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Crossing the border
"Welcome to Free Kurdistan!"

Written and photographed by Borzou Daragahi
October 18, 2002
The Iranian

After a while Northern Iraq or "Free Kurdistan" had started to become like a dream. It became a mysterious unreachable land that is the stuff legends and myths as much as rocks and streams.

We'd been trying to find a way to get across the Iranian border into the section of Northern Iraq known informally as Kurdistan for weeks, months really. I had promised a bunch of my editors I would get in to cover the Iraqi democracy festival in mid-September. See photos

The emails and phone calls started in the US over the summer, including a meeting with the Kurdish regional government's Prime Minister Barham Salih in a hotel lobby across the street from the United Nations. "Go through Iran," he told me. The meetings continued in Paris, with the head of the Kurdish Institute there. "Go through Syria," he said. "There are fewer political issues."

And they continued in Tehran, where a representative of one of the two political parties running Northern Iraq eventually told us there was no way he could help us get across the Iranian frontier. Because of the delays, we missed the festival. We hoped weíd be able to make in time for the historical convening of the parliament on Octocber 4.

Border crossings are always trying experiences in this part of the world. It's not like you drive up to a booth, show your passport and let the nice man let you through to the friendly people on the other side. You're talking about countries that have been at war for years. You're talking about governments that don't respect the right of their own citizens, much less those of another. You're talking about areas regularly used by smugglers of drugs and weapons.

In the case of crossing from Islamic Iran to Northern Iraq, the Kurdish-run region of Iraq protected by an Anglo-American no-fly zone imposed on the Baghdad following the 1991 war to reverse Iraq's annexation of Kuwait, you're dealing with a number of complicating factors. I kept being told that we'd find out whether we're going to be able to go tomorrow, "inshallah, inshallah." Over and over again...

There's no such political entity as Northern Iraq. Nor Iraqi Kurdistan, or "Kurdistan". Officially speaking and under all standards of international law, the area the Kurds lovingly call "Free Kurdistan," remains part of Iraq. You can go to the Iraqi embassy in Paris or Tehran or Moscow or wherever and apply for a Iraqi visa, but it won't do you any good in getting into Northern Iraq. In fact, if someone in Northern Iraq sees that you've recently hung out at an Iraqi embassy, he might very well arrest you.

So we put out feelers to a bunch of organizations and dignitaries and hoped for the best. Over the weeks of waiting for news and information, I spent my time reading up on Northern Iraq and the whole Kurdish question. The Kurds have taken advantage of their 11 years of freedom from the Iraqi government to build a sort of proto-nation: they've built a parliamentary government that's genuinely democratic, with representatives from the Assyrian community and the Communist Party.

They've got their own schools with classes taught in Kurdish. They've got their own universities, with history courses describing the crimes committed against Kurds. Unlike in Iran, women dress as they please and booze is freely available. The media has run amuck here, with dozens of new titles springing up everywhere. The Prime Minister's office once sued a local paper for getting too uppity. The judge ruled in favor of the newspaper and ordered the Prime Minister to cough court costs.

Thus, democratic "Free Kurdistan" makes its fascistic neighbors very, very nervous. Iran's large Kurdish population - mostly laid back Sunni Muslims - took up arms against the hyper-Shiite Muslim clerical government established by Ayatollah Khomeini right after the revolution that brought him to power.

The Turkish government has murdered, raped and plundered its huge Kurdish population for decades, jailing Kurdish pop singers who sang in their own language and violently suppressing all opposition to its Kurdish program. And Syria, well, Syria doesn't give rights to anyone any rights. And Kurds are no exception.

As far as getting into Northern Iraq, Iran politically seemed the best option. Among the countries with large Kurdish minorities, Iran has the least to fear since the election of Mohammad Khatami, who gave Iran's minority communities hope of using legal means to secure their rights.

In contrast to Turkey, Kurdish music and dance is celebrated in Iran as one of the nation's cherished "traditional" (as opposed to Western) cultures. Going through Turkey meant risking our necks being caught by Turkish soldiers suspecting us of being separatist sympathizers. Syria meant flying to Damscus and getting on a waiting list with all the other journalists, and then a grueling 12-hour drive and boat ride across the Tigris River.

Besides we were in Tehran, and its short drive from the airport in Sanandaj to the Iraqi border, and then another few hours along a nicely paved road to Suleimanya in Northern Iraq. Plenty of journos have crossed the border before.

But there is a problem. Apparently a journalist who had crossed the border wrote a story identifying the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as supporting a small Kurdish Islamic militant group with alleged ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda. The Revolutionary Guards angrily shut down the border to all journalists.

A fellow journalist and I get our Syrian visas and make plans to follow all the rest of the chumps in Damascus, when he hear of another legal way to get across the border. Phone calls are made. Emails are sent. Cash is handed over. We are told we can cross Wednesday, but have to fly to Orumieh, a city in the northwestern section Iran populated by Azeris, the Shiite Turks who make up a quarter of Iran's population.

We grab a 6 a.m. flight, flying past majestic Lake Orumieh, the largest salt-lake in the world. We land at the airport and are met by a driver, our contact and Mister X, the fellow who is going to hustle us across the border crossing. Our contact gets us into a Peugeot sedan and wishes us good luck.

Like many of Iranian cities outside of Tehran, Orumieh is pleasant, inviting and tree-filled. The leading Ayatollah here is a colorful character named Hassani whose ostensibly serious sermons have been reprinted in full as books of jokes. In the car we get to know driver and Mister X. Mister X has ties to the military, the border and who knows who else. He's an affable fellow, in a sort of macho, no-it-all way. He's a typical cop. "People overrate freedom," he says. "Security is much more important than freedom."

He seems to like us and we make plans to hang out with him and his buddies on the way back. We drive along mountain roads through lush valleys filled with trees of fruit. "You should have come a month ago," says the driver. "The grapes were in season." We cross the mountains from the Azeri-speaking section of Iran to the Kurdish section near the border. The locals wear colorful costumes. The women wear skimpy headscarves and no overcoats, outfits that would get you a beating in Tehran.

We stop off at an impromptu teahouse against a mountain stream. The thick-brewed tea is strong and hot. The air is cool. The water rushes past. We pass the bountiful, smuggler-supplied bazaar of Piranshahr, the last city before the border. The last 10 km of before the frontier the road becomes gravelly. Haunting relics of the Iran-Iraq war start popping up. Abandoned forts. Ruined military barracks. A monument to the martyrs of the war.

We reach the border and are confronted by a traffic jam of trucks loaded with goods. This is a major trade thoroughfare. Iranian-made foods and home supplies go into Iraq. Duty-free electronics and other goods make it out. We get out of the car and walk the last 100 meters to the border.

Mister X seems to know everybody. "These are all my boys," he tells us. He hustles us through to the last of the guards. Our names have already been given to the border officials; we're expected here. There's a narrow locked gate painted red, white and green, the colors of the Iranian flag. On the other side children watch through the metal bars. They're waiting for their turn to get in, to come visit their families in Iran. It would make a great picture, but I don't dare take out my camera while surrounded by all these soldiers.

A soldier wants to look through our bags. "Any CDs, magazines?" No, I reply. "Are you sure? What if I find something?" Mister X intervenes. "Just let them through." He complies. It's our turn to go. We don't get an exit stamp or anything at this border, since technically we're not leaving the country, since technically, we're not going to another country, since there's no such thing as Kurdistan.

They open the gate. We shuffle out onto a dirt road. Some camouflaged soldiers approach us. They ask us who we are. We're journalists, we say, we're here from the West. We're here to write about you. We're here to write about the Kurdish experiment.

"You're journalists?" a soldier smiles. "Welcome! Welcome to Free Kurdistan!"
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