The Twelfth Try

It was a typical late afternoon in Basmane. The crumbling buildings echoed with the shouting of children and laughter from football matches in the street. Above us, women threw gossip at each other from between apartment windows.

I had impulsively decided to work with ReVi (Refugee Volunteers of Izmir) that afternoon, and I wasn’t regretting it for a second. As our volunteer group made the rounds, going from household to household, I absent-mindedly chatted about Russian politics with a new recruit. Sometimes children followed us, interrupting, speaking in clipped English phrases.

“Hello! What-is-your-name? Where-are-you-from? How-are-you? How-are-you?” It had been a week since I had come here, and it was nice to be back.

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Basmane. Photo: Johanna Pruessing

The last house we were visiting was at the end of a long alley. We were taken into the house by the women of family, who welcomed us warmly and hugged and kissed the female volunteer.

The family sat us down in a large room, devoid of furniture besides a TV and piles of cushions against the walls. As the rest of the family trickled into the room, we got to talking about the usual things. The household’s health, education, and employment are always our biggest concerns. Overall, this family was doing well.

By the time the small talk was over, there were twenty people lining the room around us, not including the babies. We had taken out colouring supplies and bubbles for the children. The vibe was warm, so nobody was in a hurry for us to leave.

Then a young man came into the room with a cut across his face. It was explained that this man had come here from Syria ten days before.

“And now we will hear his story,” informed a Syrian friend that was translating for us. The man (I will call him “Ali”) had fled with his family from Raqqa, a city located in the central-north of Syria. Today Raqqa is the capital of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. As a consequence, the area is under attack by every side of this many-sided war.

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Central Square in Raqqa. “Tomorrow will be better” is written on the fallen statue. Photo: Associated Press

Fleeing Raqqa is not an easy thing to do. ISIS has forbidden anyone from leaving the city, and will pursue those who try to escape. It also requires sneaking through an active war zone, and past all the de-facto borders that each side has created. Ali casually mentioned that he had to constantly drug his children so they wouldn’t make noise during their journey.

Ali and his family (eleven people in total) attempted the trip to Basmane eleven times before finally succeeding on the twelfth. Ali began telling us about his first attempt to leave with his family.

“We escaped Raqqa through an olive orchard and eventually made it to the Syrian-Turkish border. We waited until one or two in the morning and then the smugglers told us to go. We ran through the forest. There were maybe… a hundred or two hundred of us.

The Turkish border guards heard us and started shooting. At first I thought they were warning shots but I’m fairly certain I saw some people get hit by the bullets and crash into the ground as they ran. My family and I made it across the border into Turkey and we were picked up by some smuggler’s vans.

After packing us into the vans, they drove off. But there was a car pursuing us. The driver worried that it was the car of Turkish border guards. He drove very erratically and then dropped us off close to a grove of trees in the middle of nowhere. He told us to hide. We tried to hide, but the guards found us and took us to a gymnasium that had been converted into a prison for refugees. Eventually, we would be held in this gymnasium eight separate times. I celebrated Eid [an important Muslim holiday] in this gymnasium prison.

After spending a day or two in the prison, we were shipped back to Syria. The whole thing seemed suspicious. It felt like a set up. As if the smugglers and Turkish border guards were in communication. Now we would have to cross the border again. [The smugglers usually charge a lot of money to help people cross the border each time.]”

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Syrian side of the infamous Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Ali and his family were taken back to Syria through this crossing many times.

Ali went on to tell us of other attempts to journey to Basmane. Sometimes the Turkish guards would catch them. Once ISIS caught them. Another time it was the Free Syrian Army.

“The Free Syrian Army let us go, but told us it was really dangerous where we were, and to take my family further along the border wall before crossing. We walked along the wall and found a ladder. Unfortunately there wasn’t a ladder on the other side of the wall. We all had to jump from the top of the wall, which was three meters high.

Wall between Syria and Turkey. Photo: Bianet.org

While we crossed through the forest on the other side, the Turkish border guards must have heard something because they were searching the forest with flashlights. We tried to hide behind the trees. At one point a guard was on the other side of the tree that I was hiding behind. I didn’t breathe.

The guards didn’t find us, and after some hours while they were rotating their shift, we ran through the forest to get to the road [where the smugglers were waiting.] The smugglers put us into the vans as usual. When we were driving, something went wrong. The driver was driving so erratically that I thought the van would tip over. Then the driver dropped us off in the middle of nowhere. He told us there was a village down the road and to find protection there.

We went down the road and found some stables to hide in. After sleeping in the stables, we went to the village. In the village, the Turkish people chased us and yelled horrible things at us. They said we were dirty and we were ruining Turkey and things like that. Soon, the border guards came and arrested us. We were put back into the gymnasium prison and sent back to Syria.”

After his twelfth attempt, Ali and his family were able to make it to Basmane and tell us his story. I asked him if I could write it down. He said I should make a film instead.

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View from Basmane. Photo: Johanna Pruessing

By the time Ali had finished his story, the late afternoon had become late evening. We thanked the family for their hospitality and started packing our things to leave. Suddenly a woman appeared with a large tray of hot drinks for us. Usually families will offer us Syrian coffee or tea, but this time they had made a warm pudding with cinnamon poured over it. It tasted like Christmas.

We continued talking and laughing long after the drinks were finished. The children had drawn elaborate pictures with the colouring supplies and spread them over the ground for us to see. Late evening had become true night. Still feeling warm and fuzzy from the spiced drinks, we finally got up and thanked the family again for their hospitality.

Then the family invited us for dinner. Half and hour later we were all eating our fill of incredible Syrian food. The food was so good that we couldn’t stop talking about food. We took turns going around the room talking about our favourite Syrian dishes. When the men spoke about their favourites, their gestures became grandiose. Using their arms to measure larger and larger imaginary meals, as a fisherman measures his best catches, they recounted where to find the best ingredients and dishes in Raqqa, and then Syria in general.

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Basmane. Photo: Johanna Pruessing

When the meal had finished and the woman had cleared the plates, we talked a little business with the main woman of the house. ReVi is always trying to find ways to utilize the skills of refugees in order to help them economically. With a baby on her breast, we worked out with her the best way to set up a small project with her.

True night had become truely late. Finally, finally; full of warmth and happiness, we filed out of the house. As we were saying our goodbyes, one of the girls who had made the journey here with Ali, grabbed our female volunteer. “We should be friends!” she exclaimed happily in perfect, unaccented, English. “Please come again and we can have fun together!”

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The Twelfth Try

The Black, the Grey, and the White; A brief exploration of the three cities of Iraqi Kurdistan.

I am in a shared taxi, crossing over the Great Zab River. The wide, slow river looks like a biblical scene, which it must be. Tall swaying reeds have grown far from their banks, exploring the swifter currents of the river. I can see families bathing below the bridge. Their skin is as dark as charcoal and contrasts against the light coloured water. I check my map. Iraq’s second city Mosul, is just ahead, only twenty miles away.

Mosul is one of the most fascinating places in the world, with a history that goes deeper than the bedrock of most civilizations. Now it is impossible to reach. In its current incarnation, it has been taken over by a mostly foreign conglomerate of death worshipers. This, obviously, makes travel to it impossible. Although my taxi continues forward.

I fleeting ponder my safety, but the moment passes as I am comforted by rationality. This morning, as every morning, I have consulted my maps. It’s been months since this territory I’m in has been “liberated.” If nothing else, I am protected by the mines buried in the surrounding grassland, which have accumulated from various wars Iraq has been unable to shake.

Tiny Arab children stand in the middle of the highway, forming islands with their bodies, offering bottles of water from ice chests. The taxis and oil tankers casually swerve around them, or sometimes stop in the middle of the two-lane highway to buy a bottle. This perhaps, is something far more dangerous than my proximity to a city run by serial killers.

The taxi driver points ahead and makes a drinking motion at me. I think he’s telling me that the driver of the SUV front of us is drunk, but it turns out that we are stopping for water and cigarettes at a rest stop. At the stop, men pray in the shade while others wander aimlessly, stretching their legs. While I have the urge to wander too, I stay close. Being in a taxi, flying through the landscape at 120 kilometers per hour is one thing, being stuck at a rest stop with no security forces has a different feel to it.

Soon enough the driver decides to go. We enter a new road which is so new, it has not been paved yet nor is it on Google Maps. The grassy hills roll on endlessly in front of us, reminding me of central California. Conjuring up some Arabic, I say to passenger beside me, “This is like California.” He looks around the hills, mulling my words. “Yes!” He exclaims. “ISIS is in California too!” The cab erupts in laughter. Selfies are taken. Soon afterwards we drop the passenger off at a checkpoint. It turns out he was on his way to fight the group we were joking about.

The Black, the Grey, and the White; A brief exploration of the three cities of Iraqi Kurdistan.

This is going to be a different kind of travel essay. First of all, it will be written in three parts, out of order. For example, I visited Erbil first, but I will speak about it in the second part.

Second, I will only write about what I saw and heard. If I were to begin writing about the history of these cities, I might as well begin writing an encyclopedia. Erbil is considered by some archaeologists to be the first city in the history of the world. It’s hard to fathom how much culture and yore these cities have accumulated.

Third, unlike good journalism, I am not going to write the truth. I’m only going to write what I was told, read, and saw. Perhaps I’m spending too much time in the Middle East, or perhaps it was my upbringing in a cult, but I believe in order to understand people and cultures, I have to understand their truths separately from the facts. If everyone acts on a truth that diverges from reality, how valuable is that truth compared to reality? When studying history, the facts mean everything. When observing culture, facts are things that usually get in the way.

Part One

The Black: Sulaymaniyah

By the time my taxi dropped me off on the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah, I had become friends with one of the passengers. He, like me, didn’t like to take busses or taxis. When he suggested we walk to the city center I was relieved. Despite the heat and mid-day sun (according to the taxi’s thermostat, 45C / 115F) I was happy to walk the 4.5 miles with him through the entire city. A taxi or bus would have put that journey on fast-forward, cheapening it, even commercializing it. Journeys should be appreciated for what they are, not for where you are.

In a taxi, I wouldn’t have had the time to discuss what life in Kurdistan was like or about the good aspects of the George W. Bush presidency and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. For example, the salvation of the Iraqi minorities from Saddam Hussein’s systematic genocides. Neither would I have fully appreciated the mountain winds that cooled me as baked in the sun. Perhaps these winds were one of the reasons for this city’s location. I also wouldn’t have had the details of Sulaymaniyan life given to me through geography.

We passed by a cafe with a colourfully painted tree. My friend told me that this is where Kurdish youth like to congregate at night. When we passed a strange-looking mosque, he told me it looked that way because it was Shi’a. Later he told about his Jewish friends who still live in the city and practice in secret. According to all academic sources, there are no Jews living in traditional homeland of Iraq, so this was a refreshing revelation.

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When we got the the city center, my friend bought me a chicken sandwich at his favourite Kurdish fast food place, and we parted ways. Now very close to my hotel, and in need of everything that water had to offer, I made it my hostel named the “Dalphin Hotel.”

The hotel was decorated like… like… I don’t even know how to put it. Wood paneling, blue carpet. Yellow everywhere else. There was an large portrait of the owner feeding a dolphin in the lobby. Some of the walls were sliding glass doors that were completely covered with the kind of design that usually says, “BLOWOUT SALE!!!!” but instead said, “DALPHIN HOTEL.” There were no windows to the outside.

Once inside one layer of sliding glass, I had to go through another layer in order to reach the hall where my room was. In the second layer, I was greeted by a two foot tall Eiffel Tower, which was surrounded by a bedroom-sized shrine of fake garden plants. Top and center from this shrine was an ominous black camera attached to the wall. There was a hall, but mostly the hostel’s layout consisted of a random cluster of rooms. Never the less, it was a great place to stay. Quant in its insanity.

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Bazaar close to the Dalphin Hotel.

The hostel owner was incredibly nice and gave me an unexpected itinerary and a free map. He told me a little of the recent dark history of Sulaymaniyah, going into detail about one of Saddam Hussein’s “prisons” in the middle of the city, which sounded more like a concentration camp. The “prison” was recently flattened and turned into an enormous park. Until the Sulaymaniyah’s citizens built the park, they could smell the thousands of dead buried in the mass graves inside the prison walls.

I took a wrong turn on the way to the park entrance, so I used a small path to get inside, which led into a field of randomly placed statues of artists, philosophers, and prison victims. There were also scattered graves of politicized figures.

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It was completely quiet sans faint music from a birthday party going on somewhere. After finding a main path leading out of the field, I discovered that this park was enormous. I spent the next two hours exploring it’s mostly empty fields, groves, and unkempt pathways. Sometimes I came across couples nesting in the bushes. Once I stumbled onto a wedding photo session. By the time I found my way out of an overgrown hedge-maze, it was getting dark, and my feet were giving out. On my way home, I passed by groups of joggers, something I haven’t seen since moving from San Francisco.

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I woke early the next day to go to a museum. I wasn’t sure about what kind of museum it was, but the hostel owner told me it was free. The museum was not where the map said it should be. After the third time of dragging my feet along the road where the little museum symbol was printed, I gave up the search and took a random road back to my hostel.

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Seeing Jesus on my way back.

Along this road I found an old barracks guarded by Kurdish soldiers. I had an overwhelming attraction to the place. I wanted to get in somehow, but of course, I couldn’t walk into a military base in Iraq just because I wanted to. I don’t what possessed me, but I hung out by the guard for a little while, who glared at me. I said, “hello” in Kurdish, like a stupid tourist, which increased his menacing glare rather than quelching it. But for whatever reason I wouldn’t leave.

After a minute, a group of well dressed men walked by me and the guard, and straight into a door I was standing next to. I followed the men and inside, and found myself in a museum – the exact museum I had been looking for. Not questioning the moment, I followed the group of men through the lobby and into the old barracks. From there I walked into the first door that called out to me, which opened up to this:

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I don’t know what it was supposed to represent, but I felt as if it were a memorial to all the Kurds killed by the Iraqi government. Each light was a mind extinguished by Saddam Hussein. The crooked walls and corners made of shattered mirror felt seeped in superstition and recognition of broken reality. The end of the hall opened up to a traditional Kurdish house, then continued briefly, into a dead end.

After spending a long time in the hall, I re-entered the daylight into a dirt lot filled military equipment. Tanks, anti-aircraft guns, cannons, and spent shells littered the lot. The buildings around me were covered in bullet holes, evidence of a rebellion. Possibly from the early nineties, but perhaps as recent as 2003.

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I walked through the lot and entered another building. The building had four doors. One was labelled, “Cinema.” The others were a mystery. I opened the first door and stepped into a long room a portraits. These portraits illustrated various aspects of Kurdish life. The second door opened up into a much larger room, filled with portraits and names. The room made it clear that these were the victims of a deliberate genocide committed by Saddam Hussein and his cousin, “Chemical Ali.” One of the plaques suggested that none of the people named in the room, have been recovered. I didn’t leave the room for a long time, letting its design give me the information that I couldn’t get from the plaques mostly written in Kurdish.

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Upstairs, a third door opened to a room of discarded weapons and deactivated mines. On one wall, there was a poster naming the countries that produced the mines that have been found throughout Iraqi Kurdistan. On the other wall, there was a poster that named the countries who were helping de-mine Iraqi Kurdistan. In case you’re wondering, the US was on both posters.

I felt as if these two posters were the reason I was brought here. Here, alone in this room, I could reflect on the duality of unconscious destruction and conscious preservation. This room made it easy to see that lives can be extinguished by greed, or saved, or even sacrificed by compassion. Sometimes it’s the same entity that is responsible for everything.

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American made mine.

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“Mines which are found in Kurdistan are made by these countries.” Note the lack of Iraqi flag.
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“Participating countries in Demining of Kurdistan.” 100% are Western countries.
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Memorial to those killed by the mines they were trying to clear. It includes two dogs.

I was done by this point, exhausted, and I still had a two hundred miles to travel by taxis that day. I left the building and started heading out of the complex.

Out of nowhere a man called to me from behind. This was the first man I had seen since I followed the group into the museum. “PRISON!” He called out, pointed at an ominous non-descript building behind me. “PRISON!!” I thanked the man and walked into the door. The man disappeared somewhere, and I was alone in Saddam’s old prison.

Thankfully, I’ve never been to an American prison before, but I guarantee that this was not built like an American prison. There were no halls. Just a lot of rooms mashed together. Most of these rooms were cells. Some of the the rooms were for different kinds of torture, and some were toilets. There was no kitchen, no medical center, nor anything else nothing like that. It took a long time to go through the whole prison because of its size and lack of light.

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According to a plaque, this method of torture was common and often fatal. During the liberation of the prison, someone was able to save the desk and torture device so they could show the world what had happened at this prison.

After the prison tour, I was truly exhausted and left the complex. As the strong mountain wind did its best to cool me off, I took in the beauty of this city. Book stores, fruit sellers, and artwork could be found everywhere. Sulaymaniyah is known as a center for education and art. I walked through the bazaar, fully aware of the many cultures that surrounded me. There were lots of smiles from jovial people hanging around every stall and store. At one point a man in chains struggled past me. I vaguely recalled reading about a certain sect of people in this region who practice self-flagellation.

Over all, Sulaymaniyah was a colourful city, bursting with creativity. Here, the citizens chose to make a park from concentration camp. However, my brief visit Sulaymaniyah focused on the black recent history buried an inch below the surface. I wish I could have stayed another day to focus on its beauty.

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One of the many murals of Sulaymaniyah.
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Library.
The Black, the Grey, and the White; A brief exploration of the three cities of Iraqi Kurdistan.