It was night when we reached the banks of the Tigris. A huge full moon burned like a false sun in the open sky. In the moonlight I could make out the trees and bushes of Iraqi Kurdistan two hundred yards away on the other side. A few inches below our feet the vast river hissed past at the speed of a freight train. Downstream, the Iraqi Army had started shelling again. They were trying to find our crossing-point but were not having much luck. Every so often a spurt of red tracer would streak upwards but the Peshmerga I was with weren’t taking any notice, so I didn’t either. What had unsettled me more was our encounter with three jeeploads of journalists who were driving away from the river bank as we arrived.
‘What’s it like inside Kurdistan?’ I had asked them. They hadn’t been very encouraging. ‘Keep your head down,’ one said. It‘s getting hot in there,’ chorused another from the safety of his jeep. What was I doing, I wondered, trying to get into Kurdistan when other reporters were leaving? I paused on the path and listened to the boom-boom of the shelling. Some of the Peshmerga were waving at me. I could see them holding onto a shallow rowing-boat, the back end of which bobbed in the current. I began walking towards them: not for the first time in my life I carried on because I lacked the courage to go back.
At this time of year, Iraqi Kurdistan is a very beautiful place. The rich soil of the Tigris floodplain produces a grass so green it is startling. In between the fields of the Fertile Crescent, small orchards of apple and almond trees fill the air with their blossom. But that afternoon the driver of the dilapidated pickup I was travelling in was more concerned to point out what remained of several roadside villages flattened in 1988 on the orders of Saddam Hussein. Most were no more than two bricks high.
Next to one of them stood the bulldozer that must have been used to do the job. ‘Now at least we’re free from all this,’ the driver said. When I entered Kurdistan only a few weeks ago, Saddam Hussein sat bloody and bowed in Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War while on the streets of Dohuk, Zakho, Arbil and Kirkuk the people danced. When I got to Zakho – the first town to be liberated – the main street was so full of people it took most of the morning to walk down it. In a true spirit of anarchy, the people were all giving each other orders. There was a shortage of everything. The hospital had no drugs, the Peshmerga had no petrol and nearly all the shops were boarded up, but no one seemed worried. Only one young man expressed his fears to me: ‘Saddam is still strong,’ he said, ‘he will fight back, I’m sure.’ How right he was.