Except for the concussive sounds of 500-pound bombs being dropped on Mosul, there were few signs of war by the time we reached the most southwestern part of our journey through Iraqi Kurdistan. This was May 2017 and I was traveling with Harry Schute, a retired Army colonel turned part time tour operator, Balin Zrar our local guide, and a small band of wanderlusting friends to explore an area that only a few years earlier had barely fended off an ISIS onslaught. Coalition airstrikes, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Iraqi Army forces reversed the sea of black flags that had gotten to within three miles of where I now stood. We also had three heavily armed gentlemen along for the ride for this leg of the trip.
Schute explained how he had teamed with Douglas Layton, a former U.S. State Department contractor and historian to form Kurdistan Iraq Tours, the only in-bound tour operator to have survived the ISIS onslaught. Though business had been non-existent for long periods, they refused to shutter it, believing in their product and the Kurdish people themselves.
A week spent exploring the bustling bazaars of Dohuk, Sulaymaniyah, and Erbil, hiking in the Zagros Mountains, kayaking on Dukan Lake, having insightful conversations over tea at every turn with the locals, bore out Schute’s and Layton’s belief in Iraqi Kurdistan.
My camera has always been more interested in documenting daily life rather than the carnage of war. The human struggle for normality even in the face of extreme difficulties has never ceased to amaze me. This was never more evident than on the face and in the words of Yousif Ibrahim, bishop of the 8th century Mar Mattai Monastery who had lost his brother to the Islamic State of Iraq. While blood was still being shed in the name of religion less than 20 miles away, he explained how the people of Iraqi Kurdistan had come together to save the monastery and the region as a whole. Variations of the same theme were expressed throughout our journey.
Unlike much of Iraq, Kurdistan is a mountainous region. Crowning one peak named Gara, is the bombed out remains of one of Saddam’s palaces, a scar on an otherwise beautiful mountain. Rusted landmine signs still surround the former palace/fortress, silent aides-mémoires of a very turbulent recent past. Other stark reminders include the Red House in Sulaymaniyah where Saddam’s enemy’s were tortured, the Halabja Museum in the town of the same name where the Iraqi dictator killed thousands of Kurdish civilians in a chemical gas attack on March 16, 1988 during the last days of the Iran-Iraq War.
But not all history is in the past. A clear reminder that huge hurdles remain to be cleared was the city-sized refugee camp in Duhok housing mostly displaced Yazidi, one of Iraq’s most mysterious religious minorities whom ISIS had massacred by the thousands. To learn more about the Yazidi’s we drove to Lalish, a mountain village 30 miles southeast of Duhok. We were greeted by endless smiles, a sign requesting that we remove our shoes, and a huge mural depicting how Noah’s Ark came to rest here after a snake used its body to plug a hole in the boat. This selfless act saved all of creation.
Though the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have suffered as Shakespeare penned “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” once again I had witnessed how humanity found a way to persevere, and in the case of Iraq’s northern autonomous region, prosper.