Hitchhiking in times of Daesh
by Nina Nooit
"My family and I, we are from Mosul. We had to flee years ago, because my father, a truck driver, was threatened by Jihadists for working with Shia and Kurds." - "My mother is a journalist. With the IS having taken our town my mother's life was endangered. We now live in Arbil but it is difficult to find a place to stay, we have to move every two months." - "We are refugees from Shengal, we fled from the Islamic State and we lost everything, we are glad to be alive. We came away with barely the clothes on our bodies, and we now live in tents." - "I used to work for the Americans as a translator. One time we were attacked. I was shot three times."
What a country to hitchhike in. Every Iraqi has a story to tell.
In my short, week-long stint in Iraqi Kurdistan I hitched up and down from one city to the next, mostly in the Bahdinan region. Distances there are not far.
It must be said that Iraqi Kurdistan, unaffected by the war of the past 11 years, is practically another country than the rest of Iraq. Yet there are many people from the south in exile here.
When writing about hitching around Iraqi Kurdistan at this moment in time, in January 2015, I have to mention the tent camps housing IDPs from Shengal, the amount of which was overwhelming. In the previous summer the Islamic State came over the Syrian border into Nineveh province around the city Mosul and into the Kurdish region Shengal (in Arabic it's called Sinjar) attacking cities and villages, pillaging the houses abandonned by the masses of the population that fled, putting guns to the heads of Christians and extorting their money, wilfully executing those who refused - or even those who gave - beating and raping whoever crossed their way, and killing individuals in the most ruthless way, hacking arms off, cutting heads off, throwing people into ovens, rounding up 100s of Ezidis and shooting them in mediatized mass executions.
Many of those who could flee before IS arrived, or escape after they did, are now on the territory governed by the Kurdish Regional Government.
Already before this most recent crisis happened Iraqi Kurdistan gave shelter to inordinate numbers of Syrians fleeing the war over the past few years. At Dameez, south of Dohuk, there was a camp that housed 50,000 Syrian refugees, many of them Kurds themselves. By now, the boundaries between the small town Dameez and the refugee camp have become blurred, one blended into the other, is almost indistinguishable from the other. And in 2014 a new camp for IDPs from Shengal had to be added there.
I spent one day with the people at one camp accomodating 14,000 refugees, which I found immense. It was crushing to see the expanse of the many separate camps aligned next to each other stretching out over the hills. It may not even have been the biggest accumulation of tents in one consecutive space, even though it was the biggest I saw - and I saw a lot of camps in passing, from the road; although, admittedly, I may not have been aware of their full dimensions every time.
After having spent two and a half days in Iraqi Kurdistan's capital city Arbil I undertook to hitch back up to the Turkish border.
Even though the new road connecting Arbil with Duhok exists already six or seven years, it was still not fully indicated on road signs. Asking my way around as much as I could I was absolutely sure I was going the right way - but I actually had to follow signs reading "Mosul". If driving directly it takes only something like one 1 hour 15 minutes to get from Arbil to Mosul.
My usual technique is trying to stop a car with women in it, so sometimes I need some patience (if I just put my thumb out randomly, I would be gone in a whiff). While waiting at that particular spot of road, with the sign saying Mosul still in sight, my imagination ran a bit wild. I imagined a car of pro-ISIS brutes stopping and pointing guns at me. Apparently ISIS put a six or seven figure dollar sum out on the heads of Americans - and not only since they've pillaged the Iraqi National Bank they can certainly afford it. Not that I'm American, but it wouldn't be the craziest thing to confuse me. If such a situation should arise, I took the firm resolution I would "die in the first place". Whatever comes after being abducted by ISIS would certainly be worse. Before killing anyone, they water-board and torture prisoners in all sorts of ways, and they rape probably not only the female ones.
As I said, maybe that fear could be attributed mostly to my imagination taking off with me. Being abducted while standing next to the road was probably somewhere in the realm of the possible, although it would have to be located in a very remote corner of the realm of the possible. If the risks had been anything thing else than of that proportion, I would not have been doing what I was doing.
I finally got a lift with a family from a village. They spoke Sorani and we could communicate only about absolute necessities. I understood the married couple had come to the regional capital to pick up grandma's pension. The old lady herself, an adorable, corpulent, headscarf-wrapped, teethless woman, was sitting next to me on the backseat. She was eating crisps and as she offered some to me, she burped unabashedly, which kind of clashed with her appearance, as you can imagine. I had noticed earlier that the older generation here must have been brought up not to think of burping as something to be ashamed off. The family took me all the way to a town called Kalak, from where they took a small road inland.
While on my first visit to Iraqi Kurdistan eight years ago the old mountain road was still the only way between Duhok and Arbil, the new road was lain through the plains, skirting the mountains, and connecting Duhok with the pre-existing Arbil-Mosul highway at that very same town, Kalak. Kalak lies on the Great Zab river, and vendors on both sides of the water sell huge, ruddily glistening fish caught in it. At Kalak Mosul is only 40 km away. But the frontline lies closer, already fifteen km further along this road. I walked up to the edge of the town, and reached the last houses. A man was working in an excavator in front of what seemed to be his own home. When she saw me, his wife came out, and I talked to both of them for a while. They said they were not afraid, but that they could hear the war day and night, the sound of bombs. I blinked into the direction of Mosul.What did I expect to see? Black flags waving in the wind? Jihadists close enough to see their faces, ugly as hell? No, I was greeted only by the luminous green of the plains, serene and inviting.
It was almost inconceivable to imagine that only a few kilometers down that road stretching out so innocently under the January sun nothing but the worst tortures and certain death awaited any Westerner like me. Trucks were actually going down that road. It was perfectly possible to catch a ride into perdition.
Before arriving in Mosul, the first proper town along this road was Bartolla, where the Christians whom I met only a day before in the refugee camp in Arbil were from.
They had told me how they had fled ISIS, "people were packing their bags and leaving little by little already for weeks, ever since ISIS had taken Mosul. But my mother did not want to leave. She is in a wheelchair you see, and she is old and stubborn. So we stayed until the last day. We actually had to force her to leave. My son learnt to drive only a month earlier, and he drove our car with my elderly, ailing mother and a whole bunch of other women and children and their baggage.
The next day, ISIS arrived in our village. Some people left only a week, or ten days later. They saw how ISIS came and looted our houses, taking absolutely everything, TVs, computers, jewellery, carpets, everything. They went around beating people badly, although I did not hear any stories of killings." It's not like it wasn't proven that IS have murdered enough people, I was glad I did not have to hear more stories of death.
After Kalak there is a long stretch of road where the front line is only five kilometers away. It's eery to know that the Peshmerga are just behind those hills. Again, they seemed perfectly peaceable and appealing.
I had a great rest of the trip all the way to Zakho with a final ride with a very polite truck driver from Turkey. Before that I was lucky enough to meet another lovely grandmother, a frail, beautiful creature without teeth but a golden nose ring. Like grandmothers do so often here in Iraq, she burped a few times, and she smiled a lot at me.
Nina Nooit has travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan four times since 2007. You can read more by Nina here: http://youarealltourists.blogspot.de/.
More by Nina NooitThe Kindness of Iraqi Christians
Back to list of experiences