This report is dedicated to Serena Shim. Because both of us, had been covering an almost identical story. Because she is dead and I am still alive. Because she was brave. Because even as she was being threatened, and scared, she did not stop her dedicated quest for the truth, and as long as people like her live, work, struggle and die for our humanity, all is not lost, yet!
The weather is gloomy; it is drizzling and heavy fog is covering the entire countryside. After leaving Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq, large and small military as well as police checkpoints appear; like ghosts, on both sides and in the middle of an old, dilapidated motorway, which was built during Saddam Hussein’s years.
There are huge Kurdish flags waving above the checkpoints. Small ones are attached to the bumpers of cars.
“We cannot slow down, unless the guards order us to stop”, explains my driver, as we pass by the mountains of sandbags and the aggressive black muzzles of machine guns. “They have orders to shoot without warning.”
We don’t stop, but I photograph whenever it is possible, even through the windshield.
We are driving on the road that leads straight to Mosul, the city that was taken by ISIS, or as it is known here, in Arabic, Da’ish, in June 2014.
My driver is scared. The entire region is tense and this time even the city of Erbil (also known as Arbil) has not been spared. On the 19th of November, a car bomb exploded in front of the Governor’s office, killing at least 6 people, and injuring dozens. Almost immediately, ISIS took responsibility, declaring their aim to spread insecurity in the Kurdish, which is pro-Western, enclave of northern Iraq.
As our car literally flies over the bumps and potholes, on the right-hand side of the road, stand huge oil-drilling installations and refineries that are barely visible, belonging to KAR, the Kurdish oil company. The flames of the refineries burn confidently, and there are countless tanker trucks with Turkish license plates, parked or driving all along the main and secondary roads.
We soon pass Kalak Town, also known as Khabat. This used to be a major checkpoint; this is where refugees from Mosul used to stream through into the Kurdish region, by the thousands daily, after the ISIS surprise offensive. There used to be posts of several UN agencies here, as well as staff from all sorts of NGO’s, spies from countless countries, and armed forces wearing different uniforms.
Now – there is just the road and some desperate makeshift fruit stalls. The road has been destroyed, broken, much the same as almost the entire country of Iraq has: battered, bleeding, and hopeless.
Soon after, there is a huge checkpoint, which ends with a wall made of concrete blocks. Now that is the end of the motorway. All around are antennas and watchtowers, SUVs and military vehicles.
“We cannot go any further”, says my driver. “ISIS is just a few kilometers away from here. Nobody can go any further.”
But I have everything arranged. A few minutes of talking, a few hot cups of tea, and from the post I go in further, in a Toyota Land Cruiser, driven personally by a Kurdish battalion commander of the Zeravani militarized police force (part of the Peshmerga armed forces), Colonel Shaukat.
We drive towards the massive concrete wall, and as we get very close, I realize that there is a small tunnel wide enough for military vehicles. We pass through it, and then the countryside opens up, becomes open and wide, and we speed towards the city of Mosul.
The road is totally empty and eerie. There are a few machine guns scattered leisurely around the cabin of the 4WD. There is one under my feet; I actually have to rest my shoe on it. Mechanically, I make sure that it is secured.
A few kilometers from the post, and there is a huge sand wall, then, a little bit further along, another one. The walls cut across 4 lanes of the motorway, leaving only one narrow passage.
“These used to be border lines between us and ISIS”, explains the colonel. “You can see how we are gradually pushing them further and further back, towards Mosul.”
War mementos dot the highway:
“This car blew up; exploded by a suicide bomber”, the colonel continues. “ISIS also detonated the tanker truck over there, as we were forcing them towards Mosul and the hills.”
And suddenly, the road ends. There is a river and a totally wrecked bridge.
“Khazer River!” the colonel gets emotional. “They –ISIS – were all over this area. They blew up the bridge… They destroyed my checkpoint, see over there?”
It all looks desperate around here, totally ruined. But there is a new military bridge, a metal one, just one lane wide. A few fighters approach us.
“We pushed ISIS from here” I am told again.
“How far is Mosul?” I ask.
“7 kilometers”, they say. “At most 10.”
I don’t think so. I have a navigation system in my phone, and it appears that we are at least 15 kilometers from the doomed city.
“And where is the nearest position of ISIS, now?”
The Kurdish military men take me to the provisory military bridge, and wave their hands towards the hills, SSW from our present position.
“They are there, on those hills. And they are still shelling us, day and night?”
“Mortars?” I wonder.
“Not those. Mortars would not make it that far. They are shooting artillery rounds – 155 calibers. They get that stuff from Iran.”
“Are you sure it comes from Iran?” I wonder.
“We are told…” I don’t ask by whom.
Next to the bridge there is Sharkan Village, totally empty, and de-populated.
The colonel comes back to me: “I will drive you through the villages”, he says. “We will make a detour. The US bombed ISIS into the ground, here, on the 9th of September. Then we attacked, and recaptured this territory. We lost some people… We lost Captain Rashid… We lost a soldier whom I knew – his name was Ahmad. ISIS also killed many Peshmerga troops. Several soldiers died because everything around here was mined.”
We drive straight to that mess: Sharkan Village, then Hassan Shami.
“This is the village of the former Minister of Defense”, the colonel tells me. “This used to be his house.”
Almost everything has been flattened, but the mosque stands. The bombs penetrated countless houses and there is debris all over the place.
“How many civilians died?” I ask instinctively.
“Not one”, I am told. “I swear! We provided great intelligence, so the US forces knew what to bomb.”
I wonder… House after house: all destroyed.
Soldiers of the Kurdish army keep emerging from the fog, as we drive through this desolated land. There are many different uniforms being worn here, but everyone salutes the colonel. Some even come up and kiss him.
No one lives in the villages, anymore. The villages were ‘liberated’, but destroyed. People were killed, or they escaped. Or maybe something else happened to the survivors: I do not ask because I know that I would not be told.
“Do you also plan to liberate Mosul?” I ask.
“We are not going to take Mosul”, says the colonel at one of the stops and consequent military gatherings. Others nod in agreement. “We have nothing to do with that city… We just want to recapture what is ours.”
As we drive back to the Khazer base, I am told that the ISIS contingent, fighting around here, is truly ‘international’. Recently, the Kurdish forces killed 3 Chechen fighters, 4 Afghanis, 2 Germans and 2 or 3 Lebanese.
I suddenly realize that the colonel speaks perfect English, something very unusual in this part of the world. And he only identifies himself with a single name.
“Colonel Shaukat”, I ask. “Where did you learn to speak English so well?”
He gives me a big and bright smile: “In the United States and in the UK. I spent 2 years in the UK and 14 years in the US, where I was trained. I was also trained in Austria…”
“Where exactly were you trained in the US?”
“In North Carolina”, he replies.
At the base, we sit on some rugs: with about ten Kurdish officers and me. Again, we drink tea. I pass my name cards, but the colonel only gives me his phone number: “No time for the internet, but come back, anytime! We like real war correspondents, here.”
I interview two doctors in Mosul, a long-distance call, as we drive back to Erbil; the mobile phones are still working:
“ISIS do not kill anymore”, I am told. “Those who had to die are already dead. Now you smoke, and they cut off your finger. You work during the time for prayer, and they punish you. They have killed Shia Muslims, Kurds, and Christians… They had their list of the people to murder… Now Mosul is screaming from pain: we are out of medicine, milk formula, pampers for children, food…”
In the evening I have a cup of tea with an old scientist, a nuclear physicist, called Ishmael Khalil, originally from Tikrit University, now a refugee. We are in the ancient tea-room in the center of Erbil. He speaks:
“All that I had was destroyed… Americans are the main reason for this insanity – for the total destruction of Iraq. Not just me, ask any child, and you will hear the same thing… We all used to belong to a great and proud nation. Now everything is fragmented, and ruined. We have nothing – all of us have become beggars and refugees in our own land.”
Machko Chai Khana is a true institution: an old, traditional tea-room carved into the walls of the ancient Citadel of Erbil. This is where many local thinkers and writers gather; where they sip tea and play cards.
Now local intellectuals rub shoulders with refugees arriving from all over Iraq, and from as far away as Syria.
“I used to teach and to create, I used to contribute to the building my country. Then Iraq was invaded and destroyed. I can do nothing, now… I have nothing… Now I only sleep and eat. And that is exactly what the West wants – they want to destroy our minds!”
As he speaks, Professor Khalil browses through his smart phone, showing me photos of his university, of his office and his former students.
“I escaped five months ago, after my university was devastated by ISIS. And we all know who is behind them: the allies of the West: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others… I often dream about my country, as it used to be, during Saddam Hussein. The infrastructure was excellent and people were wealthy. There was plenty of electricity, water… There was education and culture for all…”
Now the Autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq (with Erbil as its capital) is trying to promote itself as relatively stable and increasingly prosperous, ‘unlike the rest of Iraq’. It has some of the greatest oil reserves in the world, and therefore attracts huge investments from the West. While the rest of Iraq is bathing in blood, decomposing economically and socially, this part of the country is ‘not allowed to collapse’, due to the strategic importance it has to the United States and Europe.
There are foreigners everywhere. As I find myself detained at a checkpoint, for an hour, just before the city of Kirkuk, allegedly for routine questioning and ‘for my own safety’, I see a convoy of several white government Toyota Land Cruisers speeding towards Erbil, with a Western man wearing sunglasses, sitting behind an enormous machine gun mounted on the back of the leading vehicle.
In a luxury hotel, the Rotana, I share an elevator with a British bloke walking barefoot, his filthy boots carried by a butler.
“I ruined my boots in the desert!” The Westerner confesses, smiling at his servant. “I teach people how to shoot, you know? Do you like shooting?”
“Oh yes, sir!” The man carrying the pair of dirty boots replies. He is most likely from Syria, a refugee. He is very eager to please. “I love shooting so much, sir!”
Foreigners are in control of oil production, they are ‘dealing with the military issues’, they run hotels, and they even work here as masseuses, waiters and domestic servants. Westerners are in charge of business, and there are Turks, Lebanese, Egyptians, Syrians, Indonesians, and people from the sub-continent, doing all sorts of managerial, skilled as well as menial jobs.
Turkey is investing heavily, and it has been building everything here, from shiny glass and steel office towers, to the brand new international airport on the outskirts of Erbil. It is Iraqi Kurdistan’s most important trading partner, followed by Israel and the United States.
Turkey, a staunch ally of the West and of Israel, is also deeply involved ‘politically’. Some of my academician friends in Istanbul actually claim that it is running almost the entire Iraqi Kurdistan.
Despite all that positive propaganda and hype that is being spread about Iraqi Kurdistan by the Western mass media, the place feels chaotic, even depressing. As any country or region of the world, which is under the total control of Western business and geopolitical interests, Iraqi Kurdistan is mainly geared towards the exploitation of natural resources and the neglect of its own people. While the income disparities are growing, there is very little done to improve the living standards of the impoverished, uneducated and deeply frustrated majority.
As a top manager (he is from an Arab country, and is afraid to reveal his identity on the record) of one of Erbil’s luxury hotels explained:
“We were young and ready for any adventure; we wanted to experience the world. And we were told: ‘grab the opportunity and come to Erbil! It is soon going to be another Dubai! But look at it now, after all these years: the people are very poor, and there is no infrastructure. Basically, there is no drainage and the electricity is constantly collapsing: we have blackouts for long hours every day, and all the hotels have to use their own generators. Can you imagine, a country with so much oil, but with constant blackouts? They want to be independent from Iraq, but they have ended up in the deadly embrace of the foreigners: Westerners, Turks and Israelis are running their country. It is perfect for the rich, for the elites. Only the rich and corrupt are benefiting from the way this country is structured. There is not a single solid factory here… I am just wondering what they going to eat after they run out of oil.”
I drive to the Erbil Refinery, belonging to KAR (a local oil conglomerate), located in Khabat district, at Kawrkosek town (also known as Kawergosk), just 40 km west of Erbil city. The army, police and paramilitary are everywhere, protecting the installations. There are Turkish tanker trucks parked all along the road. But as I drive just a few minutes further, up to a hill, the misery screams out loudly in my face.
I speak to Mr. Harki, whose house faces the refinery. He is indignant, like most of the common citizens:
“All this is for the rich… All this is for the corporations and nothing for the people. This oil company has taken our land. It said that we would get compensation: money, fuel, jobs… But until now, we have got nothing! I am very angry. Now my family is sick: we have respiratory problems, the air is just terrible.”
A few kilometers further, away from the motorway, the entire area is contaminated with garbage and filthy scrap yards. All types of fences, some even high-voltage ones, partition the land, just as in the rest of ‘Iraqi Kurdistan’.
In the town of Kawergosk, I see several Muslim women picking up some roots, right off the road, obviously in order to fill the stomachs of their families.
Not far from them, I spot a public elementary school. It is dilapidated, and extremely basic.
This Muslim community is obviously neglected, despite the nearby oil basins and refineries. No wonder: the pro-Western regime in Erbil is openly anti-Arab and pro-Western. President Barzani repeatedly speaks about the Eurasian character of his enclave, disputing that it has anything to do with an undesirable Middle-Eastern Arab character.
A school principal, erect, beautiful and proud, wears a headscarf. I dash into her office, and then slow down and apologize. I have only one question for her: ‘Do any of the proceeds from those oilfields and refineries outside, end up here, in her school, in the education sector’?
Her reply is as short and precise, as my question: “No, nothing! Our people and our schools get absolutely nothing!”
But the number of Kurdish millionaires is growing, as is the number of luxury limousines and SUVs, as are the flashy malls for the elites, as are the armies of arrogant security guards, local and imported.
Like in so many ‘client’ states of the West, in Iraqi Kurdistan it is uncertain whether all those men flashing their machine guns are actually protecting the country from terrorists, or whether they are guarding the elites from the impoverished masses.
Not far from the oilfields, there is a massive refugee camp; this one is for the Syrian exiles.
After negotiating entry, I manage to ask the director of the camp – Mr. Khawur Aref – how many refugees are sheltered here?
“14,000”, he replies. “And after it reaches 15,000, this place will become unmanageable.”
I wanted to know whether all the refugees housed here actually come from Syria?
“They are all from the northern part of Syria; from Kurdish Syria. Almost all of them are Kurds; we have very few Arabs.”
I am discouraged from interviewing people, but I manage to speak to several refugees anyway, including Mr. Ali and his family, who came from the Syrian city of Sham.
I want to know whether all new arrivals get interrogated? They do. Are they asked questions, about whether they are for or against the President Bashar al-Assad? Yes they are: everybody is asked these questions, and more… And if a person – a truly desperate, needy and hungry person – answers that he supports the government of Bashar al-Assad, and came here because his country was being destroyed by the West, then what would happen? His family would never be allowed to stay in the Iraqi Kurdistan.
Inside the magnificent Citadel, one of the longest inhabited places on Earth, and now a World Heritage Site, so designated by UNESCO, Mr. Sarhang, a curator at the impressive ‘Kurdish Textile Museum’, is as discontented with his country, as are almost all people in and around the city of Erbil:
“We are supposed to be safe, but just a few days ago, on the 19th of November, a bomb blast killed 6 people, just a few minutes walk from here. ISIS claimed responsibility. Now as you can see, nobody dares to walk around here, and the museum is empty. But that is not the only problem that we are facing. Look at the outskirts of Erbil: they are building brand new posh apartments for the local elites and for foreigners. A flat goes for around US$500,000! Who can pay that? Money that is made here is siphoned out, by foreigners and by our corrupt officials and businessmen. There is almost no public transportation here, and extremely bad infrastructure…”
Back in Machko Chai Khana, Professor Ishmaeal Khalil raises his voice, as the owner of tearoom blasts old tunes by the great Egyptian singer, Am Khalthom:
“Kurdish people are playing it both ways: they say one thing to the West, another to the Iraqi government. France, Germany, US – they are clearly betting on an ‘independent’ Kurdistan. The West wants to break Iraq, once and for all. They have already created a deep divide between the Shia and Sunnis, and they will go much further. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey – those are all close allies of the US and they are involved in the project. You speak against the plan – and you get killed.”
He suddenly stops talking and looks around. Then he changes the subject:
“Today, again, there is no electricity in Erbil.”
I recall some of the last words of the Kurdish Colonel Shaukat, uttered near the frontline with ISIS: “Our allies are the US, the UK, France, and other Western countries.”
As if to confirm his words, some 40 kilometers away, at the gates of Erbil International Airport, there are jets that have just come directly from Frankfurt, Vienna, Ankara, Istanbul and many other ‘friendly cities’: Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, also some unidentifiable 747s.
There is an increased nervousness in and around the city of Kirkuk, which sits on tremendous oil deposits, and which has been for several months now, governed by both the Kurds and the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
“Some anti-Western forces are operating there, right now”, I am told.
It appears that almost no one likes the government in Baghdad, and no one, except some Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan likes Westerners.
It is no secret that ISIS was welcomed in Mosul and other places, by desperate citizens. But many, or most of the educated Iraqi citizens, see them as some sort of routine nightmare – an offshoot of the US and European client-movements, created and armed in order to destroy President’s al-Assad’s Syria.
All of this is an extremely dangerous game. Millions have already died over the last few decades, in all parts of the Middle East; victims of the barbaric Western geopolitical games, victims of the West’s allies: in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and all over the Arab world.
People like Serena Shim, a Lebanese-American journalist who had been covering these horrendous events for Press TV, get intimidated. If they don’t stop working and telling the truth, they get liquidated, murdered – exactly as happened to her.
In the meantime, corrupt businessmen and local officials, but mainly foreigners, are stripping Iraqi Kurdistan naked, systematically.
And there is very little left in the rest of Iraq.
As has become extremely common, thieves and murderers are now calling themselves ‘liberators’ and good Samaritans.
Iraq is bleeding, but almost nothing of the truth has been allowed to penetrate the rest of the world, about the awful fate of this country once known as the cradle of our civilization.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. The result is his latest book: “Fighting Against Western Imperialism”. ‘Pluto’ published his discussion with Noam Chomsky: On Western Terrorism. His critically acclaimed political novel Point of No Return is re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and the market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear”. His feature documentary, “Rwanda Gambit” is about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website or his Twitter.