Travels in the Conflict Zones of Mesopotamia and Afghanistan, 2013
René R. Gadacz
Author’s note: I feel privileged to have been able to visit both Iraq and Afghanistan when I did, before these two countries, once again, descended into unimaginable chaos, horrific sectarian violence, and misery. Perhaps the brief period of relative stability between 2008 and 2013 was an exception, when things looked promising. Canada even opened an embassy in Baghdad, housed with the British Embassy, in 2012. Who could tell, though, that the Syrian conflict would spill over into Iraq in 2014 in the form of ISIS (the Islamic State), an armed organization deemed even too violent and radical by Al-Qaida? Dear reader, please consider my brief descriptions a snapshot from a relatively happier time not so long ago.
Editor’s note: All photographs shown here were taken by the author. The Waggle has elected to include the original date stamps, as they are part of the travel experience, and because the recent history of this region has become a moment-by-moment creation, in which time is an essential part of any image.
Iraq – May/June
The history of Mesopotamia, ‘the land between the two rivers,’ the Tigris and Euphrates, is a long one of conflict and bloodshed but is a place where amazing civilizations emerged that made numerous contributions to the history of humankind. It is the land where the ‘zero’ was introduced into mathematics and where writing began. Iraq was also the home of the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the mythical Tower of Babel, and Qurnah is assumed to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden. Amazing mosques, palaces, and cities built by successive Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek (the list goes on to the Abbasid, the Mongol, and the Ottoman) kingdoms and empires dot the entire country. The point of the trip, of course, was to visit and walk through these 3,000 year-old ancient cities and to literally let the sands of time wash over me. Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar, and Gilgamesh are names familiar to most students of ancient civilizations, as are Old Testament figures like Abraham, Jonah, and Ezra. Bordering modern-day Syria and Jordan, this land was their hangout!
2013 was the tenth anniversary of the end of the American-led coalition’s war that toppled Saddam Hussein, declared by President Bush Jr. as ‘mission accomplished.’ But the conflict did not end as Bush declared. For several more years attacks on coalition forces continued on a daily basis, sectarian strife between the Shia and Sunni intensified, insurgents from various factions waged guerilla-style war against the Iraqi government, army, and police, Kurds were ethnically cleansed from Mosul, and Arabs were removed from Kirkuk. Suicide bombings were a daily occurrence and kidnapping became the fastest growing industry. To this day as I write there are websites that continue to track Iraq’s body count on a monthly basis. Apparently June/July 2013 showed the highest monthly count from suicide bombings and assassinations than the last two years combined. Since the Americans and British forces have left in 2003, Iraq has come to be ruled by militias, mullahs, and tribal leaders – presided over by a weak central government and prime minister. The existence of Iraq as a single state remains uncertain though we can be hopeful.
A curious activity, this travelling and tourism! More people especially Westerners in the guise of the army, private security personnel (hired guns!), NGO’s, and business people have visited Iraq since 2003 than ever before. The country is rich in archaeology, history, and religion and is the cradle of humankind’s birth, from nomadism to settlement. Still, in 2013, the security situation makes general travel challenging and in some places impossible. Iraq is making great efforts to become a normal country again after so many years of horror and dictatorship. This is a long process and I was often reminded the country has been at war until just a few years ago. Tourism has recently been encouraged via the international media by the Ministries of Tourism, The Interior, and Archaeology and Culture. Iraqi Airlines is looking to reintroduce direct flights to and from European capitals, and indeed commercial flights operating in and out of Baghdad connect to several major middle-Eastern cities. That said, the security measures in place at the Baghdad International Airport and one’s arrival/departure is still a long and complicated process involving mandatory vehicle transfers at multiple checkpoints, numerous physical luggage searches, and sniffer dogs – just on the road to and from the main terminal. There are dozens of checkpoints on the way into Baghdad and in the city itself.
There is a lot of building, reconstruction, and renovations of hotels, restaurants, and tourist centers going on in the major cities of Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul, Hatra, Samarra, Kerbala, Najaf, and Basra (all patrolled by both police and the national army, again with numerous checkpoints – one’s passport and visa are never far from reach). Famous archaeological sites of Babylon, Ur, Uruk, Nimrud, Ninevah, and Assur have also come under the care of the Protection Police who provide security. Security is ubiquitous, and one soon becomes used to the presence of AK-47’s, police and soldiers in full battle dress, and real Hummvees equipped with large calibre machine guns. On this trip our group was supplied with two armed special-forces guards (not in uniform) by the Ministry of Interior who stayed with us on board our vehicles and in our hotels at all times. It was impossible to leave our hotels and wander around without one of them coming with us. Most of the time we also had police escorts along the highways that helped us through traffic jams and the long line-ups at checkpoints (on all major roadways). Patience was the order of the day, and of course photography at checkpoints was forbidden. Rules about photography extended to certain buildings, shrines (e.g. in Kerbala and Najaf), sometimes mosques and their interiors, and always police, militia, army posts, military defenses, and so forth. Despite these and other challenges, Iraq was an amazing experience. The people were extremely friendly, and the food was fantastic and plentiful (heaps of rice, piles of flat breads, generous chunks of chicken and lamb tikka or kabobs, and all manner of vegetables). I hope our group made a good impression on those we met. We were there as ‘travel ambassadors’ sincerely interested in the country, its people and culture, and not as invaders. Iraq needs more of the former.
Afghanistan — Ramadan and Eid, July/August￼
In travelling throughout Iraq I felt as safe as anywhere, considering the circumstances. In today’s world the sad reality is that you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, no matter what country. So I wasn’t especially worried about signing up for a trip to Afghanistan. I couldn’t resist, my travel philosophy being that (a) my life is really not worth any more than that of the locals when it comes right down to it, and (b) it’s high time to help participate in ‘normalizing’ relations with local populations who have endured so much over time by contributing to local economies by using their facilities. With only one or two exceptions, people were welcoming and gracious hosts when they realized we were musaafir (travellers) and not something else. Without saying, it paid off to follow the customs of Islamic culture in interpersonal relations and courtesy.
Even today Afghanistan is still recovering from a series of wars and internal conflicts that have lasted for almost thirty years (if the truth be told, almost a thousand years!). Over the past decade the country has had a government supported by the United Nations and some Western powers. The armed forces of the United States are still hunting Al-Qaeda and Taliban supporters, especially in the southern part of the country. Canadian troops are still there, along with the British and others, conducting serious campaigns in Helmand Province against the Taliban, though the Canadians are due to pull out this year (2014). The majority of non-Afghans and Westerners are UN personnel, NGO’s, and various military. There are very few tourists or travellers to be seen; my companions and I were likely the only ones touring the country this summer (as Westerners) in Toyota micro buses with luggage piled high on top (great targets for an RPG!). Travel is done with care and with all the necessary security precautions. Some areas have not yet been de-mined, in driving through remote villages we tried to keep a low profile so as not to draw the attention of local militias (often Taliban sympathizers), and we were sensitive to recent suicide bombings in the major cities of Kabul and Herat. There were several Taliban attacks in Kabul over the summer, though mostly against military as opposed to civilian targets. Though the situation was more intimidating than Iraq, we did not have any security with us at all.
￼This trip was not steeped in the excavated ancient remains as the Iraq trip was, but was more scenic and people-focussed with a slight emphasis on religious and historical remains. The mountains (ghars) and deserts are magnificent, sprinkled with ancient Buddhist Stupa, Islamic historical remains, and burned-out Russian tanks (from another past war). Roads generally follow age-old caravan routes, and are dry, dusty, very rough, strewn with boulders and mostly passable only in summer. We drove in convoy from Kabul, our starting point, to Herat to the west close to the Iranian border, clear through the central portion of the country (known as the Hazarajat, high and isolated in the Koh-e Baba mountains). The condition of the road system, through a vast series of valleys and mountain passes some between 8,000 (2,400 m) and 12,000 feet (4,000 m) altitude, left an indelible impression on us. Once home I trashed my luggage and had my cameras professional cleaned. I swear I can still taste the dust in my throat and will for some time to come. Rural Afghanistan is ultra-conservative and almost medieval.
￼Accommodations consisted of very basic hotels (except in Kabul and Herat, where they were modest – one step up from basic) and the primitive communal sharing of Chai Khanas (tea houses, or truck stops, formerly caravanserai) where we slept fully clothed on carpets and did our biological duties outside, around the corner. Meals consisted of bread, mystery meats, rice and plenty of tea – but only once a day after sunset as this was Ramadan. Unless you tucked something away, you didn’t eat for another twenty-four hours. In the 40C+ heat (higher inside the vehicles), no one had much appetite anyway but we were always thirsty. Quite the contrast to Iraq, where I actually left food on my plate. It is noteworthy that this particular trip through central Afghanistan was awarded a place in the National Geographic’s list of 50 tours of a lifetime!
￼Highlights of the journey – too many to do justice in this short account – included, in Kabul, the Afghanistan National Museum, a visit to the Tomb of Babur, the Christian Cemetery in Kabul where many British and Coalition troops are buried, the Ghazi Football Stadium, site of many Taliban beheadings when they were in power in the 1990s, and the many amazing bazaars. Great shopping for antiques, lapis lazuli, and carpets! After Kabul, we struck out deep into the isolated and almost medieval regions of central Afghanistan via the Hindu Kush past Bagram Airbase. The journey not that long ago was only possible by horse or camel or on foot. Our destination was the Bamiyan Valley (mostly populated by the Hazara, sadly brutalized by the Taliban when they ruled the country) and its great Buddha statues, alas, no more (having been blown up by the Taliban much to the protests of the world community), but even the niches that are left are evocative. There is no doubt that this will become one of the world’s great tourist attractions at some point. There is continuing talk of restoring the Great Buddhas. In recent years French and Afghan archaeologists have been excavating the Stupa and temple complex at the foot of the cliffs and further work is being done in the valley.
￼We then travelled to the Bandi-i-Amir lakes, Afghanistan’s first National Park. The main lake, Bandi–i-Habat, seems to float within its own walls over which water – lapis blue – continually seeps. This lake may be a volcanic plug and is very deep and cold. Leaving, we entered regions populated by nomads characterised by their low-lying black tents and flocks of sheep and camels, and headed to Chaghcheran, a large provincial capital (with a mixed population of Hazaras, Pushtuns, and Aimaq) almost at the geographic centre of Afghanistan. It was once a great bazaar for meat, sheep, goats and camels but now it functions as a market for other produce (like, poppies for the heroin trade). Then on to see the Minaret of Jam at Firozkoh, a summer capital of the Ghorid Dynasty but destroyed by the Mongols in 1222. These last few years have seen an exploration of the Minaret and excavations of the city that is nestled very deep within mountain folds by an archaeological team from Cambridge University. Very difficult to access, Jam is now notorious for its bandits, thieves, and worse. Currently it is ruled by a local warlord and sensible caution was our rule.
￼￼Our final destination was Herat, achieved by several more days of travel on pseudo-roads, warlord country, and where the locals have no love for the Afghan government (by 1999 the Taliban controlled about ninety-percent of the country; by contrast, the Afghan government now controls less than thirty percent). Herat is arguably the best scenic and historical city in Afghanistan, very Islamic and now becoming rather Iranian. The Friday Mosque is wonderful, the Masalla complex rather stupendous, and there are many tombs, mosques, and places of interest. The Citadel is now open for visitors after seventy years of closure. The Aga Khan Foundation is restoring some of the ancient gates and city walls but the old buildings are being knocked down as Herat renovates. In no other city in Afghanistan can you see such a profusion of blue burkas and chadores, women dressed in hardly anything else. It was back to Kabul by Safi Airways (there are several airlines), Afghanistan’s official international airline that only in recent months includes Kandahar as a destination despite on-going military operations there.
My travel companions and I were completely in awe with both Iraq and Afghanistan. My dream of visiting all the ‘Silk Road’ countries is slowly being fulfilled. Who knows what the future holds for these two in particular. Iraq continues to descend into greater chaos, and once our troops and other military leave Afghanistan this year, what will prevent the Taliban from returning with a vengeance? I hope we were not the last Westerners to go there in peace. That we were able to go at all, in this summer of 2013, was largely due to the ultimate sacrifices paid by so many Canadian and coalition forces men and women over the past ten years. We as travellers, and indeed our country, owe them big-time.
Dr. René Gadacz teaches Sociology at Grande Prairie Regional College. He has travelled widely in the Middle East as well as in Asia, and lists Uzbekistan, Iran, Lebanon, Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, and North Korea (the DPRK) among his favourite holiday destinations.