2004 was a very traumatic year for us all. We lost our son Shwan age 35 to colon cancer in early September after a fairly short illness. The weekend before the National Geographic came to film us we had all been at our family home attending the burial service at the nearby church. Shwan had requested to be buried next to his Grandma Lyn, and we all felt comforted that they were together -
2005 we travelled to Kurdistan in Northern Iraq
I have just come back from my first trip to Sulaymania, which was a ten hour taxi ride from our landing point in Turkey. As an accidental tourist I found this place fascinating. The first thing I noticed was that all the trees were so small, Why? Because nearly every tree in this area was burned where it stood before the ‘no fly zone’ came into operation – Every tree is the same age as the ‘no fly zone’ except for the Park in down town Sulaymania. The second thing I noticed was that the whole place is a building site, everyone is building something! Driving through some towns reminded me of Main Street in Disneyland. All bright new houses in varying architectural styles, as we drove through the country side we noticed that many of the villages were new too. That is because 4,700 villages were burned and demolished before the ‘no fly zone’: In their places stood groups of buildings beside a huge grey stone austere square building with round turrets on each corner and tiny windows. We saw many of these arrangements as we traveled along – we were informed by our driver that they were Sadam’s prisons for the men and the camps beside them were the facilities provided for the homeless women and children from burned out villages to live. If they misbehaved they went to the prison or were sent south to live in the desserts, or worse still they never left the area – mass graves are still being uncovered.
As we continued on our journey we were stopped at checkpoints staffed by 'Pesh Merga' (those who face death) they carried out their duty in a curtious way,asking us a few questions to check our accents and waving us through. Security is of paramount importance in this area, they are proud of their record and work hard to maintain it. We reached the city of Sulaymania just undercover of darkness. It was very brightly lit with many twinkling colours, like a carnival, as if the Christmas lights hadn't been taken down. When we arrived at our Hotel, security was even tighter; after many questions our luggage was removed and thoroughly searched before we were allowed into the hotel compound. At last we got to bed for a well earned sleep, and awoke to a beautiful view accross the city we had come so far to visit.
There is a wonderful atmosphere of renewal and rebirth in this place, it certainly had an effect on us, we found it to be very uplifting. These people have a powerful resolve to make something of themselves. Every table in the hotel is conducting business with every other nationality you can think of. New buildings are being thrown up in every direction, commercial offices, department stores, maternity and general hospitals, schools, highways, tunnels through the mountains, and a new International airport has been opened since our return. There are ten Satilite TV stations, countless newspapers, and Internet. Even our hotel had a hotspot. Moble phones! everyone has two - the lines are so busy, you have to have more than one network 'just in case you cant get through' we were told. Every one is very comfortable with new technology and the shops are bristling with hi-tech gadgets. Most people have a car and petrol is 2 pence a litre.
Down the Road from our Hotel was a small Museum; this area of the world has been continually inhabited since 3,500 BC and there are great treasures to be seen. As this nation grows in stature it will be able to turn its attention to it's antiquities, but for now this small museum is well worth a visit. Next to the museum there was a small shop of endless fascination, every surface in the building was adorned with treasures of the last century. The shopkeeper said he knew I was English because I looked for ages and didn't buy anything! - I won't disappoint him next time!
We spent a very pleasant afternoon at a small villiage now almost consumed by the sprawling city.We sat together under the Mulberry tree and were served with all the drinks of welcome in sucession, first came the tea, folowed by the Mastaw (mastow is a summer drink of yoghurt,salt & water), and finally the hot sweet milky coffee; This was especially for me as they had been forwarned that I liked milk in my coffee. It was delicious I was then shown around the villiage with great pride, particularly the orchards, where Figs, Mulberries Walnuts, Grapes, Pomegranites, are in abundance.
It seemed that our visit was very short - my husband Umaid was born here and had not visited for thirty years, however we did the most important duties, caught up with the living and paid our respects to the dead. Here is the tomb of Umaid's father, he was worried that it might have fallen down over the years- it looks to me that it will be here alot longer than all of us.
At least he had lived in gentler times - this entire city has been evacuated over the mountains to Iran twice in the last 15 years. The fear of being gassed was very real here - we all remember those TV images of 1991 as these people fled for their lives, and they still talk of it here. That's why we don't have many dogs they say, we had to leave them behind and when we came back the small domestic pets were all gone - believed shot by the Iraqi soldiers. All the wild birds left too, there were no trees! You will be pleased to know that they have all returned, when we open our hotel window the sky is full of swallows swooping from every direction, and performing a very loud dawn chorus.
After the fall of Sadam every village family was given a pair of domestic animals - goats, sheep, cows, geese, or chickens; and so today as you drive along the country roads you can see that the flocks and herds of animals have re-established themselves. One of the most beautiful images I have is of a large herd of black long haired goats their coats glistening in the sun, being tended by a small shepherdess of no more than ten years old; clothed in a bright red dress covered in sequins. The scene sparkled in the warm glow of the evening sun as she took them home to their villiage.
We will be returning later this year - hopefully via the new international airport which will be a shorter but less interesting drive. There is still so much for us to see and do in Kurdistan, and we were glad to see that people here still have their spirit and a great and powerful will to survive.