Sunday, October 21, 2007

Remembering My Journey to Kurdistan

"I was born in the shadow of the Kurdish flag in Mahabad and I am ready to serve and die for the same flag." Massoud Barzani, President of Kurdistan

As Turkish troops mass on the border of Kurdistan, it seems appropriate to remember my own journey to northern Iraq in July, 2004. My team, the C.O.B.R.A. Team, was the personal security detachment for then-Brigadier General Charles “Sandy” Davidson. We escorted the general during his visit to his civil affairs troops.

I wrote much of the following article as an op-ed piece that was published in the Orlando Sentinel that same month. It is included in a book I have written and hope to get published at some point.

Although I came to respect the Kurds and their unique culture, I still believe they should curtail the activities of the guerrillas who are conducting attacks into Turkey. The existing Kurdistan is a beautiful country with a great future. I would hate to see the peaceful nature of this wonderful land degenerate into war with Turkey.

The above photo shows me in a Kurdish village with members of the legendary Peshmerga, the militia that has protected the Kurds for over sixty years.

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July, 2004 - Kurdistan in northern Iraq:

The heat on the dusty hill overlooking the northern Iraqi border was unpleasant, but it was better than melting in Baghdad. Along with the general and the rest of the C.O.B.R.A. Team, I looked out on a river junction that twisted like some wild blue snake through the desert. I could glance north across one river and barely see a Turkish army guard tower in the distance. When I turned to face the other river, the barren desert hills of Syria rose before me.

The trip from Mosul in a Blackhawk helicopter took us over a giant blue lake, over dry open desert, and through remote hills and valleys. Finally, we reached an isolated border outpost, the northern-most Iraqi military position in what the people there knew as Kurdistan. Protecting us from that point on would be the Peshmerga (which means “those ready to die”), the Kurdish warriors who had protected their own people for almost sixty years.

General Davidson wanted to visit some of his soldiers, but he also wanted to meet some of the Kurdish people with whom those soldiers worked and view some of the civil affairs projects created by the members of his command. The soldiers on the small civil affairs teams were making friends and making a difference as they tried to improve the quality of life for a courageous and unique group of Iraq’s citizens.

Our tour of the outpost ended with a convoy of NTVs headed east because this part of our journey was overland. Though we were still guarding the general, the Peshmerga were guarding all of us.

Driving over paved roads and mountain trails, we stopped briefly at a Kurdish village where General Davidson and his officers shared refreshments with the leaders of the small community. We continued on to Dohuk where we spent the night in a “safe house” protected all the while by the Peshmerga.

I found great comfort in standing on the roof of this house and surveying the beauty of the mountains that surrounded us. In such a peaceful place, filled with an overwhelming sense of tranquility, it was hard to believe there was a war going on. Some of the Peshmerga soldiers said the Arab insurgents had a difficult time making inroads in Kurdistan because they were easily recognized by the Kurds.

Traveling with the soldiers of the Peshmerga was a young man whose name still can’t be revealed without putting his life in danger. At the age of only 19, he had already spent over a year working as an interpreter for the Americans. Born in Kurdistan, but raised in California, he was proud to be both an American and a Kurd. When the United States invaded Iraq, destiny called and he returned to his first home to help defeat the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The young man liked to repeat a saying we heard frequently in Kurdistan: “Ten Kurds will die before one American dies”. The Kurdish people loved Americans and they were happy to treat soldiers, as the interpreter said, like “rock stars”. They would die for their American friends and they did everything they could to keep our soldiers out of harm’s way. There was still resentment reserved for Britain, however, for failing to give the Kurds their own nation when the British Empire carved up the Arab lands early in the twentieth century.

With the help of the young interpreter, the C.O.B.R.A. Team shared conversation and food with the men of the Peshmerga. We came to know and respect them as fellow soldiers and as just plain regular guys. We all spoke of our families, our homes and our children. Just as I discovered with the Shiite and Sunni Arabs I came to know, the Kurdish people also wanted peace, a safe place to raise their families, a decent way to make a living and a good future for their children.

The Kurds endured a life of prejudice, discrimination and violence under the regime of Saddam Hussein. March 16, 1988, is referred to as “Bloody Friday” because this was the day that Hussein’s forces dropped poisonous gas on the Kurdish city of Halabja. According to our Kurdish friends, some five thousand citizens, mostly women and children, were killed in mere minutes and thousands more perished after days of attacks.

The American policy was that separate “militias”, such as the Peshmerga and al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, must be disbanded. Although the Kurdish leadership supposedly agreed in principal, the Peshmerga soldiers laughed. There was certainly no indication that the Mahdi Army or the other militias in the southern part of the country would disappear any time soon. The Peshmerga warriors also didn’t believe their own fabled army would cease to exist either.

Many of them had been in the Kurdish army since they were twelve years old, it was the only life they knew and the Peshmerga diligently served as the protection for their fellow citizens. The Kurds were a friendly, gentle people, but upon entering the towns and villages of northern Iraq, one thing was plainly missing.

The Iraqi flag wasn’t flown anywhere. The Kurds proudly displayed their own banner, the Kurdistan tri-color of red, white and green with a bright sun glowing in the center. In the new Iraq, the Kurdish people lived with a wait and see attitude for the time being.

As we traveled across the top of Iraq through the towns, villages and cities of Kurdistan, I was amazed by the extraordinary beauty of it all. We saw picturesque mountains and valleys, gently flowing rivers and a waterfall recreation area that seemed out of place in a country at war.

Both adults and children waved and smiled at us and we were greeted everywhere like long-lost relatives. I was never treated this way by the citizens of any foreign country and it helped me to imagine how American soldiers in World War II felt when they were welcomed into liberated European countries.

On our second night, we stayed at the guest house of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). His late father, Mustafa Barzani, was the most prominent Kurdish national leader in their recent history and, according to the Peshmerga, he was considered the father of modern Kurdistan and an inspiration to all the Kurdish people. As we traveled throughout northern Iraq, Mustafa Barzani’s picture was hanging everywhere.

The next day we escorted the general to what the Americans considered the Peshmerga “Pentagon” or the headquarters of their military forces. General Davidson met with one of their generals, we were all served refreshments and the two generals exchanged gifts. Davidson gave his counterpart one of his commanding general’s coins; the Peshmerga general gave Davidson a Kurdistan flag.

As we reached the final city of our visit, Erbil, we drove through the six thousand year old massive stone citadel that overlooks the city from a giant hill. The Peshmerga took care of us right up to the time we boarded our Blackhawk helicopters for the long and arduous flight back to the Green Zone. I was sad to be leaving such a peaceful and beautiful place.

Before we climbed onto the helicopters, the young interpreter reached up to his shoulder and pulled off his Kurdistan flag patch and gave it to me. I was grateful to receive such a special gift from one of America’s and Kurdistan’s bravest citizens.

When we returned from our trip to northern Iraq, I brought back a small piece of paper I found on a table in the waiting area of Mosul’s Civil Military Operations Center. That building was filled with Iraqi civilians who were working with the Americans. The spelling and grammar are the way it was written, apparently from the heart:

“To day the CPA has handover the sovereignty to the Iraqis. As an Iraqi I feel so happy, but I have to say that all Iraqis owe much for the brave, the Americans, who have shed bloods for free, peaceful and democratic Iraq. Salute for all the brave Americans and all that cooperate with them to achieve this Noble goal,
Long live freedom, Long live freedom fighters,
Long live the USA The leader of liberty in the world.”

It was signed simply: “Iraqi”

At least one Iraqi thought enough of America’s sacrifices to write it down. If there was one Iraqi that felt this way, then there were ten; if there were ten, then there were a hundreds and surely thousands.

We were indeed appreciated by some of the citizens of Iraq and it made me feel damn good.

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SFC Chuck Grist

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