I’m not a soldier and I’ll likely never see a war but this changed everything!
You know that excitement you get when preparing for a big trip to far away lands? The anxiety mixed with a concoction of fear, joy and curiosity? When you begin your journey around the world hoping to spend a year living your life in a backpack, you run through the essentials. You gather your hippie pants, some colourful party shirts and the likes. It’s not long before you are on your way to relaxing on a beach, trudging some jungle treks and splashing out on a $5 massage. Along the way you meet plenty of interesting people and I have to admit that after spending over a year on the road in places like China, India, Japan, Australia, Burma, Pakistan, Iran and 20 other countries in between, I have to say there have been experiences that I’ll never forget. The middle east was somewhere we wanted to visit to show people that it’s not all doom and gloom as the media would have you think. It’s actually an amazing place to visit!
However, today was something very different altogether. An experience that I wasn’t sure was a good or a bad idea but somewhere deep down inside, I knew it was something I wasn’t going to say no to. I’m in Sulaymaniyah, after spending the last two days hitchhiking from Iran across the border into Iraq. With no idea of where Craig and I are going, and no plan whatsoever, we meander through a maze of kebab carts, and young men covered in oils stains as they popped out from beneath propped cars to gaze at us curiously. A shisha cafe appeared and allowed us to get a quick injection of WiFi and figure out our next move while the nerves settled!
A gentleman the size of an elephant and a wily smile approached, his eyes smiling. Asking where we were from and retorting the usual replies of “My country is Ireland” and “We like Kurdistan” in probably the most outrageously poor Kurdish we had rehearsed only moments before, he starts making a phone call. Pressing the tiny Nokia with excitable force into the palms of our hands, we spoke to the man on the other end. A man named Shalaw responded, with perfect English coloured in a strong Kurdish accent. It wasn’t long before he invited us to his place to help him devour a healthy serving of Jonny Walker whiskey.
The night rolled away, bottle after bottle, shot after shot and glass after glass until it came to our attention we were the only ones left in the bar, located just outside of town. Linking arm to arm, we danced a traditional Kurdish dance, waving handkerchiefs high over our heads as we traipsed through the bar, music blaring…the clock struck 4am. Waking in a sudden inhalation as to why our heads were spinning wildly and the feeling that we’d fallen down several flights of steep steps, a hangover of serious intent had set in. The phone rang, our newest friend in town was suggesting a trip somewhere but I couldn’t make out where. Craig got off the phone, turned to me and uttered “Fancy heading to the front lines to see the fight?”. Slow enough as I was I still struggled to fully digest what I’d just heard. Never shying away from a unique experience of the road, we agreed it would have to be done! As the only active war zone on the planet, getting to the front lines of an active assault would likely never come around again.
We were to be met by Shalaw and a Peshmerga fighter by the same name! The Peshmerga are the armed forces of the autonomous region of Kurdistan, and one of the most victorious armies in the fight against ISIS. This fighter turned out to be the behemoth of a man who had approached us in the Cafe previously. Armed with a large people carrier, we were loaded into the back and barrelled down the roads through the desert! Making a quick stop at an oilfield that was burning out of control, we strolled through the mounds of dirt to a large postulating crevasse in the ground gurgling water and flame simultaneously. The smell of sulphur burned in our nostrils and the flames billowed under the sun.
Reassembling back into our people carrier, we were making our way to Chamchamal, a town famous for their hospitality but also well armed and quick to pull the trigger too. We were picking up our Peshmerga uniforms in the traditional Kurdish style. Quickly dawning our uniforms, we continued forwards towards the front line.
Passing by several refugee camps decorated with many children waving wildly and running down the road after us, we passed many a dishevelled building through checkpoint after checkpoint. Given the people in our company, we only required a few quick scans of our passports, endless handshakes and “A salaam Aleikum” to everyone we met as their eyes passed over each of us with maximum scrutiny, we were able to pass through with ease.
We were now at the final barricades with heavily armed troops. Each turning us back and passing us across the defence perimeter to the next outpost. Up ahead we saw a road block and a large tailback. Our Commander cut across the motor way and pulled in. We were informed that all the high profile military officials were meeting at an urgent summit about bolstering the defensive support around Kirkuk, the city recently taken back from ISIS but that has seen several bombings recently. Trucks of armed soldiers were swarming the area, hurtling by us in their dozens. Our giant Peshmerga fighter comrade ran across the motorway, booming his voice to one of the men in the convoy. It was our lucky day.
The General had invited us back to the military base, an impressive garrison we had passed only moments before. We ground across the gravel feeling it crunch beneath the wheels of our carriage. Grinding through the giant concrete fortifications of the base, we parked up receiving hundreds of stares from the squads of heavily armed soldiers within. Sporting large M16 and G36 rifles over their shoulders, our Commander waved us over. Swinging our bodies over the sides of the truck, we landed on the ground and marched over to greet everyone we came face to face with. Nervous, intimidated and shaking, I tried my best to wear a confident smile as we made our way over to meet the General.
Word had spread rapidly and within moments, two foreign volunteer fighters from Canada and France came to greet us. Our Canadian friend who has asked not to be named, informed us of the situation on the ground. He told us about the face to face fights he’s had with ISIS, the way they fight and how the war has become a defensive offence where he’s been based. He gave me a walk through of his weapon and soon gave a grim description of what has been happening. Several photos with soldiers, the general and we were asked to leave. Mounting our truck, we were assisted by a high ranking officer in a military jeep towards the first line. This time our Peshmerga fighter joined us in the open back section of our vehicle.
As we passed several small destroyed villages, we noticed tears welling up in his eyes. He boomed in a softer than usual tone, the names of the villages and friends who had died fighting there. We drove on.
Large embankment after large embankment, all decorated with concrete outposts and smiling soldiers, we saw a village up in flames about 600m out from the front line, smoke towering above. We drew close to an intense mound, larger than those we had just passed where we were met by two decorated militants. We were here. In the thick of it. Only 300m ahead of us were ISIS, flags waving but silent and heavily dug in. At night they made their assaults under the cover of darkness.
In the last month alone, three soldiers based in this outpost had been killed by ISIS snipers, the most recent of which being last week. We stood in the the very bunker this had taken place. Peering over at the enemy, sporting AK-47’s we were shaking with a potion of nerves and bewilderment as to how and why we got here.
Drawing back, we posed with photos with the soldiers and high ranking officers when suddenly something spooked our man. We pulled back from the sandbags completely and drew within a small house within the outpost where we conversed with the soldiers and posed with their armoury, a mix of heavy machine guns and assault rifles.
The atmosphere becoming more and more tense by the moment, we were pulled from the outpost and told to lie low in our people carrier until we had safely vacated the area! We waved goodbye to our brave comrades as we rolled away from the front lines. No one was speaking. We sat in silence looking towards the horizon.
Tonight we could sleep in the safety of our beds while these brave men were fighting for their country in fear of being blown apart or shot at any moment. The Kurdish people are some of the nicest people I’ve met on my travels and despite the imminent danger, they entertained us, smiled and welcomed us in open arms. They’ve been given a rough history in recent times and despite it all, you’ll always be greeted with a smile that would warm the sun.
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