ginger tinge in the sun almost. Thick and powerful, his muscles were visible through his thick coat, and he stood at waist height. His face was jowly and black as soot, the looks that have gone on to be familiar in any number of mastiffs. His companion by contrast, was sleek and lighter in build and colour. Her face was tighter, the black hairs of her mask spread thinner. In short, she was a very pretty, elegant dog, whilst he was a handsome, confident beast. These differences aren’t based on the sex, but it’s rare to see a big bitch – or at least, that’s my observation on the basis of this day. Walking down the cages, we saw just one puppy, which sat back and eyed us with a head cocked in vague interest. Some dogs showed signs of having been in fights – whether for ‘sport’ or work, this is what they are breed for in these parts.

Walking back to the car, I felt a little deflated. This was a bloody long way to come to just visit a zoo for ten minutes. I reached into my bag and passed a note to Yilmaz. Written by my friend Rojda the day before, it read in Turkish, “I apologise for not speaking Turkish. I want to find working Kangal dogs. Would you please introduce me to a village mukhtar (mayor) so that he may show me a coban (shepherd) and his dogs? With great respect and gratitude.”

Back in the taxi, I noticed with alarm that the meter was up to 50 lira (over $20) already. He was on the phone as soon as we hit the tarmac and we drove further out of town. Hanging up laughing, he turned to me and explained, I think, that we were going to visit a mukhtar with the best dogs. He kept talking, which made me uncomfortable, and I cracked the window to allow his breath past me. It was around then that I became acutely aware of my own odour and admonished myself. Poor bastard was earning his money with me in the car, and I snuck a look at that relentless meter. 80 lira. This was close to what I had budgeted for this journey, and we weren’t on the return yet. We forged on in the gently rolling landscape, the mountains in the distance still capped with snow. The earth was brown from ploughing, and the fallow acres remained the dusty colour of the dogs, springs rain yet to weave its verdant magic. Eagles soared against the blue heavens. After about 10km I took a very obvious look at the meter and sighed. Over 100 lira, and he just tapped my hand as if to say “Don’t worry.” I didn’t fully trust him, but figured we must be close. But every time we turned a corner or breached a hill, there was nothing. We entered a village and I felt we must be there. But we ploughed through and took a dirt road, actually a smoother ride than the pot-holed asphalt over which he drove with abandon. 20 minutes after leaving the kennels, we arrived at a farm house in the middle of nowhere. Once at the end of the drive, in front of the house, I could see four dogs chained up. I went to get out of the door, but Yilmaz motioned for me to stay in and blew his horn for attention. I always exercise caution with any dog I don’t know, and these were large wearing steel spiked collars. Yep, I’ll wait for the big guy. And look at the meter. Shit, 150 lira.

The big guy was actually slight, wearing a beard and farming clothes, bottomed with amazing rubber shoes patterned like brogues. He waved us out with a smile, chattered away in Turkish and took us around the back of his house where we saw four more chained males. An older one, the grand old man, came down to us and Yilmaz hid behind me before the chain restricted his progress. I laughed a little, as I’ve been guilty of this, but our host’s ease around them and lack of instruction to us dispersed any worry. Then we double-backed down the driveway to a barn. Behind the barn, various poultry and fowl gobbled and squawked and there was a bitch and a dog, chained. In went the breeder, careful to close the gate behind him He released the chain from the concrete pile keeping this magnificent male in check. Up past his owner’s waist, he growled happily and trotted out in front of us. It reminded me of my teenage days when I would take our wolfhounds up onto the local common land – some wag would always ask, “Who’s taking who for a walk?” and if I’d known the Turkish, I might well have been unable to restrain myself from asking it. The dog marked his territory without breaking stride, keen to see his pals up the road.

The meeting between the dogs was tense. It was clear to me now, that these dogs were used mostly for fighting each other, the way they strained at their chains.


I hate dog-fighting, abhor it, but it wasn’t my place to pass judgement on this man’s choices. I was merely thrilled to be amongst them. 15 months ago, I saw my first picture of a Kangal, and here I was, seeing them in their home region. The alpha clipped to another concrete retainer, we were invited in. The small home is filled with trophies from shows (the alpha won the Turkish equivalent of Cruffs two years ago, as Best In Show. The runner-up was a Yorkshire terrier!). At the computer I was shown videos that confirmed my fears. Dogs set against each other, but mostly protected by their thick fur and trimmed ears (something else that turns my stomach). More upsetting was the video of four dogs slowly, incrementally ripping a boar apart. The noise was grim, but it was the lack of bite on the neck to kill the quarry that had me looking away. I was shown about 90 seconds of this footage, and would guess the animal struggled for several more minutes. Then I was shown photos of dead wolves held up next to the dog that had killed it – whether working to protect sheep or hunting for sport, I don’t know why these clashed. I hope it was for the former, but am realistic enough to surmise it was the later in all probability. Most disturbing of all was the picture of a small leopard, lifeless on the floor beside and behind a Kangal. It was difficult to estimate its size, but I’d hazard a guess at three feet from nose to tail. Perhaps the size of a large ocelot. In contrast, photos of the alpha being climbed on by the two young kids who found me intriguing, confirmed what I’d heard about temperament.

Worried that the meter might still be ticking, I got Yilmaz’s attention. Outside he still avoided the dogs, but I couldn’t leave without stroking the calmest of the pack, which lived under the front door steps. He was pretty, rather than fearsome, and loved the attention. Our host took my hand and led me up the hill to the alpha. He clearly meant for me to have a moment, so I did. It was amazing. This beast, clearly the strongest and most fearsome of the pack, turned into a puppy. Pawing at me, nuzzling, playfully taking my hand in his jaws. I tried to get him to ‘dance’ to get his paws on my shoulders, that iconic big dog pose, but he wouldn’t. I had some photos taken with him though, and I still curse the missed opportunity for an ‘epic selfie’.

We arrived back in town and I’d decided that I’d offer $50 for the ride and negotiate from there. It seemed fair for a couple of hours work in a town where the taxis don’t seem at all busy. The final reading was 285 lira – just shy of $130. Yilmaz didn’t seem offended by my opening offer, just shook his head with a smile. He made a chopping motion half way up his left forearm, indicating he’d accept half price. Another $10 and 20 lira satisfied us both. No need for a fight.

My First Month’s Pieces for basnews.net


Is a name enough? Probably not, as in the weeks to come I’m here to give my point of view on what’s happening around us in Kurdistan. However, it might help to know a little about me, and what has bought me to Kurdistan – certainly it’ll give you a start that I didn’t have when I arrived here over two and a half years ago.

I’m an English teacher, currently instructing adults in Erbil, although I’ve only been here for a year. Before that I was in Sulaymaniyah, so I have a limited understanding of both cities – although I’d be the first to admit that I’m less integrated with the local community here. The expat life has a stronger gravity in Erbil, especially in Ainkawa, and I felt more assimilated in the east. Whatever I express here, I ultimately express from a certain point of ignorance, so please feel free to educate me in the comments section below – I’ve been subjected to enough people’s opinions about Kurdistan on The Guardian website (based in the UK) to know that feelings run high when discussing this sensitive part of the world. Things are changing, at a pace that can feel giddying at times, and it’s all the serious journalists can do to keep up – most of us don’t catch every last crumb of news, especially when the headlines are of such importance.

I’m not a complete newcomer though. I’ve been here long enough to learn a little of the language. I learnt that chicken livers are referred to as ‘jigga’ when I attempted to beg a cigarette from a stall holder on Saholaka one evening. I have what we could refer to as taxi Kurdish – I can hold a respectful conversation about my home country, job and marital status, assure the driver that Kurdistan is very nice and direct him to my location. It’s now at a more advanced level than my Russian, and I was doing a great job at not learning that very well for the two years I lived in Ukraine (it was in Kyiv that I read the biography of Gertrude Bell, Desert Queen, without a second thought). I’m now confident enough to cross the shasti alone, rather than cloaking an unsuspecting guide on their dasti rast. Speaking of hands, I’m a great fan of Langa, where second hand clothes shopping is a more spacious affair than the covered market of Suli. I’ve read (most of) Qil Lawrence’s Invisible Nation, the ultimate primer for the region. So, you know – I’m trying and sometimes winning, sometimes being left confused and frustrated. Whatever happens, I’m almost daily amazed.

‘Amazed’ of ‘amazing’ are popular descriptions out of the mouths of Westerners I’ve met, who’ve just recently arrived. Be they backpackers heading east or arriving from Iran with Persian Tales, or people, like me, that came to work with little previous knowledge of the place. When I phoned my mother from Russia to tell her that I’d “accepted a job in Iraq, but in the north, Kurdistan, the safe bit”, she was not convinced. In fact, I think her mind played a trick on her, because the next time I spoke to her she asked, “How are the plans for Kazakhstan coming along?” She plays cards with some other octogenarian friends a couple of times a week, and they of course muttered and tutted about danger. I’m the youngest of four, and us babies tend to get away without worrying our folks so much, and as long as I was happy, my mother was too. At the end of my first year here, my mother celebrated her 80th birthday. And what else does a middle class lady from England want on achieving such a milestone? Why of course, a trip to Iraq, but in the north, Kurdistan, the safe bit. Without hesitation I can honestly say that Kurdistan bought my mother and I closer together. She’s an incredibly open person, very interested in people from across the globe (the joke in our 1980s household was that she wouldn’t be happy if I married a white girl), and from the moment she landed and was whisked away to Akre for Newroz, to the day she departed having just spent two nights on the concrete floor of a house in the Kakayee village of Hawa, she laughed and smiled at the generosity shown and loved her chances to show her appreciation in return. It was uniquely special, and she is constantly curious about life here, and a stanch proponent of the Kurds – and like mother, like son, so am I. I find life tricky sometimes, I feel a little like a fish out of water (although not quite as hot as masgoof), but I’m always grateful to be here; I’ve never been made to feel so welcome in my life, and for that, I will love an entire people.


I push the faders on the mixing deck up to 11 and watch with a childish grin on my face as about 20 youngsters snake around the tent, led in a conga by my friend and fellow volunteer Beebo. Others throw some shapes and bust their moves to Hiya Hiya by Cheb Khaled. It’s the second weekend in a row that the end of the film has signalled the start of a brief rave.

Welcome to the RISE Foundation cinema project at Arbat camp, east of Sulaymaniyah, in the child friendly tent that I’ve nicknamed The Arbat Odeon. On Thursday and Friday afternoons, 3 o’clock sees an orderly queue of children gathered in anticipation of whatever modern or classic animated movie we have available that week; the most popular so far was Madagascar 3 with its in-your-face style and frequent chorus of I Like To Move It, It Move (it should be no surprise that this tune was the genesis of the post-picture party tradition).

So, what’s the benefit of showing young people Arabic-dubbed cartoons twice a week? Admittedly, this might appear to be insignificant, inconsequential and even a waste of funds. But the small cost of implementing this project, in unison with other NGOs working at the site, is worth every last dinar when one considers the joy given to the children and the precious few minutes their parents have to themselves. And over the course of the project, which is nearly self-sustaining, the cost will be a great deal less than $1 per child per month. Other, incidental, benefits have been seen; many of the children are learning English and love to take the opportunity to practice with a native-speaker. We are a large roster of volunteers, and it appears that meeting new adults, being able to trust and play with someone who has come there for that reason, and that reason alone, brings as many smiles as an animated bunch of penguins piloting a flying machine (if you haven’t seen the Madagascar films, you really must. Even though I didn’t understand a word of the dialogue, I loved it). On our first visit, we noticed that the majority of movie-goers were sockless, so we resolved that the following week, handing out 200 pairs of socks and many hats and scarves. At the camp, we are able to pay a small amount to four adult refugees who organise the children and help with the ‘crowd control’ once the film is running. The hope is that eventually this will be their project and we will be able to investigate and implement other ways to help. Our lead helper, Jiyan, is a teacher at the camp school. Housed in the only permanent structure on site, the school is a series of tents within a large agricultural building. Jiyan is invaluable in getting the film project to work; he musters the kids and then, once in front of the screen, he is able to marshall them with just a few words. And whilst he doesn’t join in, he clearly loves the dancing at the end. For him, it’s an opportunity to spend time enjoying the company of his charges, having fun with them, not just teaching. In this tent (loaned to us every week by STEP and UNICEF), he is able to reach out to children who have perhaps abandoned the idea of education. For some young people, damaged by loss and having seen far too much for any life, let alone their short ones, this tent is essential. Run by social workers from The Netherlands, STEP assists not only those at risk, but any youngster who wants support; it’s fair to say that to some extent every individual fleeing Syria is vulnerable.

Now that we have The Arbat Odeon running well, and our organisation is known to both the residents of the camp, and the other NGOs working there, we are starting to consider what we can do next. Already on camps around Erbil, the RISE Foundation is knee-deep in winterisation schemes, building drainage channels and gravelling secondary roads – improving conditions and providing work for some of the people living there, engaging with the community. Unfortunately at Arbat, we cannot begin something like this, as the camp is moving across the road to a permanent settlement with concrete standings and better amenities. The move was meant to take place before winter, but as with a lot of building work, there have been delays. In the first month of the new year, UNHCR assures me that the place will be fit for purpose. We will know what is required when the move has taken place. In the meantime, we have identified another group of people that need assistance. Whilst there are over 3,000 settled in the Arbat camp, the UNHCR estimates that there might be as many as 22,000 urban refugees in Sulaymaniyah. Working with a Kurdish friend of mine, who himself was once a refugee and has experience of running programs that integrate newcomers with their host cities and towns, we aim to establish a weekly event that will allow people from the different communities to come together and share their experiences. We have a strong idea of what we want to do, and I hope in the future I will be able to bring you more good news from a different project. In the meantime, I’d like to thank everyone who has helped, either through the RISE Foundation of some other project. And to those of you celebrating, Happy Christmas!

An Open Letter, just a little ‘hello’, nothing serious



How are you? You’ve asked me to write about what’s happening here so many times, and all I’ve ever given was a couple of lines or a short Skype, I thought I’d fill you in once a week. Truly, my life here is experienced the same as it would be there, but perhaps you might find the details interesting.


The headline is that I’m currently depressed, but this will pass by morning. I’ve just spent $20 on beer in a local bar watching Sunderland be shit, and my insistence on having audible commentary (when the latest cuts from Pit Bull, Rhianna and whoever else could have been playing) went down like a swimming pool’s floater. It turns out that Iraq has many Crystal Palace fans when you deprive the drinkers of a pop hip hop soundtrack.


In other news, the Syria thing looks a bit scary. I shed a tear on the phone with my mother yesterday morning, as we applauded the politicians back in the UK for voting down a bill to ‘strike’ Assad and his alleged chemical weapon bunkers. After 30 hours thought, the irrelevance of the UK is compounded by the fact that Obama will go ahead without us – perhaps, in the long term, this is great for us Brits, but short term it still seems to me that a huge mistake is about to be made. Americans, a Canadian and maybe a Romanian (but she wasn’t explicit) think it’s time to bomb. I just can’t see what would be achieved, other than upgrading conflict to war.


You know Tick, the dog that Lucie saved? Well, she is still awaiting his arrival in Switzerland – Jacob & Cathy, a British couple in Suly, have been trying to get him on the plane to be with Lucie. But, in Kurdish style, it’s not happening. The poor sod has been caged, re-caged and stressed on four occasions so far – fingers crossed he’ll be barking at Milka cows and eating cuckoo clocks within a week.


Not much else to say really. Spent some time repairing the hexacopter today – soldering irons are not difficult, and it seems I have control of the software, even without Tech Support Guru Colin here. I feel like a kid riding his bike when dad lets go for the first time. Should be in the air again within a week, and then I just need to build the new camera housing. This engineering lark – piece of piss (it really isn’t, but one must keep a positive mind.)


Kaka Mahmound, my private client, has been on holiday – he should be back soon, so we can start up with lessons again. I’m looking forward to that. The money helps, but the few hours a week connect me with Kurdistan, something I’ve not really had since moving to Erbil at the start of the year. I’m going to visit Sulaymaniyah next weekend, want to say hello to some people.


Anyway, please leave your news in the comments section, it’ll be good to hear from you.


Love & Respect as ever,




PS I saw this bucket today. Do you want one for your bedside?Image