by Borzou Daragahi
in Iraqi Kurdistan
March 15, 2003
My favorite part of all of Iraqi Kurdistan is the Halabja valley, a lush, lively patchwork of farmlands, streams and villages at the foot of the massive Zagros Mountains. Itís a place of so much beauty and so much misery, where the sounds of roosters crowing compete with bursts of gunfire and mortar rounds, where funeral processions are all too common and the ruins of past wars scar the landscape.
It was here that Iranian and Iraqi forces fought some of their fiercest battles during the bloody 1980s war that left an estimated one million dead on both sides. It was here that Saddam Hussein sprayed chemical weapons on his own citizens, not just on Halabja but numerous other locales, the bombed out shells of which Iíve seen with my own eyes. It was on the muddy roads here in 1991 that Kurdish refugees stumbled and coughed and died as they fled Saddamís wrath.
And it was here that I got my first taste of war reporting last December, coming upon the scene of an ongoing battle between government forces and Islamist radicals. Itís been by covering this ongoing dirty war Ė replete with bombings, massacres and shootouts - that I realized that I could be a war reporter, and began sketching out plans to cover the coming United States war to crush Saddamís government.
Iíve come to the Halabja valley well over a dozen times. Each time Iíve managed to learn something new and profound.
The villagers are quintessential little people, literal peasants constantly caught in the crossfire of crises not of their making and beyond their control. Soldiers on all sides speak of revenge and loyalty. Guns and troops pour in and out of the valley daily, competing with ancient tractors and exhaust-spewing hand-me-down buses from Eastern Europe for space on the narrow roads.
Last December I visited the village of Khailyhameh right after it was freed from the control of Islamic radicals. I had always thought that being in the middle of such a war would harden people to violence. But I remember vividly the look of terror that came upon on the face of a shivering old man I was interviewing every time the sound of mortar fire erupted in the valley. Meanwhile, my photographer and I were sipping Iranian-made colas. ďHa,Ē I remember thinking to myself. ďWar doesnít make you more tough. It makes you more fragile.Ē
I have spoken to government officials and soldiers about the war between the militia of the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Ansar al Islam. They go on and on about how rotten Ansar is and how itís linked to al Qaida and Saddam and the goddamn devil himself. But the Patriotic Union invited the predecessor of Ansar to hole up in the mountains here in the first place! They wanted to spite their then blood-rivals, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, who had just kicked the Islamists out of their territory.
Their strategy sure backfired, and now the government here touts its secularism and opposition to Islamic fundamentalism. It made me realize that even at the level of crackpot warlords, just how opportunistic and slippery politicians are.
I have even spoken to Ansar radicals, the heavily bearded Islamic fundamentalist warriors who may or may not be harboring al Qaida terrorists. They once let us enter one of the villages they control right after that speech Colin Powell gave to the United Nations Security Council in which he showed a satellite picture of a poison factory.
After a long morning of negotiations and lunch at a neighboring Islamic groupís hangout, they allowed me and a bunch of other journalists past their checkpoints and into their territory. They said they wanted to show the international media that there was no poison plant in the place identified in the picture.
On the way there, we drove past ruins of villages destroyed in the regionís multiple wars. Saddam sprayed chemical weapons in the area controlled by Ansar, as well, but it didnít get much ink. On this day there were more graveyards than people along the mountain road leading up and up and up toward Ansarís mountain stronghold. Itís a shame, for the area is striking in its beauty, with waterfalls and grassy sky-high valleys. Before the Iran-Iraq war, it was a major tourist destination.
When we finally reached the satellite photo, the Ansar folks let us roam around and look for chemical weapons. The place was a horrifying dump. The residents were dirt poor. The Ansar soldiers looked mean and dirty and somewhat confused. There were too many journalists, and they began prancing around, opening doors and drawers and taking too many pictures and film. It was a circus. It was surreal.
But then things got really weird. The Ansar folks showed us the real purpose behind the compound that Powell had labeled a poison factory: it was a video production studio! These guys, back-to-the-land freaks who were planning out their Islamic revolution way high in the mountains without electricity or running water or telephones, had set up a film production studio to make propaganda movies. They sat us around in their little studio and began to hold an impromptu press conference that they videotaped. Apparently, they dream of starting their own television station.
I remember thinking that the only poison coming out of this compound was of the variety that also comes from Hollywood.
Ansar are Islamic radicals. Violent, crazy guys who shoot children and send hapless teenagers on suicide bombings. But I donít think theyíre controlled by al Qaida. I get the sense that maybe they just got tired of being the kind of people who fervently believe, who just sit around dream up crazy ideas they never follow through on. So they abandoned their old lives and became warriors.
A lot of government officials later told me and the journalists who went to visit Ansar that we were crazy, that weíd taken a huge risk heading up there. But though I was nervous the whole time, I was among the journalists who had pushed for permission to enter Ansar territory. I knew it was risky, but I thought it was worth the risk. I had a vision of catching the greatest super-power on earth making a huge mistake.
It was a similar impulse about 18 months ago that led me to abandon my comfortable life and high-paying job in New York and come to the Middle East with $5,000 in my underwear and the hope of pursuing my dream to become a foreign correspondent. Itís been a similar impulse thatís compelled me to research routes between the Kurdish-controlled village of Chamchamal on the Iraqi-Kurdish front and the Baghdad-controlled city of Kirkuk, where Arabs, the different Kurdish groups, the Turks and the Americans might converge in a battle for one of the most oil-rich spots on earth.
I know itís crazy, but I have a vision. And Iíve become the kind of person who tries to do the crazy things he dreams about.
Borzou Daragahi is a freelance journalist currently operating in Iraqi Kurdistan. He has written for U.S. News & World Report, MSNBC.com, South China Morning Post, and the Christian Science Monitor, among many others, and his radio reports have appeared on NPR. His writing and photos can be viewed at his web site: www.borzou.com.