Iraq Blog - June 2014
ERBIL - Following the stunning offensive into western Iraq by Islamic State militants last June, the northern Kurdish-controlled city of Erbil became one of the few safe havens in the country.
Thousands of refugees were flooding into the city and so were international media.
As a base for major oil companies, Erbil was relatively modern, pro-western and safe. The Kurds were happy to see us. But the mood was tense. ISIS fighters were only a 100km to the west – just an hour drive away. Everyone was shocked how quickly Mosul fell. And with the influx of refugees came horror stories of brutality, force conversions and murder. Would the militants now push towards Erbil?
So as cameraman Dan Hodgson and myself travelled down the road towards Mosul looking for people fleeing from ISIS, our first concern was naturally safety. British born contractor Tim - who had a young family in Erbil and had worked with many oil companies – provided our security. And our keen driver Hamed would act as our translator. He was Iraqi born but spoke perfect English after spending a few years in the US. The first big challenge was making sure we had enough gas – especially in case we needed to make a quick exit.
There were desperate shortages of fuel in Erbil. Some routes used by tanker trucks were cut-off by militants but the shortage was mostly due to hoarding and panic buying. The line-ups at petrol stations were insanely long – stretching for kilometers. And every couple of days we would need to give Hamed 8-10 hours to queue for gas – often through the night. He never complained. He also wanted keep some reserve fuel in the event we needed to make a dash from a sudden ISIS offensive.
Getting through the several Peshmerga checkpoints that ringed Erbil like an onion was easy. About halfway to Mosul past the town of Kalak, we came across the last major checkpoint at Khazer. Hundreds of Iraqis escaping ISIS had come by car, bike and on foot in the dust and oppressive 45-degree heat. They were eager to tell their stories.
There had been heavy shelling the nigh before and several families decided to make a run to the Kurdish controlled areas. About 20 people – including young children –were jammed into the back of one flatbed truck and were baking in the sun. One man lost a son and was trying to get medical attention in Erbil for his now fatherless granddaughter. We spoke to young men afraid of being forced into fighting for the militants.
Those without the proper papers to get through the checkpoint were turned back or directed to a nearby hill. Rows of white and blue tents dotted the parched yellow ground. It was a new UN refugee camp. Conditions were grim but at least there was shade, shelter and running water. Food was scarce but there seemed to be an abundance of watermelon. Glowing white peels rimmed with jagged strips of un-eaten pink pulp littered the camp. We heard more stories and met more families. They always offered us what food and drink they had. Even in such basic conditions, Iraqis make a generous display of hospitality.
It was now midday and temperatures were pushing 50 degrees. Dan, who had been lugging around the camera gear for a couple of hours, was drenched in sweat and transforming into a human-lobster. My skin was also burning and every breath was like sucking on hot hair-dryer. We were thankful to get back to our air-conditioned car even though it guzzled precious gas. Our driver Hamed had the made sure there was a cooler filled with icy drinks. Later we would stick to early morning or late afternoon shoots. Anything around noon was just too ridiculously hot.
A few days later we noticed increased military presence in Erbil and especially around our hotel. We quickly discovered it had been named as a target by ISIS. An attack – according to local reports - would come in the next 48 hours. Several media organizations left. But we stayed and so did many others. Tim, our security detail, didn’t think it was a credible threat and besides the Kurdish authorities had foiled several plots months before. Nothing happened. But eventually - in November – ISIS got through with a car bomber that killed six people outside the parliament building.
Only 6 weeks after we left Erbil, fears of an ISIS offensive finally materialized. The Peshmerga – which had seemed so confident – were in disarray and quickly retreating to protect the Kurdish capital. Desperate calls for US intervention were answered and airstrikes began on August 8th. The first targets were Islamist artillery positioned at the Khazer checkpoint – just next to that refugee camp we had visited. It was now the frontline. And weary people we had met were forced to flee again. SG