Getting Scared in Kurdistan

SERGAT, Kurdistan—Handran, the translator for Paul Moran—the Australian cameraman killed in a suicide bombing on March 22—sat opposite me, smoking a cigarette. His hands were still bandaged where they’d been burnt in the explosion. He was angry.

“I told Paul I smelled a rat, that something at that checkpoint didn’t feel right,” he said. “He told me he had a 1-month-old daughter called Tara, and he didn’t want to take a risk. Then he took off his flak jacket. He said, ‘It’s too hot and heavy; I can’t stand it.’ “

It was Friday. The last few days in our patch of northern Iraq have been almost unbearable. Three journalists have died here in the last two weeks. And then Michael Kelly drowned outside of Baghdad. The big bang-bang-whoosh down there, in the south, is an expansive sweep; here in the north, we are shut in behind a shifting, shelled front line in an enclave-ridden slough.

Our anxiety in the north is more twisted than might be explained in a newspaper article or short stand-up in front of a green ridge and black smoke. Hacks sit around at the end of the day drinking, more hard whiskey than beer in the last week; some are frustrated that they didn’t choose Kuwait. More of us, I suspect, just feel hemmed in by the nasty staccato violence: occasional shell bursts, odd Kalashnikov cracks, and a suicidal band of militant Muslims.

Two weeks ago, on the morning after the first American missile strike on Ansar al-Islam, the band of itinerant jihadists holed up in the mountains on the Iranian border, a suicide car bomber pulled up at a checkpoint and exploded himself. I was driving toward the checkpoint when the bomb blew up—bright orange—about 100 yards ahead of us. Paul Moran was 39; he worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

On Sunday, Gaby Rado, a producer for Channel Four news, fell to his death from the roof of my hotel in Sulaymaniyah. Then on Wednesday, Kaveh Golestan, a cameraman with the BBC, a wonderful man I met twice and wanted to meet again—someone many said was the best person they knew—stepped on a landmine during a lull in the Iraqi shelling into the front line town of Kifri. The BBC producer who was with him, Stuart Hughes, may lose his leg.

Now Handran, Moran’s translator, was staring at me. “Why do you come here?” he asked. I had no answer.

“Did Paul deserve this? Did Stuart Hughes deserve this? For what? Everyone in the world wants to live in a peaceful way. People want a simple life. Here there is al-Qaida, mines, explosions, shelling. All those wars and revolutions in Europe, they happened so that people could live in peace. Why do you come to this place?”

I kept silent. On Tuesday, I’d driven into Kifri. By chance I arrived five minutes after the bombardment started: Shells hit the outskirts, then hit the houses. People fled. We climbed down off the roof of the local security office pretty quickly, got into our car, left town in a haphazard convoy of exodus—mostly families crammed into vans and pickups. They stopped along the way by abandoned minefields, left over from the Anfal campaign, to listen to the continuing barrage. Four people were killed that day; 14 were injured. I went to the hospital down the road in Kalar and saw a month-old baby whose back was ripped open with shrapnel.

Later that day, I drove up to where the Ansar terrorists had been pushed out of their positions by a ground attack of U.S. special forces and Kurdish militia. I drove past the blackened checkpoint where Moran had died, past charred poles, smashed cinderblock—depressingly unremarkable—past the empty Ansar bunkers of overturned earth and sandbags, past an Ansar graveyard where the mounds of earth were marked with small black metal numbered squares. Ansar had its main military headquarters in Sergat, the last high village before the massive rock and snow ridge that marks the border with Iran.

Everywhere was detritus of the battle: machine-gun-bullet casings, piles of mortars, a black flag bearing the slogan, “The only way is Sharia.” An old man was carrying on his back a pile of wooden boards that he had pulled from a bunker. “My donkey was killed in the bombardment,” he said. “I’ll use these planks for rebuilding.”

One wall was spray-painted: USA-PUK. The big Ansar bunker complex had taken several direct missile hits. An American soldier wandered around, kicking the rubble. “We’re trying to figure out just what they had here,” he explained. Various peshmerga were hanging around, smoking. “There were large amounts of ammunition,” they told us. “Vials of atropine. The Americans came yesterday and took away boxes of things. We found many things in their bunkers.” In spite of this, wood smoke curled above the stony houses. A few families were returning.

All over the mountains, higher, where the grass gives way to rock, up above the snowline, were the Ansar’s bunkers and camps. Inside were military vests filled with TNT and wired to batteries, plastic bags full of dirty yellow powder, large tablets, gas masks, test tubes full of clear liquid. The commander of the peshmerga, Mustapha Said Qadr, told me the Americans had analyzed some of these things and said that the nerve agent Sarin had been found.

Another member of the peshmerga, Abdul, told my translator and me that there was a chemical lab much farther up the mountain; he offered to take us. We drove up a mud rock track for about 40 minutes. The slopes were very steep; across wide gulfs, we could see tiny peshmerga searching for groups of Ansar corpses. Ashy blasted Tomahawk craters pockmarked the ridges. The road wound on and deteriorated. Twice we had to stop and get out and guide the driver through slippery mulch. Abdul said that we should get out and walk; it would take 15 minutes to reach the lab. We were uncertain. There was no track, only rock above us, rocks underneath our feet. By the side of road lay a pile of mortars, two empty gasoline canisters, and a discarded pair shoes.

The Ansar had run back this way, toward passes that would take them into Iran. About a hundred of them had been arrested here, but there were reports that some were still hiding in caves. Two days before, eight of them had ambushed a group of peshmerga from behind a rock and killed one. I had talked to another peshmerga who found one Ansar who had hidden for three days by a stream, a bullet in his leg. When he and his friend approached the man, he put his hands in the air, but then he reached into his pocket for a grenade, so they shot him.

“Come on, where is this place?” I asked Abdul. “How much farther?”

The sky was haze, the air still and humid. “Fifteen minutes,” said Abdul, who had said the same thing 10 minutes earlier. We heard distant mortar explosions echo-booming across the heights, but now we could see no one. Abdul said it was the peshmerga trying out the Ansar ammunition they had captured. He couldn’t have known for sure. I looked at my translator; we were both overcome with dread. Far up across a vast distance two dots—people certainly—moved across a patch of high snow.

I should have kept going. Abdul said that there was a laboratory in the basement along with caches of whiskey and posters of Saddam and Osama Bin Laden. That it was some kind of Mukhabarat hideout. I looked at Abdul again; he was young, with a scrawny mustache and small yellow teeth. I didn’t feel good about this trip at all. We turned back. I felt a fool, but somehow, insidiously, the events of the past weeks had hit me in the pit of my stomach, and my courage was gone.