Crossing the border
"Welcome to Free Kurdistan!"
Written and photographed by Borzou Daragahi
October 18, 2002
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.
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
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