Since the situation in Kurdistan (North-Iraq) keeps changing daily, I went there again to report from this region. My report from June you’ll find here, a summary of the Kurdish history here. Together with Tobias Huch (FDP) I will visit the refugee camps, speak with the people we meet on the street and we will meet with the Peshmerga. Again it’s the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (PDK) which supports our trip, like the did on my last trips. The one question, that immediately arises is: are your reports neutral then? To really answer that question you’ll have to come here and watch for yourself. But due to the fact that nobody from the party, from the government or the Peshmerga has ever wanted to see my material or has ever said „you can’t film this“, I don’t see a problem. Otherwise institutions like the press office of the government would be problematic, too since they are paid by the government and help the press as well.
Normally my reports starts not until I arrive in Kurdistan, but this time it’s different. On my way there I had to switch planes in Vienna. There I was examined again several times. My shoes had been taken from me and were separately examined. They were not my well know flame boots with metal caps. Nevertheless they were screened repeatedly. They didn’t even told me what the problem was. Also my hand baggage was taken from me and I had a talk with customs officer and the police. After I was screened and examined with a metal detector, they told me I would carry a gun or an other forbidden item. After consulting a supervisor, they told me that I couldn’t keep my pen. In times of „je suis Charlie“ really grotesque! Especially since the pen was with me at all my trips. It’s pretty stable, but probably each bottle of wine from the duty free shop could cause more damage than my pen.
Making plans in Erbil (Hawler)
Arriving in Erbil things got more pleasant. Like always we had a vague idea about what we wanted to do, but first we had to see on site what was possible at the moment. Our schedule was tightly organized. One of the few things we declined after balancing the reasons was to accompany the Peshmerga to the house-to-house fighting. Actually it would have been really important to see how close the fighters are to each other and with which simple weapons they are fighting. No one in Germany could imagine this. But all of the Peshmerga, that evaluated the situation on site for us, advised us against this trip. In addition to the dangerous situation nobody could tell how long we would have been there and when we got the chance to leave the Peshmerga again.
While I got drivers at my last trips, this time I was allowed to drive by myself, which was quite an experience. The inhabitants are driving pretty wild. Furthermore there is no useful GPS. And when you have to stop at the checkpoints it’s hard to communicate since I don’t speak Sorani, the local language. With OsmAnd+ I’ve found an app, that is able to navigate me quite well, but it doesn’t consider the front line. But with a combination of road signs, the compass needle from the app and yelling out of the window to ask for the right direction, I got along good enough. Even the traffic wasn’t as bad as I thought. Navigating over hundreds of kilometers overland were no problem. Only navigating trough the city was problematic, because I hadn’t much points of orientation.
Camp Domiz at Dohuk
We drove towards north-west to Dohuk. There we met up with the press officer of the Barzani Charity Foundation, the biggest state-owned aid organization. Together we went to Camp Domiz, which I already had visited two years ago. Since my last visit the camp had grown noticeably. Instead of tents the camp consists of small houses, shacks or similar buildings. There are shopping streets with small grocery and clothing stores. The inhabitants all seem adequately supplied. You won’t see any ragged clothes or unaided injury, but you see children, that are playing and laughing. We spoke with the locally people and we interviewed a family. The mother told us, one of her sons was a journalist in the Kurdish part of Syria, who criticized the regime. He was murdered by Assad. After the the mother suffered a heart attack. The family decided to flee immediately. On their escape the mother was hurt at her back, but she and her other children managed to reach the secure south of Kurdistan (North-Iraq). They gave us tea, sung songs for us and told us, that all they want is to live in peace.
In Camp Domiz there are at the moment 75.000 people. Each family could tell you a similar story. That brings out pretty clear why we have to help more in the word.
On Saddam’s paths
We were with a group of Peshmerga in the mountains at Dohuk towards the Turkish border. On the one hand, they explained us how the trails of supplies looked like at the time of Saddam on both sides. On the other they explained hand how the training and the equipment of the Peshmerga got better little by little. Also we could see the Work of border posts and the poeple in the checkpoints. We ranged several hours by car and by foot trough the never-ending mountains. In the 90s the Kurds were fought back till here. They were poorly armed and had too little of everything. With Kalashnikovs, a few grenade launchers and RPGs they still managed to affront the superior army of Saddam. The advantage of the Peshmerga was that they fought for the survival of their people whereas the troops of Saddam mostly were unmotivated and underpaid. The Peshmerga were able to fought Saddams forces on short distance quite well with their Kalashnikovs.
The tanks could be seen from afar, but they were difficult to battle. They have to build ambushes and starve out the crew or they let the tanks crash. Against aerial attacks the people hid in one of the plenty caves here. Since this time the politician Siggi Martsch (Green Party) also were in Kurdistan. He started to organize humanitarian aid from the west and for this he will always have a special place in the hearts of a lot Kurds. Trough him I came the first time to Kurdistan and he also told me a lot of fascinating stories. On the part of the Peshmerga there were off and on some little successes that boosted the morals. One Peshmerga stood with a RPG on a hill when a modern MiG jet fighter approached. With desperate courage he fired his RPG, which is about as promising as repelling a lion with soap bubbles. However he managed to hit the jet so that it crashed. After talking with some experienced people from the former east German army they confirmed that something like that is possible, but extremely rare. From this incident Saddam concluded that the Kurds had to have gotten air defense from somewhere so he stopped his flight attacks for some weeks. Some of the Peshmerga I’m talking to here, had fought the past weeks and months in Zumar, Tal-Afar, at the Mossul dam or in Shingal. All places are laying in the disputed areas, a region between Iraq and Kurdistan whose belonging isn’t clarified yet according to the Iraqi constitution. The fightings in these areas were rough and cruel and the Peshmerga had to fight only a few meters away from the ISIS. Pretty different from the kind of warfare we know from TV. At this time people wrote me and asked if I could confirm a German news report which claimed that nobody knew where the weapons were that Germany had sent to Kurdistan. That surprised me, because during my trip I had seen them several times. The initial situation to research was bad. It was dark, we were somewhere in the mountains and we had no clue where to start and barely mobile web. So we asked the people around us if anybody had seen German weapons. After a few minutes they told us we could see a G3, but it isn’t one of the new guns. Shortly after we saw the first G36. We kept asking until we came to the Ministry of Peshmerga. They were astonished by our question, but they knew the article and told us it wouldn’t be by itself any problem, but they have to check if some of the information is classified. After a few hours we had the contact to an artillery general who offered to show us some MILAN launchers and rockets in Shingal. There they also have other RPG and some G36. The general had the total list of weapons and we could see it, but he had to check if we could publish it. As far as I was informed the German station never asked the ministry of Peshmerga. Instead they refer to an answer of the Iraqi ministry of defense even though they don’t have any authority in Kurdistan or any information where the weapons are. It’s simply not competent to answer this question.
At this time we drove a rental car. The question if this car would have insurance in Shingal resulted in a strange conversation with the rental station, which can be summarized with „ARE YOU TOTALLY INSANE!?“
So we had to organize an other car and protection to visit Shingal. The PDK, one of the two ruling parties, to which the prime minister and the president also belong, offered us to help. They provided us within hours with a security team, which picked us up in the save area and took us to Shingal and back. The area in the north of the mountains is actually labeled as secure, but since it was a trip of several hours trough an area, where there was three weeks ago the biggest fight between Peshmerga and ISIS, they wanted to be sure. Kurdistan (in the north Iraq) is political divided between the two biggest parties PdK (in the north-west) and the PUK (in the south-east). The Peshmerga are as well divided into the Pdk or Barzani-Peshmerga and the PUK Peshmerga. They are operating mostly from different parts of Kurdistan and don’t like each other much due to historic reasons. At the evening we received notice that the Peshmerga got new weapons (the assault riffle G36 and the rocket launcher MILAN) and the Yazidis were equipped, too. They located the exact location of the weapons, but couldn’t tell right now.
There are only a few MILAN in operation around here and they are not necessarily permanently installed but mobile. We thought about interviewing someone at the Ministry (of Defense) but had to travel about seven hours to do so. Compared to Kurdish locals I drive very slowly and the route from Duhok to Erbil would have taken about three hours. Adding the time for the interview we would have needed a whole day so we decided to stay on location and wait for the next day.
On to Shingal
We spent the following day to recklessly contact all competent authorities to acquire the list. Summarizing our efforts we have been informed that it is not possible to publish all the exact locations, of course. Even a shorted list with vague pieces of information about amount of ammunition or distribution between units is impossible because of its potential value for ISIS. They (ISIS) know the original amount of ammunition through the official lists and keep count of every missile fired. We have been thoroughly told about the dilemma between the public interest in Germany and their military secrecy.
They have already offered us to go to Kirkuk and witness the fighting first hand. That would have meant to tape Peshmerga in urban warfare which would have been way to risky as our security adviser informed us. It would have literally been a „shortcut to the cemetery“ for people without combat experience. I quickly reminded myself that I have visited Kirkuk six months ago but in quieter times.
We focused on Shingal. In the evening we had a meeting with the head of our security detail. He informed us about the route to take and double checked our gear. Being equipped with protective vests rated SK4 and helmets we are well off. Both of us have a combat-medkit on person with which you can even treat a gunshot wound. We just recently had been shown how to properly use it, again.
We have been urged to bear firearms ourselves for protection but being an accredited journalist I am forbidden by law to bear arms. This was the only reasoning they would listen to. Tobias got armed but being a sporting marksman he knew how to handle a gun.
I was told not to wear any flashy or provocative garment and under no circumstances should I wear a PRESS batch while at the combat line. ISIS is known to break with international conventions and would kill journalists as well as they do with every one else. In this respect a press badge might not be helpful but rather harmful for its wearer. Although it is not forbidden to wear these badges they don’t offer that amount of „protection“ that usually comes with it. All in all they had to provide me with an additional security detail to minimize any risk of letting me come to harm.
It is paramount especially on the last kilometers to exactly know how far your want to go. Our route was set: we wanted to see the MILANs. We have been told that we are the third group of journalists in about a year to undertake this trip. SPIEGEL TV has been on site a few months ago as well as Claas Weinmann of BILD. And now it is up to us. Because of this they aren’t overly prepared to escort groups on this trip. Our head of security provided us with a motorized escort consisting of vehicles with gun turrets so they could protect us in case of a firefight. On top of this we should meet up with to teams familiar with our target region.
We left Duhok early in the morning. Roads are bad and crowded. Our team acted calm and professional but were alert at all times. Crossing the former Iraqi/Kurdish border we couldn’t take a step alone. Even as I had to take a leak on one of our stopovers a sniper did accompany me to stand watch.
We passed by villages which have been completely and utterly destroyed. Houses were build from prefabricated concrete slabs. Walls have been destroyed by bombs leaving the ceiling lying almost on the ground floor. We saw craters in all sizes as well as stripped Humvees lying scattered and torn next to the roads. Some wheeled tanks as well sporting holes of enormous size or torn apart. Testimony to some heavy weapons that had been used …
It’s been nearly three weeks that the Peshmerga liberated some 3.000 square kilometers from ISIS. Made possible by weapons from Germany.
There ought to be PKK and YPG troops in the vicinity as well. We saw none but a few flags. All checkpoints have been manned by Peshmerga. Asking for YPG we have been told they are „ahead“. We wanted to talk to YPG because their effort and skill in combat made them heroes in Syria.
As we went along our convoy grew in numbers until we finally arrived at the northern boundaries of the Shingal mountains. At its feet lies the sanctuary of the Yazidis, the temple Sherfedin. We met with Kasim Schesho, „Lion of Shingal“ and one of the most renowned Yazidis as well as his two sons. Schesho’s oldest son once served in the German Bundeswehr and translated most of our conversation as his father only knew a few German words.
Basic supplies are provided but at the same time everything is scarce. Especially fuel for heating, radiators, cooking utensils and basic foodstuff like rice and flour. The soldiers don’t have protective vests or helmets. We asked them about their affiliation and they answered that they belong to the Shingal Liberation Force and are Yazidi Peshmerga not HPS.
They stated that on 3rd August of 2014 the ISIS came with superior forces and overran the region. Peshmerga stationed on location have been ordered to withdraw and regroup on strategic locations. Acting on these orders they had to leave the people behind – but hadn’t really had a chance to repel ISIS troops. About 1.300 people stayed and within 2 to 3 days YPG from Syria arrived filling the power gap. The people have been thankful to YPG while at the same time understood the Peshmerga.
We’ve been invited into the temple and told its history explaining its importance for their religious system. Asked about the YPG and their location we’ve been told that we will soon pass by one of their checkpoints but generally had to head on further south or west.
We continued along the line of battle until we reached a small Peshmerga outpost. They showed us their MG cal. 50 made in the USA as well as some German RPG. They also claimed to know how to operate them and showed us some destroyed ISIS vehicles. Unfortunately they lack ammunition for training and honing their skills. They also were in possession of some G36 and showed us those as well. All in all they are grateful to the German government and their support and are hoping for it to continue.
We went into the mountains and the temperature dropped to -3°C. The mountain tops tower to the left and right but in between the area is protected somewhat and camps have been set up there. We talked to people who fled the southern ranges of the mountains among them an elderly man who under tears told us the story of his village. How they (ISIS) abducted the women, slaughtered the men and how they barely escaped with their lives. Now they are living under sheets of plastic and are barely able to cook water and rice and have a donkey left. That’s it. It is grave cold and help is far from coming but the people don’t feel left alone by their country knowing that there are simply a lot of people who need to be taken care of. But they feel left out by the rest of the world watching silently without acting. They made us promise to relay their situation to Angela Merkel and that is exactly what we will be doing.
From the mountain top we had a good view on the town Shingal downhill. To get there we had to drive down 144 serpentines. Our convoy went fast because we’ve been easy targets on the road. Our heavy jeeps only had standard disc brakes which got hot really fast during these maneuvers. We nearly reached the bottom when our brakes got to hot to continue as we could determine by the clearly visible smoke rising from the car. So we had to stop immediately at a rather bad spot on the road. A deafening boom announced ISIS presence and not very far from our position a column of smoke rose into the air while a whole building toppled over. The Peshmerga deployed the cal .50 MGs and a RPG to secure our temporary site. We ducked behind a large rock believing it would offer us protection. Contrary to our expectations we then saw a MILAN. The rocket flew from away from the smoke column and went down in another part of Shingal. The strikes intensified and drew nearer so our security detail ordered an immediate retreat. Turrets toward the skirmish and a RPG operator on our truck bed we sped back to a secure height. Kudos to Miss Merkel: the MILAN really had been a big help. Now, from a safe distance we re-evaluated the situation and tried to determine if this was just a small skirmish or a larger operation. We also used the opportunity to take some pictures of our team with Shingal in the background and the words „Je Suis Charlie“. Our brakes still needed to cool down. We’ve been informed via radio that the situation in town is unclear and asked if we want to continue anyway. I voted yes as I wanted to secure a picture of a MILAN but everyone else voted against.
So we retreated behind the mountain top and continued to talk to the refugees while waiting for the situation in Shingal to improve. Passing into late afternoon we had to head back without coming any closer to the line of battle in Shingal. Nobody wanted us to be left here in the dark of night … and darkness fell quite quickly. So we traveled back to Dohuk and on our way passed by a YPG outpost. We stopped and asked for an interview but were unfortunately turned away.
The road is not heavily traveled but in a bad condition due to the fighting. I sat relatively straight and strapped down to my seat in my vest and drifted off to sleep now and then when suddenly our car was whining and I was wide awake. Like in slow motion two machine guns, ammo clips, a 16kg protective vest and a helmet flew past me in the car. The whole pickup was up in the air, its engine howling. A split second later we hit the road again at a speed of 170 kph. Everything that just flew past me now was subject to gravity again. Tobias got hit on his knee and head, I remained unhurt. One Peshmerga received a leg injury. We had to stop to inspect the damage although no one really wanted to. Judging by the noises we heard I assumed the car was utterly broken but there had been no visible damage. Still I suspect the dampers went to hell. We continued at once at arrived Dohuk late in the evening. From there on we still needed about three hours by car to Erbil. We called the Ministry again and requested a blacked out list. We’ve been told they are still reviewing our request and will get back to us.
– Pictures at Flickr