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Iraq: the good news

Stephen Bleach - Published: 9 March 2014

The Sunday Times

As tourism slogans go, "Come to sunny Iraq!" is problematic, but Britain's biggest adventure travel company is inviting you to do just that. Well, to come to part of Iraq, anyway. New group tours from Explore avoid the violence-torn south and stick to Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous northern region that's been relatively peaceful for 10 years now. Even the cautious Foreign and Commonwealth Office has given it the all-clear.

So, does Iraqi Kurdistan have much to offer, beyond the undeniable frisson of a destination where the first road sign from the airport points to Baghdad?

First impressions aren't great. The flash new airport at Erbil is served by direct flights from several European cities, so no nerve-jangling touchdowns in Iraq proper -- but, cashed up by an oil boom, the Kurds are busily covering their capital with buildings of outstanding hideousness. The citadel has a claim to be the oldest inhabited town on earth (8,000 years, give or take), but endless restoration work means it's mostly closed.

Fortunately, they've repaired the roads too, so it's easy to move on to the countryside, where things improve immeasurably. The Iraq we know from news footage is a dusty, barren place, but as we head east in a minivan, a very different landscape opens up. Go before June, and the lowlands are painted an intense green by spring grass; further on, snow-capped mountains rear up and wildflowers dot the meadows of the valley floor.

The place is relaxed and safe, so you can stop, stroll and picnic where you like. Be ready to drink a lot of tea, though. Perhaps because western travellers are so rare -- outside Erbil, I didn't see a single one -- the hospitality is overwhelming.

Local students invite me to join their picnic -- a few yards from the minefield We pull up in a remote village in the Zhilwan mountains and are instantly invited into a home for chai and nibbles. Zuhri Rachid has an infectious laugh, seven daughters, one son, two cows, an unknown number of chickens and one hell of a view over the peaks from her parlour. The children show us round the house: animals below, people on the first floor, mud roof above.

We sit cross-legged and chat over chai and bowls of nuts. She is happy, she says -- apart from one thing. The neighbours look down on traditional stone houses like hers, but her husband won't build a more prestigious concrete one.

"We are poor, and it's too expensive," says Sadiq Ibrahim. "Stop nagging, or I'll get another wife."

"You couldn't get another wife," says Zuhri, "because nobody will marry you unless you build a concrete house!"

Their bantering good humour is all the more striking given their past. During Saddam Hussein's genocidal campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980s, their village was repeatedly bombed and gassed. "We fled to Iran," says Zuhri, suddenly sombre. "It took three days, walking over the mountains. It was winter, so cold, and I had my baby on my back." And then, in a flash, the smile is back, the teapot is proffered and we're talking about the price of sheep.

Everyone you meet has a story like this -- and you meet a lot of people. Staying in three different towns, and visiting buckets of sights in eight days, the tour is just short of whistle-stop. It takes in Sulaymaniyah, the laid-back, arty second city, where intellectuals sip tea in chaikhanas, discuss literature and folklore -- and tell tales of the Amna Suraka, or red building, the torture centre on the outskirts of town used by Saddam's secret police. You can look round the ugly, nondescript compound if you want to. Inside, things happened that are by some measure worse than I'd ever imagined.

The tour zips up to beauty spots in the north, and the shrines of religious minorities: the ancient Christian monastery at Alqosh, on crags overlooking the Biblical plains of Nineveh -- once shelled by Saddam's forces, who believed it was a hideout for Kurdish guerillas; and fascinating Lalish, world centre of the Yazidi religion, where local students invited me to join their picnic, a few yards from the minefield laid by Saddam's troops.

By the bye, one of the boons of historic sites here is that you won't have to endure a bored guide running through a list of facts. That's because there aren't any trained guides and there aren't any established facts. What guides exist cut their teeth working as translators for the American military, who were less interested in the date a monument was built than in how many insurgents might be hiding behind it. And in any case, Kurdistan's wealth of archeology is woefully poorly researched. You have to soak up the air of antiquity and fill in the blanks yourself. It's sightseeing as a creative process.

The most poignant stop is Halabja, a little country town sitting in a beautiful, mountain-fringed valley. It's a thriving place: in the market, butchers' shops are festooned with obscure animal parts, greengrocers' stalls burst with fruit and throngs of maty locals, clad in the billowing Kurdish sharwal trousers, chat in the sunshine. Everyone offers tea. Many want to practise their English, which elsewhere is code for "rope you into an elaborate con", but here means just what it says. There is no hassle. Nobody even tried to sell me anything. They're just too polite.

Friendly, scenic, lively... you'd like the place. It's hard not to. But if the name seems familiar, it's because Halabja was the site of the most notorious war crime of recent history. An estimated 5,000 people, mostly women and children, died when Saddam's air force dropped chemical weapons here in March 1988.

Mohammed Saeed was six at the time, and he tells us his story as he shows us round the memorial museum outside town. The gas smelled sweet -- like apples, he says. He survived, a bewildered boy holding his one-year-old sister as the rest of his family died. When you look at the photos of victims, taken hours after the attack, you'll cry. Everyone does.

And then, like the Kurds themselves, you'll move on. Confident, go-ahead, tragic Halabja is a microcosm of the contradictions of Kurdistan. It certainly doesn't make for an easy holiday: few outstanding sights, no beaches to laze on. But the human story here is compelling, and finally we can witness it at first hand. This is where the history of our times has been made, and the Kurds are trying to give it a happy ending. It's a messy process, and it isn't finished yet, but watching it happen is a joy.

 

 

 

 

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