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Iraqi Kurds
JANUARY 2006
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Video: March of the Kurds
In some cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.
Photograph by Brian Strauss



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Iraqi Kurds

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   The lynchpins of any overseas assignment, especially at troubled datelines, are the local men and women known as fixers. They supply what's often missing in a foreign correspondent's armory: intimate knowledge of a country and its people, inside contacts in government ministries or rebel armies, and the instinctive savvy that can be the difference between life and death. In northern Iraq, a young Kurd named Yerevan Adham made that difference for photographer Ed Kashi and me. He had a sixth sense about danger spots—insisting on last-minute detours that kept us healthy to the end—and a gut-level feel for a good story and how to get it. Yerevan had lost half his family in Saddam Hussein's chemical attacks on Halabja, the Adhams' hometown. One of the survivors, a cousin who was the de facto patriarch of what remained of the Adham clan, died in a Halabja suicide bombing my last week in Iraq. For a day, the usual camaraderie between fixer and client ebbed. Yerevan said nothing, but his silence spoke eloquently of a gap that could not be breached. When the assignment was finished, Ed and I would leave Iraq. Yerevan would not.
    In the midst of a building boom that vastly distinguishes the Kurdish north from the rest of Iraq, something new and strange has materialized: a mild labor shortage. There are not quite enough Kurds to man the construction sites. The only solution is to import day workers, and the only available workforce is made up of unemployed and desperate Sunni Arabs from the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, just south of the militarized border of Iraqi Kurdistan.
    Under armed guard, they sleep by the hundreds on the floors of unfinished buildings, gathering at 6 a.m. outside the principal mosque of Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital, to await job contractors. If no one hires them, they must leave the streets by 9 a.m. and hope for a better tomorrow. The irony of the situation—the reversal of the hierarchy that made Kurds an oppressed, battered minority in Saddam's Arab-dominated Iraq—is not lost on these workers. "The Kurds hate us, and I understand why," one of the Mosul workers told me. "We are only allowed here because they have no choice." It was a concise statement of the challenge facing greater Iraq's reconstruction: molding a single functioning nation out of a legacy of unforgiving division and hate.
    This is how a reporter reached Erbil in the summer of 2005. A typical journey to Iraqi Kurdistan's erstwhile national capital begins at 4:30 a.m. in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir in a special taxi booked for the six-hour ride to the town of Cizre near the Iraqi border. The Kurdish taxi driver knows the ropes. He carries three sets of car keys and three cell phones. At Cizre, the Diyarbakir taxi is left behind, and the second set of keys are fitted into an unmarked car whose location is announced on Cell Phone One. The Cizre car carries the reporter just 20 miles (32 kilometers). After a brief conversation on Cell Phone Two, the final set of keys is used in a third car hidden a few hundred yards away. In this car the driver and reporter cross the border into the Iraqi city of Zakho, where two more vehicle switches—arranged on the third cell phone—will occur before the journey is complete some 300 miles (480 kilometers) and 11 hours after departure.
    There is no mystery about this game of phones and taxis. Visitors routinely carry thousands of dollars in cash to Iraq, a country with no ATMs, no check-cashing services, and no conventional banks. Everyone along both sides of the border knows this. The car keys and cell phones are travel insurance.
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