Monday, June 18, 2012


The other 2 couchsurfers I'd met were hitchers and tried to convince me to do the same. They were headed north to Turkey while I was heading east to Sulymaniyeh. I considered doing it, knowing from previous experience that it can be quite easy to hitch in the middle east, but walking down the street and realizing that half the cars were taxis, nobody was even looking at me and seeing a sign showing that it was 45C at 10:30am definitely encouraged me to not do it but jump in a shared taxi instead. Transport in Iraq is surprisingly expensive and the shared taxis, which as far as I know are the only real option, run at about $5/hr. This is actually kind of high, though it might not sound expensive. I'd say the really cheap countries cost about $1/hr and anything over $3/hr is definitely not a “cheap” country. The difference adds up quickly when you are constantly taking 8hr rides. As an example, even in Germany with the rideshares I was taking, the cost wasn't really much more than 6 euros/hr for many rides. In Iraq the price of fuel is $1/L, which is stupidly high for a middle eastern country that has so much oil. None of the other major oil producers nearby charge that much within their own country. Fortunately in Iraq the roads are pretty good and distances not far so the rides are short. There are checkpoints but for the most part they just wave the cars through and I was only ID'd a couple of times total in Iraq. It's much worse in many other countries.
$5 and a little under an hour later I was in Koya. I had to go to Koya because the faster and more direct route to Sulymaniyeh goes via Kirkuk which is generally considered to be best avoided at all costs. Kirkuk and Mosul are disputed cities of Kurdistan but are currently controlled by the Arab part and a often unstable still. The Koya route takes a little longer but is more scenic, travelling though the foothills of the region's mountains. Koya is a small town and I figured I'd have better luck securing a lift so spent a little while hitching before getting a ride another hour and half further to Sulymaniyeh.

The road to Koya.


It was a nice drive and in Sulymaniyeh I was dropped off at a meeting point arranged by a last-minute host referred to me by Divan, who had shown me around Ainkawa since my other pre-arranged host had had to cancel. I made a terrible first impression when meeting this new host, Sako, because the driver that had given me the lift, upon seeing Sako, immediately pulled out a business card, claimed to be a private taxi and wanted a huge sum for the ride he'd just given me. Curses upon all taxi drivers and their sons unto the 7th generation!! You can imagine my reaction and the driver is lucky Sako was there because Iraq or no Iraq I was going to kill him for such a stunt. Hitching is a relatively unknown concept in Iraq but I would hope scamming the non-existant tourists would be too. He may have been an off-duty taxi driver, but he was not in a taxi and nothing about his vehicle or our interaction suggested at a private hire of any sort. Sako talked him out of an immediate confrontation and said he'd deal with it later. To be honest I'm not sure what ended up getting resolved but having to explain my way out of that and the prospect of someone forking up money to the guy soured both of our moods instantly and made everything thereafter awkward between us... I don't think I'll try hitching again for a while.
Sako wasn't actually going to host me but was simply a contact for Sulymaniyeh since I no longer had any idea what I was doing there. He was technically still working (as a technician at the main internet provider) so took me back to his office where I chatted with his coworkers until he was free. In that time I managed to get an invite to stay with one of the other guys at his home for the night. After work Sako drove me around a bit, gave me a view over the city from one of the nearby hills and we walked and chatted in the park for a while before I was dropped off at the other guy's place. Interesting to me, is that the area immediately surrounding Sulymaniyah is where wheat and many other vital cereal grains were first domesticated.

Arriving in Sulymaniyeh.

Overlooking Sulymaniyeh.

The guy's room turned out to be the converted office rooms above a still-functioning warehouse but good enough for me. There is a lot of Korean presence in Iraq with tons of Korean products, from cars to household products to Kurdish-dubbed Korean movies on tv. Funny. Anyway, it was a one-night kind of invite, thus accelerating my plans for Iraq, and the following morning, after a quick breakfast I was dropped off at the Red Prison museum while he went to work. The red prison is now a museum about the Kurdish genocide by the previous regime and the prison was a notorious torture and holding site. There actually isn't much to see, but the few buildings were shot up quite a bit during the 1991 rebellion and have been empty since, as far as I know. There wasn't any information and the guide that took me through simply opened up rooms with a key and said “This is holding cell.”, “This is torture room.”, “This is memorial.” so I didn't learn much. There is a memorial room set up with broken glass walls and small lights on the ceiling. 180,000 shards of glass to represent the Kurdish killed, and 4500 lights to represent the villages destroyed.

Red Prison.

Memorial of glass and lights in the Red Prison.

From there I took a shared taxi to the small town of Halabja. It's famous as the site of the chemical weapon massacre of March 16th, 1988 when Saddam Hussein (or more specifically “Chemical Ali”) attacked his own people by dropping chemical weapons on the town, killing ~6,500 people and injuring many more. In typical international fashion there was very little initial outcry as we had much more important political things to think of and yet later conveniently used it as one of the reasons to justify deposing Saddam Hussein and effecting “regime change”.
Today there is a monument to the deceased, with many graphic photos and a central room listing the names of the dead, sorted into family groups, so you can immediately see and understand that entire families were wiped out and not just random individuals. There are obviously not a lot of visitors out to such a remote place and for now the staff are friendly and give visitors a lot of information in the form of a large picture book and CD's about the event and general genocide. Nearby there is also the cemetery memorial where the dead are buried and remembered. How many more genocide memorials do I need to see??? There are far to many in the world.....

Halabja genocide monument.

Using the original bombs...

Halabja cemetary.



At 1:34 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

memorial of glass and lights in the red prison - absolutely enchanting!


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