Bakhtyar Omar was showing me photographs of his family. Here were his young brothers, beatific smiles, arms wrapped tightly around each other. Here was his aunt, cradling a baby in a tender embrace.
Bakhtyar swallowed hard. “I lost 41 members of my family that day. Only four of us survived,” he said, looking again at the pictures, the only clue that anything was amiss being the delicate strands of blood under the subjects’ noses. “This is not something you can easily find peace with.”
It is perhaps appropriate that any story about modern Iraqi Kurdistan begins in Halabja. On March 16 1988, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athists dropped 192 bombs containing sarin, cyanide and mustard gas on this northeastern Iraqi town as part of his Anfal campaign of genocide against the Kurds. In less than 30 minutes, 5,000 women, children and men were dead in the worst chemical attack on civilians the world has ever seen.
Appropriate? Well, arguably, if Halabja was a gruesome nadir for Iraq’s Kurds, it was also the beginning of the end of their long, bloody fight for freedom. Two years later, an emboldened Saddam invaded Kuwait. The first US-led Gulf war followed, with the imposition of a no-fly zone over northern Iraq in 1991 creating a safe haven and de facto semi-autonomy for the Kurds. In 2003, the second Gulf war finished off Saddam. In 2005, with a Kurd, Jalal Talabani, as president of Iraq, the first session of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was held in Erbil, the region’s capital. For the Kurds, it has been a dramatic turnaround.
Almost 25 years to the day since the Halabja massacre, I was standing inside Erbil’s glittering new $500m international airport, part of a group of UK tourists on Wild Frontiers’ first trip to northern Iraq, one of two UK tour operators offering trips to the region this year for the first time.
Britain’s Foreign Office now has no travel warnings in place for Iraqi Kurdistan (there have been no killings of foreigners since 2003). Ten-day visas are given free at the airport, no questions asked. It was a bizarre feeling, to be in Iraq, the place of nightmares, and yet feel so, well, relaxed.
On the drive from the airport, we passed swanky new apartment blocks, five-star hotels, shopping malls and gated communities with names such as “English Village” or “Dream City”. “Five years ago, houses in this part of town went for $4,000 – now they’re $400,000,” said our guide Karwan Bahjat, whose Cockney accent betrayed years of exile, 17 of them in London, until his return to Iraq in 2003.
Karwan, now 37, said the money tap had been turned on in Iraqi Kurdistan after 2005, and that the region now got 17 per cent of all Iraq’s oil revenue. The boom inspires some to call Iraqi Kurdistan “the new Dubai”. Its development plan, Karwan said, calls for a grand prix circuit and championship golf course by 2030. “We never thought we could dream this big,” he said.
As we talked, we passed a sign for Mosul, just 80km away and one of the world’s most dangerous cities, where bombings are a near-daily occurrence. It was a chilling reminder of the proximity of “the other Iraq”.
In Erbil, we strolled along wide, clean boulevards where most cars were flying the Kurdish flag, a blazing sun on a red, green and white background. We walked into Minare Park, dazzlingly green and immaculately clipped. On benches old men sat dressed in shal u shapik, baggy trousers and tunics of goat hair bisected with a shutike kermani cummerbund. Families picnicked (the Kurds’ joint-favourite pastime) on the grass, and women and children draped in ornate silks got up to shuffle their halparke line-dances (the other great Kurdish passion), arms linked, hands waving scarves, the music of the stringed tanbur and blûr (that delicious, reedy-sounding flute) booming out of stereos.
We climbed to the vast walled Citadel, which dominates Erbil from atop a 32-metre mound. It claims to be the longest-inhabited urban area in the world: 8,000 years of settlement by the Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Ottomans and others. Today, just one token family lives in the citadel to maintain its continuous habitation.
“We are portrayed by our neighbours as nomads, uneducated, without a history, a country,” Karwan said of the Kurds, who, at 16m-strong, are the largest nation in the world with no state of their own. “That is why this place is so important to us. To show we have all those things.”
Now largely ruined, the Citadel is undergoing restoration, funded by Unesco and the KRG, that is due for completion by 2025. “The Temple of Ishtar is probably under our feet,” said David Michelmore, a British conservation expert who is working on the Citadel’s restoration. “This is the most important site in Mesopotamia.”
The next day we headed out of Erbil, passing checkpoints where heavily armed peshmerga (formerly the name for Kurdish freedom fighters – now the official army) checked our passports, but always with huge smiles and often giving us bags of almonds or figs, to which we’d say spas, (thank you), the response always a hand on the heart, and sarchaw, meaning “you’re welcome”, but translating as “on my eyes”. After all the Kurds have been through, Karwan said, they are big on the eyes and what they can reveal.
We drove along a deep, lush valley and arrived in Lalish, hidden in the folds of the hills. Our bus was surrounded by women wearing white foundation – which felt like we’d dropped into the middle of a Chinese opera. These were devotees of the Yazidi faith, a cocktail of Zoroastrian, Christian, Judaism and Islamic beliefs, on their mandatory once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Lalish, the faith’s spiritual centre.
Leaving our shoes on the bus – the Yazidis don’t allow footwear in the village (or lettuce either, for reasons nobody could easily explain) – we entered the main temple, topped by two pyramids, and into a series of dark, ever-smaller chambers, Alice in Wonderland-style.
We drove on, into the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, passing apple orchards and fields of pomegranate, almond and walnut trees. Poppies carpeted the roadsides and the mighty snow-capped peaks to the north marked the border with Turkey. We passed through village after village of ugly, new, breeze-block houses – Saddam razed 4,500 villages during Anfal – then turned a corner to see Amadiya, a town sitting spectacularly atop a mesa, alone in the middle of the valley and surrounded by mountains.
Once rich in architecture and a key stop on the Silk Route, Amadiya today bears the sadness of much of Kurdish Iraq: bullet and grenade holes pockmark the mosque, and most of the old buildings are gone. Above us, high on a peak, was one of Saddam’s former castles. Physically and emotionally, Saddam runs like bindweed through the Kurdish narrative.
We hit the Hamilton Road, built between 1928 and 1932 by New Zealander Archibald Hamilton to link Erbil and Iran. It is a stunning feat of engineering, twisting and turning through deep limestone gorges and past raging waterfalls. We entered the 12km-long Gali Ali Beg, the “Grand Canyon of the Middle East”. Hamilton called it “one of the grandest formations of nature to be found in the world”, and he was probably right. The potential for adventure tourism, still nascent here, is as immense as the canyon itself.
Karwan told us how the peshmerga, including his father, fled into these mountains to escape Saddam, surviving for years. The Arabs, he said, didn’t know how to fight in this terrain. “No friends but the mountains,” goes the Kurds’ most famous proverb.
At Qezqapan we clambered up a rickety scaffold to look at a 2,500-year-old cliff-edge bas-relief depicting a treaty between a Lydian and Median king. “It tells us Kurdistan is very old,” said Karwan, a now familiar theme. By the time we returned to the bus, the driver and a couple of the staff were dancing away by the roadside.
In the town of Dukan, beside the lake, I talked with a group of students, all in western dress. Everybody was proud to be young and Kurdish; they all saw their futures here.
“Is this your girlfriend?” I asked one young man.
“We can’t have girlfriends,” he said.
“What would happen if you went on a date?” I asked.
“I would have to pay her father $5,000 or I would have to marry her ...” He paused – “ ... or I would be killed. Depends on the family, really.”
Iraqi Kurdistan may be developing at giddying speed but some changes may take more time.
We arrived in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan’s second city, known affectionately as Suly, its skyline dominated by the futuristic Grand Millennium hotel, a copy of Dubai’s Burj al-Arab, due to open later this year. We walked through the Grand Bazaar, Iraqi Kurdistan’s largest, the air suffused with incense and strawberries. Young boys ran around with silver trays loaded with sweet tea in tulip glasses. People waved and smiled. “Welcome! Welcome!” they shouted.
We ate kebabs of the most tender lamb imaginable and Kurdish sweet rolls studded with pistachios, then visited a chaikhana (tea house), the walls hung with portraits of Kurdish poets, artists and famous peshmerga, where groups of men sat playing dominoes, smoking furiously. The front page of a newspaper showed that many had died in suicide bombs in Kirkuk, an hour’s drive west.
It was that odd dissonance again. I had rarely, if ever, felt so safe in a country, this land of profuse hospitality and kindness, and staggering natural beauty. Yet, fundamentally, inescapably, I was on holiday in Iraq.
We went to the Amna Suraka, Kurdish for “Red Building”, a place of unspeakable horror where Saddam’s intelligence service tortured and killed countless Kurds. The shattered windows and bullet holes in the walls attested to this being the place where the 1991 Kurdish uprising began. A sign said: “Our choice was between a dignified death or an undignified life.”
We walked through the Hall of Mirrors, whose walls are plastered with 182,000 slivers of glass – one for each Anfal victim – and whose ceiling is pinpricked with 4,500 lights, one for each destroyed village. We passed through the torture chambers, haunting sculptures by local artist Kamaran Omer depicting what went on. And to the cells, where Karwan stood, face pressed against the bars, his eyes elsewhere, remembering God only knows what.
In Halabja’s memorial centre the shells used to drop poison gas are now used as flowerpots. Outside, in the mountains overlooking the cemetery where the victims are buried, a bruised sky spat forked lightning and thunder shook the ground. There was a sign betraying the only suggestion of anger I’d seen all week. It read simply: “Ba’ath members are not allowed to enter.”
On our last night, we returned to Suly. Azadi (“Freedom”) Park was once a place of execution; now it is a place of lakes, gardens and a fairground. We went on the Ferris wheel. At the bottom, after the first revolution, the three young men operating the ride had started dancing. We shot into the night, the sound of the music fading, then growing as we plunged once more. Now there were four. Then five, with each turn of the wheel another. Just like this remarkable nation, it felt irrepressible: this waving, dancing, smiling – faces filled with the sheer joy of freedom, of hope.
Mike Carter was a guest of Wild Frontiers, which offers an eight-day guided group trip from £2,650, including transport, accommodation and all meals