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.
I arrived in Dohuk at the same time as Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, was making his triumphal entry into the town. Crowds swamped the PUK headquarters. But he didn’t stay long. Within 24 hours the Iraqi Army had begun shelling and the following morning Talabani was forced to pull out. There was not much he could do against the helicopter gunships and multi-barrelled rocket-launchers. Once the people began to leave, the Peshmerga had no choice but to go with them to look after their wives and children. In some cases the Iraqi Army didn’t even need to open fire: thousands of people fled one morning when word went out that Saddam was about to launch a chemical attack on the town.
As Dohuk collapsed, I withdrew to the village of Sansenk some twenty kilometres to the north. Sherzad, my interpreter, and I sat in an upper room surrounded by young men asleep in the broken armchairs, cradling their Kalashnikovs. As usual, no one seemed to be in charge. Suddenly the door opened and a boy of seventeen or eighteen burst in brandishing a piece of paper. Speaking fast in Solanyi, one of the Kurdish dialects, he explained how he had just delivered bread to some Peshmerga in the centre of the town. ‘Dohuk is free again!’ he said. ‘This is from the Peshmerga commander who recaptured it.’
Immensely cheered by this news, we made plans to re-enter the town at first light and went to bed. Karwan, the boy, invited Sherzad and me to spend the night with his family. Their home was a cement and breezeblock box up the hill. It had a kitchen with a shower unit and one main room with a curtain down the middle to divide the living from the sleeping area; it reminded me of dozens of houses I’d visited in Soweto. Karwan’s mother immediately began to prepare a meal for us.
As we waited, Karwan told us proudly how – like hundreds of other Kurds – he had deserted from the Iraqi Army during the Gulf War. The regime in the Army was – and still is – horrifyingly brutal for Kurd and Arab alike. Sherzad once described a three-hour run he had been made to take part in as a soldier at the height of summer. Everyone was close to exhaustion when two soldiers broke ranks and ran to a tap to drink. ‘They were immediately arrested and taken away,’ Sherzad said. ‘At one end of our camp was a huge pit full of human excrement. After the run was over, we were all taken down there and told to watch as these poor men were stripped and ordered to climb into the pit. To begin with, they just stood there. It was so deep that only their heads showed above the shit. Then the officer pointed his pistol at them and told them to kneel. Each time they came up gasping for air, he ordered them down again. It was unbearable. They were vomiting and swallowing the shit at the same time.’
When I was woken it was still dark. Outside I could hear a child’s voice pleading; feet hurried past the end of my bed; something clattered onto the stone floor. Sherzad was already getting dressed. ‘These people are leaving,’ he told me. ‘They say that Saddam’s tanks are coming up the valley and that all their neighbours are leaving too.’ ‘But I thought Dohuk had been liberated,’ I said. Sherzad shook his head. ‘I don’t know what the truth is,’ he answered glumly. ‘All I know is that these people are leaving and we must leave too.’ And he went back to lying his shoelaces.
I looked around for the brave Karwan and saw him piling blankets into the back of a pickup in the chill darkness. When he saw me he grinned, half in hope, it seemed, that the Westerner might be able to do something to halt this nightmare. But there was nothing I could do except return his smile. I was as scared and bewildered as he was. Karwan’s mother appeared with his two young sisters and we lifted them on top of the blankets. Then it was discovered that they hadn’t got enough petrol to reach the mountains, so Karwan found a tin of heating fuel and began pouring it into the petrol tank, causing the van to splutter. Karwan’s mother started to cry. It was a terrible moment, as if the strain of living all these years in persecution and fear had suddenly proved too much for this family. Not wanting to take up valuable space, Sherzad and I declined their offer of a lift.
In the chaos it took some time to find a vehicle willing to take us back to Zakho. We offered to pay the driver in dollars. ‘What use is money at a time like this?’ the man replied curtly. He was driving a new German-made dustcart. It was bright orange and seemed absurdly out of place among all the squalor and litter. In the back, where the rubbish would normally have been crushed, dozens of frightened people sat on piles of blankets. I climbed onto the roof with some other journalists. It was the last time I ever saw Sherzad, who had to stay behind to look after his family. Sometimes I think I see him on television scrabbling for bread in a crowd of refugees.
It took all day to travel the hundred or so kilometres to Zakho. It seemed as if the whole world was on the road. We passed old women staggering under the bundles on their backs, young boys trotting on mules, old men asleep beside the road with rocks for pillows, families sitting together in an orchard. We gave lifts to as many as we could and towed those who had broken down. At one stage, the back got so full that a father lost his baby. There was a huge commotion, the cart stopped and everyone had to get out. The baby was found fast asleep buried deep under several layers of blankets.
We never reached Zakho. At a village just outside we were told to turn around. A man pointed down the road. ‘The Iraqi tanks are just down there,’ he said. All the villagers had already left. The Army had got here before us and we were now cut off; by occupying Zakho they also controlled the one crossing-point into Syria. The only way out now was to cross the mountains behind us into Turkey. I looked up at the jagged ridges and snow-filled gullies; in the fading light they seemed grey and menacing.
News of Saddam’s advance had reached London and on the World Service we heard that the Army was moving north to cut off the main escape routes through the mountains. I had this image of a huge tidal wave breaking over our heads and was afraid of dying. Ten days ago, in Kuwait, I’d reported on the miserable lines of Iraqi POWs and the terrible destruction on the Basra highway, and had wondered whether the West hadn’t been too harsh. Now as I stood perhaps only a few hundred yards away from his tanks, I wondered why we had let Saddam get away with so much.
As the night wore on, our plight became increasingly desperate. The dustcart had no lights, so we drove by shining a torch out of the window and searched for the turning off to the mountains. Each pair of headlights that approached we thought was a tank. At one point Cawa our driver refused to go any further. ‘You will get me killed,’ he yelled. We begged him not to leave us and stared down at the line of figures that limped silently past our cab in the darkness. ‘Look at all these people, these are my people,’ he cried out. ‘What will become of them?’ No one answered. Cawa’s fiancée was living in Zakho – it was in the hope of seeing her that he’d agreed to take us there. Now she, too, was lost somewhere in this vast human tragedy.
We entered a glacial valley a couple of miles wide. On either side hundreds of tiny campfires dotted the dark flanks of rock, each one marking a family too exhausted to go on. Every so often Cawa would stop the dustcart and walk along peering at the firelit faces, hoping that one of them might be his love. No one showed a flicker of recognition. As the valley started to narrow, the crush of humans, animals and vehicles on the road grew denser and denser until we could drive no more. Ahead of us we could see a huge traffic a jam of lights snaking its way up towards a distant ridgeline – six or seven hundred cars, lorries, carts and buses all pushed up against each other, as if by some irritated child-god. And in between and on either side among the rocks, thousands and thousands of people trudged slowly and silently uphill.
For a while I found it hard to take in what was happening. People and animals flowed past me: a tiny flock of sheep pushed on by a boy stumbling with tiredness, a mother pulling along a little girl carrying her watering-can, an old woman with a baby strapped to her front, a woman and child on a donkey. With their heads bowed, they moved like ghosts between the abandoned vehicles.
These brave people have been harried, kicked and killed many times in their history, but never as badly as now. Saddam is a tyrant in a classic mould, ruthless with his enemies and lavish in his follies. On our drive to Zakho we passed two of his mountain palaces. The land around them sculpted into vast lawns, orchards, and ponds full of carp, surrounded by fifteen-foot-high walls – all created by hundreds of pressganged local people. To this day the palaces have never been used.
As the day dawned we emerged onto a bleak plateau. Hundreds of families were digging the snow for water with their bare hands. They were being extraordinarily methodical, carefully chipping away bits of grit and dirt. Most of them used the water to make tea, boiling their kettles on meagre piles of burning twigs. Then were children with no shoes, crying as they walked across the snow, and women shivering in the nighties in which they had fled from their homes. I tried to picture my mother standing alone on this windswept snowfield and wondered at the terror that had driven these people up here. Without knowing whether they were going to be accepted by the Turks, many of them talked hopefully of starting new lives in America, Canada and London. They all said they would not return until Saddam had gone. For many this was the final straw: the harsh suppression of their brief spring of freedom had broken their resolve. Some sat crying quietly while others berated me for the West’s failure to help.
After twelve hours we finally reached the Turkish border. On a thin rocky ridge, thousands of people lay huddled together with their small bundles of food and clothes. Ahead of them stood a line of Turkish soldiers, their weapons at the ready preventing them from going any further. For a while I sat quietly among the people in the snow. The cold wind carried a slow hum of misery which every so often would develop into something like a wail.
Who in the West can understand what it is like to have nothing left in the world: no home, no food, no freedom, no future? I had reached the end of my ordeal. Yet the people with whom I walked across those mountains are still up there, still hoping that someone will rescue them.