A Hostage Returns to Iraq – on Holiday

August 1, 1990:

I was going on holiday to Malaysia. Becoming a human shield hostage wasn’t part of the plan.

Age 24, I boarded British Airways flight BA149 from London en route to Kuala Lumpur, with a routine refueling stop in Kuwait. At around 4am on August 2 we re-boarded the plane in preparation to leave Kuwait. Then the pilot announced a delay. This was bad news. Kuwait is dry and I’d have to wait until we were airborne before I could sample even more Club class booze. The steward made me a coffee and I stared out the window of the ageing BA 747 as dawn broke across the desert. Passing low over the runway, a few hundred meters away, objects were falling from a small aeroplane. Time slowed down as mushroom shaped clouds of dust erupted along the runway and taxiways of the airport. The 747 rocked gently in the shockwaves. This wasn’t part of the BA experience I’d expected. I grabbed my partner and ‘de-planed’ into the terminal to shelter from the bombing, faster than a rat out of a pipe.

I and my fellow passengers had no idea that we were traveling onboard a Trojan horse. Iraq was invading Kuwait and the British government used British Airways flight149 to land an undercover reconnaissance team in a war zone. We landed at least two (and most likely four) hours after the Iraqi invasion. The Iraqi army quickly occupied Kuwait and their secret police began rounding up Westerners. I became a ‘Human Shield Hostage’ in Iraq and was eventually interned at Dokan Dam in North East Iraq, spending 131 days away from home.

I returned to the UK on December 11, 1990. BA quickly settled compensation claims out of court with the American passengers ‘for an undisclosed sum’. As a British citizen I received 200 pounds from BA, although I quickly squandered this when my doctor in Neuilly, Paris charged me 280 pounds for the follow up medical.

February, 2011:

Twenty one years later: I’m at home in Thailand on a second brandy after dinner when I start thinking. Could I go back? I’d recently sold my London estate agency business so being out of touch with the office was no longer an issue. I called American Express Travel. I want to go to Iraq, I tell them. ‘The country is under sanctions. We don’t go there’, a travel consultant told me.

Perfect. So I wouldn’t be meeting any investment bankers on a Banyan Tree ‘spa journey’. Better still, I wouldn’t be traveling on BA.

March 1, 2011:

The flight from Bahrain flew over Baghdad at 10 pm, an oasis of light amid an otherwise unusually dark landscape below, just before the pilot of the Gulf Air flight started his descent. I thought I’d landed at the shiny new airport in Bournemouth, not Erbil International airport in the ‘Kurdish Autonomous Region’ of Iraq. The immigration queue was shorter in Erbil. Friendlier too. ‘Have you visited before?’ the cheerful immigration lady enquired. ‘Well, er yes, but not recently’. She smiled and gave me a ten day stamp in my passport. I was back in Iraq after 21 years.

The plan was to cycle to Dokan Dam from Erbil, the commercial and administrative centre of the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq, 40kms as the crow flies and about 90 km by road. I could then play it by ear, using a mixture of local transport but mostly my bicycle. My business partner back in the UK had been concerned. “Why cycle?” he’d asked over a third martini at Mata Hari’s – my favorite restaurant back home in Thailand. ‘Because I can and Saddam can’t because the c***’s dead’, I’d slurred back. I was on a mission.

The Rotana Hotel is on the outskirts of Erbil in North East Iraq. Rooms start at $250 US a night. Its expensive bar is the hub of investment in the region. Groups of unimaginatively dressed businessmen from the Lebanon, Gulf states, Europe, America – the entire world it seems – converge here. Big Oil meets NGOs with other people’s money, but I was here on a budget and working on the 1990 exchange rate, ten thousand dinars for a Heineken in the hotel bar worked out at $32,000 US plus tip. A helpful group at the next table reassured me on the currency and I relaxed – but only just – with my $10 US beer.

August /September 1990:

Hopes of the British government ‘doing something’ had evaporated. It was a relief in some ways, but I wish I’d learnt the lesson earlier. We might have escaped – as several detainees in Kuwait had done during the early days – driving across the desert in 4x4s to Saudi. Now the Iraqis were dictating events. In late August we were taken under arrest from Kuwait in an open bus in sweltering 45C heat through the desert to the Melia hotel in Baghdad. Within a few days I was ordered into a car together with an elderly husband and wife, Patrick and Jean O’Brien from England. Patrick lightened the mood, recounting stories of his time as an oil man in Nigeria as we drove through desert into the more mountainous and green landscape of Kurdistan. Sadly he suffered a heart attack later that day. Both he and his wife were transferred to a hospital in Suleymaniya. I never found out whether he made it home.

Back in England my mum got a phone call from someone at the Foreign Office informing her I had been detained as a human shield hostage in Iraq.

March 2, 2011

Dawn on my first day in Iraq was met with the sort of buffet breakfast ($15US) you’d expect at a 5 star concrete and glass hotel anywhere in the world. The Pinoy chef undercooked my omelet, but this I could deal with. No-one was pointing guns at me nor telling me they’d shoot me ‘when my American friends come Iraq’. Reception offered me a complimentary, yet wholly incomprehensible map of Erbil, I assembled my bike, assisted by a bemused and remarkably solicitous Sri Lankan porter and set off towards the town centre and ancient Citadel. I was soon lost and cycled up to a police checkpoint to ask directions.

There was some excited shouting behind me from a soldier, so I put my hands up and turned around with a smile and shouted ‘English’. End of problem. I think my backpack had made them a bit edgy. They didn’t understand ‘City Centre’ so  I continued on blindly. The only way to get directions in Iraq is to politely ask the driver or passengers of an SUV at traffic lights. They alone – with the curious exception of shoeshine boys – are likely to speak some English and without exception were pleased to help.

After a relaxed pat down and cursory search of my backpack by soldiers (who requested I leave my bike with them), I had a quick explore of the Citadel’s textile museum (I was the only visitor), housing a mostly late 20th century collection of rugs, kilims and the like just within the Citadel walls. Cultured up, I was relieved to find my bike still safe with the soldiers and free-wheeled down to the square below, to join the locals for a cup of over sweetened tea (no payment accepted). The shoe shine boys were out early – 1,000 dinars or 50 pence seemed to be the going rate. I asked one if he’d mind keeping an eye on my bike ‘this not England’ he said. ‘Your bike safe here no need to ask’. His brother had worked in the UK giving him a unique personal insight into British culture.

Money changers were everywhere – their makeshift stalls double as mobile phone SIM card and top up shops. For 10,000 dinars I had my own Iraqi mobile number. Back in the square, shoeshine boy refused a dollar tip for looking out for my bike. I asked directions and three people helpfully offered three separate sets of instructions for locating the road to Dokan. I was soon hopelessly lost – again – but a helpful SUV driver with his friends drove out of their way to guide me to the road out of town. I often heard about ‘Middle East hospitality’ from the ‘Baghdad Observer’ newspaper and Iraqi TV ‘Guest News’ whilst a hostage in Dokan in 1990. Perhaps there really was something to it beyond Saddam’s personal interpretation of the concept?

Eight kms out of town on a dusty and congested dual carriageway I was having doubts about the cycling idea. This was like cycling on the North Circular. I stopped for a coke and baklava sugar fix and things soon improved as traffic thinned and the road narrowed, the weather in March a pleasant 18C with clear skies. The roadside was strewn with litter, a feature across the KAR. People in Iraq picnic and leave their detritus behind. Drivers routinely discard plastic bags and empty cans out of the car window. Even Dokan Lake has thousands of plastic bottles floating on it and littering the shoreline. It’s difficult to write ‘it wasn’t like this in 1990′. Freedom means taking personal responsibility, but that’s not an easy thing to discuss with people who drive past sign posts to Halabja on their way to work in the morning.

It was a miserable bike ride, save the hospitality of a couple running a makeshift petrol station who insisted on me joining them for tea and lunch in their modest living room. I was impatient to get to Dokan. Trucks and SUVs thundered past a meter away at over 90 mph. The wind was dry and dusty and the entire road seemed to have been constructed at a 1 in 10 gradient.  I passed almost no-one save an occasional police or army checkpoint (like a French peage but with lots of guns!) where they examined my passport entry stamp. I gave up after 70Kms and took a taxi. It broke down after less than 10Km and we limped into an army checkpoint. They soon fixed me up with a ride from a passing SUV driven by a Peshmerga army Colonel en route to Suleymanya. He happily agreed to take me to Dokan. Colonel Abdarasa kindly dropped me at the Ashul Hotel, overlooking Dokan Lake. The Ashul is the only real hotel in the expansive Dokan Lake area, it’s a reassuringly normal 4 star resort in a Thomson 4T sort of way, with views across Dokan Lake. I’d been here before.

September 1990:

The early days of our incarceration in 1990 had been relatively liberal. I’d been interned together with five Japanese, an American, a German and three fellow Englishman at a ‘guest lodge’ overlooking the lake. Although I was sharing a room with five other people, we had a small garden and yard to move around in and spectacular views. On a couple of occasions we’d been taken to the Ashul Hotel for an hour or so to swim. The guards even bought us a coke and told us we were ‘guests’. Saddam went further still: We were ‘guests of the Iraqi children’ and ‘peace heroes’. Later we’d been relocated inside the dam itself to a floor just above the turbine room. It was less pleasant – claustrophobic and noisy with the drone of the five generators in the turbine hall below, not to mention the constant fear of an American bomb or two dropping through the ceiling. The Japanese coined a phrase for the event that intruded on our thoughts day and night – ‘the Big Flush’.

November 1990

The last month or so we’d been moved into huts on the top of the dam. Presumably to be visible to the satellites. One evening whilst we sat eating, a drunken guard came in, took out his Berretta pistol and held it against my head. ‘America come Iraq I kill you first Mr. Barry’, he then repeated the procedure amongst three or four others before getting bored, just so we’d know the ‘order of service’. I’d once called him a ‘sandwog c***’ – so much for ‘playing the grey man’. The same guard had appeared with a bottle of Johnnie Walker on the 9th of December to tell us ‘Mr. Saddam say you go home to your families I so happy’. We’d then, surreally, been taken under guard to the Ashul Hotel for a farewell dinner. No-one had an appetite, but we drank the place dry.

March 2, 2011

I was the only guest in the hotel. Hardly surprising at $120 US a night (cash only, no credit cards accepted) plus you have to talk your way through at least four army checkpoints to get there. Barzani, the President, has a villa nearby overlooking the lake. Despite it’s 100+ rooms there’s no website either. I settled in my upgraded room and sought out the bar. They’d put in some new comfy sofas since my 1990 visit, and I found two locals ensconced, merrily polishing off a bottle of Pernod. The Sri Lankan waiter brought me a beer over – it had been a long day. One of my new companions was a senior engineer on the dam, Mr. Aker. ‘Do you know Mr. Rouel?’ I asked. He certainly did.

Sat in the hotel over a beer, sharing their food, Mr. Aker gave me Mr. Rouel’s mobile number.

August – December 1990

Mr. Shammon Roel was the resident Engineer of Dokan Dam when Saddam’s army invaded Kuwait.  A Christian Assyrian and Anglophile he was living in a small villa overlooking the lake with his young family when orders come from on high in Baghdad. He was going to be receiving some ‘guests’ and would be responsible for the practical arrangements, under the watchful gaze of a Secret Police contingent of three Saddam moustached psychopaths and assorted conscript soldiers. The diktat was for us to be confined 24/7.

Fortunately for us, Mr. Rouel’s understanding of the word ‘guests’ is very different to that of the ‘villager from Tikrit’. He persuaded our guards to allow us out for a walk as often as twice a week, in the early days at least. Throughout September we felt more like ‘guestages’ than ‘human shield hostages’, on one occasion being escorted by the guards to his house for tea on the lawn. His youngest daughter, aged six, passed around with a tray of sweets dressed in her best clothes. It was a very human gesture and not without personal risk to Mr. Rouel himself.

He’d also helped in one very important way – he got hold of a battered, but still serviceable shortwave radio for us. The signature tune of the BBC World Service Radio was addictive (why on earth did the BBC drop this intro music – how out of touch are they?). We listened in to the news most days and heard P.M. (although not for much longer) Margaret Thatcher tell parliament that ‘the human shield hostages in Iraq are expendable’. Thanks Maggie.

In November 1990 he’d told us that the local school children wanted to come to the dam and sing for us. We thought this was just cynical propaganda from a local Saddam sycophant and very ungraciously declined the offer.

March 6, 2011

And so I was able meet Mr. Rouel again, several days after my chance encounter with the engineer at the Ashul Hotel. He met me in front of St. Nicholas Church in Einkawa, where two plain clothes guards were on duty with automatic weapons.

‘You are my guest again’ he joked, ‘We will keep you guest at your home in Kurdistan but this time is different’, and so we discussed old times over a beer at his house and later at a restaurant in the Christian enclave of Einkawa, Erbil (skewered chicken, salad, rice and pitta bread) and I got to hear something of his side of the story.

He explained, diplomatically so as not to offend, that the children and teachers had indeed wanted to come to the dam and sing to let us know they were on our side. It was humbling to realize the local school kids cared – even if our own government didn’t.  Being locked up inside a dam waiting to be killed is dehumanizing. Mr. Rouel and the local people had been quietly working in the background to reverse the process. A dangerous undertaking with the Mukhabarat (Iraqi Baathist Secret Police) keeping a close eye on proceedings.

The Kurdish Iraqis hated Saddam even more than we did. Years later, I’d felt strangely uncomfortable watching Saddam being ‘lynched’ on YouTube, my western liberal sensitivities pricked by the manner of his death in front of a mob. I asked Mr. Rouel how people in Iraq had reacted. ‘We danced in the streets for a week’, he told me. His son in law (and husband to the girl of six we’d met in his garden in 1990) looked on smiling, fondly remembering the day he’d watched Saddam drop through the floor at the end of a rope.

Another question was the possibility of escape in 1990. The shortwave radio allowed us to keep abreast of any acceleration in the military build up in Kuwait and the endless UN Resolutions. Inside the dam the time was coming when the risk of death or injury trying to escape might weigh less heavily than the risk of execution or being hit by ‘Friendly Fire’. ‘Impossible’, he told me. The area around the dam all the way to the Iranian border was a curfew zone after 4pm and entirely controlled by the military. We would have been shot on sight.

March 2, 2011

But on my first day back in Dokan it was time to eat. I took a taxi into the village for dinner. (Note: Don’t go to Iraq unless you like skewered chicken, salad, rice and pitta bread). The restaurant owner had been 18 in 1990 and remembered me dodging our guards and furtively trying to buy some high calorie snacks from his dad’s roadside kiosk during an exercise break from the dam (I wanted to build a food stash in case I ever had an opportunity to escape). He now runs a successful restaurant business employing twelve staff serving up hundreds of meals a day. I was very happy to have a photo taken with him. If you’re ever in Dokan look out for his restaurant. Probably the best skewered chicken, salad, rice and pitta bread in the world.

March 3, 2011

View of Dokan Lake, KAR/Iraq from Dokan Dam

I couldn’t find anyone to make breakfast in the hotel, so collected my bike and set off. Cycling down into Dokan car drivers honked their horns, waved and smiled. Hey look! A tourist!?. Stopping to take photos, a farmer herding sheep diverted his flock so I could take a better picture. The views across the lake and mountains beyond are incomparable. It seems likely the future of the Dokan area will lie in tourism. They’ve certainly got the right attitude. I wonder how this will change as they inevitably start to receive thousands of visitors to the lakes and mountains in the area in the future?

The main thoroughfare in Dokan village is a non-descript parade of shanty style shops. I found at least two ‘off licenses’, several barber shops and even more tea shops and kebab style restaurants, where local men gathered throughout the day and into the evening. A great place to have a cup of sugary early morning tea and a shave. Security is tight with perhaps six troops and as many police again patrolling just a few hundred meters of road. As a stranger in town I was soon subjected to passport checks. Mostly this was done with good grace, although there’s still a certain paranoia among the local security forces. My smile faded at the third passport inspection and second bag check in less than an hour and the atmosphere became a little tense. The soldiers speak almost no English, but a passer by interceded and it was soon all smiles and ‘mafi mushkalas’. Word went around after that and the only attention from the local police and soldiers took the form of smiles, waves and salutes.

Mr. Aker (Pernod and dinner at the Ashul Hotel) had arranged security clearance for a tour of the dam. Inside, engineers labour on with its 1950s Soviet technology, now being gradually updated with Italian made control systems, although its control room still resembles a scene from Dr Strangelove. The dam was hit by four laser guided bombs during the Desert Storm air campaign in 1991 but damage was superficial. The five turbines remain perfectly serviceable after forty plus years, although there’s not enough water in the lake to allow their operation this spring. Describing what it felt like to walk back into ‘the prison’ we’d occupied twenty one years earlier defies my vocabulary. Let’s just say it was emotional and leave it at that. A distinguished Kurdish gentleman struggled with his composure – as I did on a few occasions that morning – as he recalled he had driven us to Baghdad. Other staff had their own memories and a series of group photos was called for. Local students were visiting the dam and wanted a group photo too. They lined up beautifully, as if choreographed by a hidden hand, further confirming my optimism for the future of Kurdistan.

I needed a beer. Suleymanya, about 60kms away seemed like a good idea.

If Erbil is Washington, Suleymanya is New York. Suleymaniyans told me that outside the city the rest of Kurdistan consists of dumb farmers or corrupt politicians. We drove the last few miles along the main Baghdad / Suleymanya Highway. There’s construction everywhere – half completed shops, offices and houses – creating one of the ugliest urban landscapes I’ve ever seen. The taxi refused to leave me in the city centre of Suleymanya, instead dropping me 2 miles out, so I assembled my bike and cycled in – straight into the middle of a demonstration in the old city square. Large Ford trucks with water cannon mountings were lined up along the park adjacent to the historic city centre. One appeared to be smeared with red paint. Inside the walled old city I passed demonstrators wearing black wraps. I’d promised friends I’d stay away from trouble hotspots and had walked (well, cycled) right into one.

I was already attracting some stares, but legging it might be like letting the rabbit loose at Crayford Dog Stadium. Besides I was here to exorcise demons and running isn’t good therapy. So I smiled and said ‘good afternoon’. They were friendly and found myself chatting in broken English to several of them: Where you from? – London. Why you come Kurdistan? – Holiday. You like Kurdistan? – Yes, very much. What you think about Barzani? – I’m only a guest in Kurdistan it’s up to you….. They wanted to know if the movement in Tunisia and Egypt would spread to Iraq – as if I’d know? I left with the impression they wanted change but had no idea what they wanted in its place, much less who’d lead them through it. They want less corruption for sure. The present Barzani government is almost universally known among the populace for its cronyism and corruption.

Talk to anyone under thirty in Suleymaniya and they’ll tell you the same thing – ‘the government does nothing for us’. For sure too much land and wealth is in the hands of the government. The perception – and most likely the reality – is that too much of this wealth is doled out to friends and family. On the other hand, concepts of self determination and ‘making it happen’ (themes that are common to any entrepreneur back home) are still new here. The cage door may have been opened in Kurdistan, but where was the will to fly out? I spoke with two lads running an internet cafe who felt stifled in their attempts to grow a business. Perhaps I was overstepping the mark by suggesting big boss ‘Uncle Saddam’ wasn’t in charge anymore and if they didn’t take charge of their lives themselves wasn’t there a danger that some other bastard might? They agreed and we exchanged ideas on developing their business. One of them was a php web programmer – I suggested he at least spoke to a few hotels like the Ashul to develop websites for them. Later that evening I learned that at least six protestors had been killed by the police 100 meters away, just 24 hours earlier.

That brief moment in Suleymanya aside, I never once felt in danger. Quite the opposite. Wherever I went people were keen to tell me they had a brother/father/friend working in England. Preferred professions were pizza delivery, car washing and my personal favorite – ‘I work with knife in Bernard Mathews Norfolk’. When the west sets out to win hearts and minds in the Middle East, a smile and common courtesy for immigrants in crap jobs at home might be more effective than an NGO with a Toyota Land Cruiser and index linked pension. Cheaper too.

I passed the evening playing pool in an upstairs pool hall. At first wary, I was soon smoking hookah pipes with remarkably friendly locals – three brothers and a friend on the weekly ‘Thursday night out with the lads’. One common question was why was it so difficult for them to travel to the UK when they learned I had a ten day visa on arrival in the KAR of Iraq. I explained why the UK had to be careful because it couldn’t afford to give everyone free healthcare, education, houses and money. They all thought this a blindingly convincing argument – it surprised me that no one had thought to explain it before. I wasn’t allowed to pay for the pool, my tea or the smoke.

The evening was concluded with a drunken session in the downstairs bar at my chosen city centre hotel, ‘The Palace’ ($100 a night and OK in a seedy 3 star kind of way – and no website that I could find either). A young Kurd was going off to work in Holland to join his girlfriend and wanted some advice. ‘Had I visited Holland?’. I attempted to explain social tolerance, gay rights, drugs and free speech as best I could. He told me he could never have anything to do with ‘gay things’ as he sat, arm draped around his friend whilst another friend, a slightly effete lad of 23 or so, shifted uncomfortably in his seat. We all cuddled up and took a photo. They refused to let me pay for their drinks – or my own.

March 4, 2011

Suleymanya has some interesting old souks and markets and a more cosmopolitan air than Erbil so I spent a morning exploring. The town’s street markets buzz with activity. Aside from the usual fresh produce I was struck seeing men carrying cages with perhaps a brace of live poultry and others, usually younger men, selling pigeons (to eat or to tame I have no idea). They looked as if they’d traveled into town from the surrounding countryside, just to sell a couple of birds that had been meticulously reared over the last few months. A great place to stop and watch the world go by with endless cups of sweet black tea.

I pedaled 50 kms or so back towards Dokan from Suleymanya before accepting the offer of a lift from a soldier in a Nissan pickup, his Kalashnikov propped up between us in the cab – arriving just in time to watch a local a football match on the small town’s dusty and uneven football pitch. Dokan lost 3-1 as locals turned out in force to cheer the local side. I started to feel at home. The team coach, Mr. Salam is an engineer at the dam, but also doubles as team coach for the Iraqi Triathlon team. I stayed as a guest in their dorm overnight and the following day was joined by two Iraqi National Team Tri-athletes for a run up to the dam and back into town.

March 5, 2011

In 1990, gazing across towards the mountains and Iran beyond, I’d often imagined being able to swim in the lake. ‘It’s very, very cold why you want swim now?’ asked my host, the number 1 Iraqi Triathlon team cyclist. ‘Because I can and Mr. Saddam can’t’ was the best I could answer. So the three of us rode up the steep hill, across the dam and down to the lake. I was slightly embarrassed that my own bike with it’s carbon frame and Shimano XT brakes and gear set was more advanced than their own bikes used in international competition – even more so when I couldn’t keep up and they jokingly pushed my 95kg frame up the 1 in 10 incline without breaking sweat. We dived into the freezing cold lake together. It felt very good, almost religiously symbolic to splash into the water. Now was a good time to leave Dokan. Mission Accomplished.

March 6-9, 2011

I spent the next few days back in Erbil – partly meeting with Mr. Rouel whose hospitality was overwhelming, partly wandering randomly around the city.

Erbil is not the most exciting city on earth. The Citadel is worth a visit, it’s now being restored albeit at a snail’s pace. For now it’s a collection of dilapidated houses amid a building site, but still worth a wander. The deserted village houses vary in scale but generally consist of a couple of rooms and a small yard (often with a chicken coop). They’re crying out for a developer to knock them about to create bars, restaurants, cafes, perhaps even a boutique hotel. I imagine in 10 years it will resemble Lindos, Mykonos or Ibiza old town, with bars playing ‘ambient music’, so was glad to see it before it gets Starbucked.

Other visitors seemed to be mostly Shia Iraqis from the south. They crawled over statues and posed for photos with telephone cameras. The north is a haven for Iraqis looking to escape the continuing disturbances (‘accidents’ as Mr. Roel describes them) in the south of Iraq. Some come for a few days, others more permanently. Professional Iraqis, especially the Christian population, have migrated from the wealthier areas of Baghdad, like Mansour, to start over in Erbil. Mansour’s premier patisserie ‘Abu Afif’ (think an Iraqi Fortnum’s) has just opened a flagship store in Erbil. I bought six kilos of mixed baklava to take home as presents.

I shopped to pass time, but mostly spent the last couple of days wandering around, drinking tea with locals and playing chess in the afternoon with an elderly Kurdish gentleman in a tea shop at the foot of the Citadel. There are a couple of ‘Kurdish Hammams’ which are basic to say the least, but a welcome stop in the afternoon to freshen up without the bother of returning to the hotel on the outskirts of town. Just ask a taxi driver – although be sure to make it clear you want a ‘Kurdish Hammam’, not the ‘Chinese experience’.

The 20th anniversary celebrations of the ‘birth’ of the Kurdish Autonomous Region were prominent on TV with lots of flag waving and patriotic songs. I recognized the word ‘Halabja’ in one of them. In the streets the celebrations were quieter. The protests across the Middle East appear to be making the politicians a bit wary of large gatherings.

I had some more time with Mr. Rouel, although emotionally drained after a week reliving the events of 1990, I had politely excused myself from his family’s hospitality at his home back to the emotional sterility of the Rotana. He had told me after the expulsion of Baathist forces on March 6, 1991 that food and fuel had been in desperately short supply. He had reached a barter agreement with Baghdad on maintaining the dam – essential for downriver irrigation, not to mention electricity generation, driving most weeks to Baghdad to pick up supplies for the dam employees and local villagers. His initiative and altruism had made him a popular local figure and a rival to local power brokers, preempting his departure to Erbil in 2003. Such is local politics in an emerging nation bristling with guns.

Twenty years of economic misery has wiped out the middle classes. Sadly that makes it a great place to shop for antique jewelry and rugs. I bought several antique silver necklaces at ridiculously low prices, yet was left wondering whether these family heirlooms had been sold to put food onto the table in the 1990s and early 2000s – when money was worthless and UN sanctions raped the country.

The future looks far brighter for this emerging country, but it’s worth remembering the country is still not free of Saddam’s legacy. They are still paying reparations to the odious Al Sabah regime in Kuwait – storing up resentment amongst even the most liberal and educated among the people I met. Yet I encountered overwhelmingly generous hospitality and a warm welcome wherever I traveled. I reckon they’ve earned the right to a passport that says ‘Kurdistan’ – if that’s what they want (a sizeable minority probably don’t, but that’s another story) and whatever the Americans, Turks, Iranians and Syrian might prefer. Go see for yourself.

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BUDGET $42 per day

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On December 11, 1990 I left Iraq as a hostage an Iraqi Airways flight back to freedom in London vowing never to return. On March 9, 2011 I left Kurdistan as a welcome guest. I’ll be back.

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