|Chris Gray in Iraqi Kurdistan.
|Uploading by satellite
from Biyara, Iraqi Kurdistan.
Chris Gray is picture
editor with the BBC NewsNight team. In Kurdistan from the days of the lead up
to war, he provided this glimpse of the everyday life of a journalists' community
waiting for, and sometimes getting, their story.
Journey to northern
Well, I've finally found
access to the internet in Northern Iraq. I'll send this brief report to you despite
it taking 20 minutes to log-on and the Arabic keyboard making my typing a fakir!
This is certainly a strange
place to be. We're in Iraq but not in Iraq. Officially, this place doesn't exist
and we're sort of honoured non-persons being here. If the Iraqi regime got their
paws on us it'd be chokey for sure and judging by the state of my 'hotel' room
you don't want to sample government hospitality!!
The journey here was a
marathon. A four a.m. start meant London to Istanbul went smoothly but then we
had to travel into the city to pick up special authorisation to join the invited
group of journos that Johnny Turk had given 'permission' to travel into the Kurdish
controlled part of Northern Iraq. The border's been shut since the last Gulf war
ten years ago for 'security' reasons. However, there's a queue of decrepit oil
tankers at least six miles long on either side of Habur gate, the crossing point,
waiting to smuggle oil from the oil fields at Mosul.
We returned to the airport
to find our evening flight to Diyabakir cancelled because of snow shutting the
airport there. By this time it was also snowing heavily in Istanbul too. We met
a British Kurdish delegate to the conference and he advised us to switch to another
flight going to Gaziantep in the South East and travel on from there. A mad scramble
ensued, including our refusing to board the aircraft on the steps until we got
sight of our twelve bags of checked in luggage for the Diyabakir flight!
Arriving at Gaziantep,
we booked two taxis for a three hour drive to Salinurfa. We got there at three
a.m. and had two hours sleep before a five thirty start for the six hour drive
to Salopi, the nearest town to the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi border. The journey
was interesting; abutting the Syrian border most of the way with minefields, electric
fences and guard towers every two hundred metres for the entire length of the
border! This of course, is designed to stop the PKK from crossing Syrian Kurdish
areas into Turk Kurdish territory.
The entire Kurdish region
in Turkey is very run down and evidence of the disdain with which the Turks have
treated their Kurd minority. In fact, the only poverty I've seen like it has been
in India. We had a jolly fixer arranged for us by Johnny Diamond in Istanbul.
'Tommy' certainly came up with the goods in terms of arranging transport and accommodation.
His engaging smile almost made you forget the prodigious quantities of dollars
he was relieving us of for his services. He was missing the first two joints of
his right index finger. He informed us that his friends had nick-named him Tommy
Half-finger after Tommy Hilfiger.
There then followed a
four day media pantomime in which the Turkish authorities played a bizarre form
of 'It's a Knockout' with the World's press. They'd call sudden 'briefings' in
a school hall to tell us that 'for security' all our passports would be taken
off us. The ensuing outrage made them back down. We were also told that if we
didn't come back to Turkey with the official party we'd never be let in again.
Of course, you have to realise that of the approximately 250 journalists on the
beano fewer than a dozen had any intention of coming back to Turkey as everybody
saw this as the last chance to get grandstand seats for the forthcoming attraction.
The Turks would then announce
that the arranged coaches were leaving in an hour. There would then be various
scenes from Wacky Races as the assembled media raced to the location in a variety
of vehicles and fought tooth and nail to get favoured locations for luggage and
bums. Then the Turks would flourish a seating list and it all happened again!
We set off for Iraq only
to turn back five minutes later as the Turks had suddenly heard that the conference
was 'postponed'. In fact, there was a furious battle going on between the Turks,
who wanted to escort us with a military convoy and the KDP (Democratic Kurdish
Party) who would have no truck with this and threatened all sorts of nasty things
should we be accompanied on the journey.
After a couple of days
waiting and further 'briefings' we finally embarked yet again and actually got
to cross the border. Having had our hopes of getting into Iraq dashed so many
times there was real relief that we'd finally made it and couldn't now be turned
On the Iraqi side there
was an immediate contrast with the Turkish conditions. The infrastructure was
much better and there was evident wealth in terms of the quality and quantity
of goods in the shops at the roadside.
The region is breathtakingly
beautiful with sweeping plains surrounded by snow capped mountains and we climbed
into these as night arrived. Snow also fell in quantity. Before long, the coach
drivers announced that it was too dangerous to continue and we put into a fabulous
but completely empty luxury hotel in Dohuk, the nearest town to the border on
the Kurdish side. There was speculation that the hotel was built purely to launder
the money derived from oil smuggling operations.
After about fours hours
sleep we arose and tried to separate from the travelling media by hiring a Jeep
4x4. Unfortunately, just about everybody else had the same idea whilst the Kurds
did their level best to hold us all together by stopping us at check points along
We climbed high into the
mountains through a tiny pass. The snow was very deep and cars were abandoned
everywhere. There were frequent delays as vehicles became stuck passing one another.
There is another road bypassing the mountains but it passes very close to Iraqi
troop positions and is too dangerous to drive.
Another marathon drive
brought us to Erbil, where we're now based. It's a bustling town with a thriving
market very reminiscent of Shepherds Bush market so I almost feel at home!
The BBC have taken almost
an entire floor in a hotel here and we've set up our edit pack ready to file back
from here when our dish arrives. There's quite a strange atmosphere. We're about
a four hour drive from Baghdad and well within artillery range from the current
front line between Kurds and Iraqis which is only twenty minutes away. There is
of course much discussion of how we imagine the situation will develop. It's not
beyond reasoning that Saddam may try to hit this area before he goes down as he
hates the Kurds with a vengeance. Strangely, the Kurds here are very proud to
be Iraqi and they all support the Iraqi football team.
It's just Saddam and his
regime that's the problem.
First Impressions of
Two weeks in Northern
Iraq now and still only starting to adjust to different life.
It takes time to get to
know a place. Until you've left every expectation of 'your' life behind; the friends
you're used to seeing, the food you expect to eat and are used to, you can't really
begin to appreciate the impressions flooding in on you. It's hard enough to do
when you're on a two week vacation but another level entirely when the society
that you're in is poised on the edge of a precipice.
I packed almost all the
wrong clothes to come here. Fleeces, hats, gloves, thermal socks. As though to
mock me, Spring has arrived with a vengeance. Rain and lightning at night but
warm, balmy days and the countryside bursting with life. It's hard to believe
that so many people may soon die prematurely, even harder to believe when there's
no apparent sense of doom or approaching conflict amongst the Kurds.
We spent the first week
in Erbil, capital and stronghold of the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), one
of the two Kurdish factions. The other is the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan).
These two were are loggerheads in a bloody and futile internecine war until only
five years ago. Each side backed covertly by neighbouring states or Saddam. Peace
came with the realisation that nothing was being achieved except continued division
and confirmation of the economic advantage stemming from the UN food for oil programme
in which the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq receives 13.5 % of the revenues from
oil sold from the Iraqi wells.
The flashpoints of the
civil war are now adorned with peace symbols painted on the rocks and manned by
joint checkpoints. There are of course, numerous other checkpoints to negotiate
as you travel around the region.
Erbil itself is a bustling,
lively town, somehow reminiscent of what all towns must have been like at some
point in their development. The streets are thronged with unemployed men. Women
are far rarer but can be seen even in Western dress and more frequently in traditional
Burka. Commerce is thriving, mainly aimed at the economic expectations of the
residents; shoe cleaners, cigarette sellers, cigarette lighter fillers, soap salesmen
and countless other small tradesmen all hawking their wares. My 'best buy' to
date is an alarm clock in the shape of a mosque which has the muezzin chanting
instead of an alarm.
The town is strictly divided
into commercial areas making it surprisingly easy to find what you are looking
to buy and convenient too. All this is dominated by 'The Citadel' and imposing
hill and fortress dating back thousands of years and now filled with a motley
collection of Kurd refugees from the oil region of Mosul which has been 'Arabised'
by Saddam. The grim collection of shacks and raw effluent running down the packed
earth alleyways assault the senses. Every inch is used for housing and there are
scores of brightly dressed and happy children running everywhere. The old men
squat on their haunches and often touch their hearts with their right hand in
greeting as you pass.
I still find it bizarre
to have complete strangers approaching me in the street grasping my hand and proclaiming
"Thank you, thank you". They think that I'm American and want to express their
gratitude for ridding them of the Iraqi dictator.
Not everyone welcomes
us of course. There is the (hopefully) remote chance of Islamicists attacking
us but it hasn't stopped most of us from the BBC contingent walking around the
town, even late at night. The same can't be said of the U.S. networks. CNN and
Fox News have created sand bagged fortresses of their respective hotels much to
the amusement of ourselves and the locals. Perhaps they'll have the last laugh.
With every passing day
we spend more time considering our own security. How many vehicles to use, how
many spare tyres to take; cluster bombs have pieces in them specifically designed
to shred car tyres. We're also hoping to eventually find out how to mark our vehicle
roofs so that we can minimise, to some extent, the risk of friendly fire. We've
also started to carry our CBR kits in case of chemical or gas attack.
Another problem entirely
is extraction. Should one of us be injured, we're effectively stuck here. There
is an arrangement with an Italian hospital which is well equipped. Getting to
it would be a long and difficult journey. Hopefully, once hostilities start, the
Foreign Office will pressure neighbouring states to the conflict to let us pass
their borders should we need to make a dash for it.
We've bought a generator
sufficient to cover our technical needs as we're assuming the power supply will
be cut when Bgan satellite ip modem theoretically at up to 120Kbs but more realistically
at around 40-50Kbs. It takes just over an hour to feed two minutes of vt but does
completely free us of being attached to a dish and enables us to feed from literally
A few days ago (March
1st) we moved from Erbil to the PUK capital of Sulaimaniya. The drive takes about
four hours through dramatic mountain scenery. There were several vehicle checkpoints
to negotiate on the drive and a final one just before entering the town itself.
The next day we passed
through this checkpoint again en route to visit one of the concentration camps
built by Saddam in the 1980's to house the Kurds in his drive to eradicate opposition
from them. 'Peshmerga' (those willing to die) had been using the mountain villages
as bases on their daily attacks against the Government forces and had succeeded
in assassinating three regional governors. Saddam simply bulldozed villages by
the thousand and moved the inhabitants into concrete compounds with no essential
services connected alongside the main roads in the plains and next to military
camps which took daily roll calls.
Today, these mud filled
hovels of unspeakable squalor are still half full of people. Those that were able
returned to their villages and rebuilt their houses. Those that remain have no
money and no job and nowhere else to go.
You sort of get used to
the various militias and men with guns everywhere. We
passed the checkpoint once more returning to Sulaimaniya and learn that five Islamicists
were shot dead in their car just a few hours earlier. The initial response seems
to be that it's all a terrible mistake but as the story unfolds it appears to
be a deliberate targeted killing. An eight year old girl was also hit in the crossfire.
Working in news I thought
that I should at least know something about the Kurds. Of course, I remember the
footage of the refugees fleeing across the Turkish border after the last Gulf
war when Saddam moved to crush the uprising against him. He exacted terrible revenge
on both the Shia in the South and the Kurds here. Somehow, it completely passed
me by just how dreadful it was. Sulaimaniya was seen as the stronghold and there
were daily executions and mass torture. The park just down the road from my room
was the execution ground. The family of those to be killed were drawn to witness
the act and made to applaud and shout pro-Saddam chants as their husband, son
or daughter was murdered in front of them. Women were invariably labelled as prostitutes.
When the U.N. imposed
no-fly zones in the north and south, offering some measure of protection to those
opposing the regime, Saddam reacted by withdrawing his 'administration'. He destroyed
as many buildings as possible. He cut the electricity supply and the water. He
nullified the currency by cancelling the most common 25 dinar note. Ten years
ago the Kurds came back down from the mountains with literally nothing.
To have achieved as much
as they have in such a short time is astounding. The whole place looks like a
building site and the roads are pot-holed tracks and so what if my hotel room
doesn't have hot water; they have their freedom. Unlike almost any other state
in the region there's freedom of speech and association far greater than most
and there's an active system of democratic debate and government.
I've been pretty ambivalent
about this war myself but actually being here has changed my mind completely.
I lay in bed last night and listened to the World Service on my short wave radio.
There was an item interviewing some 'anti-war' thirteen year old school girls
who'd taken the day off school to go to a demonstration and who thought the whole
idea of us going to war was wrong. I now know that it's right but surely it was
right too ten years ago when we should have finished it but didn't for fear of
the Islamic state that could have arisen. Surely it should have been right too
when Saddam Hussein gassed the residents of Halabja in 1987, except that he was
then 'our' ally in his war with the Iranians. The more you see of the world the
more you realise that states only occupy the moral high ground when it suits their
This week-end we're being
offered protection by a famous mountain fighter Kaka Hama, to visit his mountain
stronghold on the Iranian border. We need protection as he's at war with Ansar
Al-Islam, Islamic radicals backed by Iran. We'll also be visiting the village
The future seems as misty
as the hills surrounding Sulaimaniya. War fever has suddenly gripped not only
the local population but all the journalists as well. My own colleagues are not
immune. Knots of journalists sit or stand around the hotel lobby in small groups
and there's much grand talk of all the preparations and planning that needs to
be done. In reality, the planning appears to comprise of sitting around, drinking
tea and smoking of endless cigarettes. This is not a place to be a non-smoker.
Virtually the whole population are to be seen with a cigarette permanently stuck
in their mouths and the press contingent here are similarly addicted. Every so
often, money is flourished and drivers sent on errands to buy things or have something
done to their cars like top up with fuel or change the petrol filter.
There's a tremendous drive
to get material on air even though, in reality, little is happening. The process
of actually gathering the material is straightforward and relatively leisurely,
certainly for the correspondent, producer and fixers, who all disdain to carry
anything heavier than a mobile telephone whenever they possibly can. On the other
hand, the process of creating the story to transmit is fraught with tension. The
correspondents drift off into themselves whilst writing their script and show
little real interest in the actual picture content. The producer has a tendency
to become manically aggressive when the editing process starts and only calms
down as it becomes obvious that the deadline for feeding the story back to London
will be met. In the car en route to the KurdSat tv station to feed the story,
both become suddenly like hyper-elated teenagers; giddily light hearted and congratulating
themselves whilst telephoning colleagues back in London with 'updates' on their
There was some amusement
whilst we were editing and we covered a sequence in the town nearest to the Iraqi
controlled area called Cham Chamal. The Iraqi tank crews have been firing the
occasional machine gun round down from the hills and enfilading the streets. A
small group of Kurds are showing 'our man' where one of these bullets landed and
we suddenly realise that he's conducting the interview whilst he crouches in a
doorway whilst the poor Kurd is in full view of the marauding Iraqis! We rib him
mercilessly about this but in reality it's quite a relief to have one of the world's
biggest cowards with you in a war zone.
Sulaimaniya seems like
a ghost town. Many people have left to seek sanctuary in the mountain villages
for the duration of the war. However, some of those living nearest to the Iraqi
controlled areas have migrated into town so there is some movement. There are
long queues and short tempers at the petrol filling stations, though most of these
are nothing more than a couple of men sat at the roadside with a few dozen plastic
jerry cans filled with multi-coloured fuels of various provenances.
The deadline to Saddam
expired at 04:00 local time and I awoke with a start at some point in the night
and listened to what I thought was an almighty barrage of guns. Only slowly does
it become obvious that I'm listening to a tremendous electrical storm playing
itself out in the mountains nearby.
There was a final flurry
of excitement amongst the hack-pack and a clutter of luggage in the lobby of the
hotel as the majority of them made preparations to strike out for the border areas
but not without leaving hefty deposits on rooms in case they need to return in
a hurry. Final deals are being arranged with local fixers and there's much muttering
in corners and furtive shaking of hands. The locals, of course, are making hay
whilst the sun shines, so to speak and those fleet of foot and/or gifted with
languages are making a financial killing. The free market is in full flood and
the daily rates for fixers is experiencing hyper-inflation. A daily rate of around
$30 has inexorably climbed to $200 and stories are legion of fixers tarting themselves
from crew to crew on a daily basis and there's a desperate panic to secure the
services of a dependable local contact. Many journalists who thought they were
nicely set up have suddenly found their fixer has gone AWOL and returned to his
family up in the mountains.
One particularly unhappy
spot is the ABC News suite in the Sulaimaniya Palace Hotel. They haven't managed
to transmit a single item since being here as their uplink dish has died on them.
What a situation to be in; more money than Croesus to throw around but nothing
to do with it. Tempers have reached boiling point and there are a lot of raised
voices. Charlie Glass, their anchor doesn't seem to mind, he's writing a book
anyhow so the situation suits him.
An early start with no
breakfast as I had to pack all my bags and the equipment up. With no proper northern
front the rich seam of events in Sulaimaniya was drying up and as American special
forces were now appearing openly in Erbil we decided to decamp to there to see
if we could sniff out another story or two.
A few miles down the road
we drove up behind a pick up truck with a man standing in the back covered from
head to foot so that he was unrecognisable. He held onto a machine gun mounted
so that it faced the front of the vehicle.
Kurds drive like madmen,
it's in their blood. There's a constant tooting of horns as cars thrust up behind
slower, usually older, cars and overtake them. The horn sounding is necessary
because of the dreadful state of the roads and cars are constantly weaving erratically
all over the place in a futile attempt to avoid the worst of the holes.
As we tried to overtake
the mystery car, its driver swerved out to prevent us overtaking and the machine
gunner half turned and motioned with his hand for us to stay behind and not overtake.
Then we noticed the relatively new four wheel drive car in front of our gunner,
its windows blacked out. We instantly surmised that both vehicles contained American
special forces on their way to some secret destination.
We sat back and watched
the fun as car after car of insanely driving Kurd overtook our car and tried their
damnedest to overtake the pick up truck. Not one of them made it.
High in the mountain passes
the strange convoy slipped off the road toward lake Durkan and the private residence
of Talibani, the PUK leader, no doubt on some clandestine mission.
Erbil itself was pretty
much like Sulaimaniya, half-deserted and most of the shops closed because residents
had fled to the mountain villages to seek sanctuary from the feared chemical weapon
attack by the Iraqis. Things had improved slightly from the week-end though and
life was slowly returning to the towns.
26 & 27
We drive down to Kalak,
the frontline between Kurds and Iraqis about 20 minutes drive to the south of
Erbil. B-52's have been giving the Iraqi positions on the ridges facing the town
across the river a terrible pounding. For the first time, at night you can hear
enormous numbers of aircraft flying overhead almost constantly.
The BBC have rented a
house at the edge of the town directly facing the Iraqi positions only a few hundred
metres away. Live 'two ways' are being conducted from the roof of the house and
sent back to London via the satellite dish parked in a small truck at the side.
There's an almost constant thud of ordnance detonating in the hills just beyond.
No camera lights can be
used because of the danger of attracting incoming fire so a small mini DV camera
with an infra red illuminator is used. This has the effect of making the correspondent
look like a ghoulish green figure from a Stephen King movie. John Simpson has
been affectionately dubbed 'Shrek'.
Because our programme
goes out at half past ten in the evening UK time, it's one thirty in the morning
for us here and often two thirty before we start the drive back to our hotel.
There isn't another car on the roads and bumping along at night it's easy to fall
into a reverie and almost impossible to believe that literally a few minutes drive
away people are doing their best to kill each other.
Late on Thursday evening
we'd heard that the Iraqis had made a tactical retreat from the heights around
Cham Chamal where they'd been terribly exposed to bombing and pulled back into
Having returned to the
hotel at three in the morning, most of the team had only three hours sleep before
pulling out to see whether they could gain access across where the Iraqi checkpoint
and frontline had been.
I had the luxury of another
couple of hours sleep before packing all my equipment away and gathering up the
bags the others had left and stacking them in a truck to take back to Sulaimaniya.
Sat in the lobby of the Chwar Chra Hotel there was a sudden loud detonation outside
and everybody rushed out. A plume of smoke and dust was rising into the clear
sky only a couple of hundred metres away. It later transpired that the Iraqis
had launched two artillery shells toward Erbil but only one of them had exploded.
The drive back to Sulaimaniya
was idyllic. Crystal clear skies and unlimited visibility led us to take the scenic
route through the mountains. Kurdish music blared on the car's cassette player.
The large 'TV' stickers emblazoned on the outside of the vehicle made it obvious
who we were and lots of people stopped their work in the fields and waved to us
as we weaved our way around the pot holes.
The most noticeable thing
upon returning to the Ashti Hotel was the step change in security at the entrance.
Everybody was body searched and bags examined. It was an obvious reaction to the
suicide bombing last week-end and a sensible precaution with the imminent assault
upon the mountain bases of Ansar Al-Islam, the radical Islamic group fighting
the PUK around Halabja.
We also learned of a disturbing
incident in the hotel restaurant during our absence.
The 'hack pack' had been
sat around their tables chattering when an unknown figure had walked through the
restaurant and into the men's toilet. One of the journalists commented upon the
stranger when the man suddenly appeared from the lavatory waving a hand gun in
the air. Apparently all hell broke out. Some people were screaming at the man
and others were screaming at those shouting at the gunman. The suicide bombing
was foremost in everybody's mind and this highlighted how vulnerable they all
were. It eventually transpired that the strange figure was a bodyguard for a senior
Kurdish figure also eating in the restaurant.
The rest of the team had
gained good access to the zone beyond the checkpoint and toward Kirkuk and we
had a cut story to edit and feed back to London.
Everyone was very tired
and tempers were short during the edit, everyone snarling at everyone else but
only because of the fatigue. Back in this location, I suddenly realised my prescience
in how I'd set up this edit location. I noticed that I'd placed the correspondent
on the other side of the room from where I was editing and by chance I'd put him
in front of a mirror. No wonder he hadn't been talking very much, every time he
looked up from his lap top computer he was preening himself, budgie like, in his
A slow start. Everyone
is exhausted after three days of non-stop work and travel.
I spend most of the morning
typing up my diary and reading e-mails. Thanks to the satellite i.p. modem we
have with us I am able to read and participate in the online discussion forum
of my neighbourhood web site.
The anti-war movement
have been very vocal and strident in their denunciation of the allies campaign
and would have everybody believe that there is no alternative to their point of
view, labelling everyone else 'pro-slaughter,' a 'bigot' and worse.
By simply reporting to
the forum what I have seen and heard from Kurds and Iraqis I am driving some of
the other contributors to absolute distraction. In an effort to reduce the impact
the impact of my postings, some suggest that my perception is 'coloured' by contact
with the Kurds, implying that they somehow weren't Iraqis too and so their opinion
In the afternoon, I return
a favour to the French news channel TF1 and journey over to their hotel with my
equipment to dub for them a selection of our rushes for them to fill in gaps in
their coverage. Without crews in the field helping each other like this it would
be impossible to cover the conflict. It's interesting that the only company not
participating is CNN.
On returning to the hotel
I find a note from my colleagues informing me that they've gone to the Sulaimaniya
Palace Hotel for drinks and dinner.
When I eventually find
them there's a convivial air. Their glasses are full of diluted raki, the aniseed
flavoured local spirit and there are already a couple of empty 1/4 bottles lying
on their sides. 'Andy' an ex SAS soldier and security 'consultant' joins our table
and more bottles of raki arrive, followed by some hideous tasting wine.
I didn't know whether
to believe him.
Allie implores Andy to
join us on the road to Baghdad in our little convoy as we could appreciate his
battlefield awareness. Just by listening to his general comments on personal safety
I certainly agree that he'd be a welcome addition for the potentially hazardous
journey. His relaxed manner contrasted sharply with the 'rough diamond' approach
of the BBC's own security man in Erbil who'd already created a near mutiny amongst
the drivers by his tendency to communicate with them by shouting louder, in English,
whenever they didn't understand an instruction.
The first thing we learn
in the morning is the news that there'd been a terrible accident with the Channel
4 News correspondent Gaby Rader. There are conflicting reports at first and it
is only later that we learn the full horror that he'd fallen to his death from
his hotel roof. Shock strikes the entire team. We had had many conversations with
Gaby and his producer, Sophie. Allie does her best to comfort her at this awful
The weather is crystal
clear and as I leave the hotel, pondering the fragile nature of our lives I look
up and watch the contrails of the B-52's as they arc slowly southward in azure
The week-end battle in
the mountains to the north of Halabja between Ansar Al-Islam and the PUK, assisted
by U.S. special forces is almost over and we are free, for the first time in over
a decade to visit the villages that had been the strongholds of the Islamic groups.
For Newsnight researcher and Kurdish guide, Hiwa Osman, it is a particularly poignant
moment. We are to visit Biyara, birthplace of his father and somewhere he's never
been able to visit.
We turn off the main road
at the checkpoint where, only a week earlier, a suicide bomber had murdered five
people including Australian cameraman Paul Moran. The wreckage of the vehicle
still lay at the roadside.
As we wind our way up
into the mountains the remnants of the week-end battle are everywhere to be seen.
Shell craters and lines of rapidly dug trenches run alongside our road. We meet
the security chief for the area and he warns us to be careful of mines. Groups
of Peshmerga relax in the sunshine and wave us on cheerily not bothering to bear
arms for the first time in ages.
We draw slowly into Biyara,
a small village nestling in the steep sided lower slopes of a mountain whose crest
is the border with Iran. The village is bisected by a mountain stream and the
majority of the village is on the left looking upstream.
Biyara was the headquarters
of Ansar Al-Islam and the U.S. had struck here with a vengeance. At least one
cruise missile had hit the mosque in the centre and almost completely destroyed
it. It was now covered with men bashing the collapsed walls with futile blows
of sledge hammers and doing their best to sweep up the debris in the main building
which was now ventilated with gaping holes.
What was remarkable was
the relative lack of damage to surrounding buildings considering their proximity
and close packed nature of the village. As in any conflict though, there were
innocent victims. The row of small shops and houses immediately adjoining the
mosque were totally destroyed and their owners, who in many cases had led a miserable
life under the harsh sharia law of the Ansar mob, now had only the clothes they
At the entrance to the
village there was also a building that had been used as a prison. It had been
thoroughly looted by the time we examined it and discarded shoes and upturned
cabinets filled the upper rooms. The ground floor housed the cells and they were
medieval in their primitiveness. All natural daylight was excluded and the inmates
had to squat on bare concrete floors of rooms that were barely one and a half
metres wide by three metres long with a hole in the ground at the end for a toilet.
When the assault started,
Ansar had executed all their remaining prisoners and the body of one lay outside
where he'd been dumped, shot in the head.
This struggle was an almost
irrelevant side issue in the major battles occurring to the south but still an
accurate reflection of the vile nature of war in its widest sense. TBS