Introduction: I Was a Teenage Guerrilla
We buried the letter at the bottom of one of our bags and left the next morning, travelling west in a local bus on a bad road that led across high hills with slopes of pines broken by slabs of grey rock. Where there was shadow there were strands of dirty snow and, with the chill that came with evening, it was clear why so many refugees had died in the mountains when they had fled earlier in the year. We stopped overnight in a small village set on the lip of a deep gorge and stayed in a roadside hostel where we slept on the floor and were woken several times by gunfire. In the morning we ate thin yoghurt with warm bread and drank tea the colour of polished copper from small glasses and watched impassive local villagers lead heavily equipped troops through their fields and up into the higher hills. There was a ‘big operation’ underway against the guerrillas, we were told. By the afternoon we were out of the mountains and on a straightening road down to the plains. There we were to give the letter to a man in the refugee camp in the desert outside the frontier town where several thousand families lived on United Nations aid. We found the man, who opened the letter, read it and told us that the best way to cross the border was simply to take a taxi. It would cost about $10 and take less than an hour. We were very disappointed.
Sometimes, when drunk or desperate to impress, I tell people I fought as a teenage guerrilla. It’s not entirely true. I wasn’t a teenager, I was 21. And, though I did carry a gun, I didn’t fight. In fact, on the few occasions shooting started, I hid in a ditch. It was the summer of 1991. Saddam Hussein’s ill-judged attempt to seize Kuwait and its oil had ended in swift and predictable defeat by an American-led military coalition a few months previously. In the war’s aftermath, the Shia Muslim population of the south of Iraq rebelled, swiftly followed by the Kurds living in the north. Both believed that they would be supported by the allies. But the allies had stood by while Saddam’s tanks and helicopters dealt first with the Shias and then pushed the Kurds back into their historic mountain strongholds in a series of bloody battles which prompted more than a million refugees to head to the Turkish and Iranian borders. In all, at least a hundred thousand died.
To start with there was little that distinguished my trip, with a friend from university called Iain, from that of any other pair of second-year undergraduates backpacking round Europe. We hitched across Turkey, drank too much Efes beer and were delayed for some time in a cheap hotel in Cappadocia by two Danish girls. But on reaching Van, a city in the east of the country, the half-formed plan that neither of us had really discussed, though we both knew existed, began to emerge. We started, relatively carefully, contacting people who we thought might be able to help us meet the PKK, the local Kurdish Marxist guerrillas, then seven years into an insurgency in the mountains of southeastern Turkey. In fact, to have met them would have been very dangerous and we were gently persuaded of this by a carpet salesman in Van’s main bazaar, who pointed out that the group had a habit of taking Western tourists hostage. He suggested an alternative: crossing the border into Iraq. There, in the north, the Kurds were on the brink of setting up a genuine independent state. This was more or less what we had hoped to do anyway.
He told us that we would have to travel to Hakkari, a rough and ready town 100 or so miles away, go to the Hotel Umit, ask for ‘Achmed’ and say that ‘Apple’ had sent us. We took the bus, found the old hotel not far from the centre of town and told Achmed about Apple. If the melodrama amused him, Achmed showed no sign of it. Within an hour we had been handed the sealed letter in a mouldy hotel room by two taciturn men who neither removed their overcoats nor sat down during the hour we spent with them. In the square outside Turkish troops jumped down from trucks and fanned out through streets full of market stalls, goats and old jeeps. From there, with our letter safely stowed, we headed through the mountains and down to the plains, the refugee camp and the border.
I had never been in a refugee camp before. It was noon and the sun came straight down and the dust blew hard across the open spaces between the tents. A crowd of women and children with an astonishing variety of containers jostled around a water tanker. I asked Iain if the lemon juice I had squeezed into my hair was making it blond and me more like the sun-bleached combat veteran I hoped to resemble. He said no. Because there was no post and telephones were too expensive several refugees gave us letters to deliver to friends and family which I promptly left in the taxi that took us to the border with Iraq the next morning. Enroute we passedan American base with long lines of armoured vehicles in neat ranks. At the border there were Kurdish soldiers, looking impossibly romantic in their beards, chequered headdresses, traditional baggy trousers, wide cummerbund-style belts and square tunic tops. A ragged banner slung over a portrait of Saddam Hussein that had been shot to pieces told us that we had entered Iraqi Kurdistan.
From the Hardcover edition.