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Barbarians at the Gates: A Postcard from Erbil

The car bomb sounded like a car backfiring. I heard it, dismissed it, and went back to sleep. It was only a few hours later, as I sat at the window of Erbil’s Hotel Merci, looking out over a two-story image of Leo Messi advertising Pepsi, that I realized how close I had been—too close for comfort—to the city’s first bombing in nearly a year. It had exploded only a few blocks away.

It was August 2014. I had arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan a few days earlier, without plans, without press credentials, and with only a handful of contacts. There had been confusion on the Turkish side of the border—my Turkish e-visa couldn’t be confirmed at passport control and I had to visit the police. As my bags were searched for journalistic paraphernalia, which I had managed to leave on the bus, I asked an English-German archaeologist to translate the message that I was merely a reckless tourist, but he declined. In the end, however, they bought my story. “Good luck,” the border guard shrugged.

Each darkened switchback on the road helped me to stay awake throughout the night. To which side of the conflict did that goatherd, the bells of his flock clanging up toward us from over the rise, belong? How close were we to the group that calls itself the Islamic State, which captured Mosul, without resistance, only two months before?

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The Hotel Merci was the cheapest place I could find in the Kurdish capital. It was cheap for a reason: It was on the wrong side of the city, on its southern flank, half an hour and a $10 cab ride from where the real action was. After checking in, I headed straight to Ankawa, Erbil’s Assyrian Christian quarter, where most of the town’s journalists, aid workers, and internally displaced persons were to be found.

The Virgin, faded from sun exposure, gazed down benevolently upon the throngs of unkempt Christian urchins, recently arrived from Mosul and the surrounding villages, who spent their days begging for a crust from foreigners like me. These kids and their families had caused Ankawa’s population to explode in the months before my arrival, pushing the capabilities of the Kurdistan Regional Government, which hadn’t received its share of the federal budget all year due to a disagreement with Baghdad over oil revenues, to the breaking point. They were living in churches, parks, construction sites, and schools, causing the beginning of the new school term to be pushed back by at least a month. They told harrowing stories of hairbreadth escapes from their homes.

For ten long days, Ghazala Elyas had lived under the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The eighty-year-old was in remission for cancer, but remained bed-ridden for a host of other conditions, including diabetes. She recounted her story from a half-built apartment block that she shared with more than five hundred others from the majority-Christian village of Karamlish.

When all but eleven of Elyas’s five thousand fellow villagers fled Karamlish on the night of August 6th, she and her sister-in-law locked the doors and hoped for the best. They held out for five days, oblivious to what was going on outside, until they ran out of food and water and were forced to allow the militants into their home.

The Islamic State “boss,” as Elyas called him, was respectful. “But Daesh”—a derogatory term based on the Arabic acronym for ISIS—“had done terrible things to our village,” she added. “They had destroyed the church and all its crucifixes and statues.”

They had also looted the abandoned homes and attempted to persuade the remaining Christians in the village to convert to Islam with promises of money and homes in Mosul. After ten days, the remaining Christians were given the choice: either convert, pay the jizya tax for religious minorities, and submit to inferior status under sharia law, or leave town with only the clothes on their backs. “I love Jesus Christ, not Muhammad,” Elyas emphasized. She left along with her sister-in-law and seven others. No one knows what has happened to the two who remained.

 

American sports bars are the same the world over and Ankawa’s T Bar, around the corner from where Elyas was staying, was no exception. Tangles of neon flickered above bacon-clad cheeseburgers while Japanese skaters flipped and flew on the sixty-inch screen hanging precariously above the bar. It wasn’t really Mustafa’s style. “We need to find a club,” he said. “We need to find a club playing Russian music.”

I made Mustafa’s acquaintance the night I stopped in at the T Bar. He was a native of Baghdad, an Arab Sunni in Kurdistan to check up on his trucking interests, inherited along with about sixty employees from his father a couple of years ago. His flight out the next day wasn’t a long one—less than an hour in the air—but taking the road south of Kirkuk was unthinkable.

He couldn’t wait to leave because the Kurds couldn’t wait for him to go. “They hate us,” he said. “You have no idea. To the Kurds, every Arab is a Baathist. Or, these days, Islamic State.”

The cab driver we hailed when we left the bar was a case in point, he said. A five-minute conversation about where we want to go struck me as nothing more than a standard case of language barriers wreaking havoc, but Mustafa shook his head.

“He understands Arabic perfectly,” he said in English, so the driver wouldn’t understand us. “He’s just pretending that he only speaks Kurdish.”

This appeared to be confirmed when, upon hearing us discuss the efforts of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Syria’s People’s Protection Units (YPG) across the border in Syria, he waved his hand dismissively and, in perfectly fluent Arabic, proceeded to tell us how the Peshmerga were the only Kurdish fighting force worthy of the name.

“He says he’s Peshmerga himself,” Mustafa said.

The driver passed back his wallet to show off his credentials. The trim young man smiling at us from the Peshmerga ID bore little resemblance to the grossly overweight driver smiling back at us, but we took his word for it.

After several abortive attempts to find a club—“Fucking Kurdistan,” Mustafa complained, insisting, though I had trouble believing him, that by contrast Baghdad “never sleeps”—we instructed the driver to take us to the Divan. That’s where the foreign television crews were staying, I reasoned, and they’d be drinking yet.

The Divan is a Turkish-designed and -owned affair, heavily guarded and going strong while the international hotel chains get their act together. The prices were as ludicrous as the fancy decor: Rooms were going for $400 a night, the drinks were at least two times what they were anywhere else in the city, and a packet of cigarettes, $2.50 on the street, cost $12 at the bar. We sank into high leather chairs while our waiter, a Syrian refugee from Irbid, brought over our beers in an ice bucket and opened them for us.

A television news team a few couches over was three sheets to the wind and too close not to eavesdrop on. “Remember that time in Libya,” one began, “when we had to fly back to Cairo in economy? I couldn’t fucking believe it!”

I felt like I was in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, listening to journalists pat themselves on the back while the most interesting people in the room—economic migrants from the subcontinent and East Africa, refugees from the war next door—silently waited upon them.

After Mustafa had left, I asked one of the journalists, a well-known presenter for a cable news network, what it was like playing hopscotch with conflict throughout the region and the world.

“They all blur together a bit,” he said. “You tend not to think about the last one very much.”

His colleagues were arguing about the difference between a bomb and a missile.

“There isn’t one!” a cameraman insisted.

“You’re drunk,” the sound engineer replied.

 

Jonathan Spyer was in Erbil for one night with a couple of Danish journalists. The Jerusalem Post correspondent, whom I first met in Israel two years ago, was on his way to Mount Sinjar, the Syrian border, and Kobane, where the PKK and YPG had been resisting the Islamic State unassisted for two years.

We were dining with a Kurdish politician turned NGO worker, who asked not to be named in this article, and our conversation was the same as it was everywhere in Erbil at that time. We wanted to ask our host what he thought of the situation, but he wanted to know what the world thought about it first.

I said that there had been little coverage about the PKK and YPG’s ongoing struggle in Rojava, or Western Kurdistan, in part because Syria’s civil war was still being written about as a single, unitary conflict, rather than as the series of conflicts it had become, and in part because Syria’s barren northeast was not considered all that strategically important. The Islamic State incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan, with the threat of genocide that even then hung over the place like a pall, had changed that, bringing the Kurds of both countries more fully into the media spotlight. What concerned me, I said, is that an almost fetishistic obsession with maintaining a unified Iraq—the better to ward off the sense of Western defeat and failure that the country’s fracturing, however self-evident it might already be on the ground—would limit exactly how much support the West could provide to the semi-autonomous regional government. Turkey’s unwillingness to empower Kurdish governments and militias, whether separatist in their outlook or not, would be another hurdle.

Our host was under few illusions about the situation. His people have learned time and again not to rely too heavily on Western promises of support, he said. They know, too, that to push the Islamic State back into Syria is merely a temporary fix, giving the group the time and space it needs to consolidate its gains there and regroup.

Our host, who insisted on paying for the meal, an exorbitant $100, said volunteer work had changed his life.

“I was at one of the camps outside Duhok,” he said. “My company was delivering aid, mostly food and water. A woman came up to me with her baby, who was suffering from a terrible rash. This was a result of exposure from walking through the desert to get to safety.”

“‘I don’t need water or food,’ she said. ‘I just need ointment for my child. He is in so much pain.’” Our host teared up at the memory. “I took a handful of cash from my pocket,” he said, “and gave it to the nearest volunteer. ‘Drive straight to a pharmacy and buy some ointment for this child,’ I said. It was just a harrowing, awful thing to see.”

“This is the thing about Daesh,” he said, using that derogatory term  for the Islamic State. “Even the people who survive their onslaughts—who don’t get killed or kidnapped, who get out of the cities in time—are affected. They are responsible for that tiny baby’s pain. These are not human beings.”

The evening ended with a nighttime tour of Erbil, from the Citadel at the city’s center to the luxury estates of the oil barons on its outskirts.

“Look at this,” our host pointed out. “This guy’s building a scale replica of the White House!”

It was ludicrously kitsch. I pointed out that I had never seen so many luxury cars in my life.

“Lots of Maseratis,” our host nodded. “A lot of Lamborghinis. Every now and then, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of a Ferrari.”

“Is inequality on the rise?” I asked.

“It is, but it isn’t a problem yet. The middle class is growing, too.”

Doesn’t this cancel out the argument, so easily, so lazily trotted out, that the US-led mission in Iraq and Syria is yet another war for oil? There is a moral argument for defending American oil interests in Iraqi Kurdistan, which have led to boom times in the region and allowed it to assert itself more confidently against Baghdad’s central government. Not only is economic self-interest compatible with genuine humanitarian concerns, it is arguable that, at least in this instance, the two are one and the same thing.

I returned to the Hotel Merci in a wonderful mood, only to learn, immediately after turning on my computer, that James Foley had been beheaded.

 

It was Sardar who suggested that we meet at Machko, the tea shop at the base of Erbil’s Citadel walls. I had contacted the twenty-five-year-old through a couch-surfing website because I was keen to meet locals my own age and to gauge their views on the crisis.

It wasn’t hard to see why he wanted me to see Machko. The place was an altar to Kurdish identity, its walls covered with portraits of kings, tribal leaders, politicians and diplomats, poets, novelists and artists, their serious faces and sad eyes visible through the stale haze of cigarette smoke and teapot steam that the slow-beating ceiling fans couldn’t quite seem to disperse. I couldn’t help but think it was an excellent target for a suicide attack.

I was reading Kurdistan’s sole English-language newspaper—its pages filled with reports on the humanitarian crisis and op-eds arguing that the Islamic State’s attack on the Yazidis was an attack on all Kurds, with the nation’s non-sectarian nature precisely what the group loathed most about it—when Sardar arrived with a friend.

Sardar joked that he was only a student of poetry, not an actual poet like those on the walls, nor indeed like any number of the old men playing dominoes and drinking tea around us. Both he and his friend were Iraqi Kurds who grew up across the border in Iran, where their fathers, Peshmerga fighters, fled into exile in the 1980s. Like everyone else I met in the city, they were more interested in my views on the situation than they were about sharing their own.

Looking out onto Erbil’s central square, an elegant plaza thronged with people and stalls and crowned by a massive fountain, I said that the city didn’t strike me as one that would be particularly easy for the Islamic State to take. Not merely because the Peshmerga were everywhere—a utility vehicle packed with fighters had driven past only moments before—and could be trusted to fight where Iraqi Army troops, in Mosul and elsewhere, had fled. Nor because the US wouldn’t allow the group to capture such a glittering prize. It was more the city’s huge size and surrounding geography that would make it difficult to seize.

“The only thing I’m not sure about is how you guys would do in such a battle,” I said. “I know you all say that you’re unbeatable in the mountains and that you’re not especially strong in the desert.” Here they nodded. “But no one has told me how you’d fare in the cities.”

“We’re very good at fighting in cities,” Sardar said. “Fighting each other throughout the 1980s and 1990s taught us how to fight in cities.”

The boys, who were both in their mid-twenties, said they would obviously take up arms should the Islamic State ever enter Erbil—every house, they said, has a couple of guns ready to go—but neither had any interest in joining the Peshmerga like their fathers before them.

“Look at me!” Sardar laughed. “I’m thin and weedy! I’d be of no use to them!”

Indeed, he looked like he could blow over in a strong breeze.

As Sardar’s friend ran off for evening prayers—“You don’t mind, do you?” he asked—Sardar and I walked through the city’s central market. I had told him I wanted to buy a pin of the Kurdish flag that I could wear on my lapel, a hat-tip to the late journalist Christopher Hitchens, one of the Kurds’ greatest champions, who used to wear “the flag of Free Iraq,” as he called it, every time he appeared in public. When Sardar mentioned he hadn’t heard of Hitchens, I told him to read his works and said that a portrait of the writer wouldn’t be entirely out of place on Machko’s walls.

We wandered up to a street of restaurants and clubs that run late into the night. “If you want kebab at three in the morning,” Sardar said, “this is the place to get it.”

He said he’d been there on the night when it looked for a moment like the Islamic State might storm the city from recently captured towns to the southwest, when the foreign media reported that residents were evacuating in droves.

“It’s true that it went quiet for a while,” Sardar said. “But it was mostly foreigners who were leaving. The multinationals pulled everyone out. But down here it was jumping. People were dancing in the streets, waving the Kurdish flag, giving the finger to Daesh, and having a really good time. I told you before that we can fight in the cities. Well, that night, we were ready to do so.”

“Only one foreign media outlet reported from down here that night,” he said. “Everyone else went to where it was quiet and reported that everyone was running away. A handful of people leaving became thousands.”

 

The following night, I had dinner with Twana, another contact I made through the couch-surfing website, whose family is in construction. After treating me to a “Western-style meal”—Texas Chicken, the fried-golden standard for those who wish to impress foreigners—he drove me out to a new development on the edge of the desert on the far side of Ankawa.

We arrived at a lightly guarded industrial estate not unlike those one might find in the West, with the exception that this one was characterized by a pervasive smell of sewage and sported a lot of empty buildings. He asked me about my marital situation: “You’ve lived together for four years and you’re not married yet?” he marveled. “You could never do that here. We have to live with our parents until we get married. It’s a disaster. Mine are always trying to set me up with people.”

Twana set up a hookah in the front courtyard of his family’s two-story office building. We sat puffing on the apple-flavored water pipe, telling stories and breathing in the sewage smell, surrounded by bricks, tiles, pipes, and building equipment. This latter hadn’t been used, Twana said, since the Islamic State entered Iraq a few months earlier.

“The entire construction industry has stalled,” he said. “The Turks, the Germans, the Swedes. Everyone has downed tools and left.”

This was bad news for his family, he said, which relies on a steady stream of contracts to survive. “We don’t know when it’s going to start up again. I suppose when Daesh has been defeated.”

Given that this could take anywhere between several months to several years, Twana, like many young people in the region, was toying with the idea of leaving. He could see himself living in Paris, he said, which he visited for the first time recently. The only problem was the visa situation.

“We are not Iraqis,” he said, “but we have these goddamned Iraqi passports. It is almost impossible to get visas for Europe or the United States with the name of this country in your passport.”

The following day, Awara, a fixer and translator who worked with coalition forces in the wake of the 2003 invasion—which he, like many other Kurds, referred to without irony as the liberation—told me that he was planning to get out as well. He said he hoped that his service and good standing with the US Army might help him.

“I don’t want my son to grow up here,” he told me. “All he’ll ever know is war.”

The child in question rolled around the floor in the front room of the house in Dibis, thirty-six miles south of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan’s multiethnic Kirkuk Province, where Awara’s friend, Goran, lives with his parents and new wife. The three-year-old listed the names of his favorite animals in English—“Tiger. Lion. Donkey. Monkey.”—while Awara and Goran showed me their guns: a 1983 Cuban AKM and a seemingly out-of-place antique hunting rifle.

Along with countless other young Kurds in Dibis, the pair had been taking to the streets of the town every night for nearly two months, patrolling from nine o’clock until dawn in a show of strength and defiance designed to send a message to the town’s Arab population.

“Our fear is not Daesh, but the people inside the city who will contact them and tell them to attack if we do not show our strength,” Goran, who works as a police officer during the day, told me. “We have seen how local Arabs helped Daesh infiltrate other cities and do not wish to see that here. We can handle an attack from outside the city. But an attack that comes from inside it, too, would be much more dangerous.”

They estimated that eighty percent of Dibis’s young male Kurds took part in the nightly show of vigilantism.

Fear of “the enemy within” was festering throughout Iraqi Kurdistan at that time. A week before I arrived in Erbil, young Kurds staged a protest against the number of Arabs fleeing into the region from Islamic State–controlled areas, accusing these displaced persons of being spies. Protesters reportedly set up checkpoints in the city center, where they questioned drivers about their ethnic identity, and threw stones at known Arab apartments and businesses.

But Goran was quick to point out that his war was with the Islamic State and its supporters, rather than against Sunni Arabs in general, many of whom were as staunchly against the group as he was.

“Until now, there was very little tension between Kurds and Arabs here,” he said. “We even have an Arab who brings his gun into the streets with us every night.”

When I met Hayad Mohamed, assistant to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s district manager, he was less generous in his assessment.

“Every Arab in Dibis must be regarded with suspicion,” he said, leafing through a worn purple ledger of local Sunnis known to be in direct contact with the Islamic State, whose positions were then about twelve miles to the south.

He said the Peshmerga’s successes since the beginning of US air strikes had the Islamic State on the back foot and that the PUK expected to see a change in the group’s tactics as a result. In this new phase of fighting, he said, Islamic State supporters within Kurdish cities would become increasingly important to the group and potentially lethal to other residents.

“Here in Dibis, we are expecting to see suicide bombers,” he said matter-of-factly. “Having been pushed back by the Peshmerga, Daesh will return to using IEDs, car bombs, and other terrorist tactics.” He pointed to the car bombing that had woken me up in the hotel only two days earlier as a case in point. He also said that at least seventeen families in Dibis and the surrounding villages were known to be in contact with the Islamic State and that raids had uncovered bomb-making equipment in Arab homes within the town limits.

While he said that Dibis’s PUK branch had received orders not to stoke tensions with the local Arab population, it was nonetheless actively encouraging the town’s young Kurdish men to defend the streets every evening. “While the PUK is here and while our young people are here,” he said, “Dibis cannot fall.”

 

Driving back to Erbil, a bottleneck had formed as hundreds of vehicles and thousands of passengers tried to get back into the city for the night. It occurred to me that this was perhaps the most dangerous moment of my trip. Everyone I had spoken to about the car bombing I’d experienced suspected that it was the work of Islamic State agents already in the city. You’d have to have been naive to think that there weren’t already such agents there. It would only take one car—not even at the checkpoint proper, but well positioned in the heart of the slow-moving traffic jam—to kill and maim hundreds.

The Silopi border crossing presented a strikingly similar scene the following evening as countless Christians and Yazidis, Kurdish, Arab, and Assyrian alike, attempted to cross over into Turkey. I was sitting with a British Kurd who had been visiting his children in Sulaymaniyah and a Turkish physician who had been attempting to set up a number of clinics in the region. Their passports were closely scrutinized by a multilingual border guard tasked with weeding out potential refugees. He spoke Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic, and asked everyone on the bus except me where they were from and what religion they practiced. They might not, perchance, be Christians from Mosul? Yazidis from Sinjar? In striking contrast to my arrival in the country, I was not even remotely of interest.

I gazed out the window at family sedans and SUVs packed with everything their drivers owned. I hoped that, in the confusion of the moment, by sheer weight of numbers, a handful of refugees might get out.

My week in Erbil hadn’t been anywhere near long enough and I felt guilty to think that, within forty-eight hours, I would be kicking back in Istanbul over raki and manti with a fine view of the Bosporus to wash them down with. I shouldn’t have been leaving at all, I thought, but staying behind to show solidarity by writing on these people’s behalf, these people who wanted to leave but couldn’t, who wanted to fight but lacked the arms, training and, at that time, support they needed to do so.

The bus driver’s warning to remove my Kurdish flag pin from my lapel before we hit the Turkish side of the border—“We appreciate it very much,” he said, “but the Turks might try to make trouble for you”—hinted at the complexities of the fight to come and of the alliances that fight would required. I would be reminded of this warning several times over the coming months, as Turkey tried to dictate which Kurds the US-led coalition could support, watching passively as Kobane burned from just across the Turkish-Syrian border and brutally suppressing pro-Kurdish demonstrations at home.

But at that moment I merely felt the pin, like lead in my pocket, weighing me down, as I handed over my passport and crossed over into Turkey, leaving Iraq behind me in the dark.

Matthew Clayfield is an independent foreign correspondent who has worked in the Middle East, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union.

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