Dan­ger zone

An epic ad­ven­ture in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents - Words and Pho­tos Mar­cus Koehne

IRAQI KUR­DIS­TAN bor­ders what is surely the most sig­nif­i­cant and tragic con­flict zone of the 21st cen­tury. It is not your usual moun­tain trekking lo­ca­tion and cer­tainly not your typ­i­cal tourist des­ti­na­tion. Sit­u­ated in north­ern Iraq, it is the coun­try’s sole au­tonomous re­gion. Kur­dish Pesh­merga and Iraqi forces, in con­junc­tion with Coali­tion airstrikes, have re­claimed ter­ri­tory from Is­lamic State (IS) in re­cent months. Yet the ex­trem­ists are still in con­trol of large ex­panses of Iraq, and there is con­sid­er­able ten­sion be­tween the Kur­dish lo­cal gov­ern­ment and the cen­tral Iraqi bu­reau­cracy. Nev­er­the­less, Iraqi Kur­dis­tan con­tains some of the Mid­dle East’s most ap­peal­ing land­scapes, and Kur­dish hospitality is truly sin­cere.

Our ob­jec­tive was the 3607m Mount Hal­gurd, the high­est moun­tain wholly in Iraq. Sit­u­ated in the rugged Za­gros Moun­tains, it lies only 2km from the Ira­nian border. A trip like this is typ­i­cally planned many months ahead of time; its multi-faceted com­plex­i­ties far from our com­fort zones of ‘West­ern Civil­i­sa­tion’ and ‘Great Walk’ hik­ing. This isn’t the Route­burn or Over­land Track. With all this in mind, a group of strangers with a keen sense of ad­ven­ture en­listed the sup­port of a com­mer­cial ex­pe­di­tion com­pany.

How­ever, as the com­mence­ment date ap­proached, con­cerns were raised over Turk­ish airstrikes be­ing di­rected against the Kur­dis­tan Peo­ple’s Party, or PKK, which is wag­ing an armed strug­gle against the Turk­ish state for the self-de­ter­mi­na­tion of the Kurds. These strikes were re­ported to have re­cently en­croached to within just 15km of Mount Hal­gurd. Fur­ther, new in­for­ma­tion on the tar­get­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the Turks had been pro­vided. They seemed to be less ca­pa­ble than pre­vi­ously thought, with few PKK mem­bers ac­tu­ally be­ing hit. As a re­sult, the pos­si­ble risks of ‘col­lat­eral dam­age’ had greatly in­creased. There was height­ened con­cern about the po­ten­tial for Turk­ish jets to ei­ther mis­take the party on the moun­tain for a mil­i­tary tar­get, or for an ac­ci­den­tal strike in the prox­im­ity of the team. These new fears led the com­mer­cial ex­pe­di­tion to be can­celled abruptly – only days be­fore our de­par­ture.


In­de­pen­dently, we made in­quiries and we de­ter­mined that, as a non-com­mer­cial en­tity, the risk was ac­cept­able. An un­daunted five mem­bers of the orig­i­nal team of 12 con­tin­ued to­wards the loom­ing goal of Hal­gurd. Hur­riedly, we es­tab­lished con­tacts with lo­cal driv­ers and lo­cated a moun­tain guide. We were greatly fa­cil­i­tated by the help­ful mem­bers of the Kur­dis­tan Moun­taineer­ing Fed­er­a­tion. Ev­ery­one as­sured us that we would be safe from airstrikes and ex­trem­ist in­fil­tra­tors. We weren’t fully con­vinced, but we put these fears to the back of our minds. We ob­tained topo­graph­i­cal maps from in­ter­na­tional moun­taineer­ing sources. These con­tained cru­cial data, in­di­cat­ing the lo­ca­tion of mine­fields in the Iran-Iraq border re­gion; a long­stand­ing con­se­quence of the armed con­flict be­tween Iran and Ba’athist Iraq from 1980-88.

Our abridged team re-en­er­gised over fran­tic emails; two Aussies, two Amer­i­cans and a Brit, with a di­verse mix of travel and out­door back­grounds. My­self in the pre­vi­ous months had trekked in North­ern Afghanistan, Far East Rus­sia and Ethiopia; and had toured Mo­gadishu, So­ma­lia. So this was a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of my ex­plo­rations and ex­pe­di­tions, in­ter­twined with com­pli­cated cultural, po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ments. Yet I was not com­pla­cent, as by the na­ture of the lo­ca­tion and the sur­round­ing po­lit­i­cal tur­moil, this was no doubt go­ing to be a prob­lem­atic un­der­tak­ing.

Our ar­rival at the air­port in Er­bil was daunt­ing. At the time the front line against IS had been pushed back but still was only 50km away. Er­bil, the cap­i­tal of Kur­dis­tan, seemed peace­ful, wel­com­ing and was his­tor­i­cally fas­ci­nat­ing. There was no in­di­ca­tion of the bru­tal war oc­cur­ring over the hori­zon, ex­cept for the oc­ca­sional thun­der­clap of ex­plo­sions and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing mush­room clouds. With our team hastily meet­ing, we greeted our driv­ers, who were to be­come cru­cial to our suc­cess. Haval was a friendly and re­source­ful (un­paid) gov­ern­ment agri­cul­tural ad­min­is­tra­tor. Wa­hed was a re­spected el­der, con­ser­va­tive in his re­li­gion and man­ners. He had never col­lab­o­rated with Western­ers, and ap­peared to be dis­tant and some­what un­easy, es­pe­cially when ac­com­pa­ny­ing the women in our group.

Hav­ing made our rushed ar­range­ments for climb­ing Hal­gurd, we headed off on a hec­tic but cap­ti­vat­ing two-day tour, which took us even closer to the front­line. Be­gin­ning in Lal­ish we met the Yazidi; eth­ni­cally Kur­dish, yet be­long­ing to an in­de­pen­dent re­li­gious com­mu­nity with their

We headed off on a cap­ti­vat­ing two-day tour, which took us even closer to the front­line.

own unique cul­ture. Since Au­gust 2014 they have suf­fered from geno­cide in­flicted by IS. Yet dur­ing our April 2016 visit they were wel­com­ing and gen­er­ous as we par­tic­i­pated in their New Year Feast. From here we vis­ited the Saint Hormizd Monastery, carved into the moun­tain­side in 640 AD. Here the peace­ful at­mos­phere was shat­tered by the sound of a jet and the det­o­na­tion of twin 2000-pound bombs, as we ob­served a Coali­tion airstrike against Is­lamic State po­si­tions in the di­rec­tion of Mo­sul. In con­trast to the in­cred­i­ble hospitality we had re­ceived, this was a stark re­minder of the geopo­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties of our moun­tain ob­jec­tive.

Pass­ing one of Sad­dam Hus­sein’s vast, crum­bling palace com­plexes we con­tin­ued to­wards the Za­gros Moun­tains. En route we made a side trip to Amedi, a beau­ti­ful citadel built on a moun­tain plateau over a mil­len­nium ago. Here we en­coun­tered Syr­ian refugees, who had fled the hor­rors of IS, and were now oc­cu­py­ing a once lav­ish guest­house of Sad­dam’s. By the evening we were near­ing Choman, the clos­est town to Mount Hal­gurd. Here we en­coun­tered a fi­nal hur­dle as the check­point guards ques­tioned our in­ten­tions. With a re­cent visa stamp from Afghanistan in my pass­port there seemed to be some con­ster­na­tion. How­ever, our de­pend­able driv­ers, Haval and Wa­hed, en­sured we passed scru­tiny. Af­ter shar­ing some sweets with the sol­diers and con­firm­ing there was no Afghan con­tra­band con­cealed in my lug­gage we reached our stag­ing base for climb­ing Hal­gurd, an aban­doned house on the banks of the Choman River. That night we com­mis­sioned a lo­cal guide. His moun­taineer­ing com­pe­tence was min­i­mal, as was his English, but we had to over­look this as we needed a lo­cal guide through the mine­fields. We planned our moun­tain as­cent to last two days – one night at high camp, an early sum­mit over frozen snow, and then the long de­scent back to the road head.


On the morn­ing of our sum­mit trek we were met by a driver and his Toy­ota 4WD. We read­ied our moun­tain gear, but were de­layed when we re­alised the bald tyres of this par­tic­u­lar ve­hi­cle would not be suf­fi­cient to as­cend the wind­ing ap­proach road. While another ve­hi­cle was ar­ranged we fi­nalised the for­mal­i­ties of seek­ing per­mis­sion for our jour­ney so close to the Ira­nian border. We met with the lo­cal se­cu­rity com­man­der, and while tense at first, our meet­ing set­tled into co­pi­ous tea drink­ing and photo tak­ing. He of­fered us a mil­i­tary es­cort, which we de­clined, and pro­vided his per­sonal mo­bile num­ber, in the event of an in­ci­dent. Af­ter the pleas­antries, and some gun-tot­ing pho­tos, we piled into the slightly bet­ter treaded re­place­ment ve­hi­cle, and began the fi­nal road push. There was the driver, the guide, the five team mem­bers, and Haval and Wa­hed. They had in­sisted on com­ing along to make sure we got the full value out of our lo­cal sup­port. Of course it was noth­ing to do with that – they had never stood on the slopes of such a prom­i­nent, snowy peak. So with the nine of us in our five-seat ve­hi­cle we at last began to close in on our goal. Pass­ing sev­eral mine­field warn­ing signs in­creased our trep­i­da­tion but our team was ex­cited that de­spite the can­cel­la­tion of the first ex­pe­di­tion we might be sum­mit­ing our ob­jec­tive af­ter all – a feat rarely achieved by for­eign­ers.

Af­ter a 40-minute drive we hit the snow­line, said farewell for now to Haval and Wa­hed, shoul­dered our packs and com­menced our as­cent. The route was scat­tered with spent am­mu­ni­tion car­tridges, ra­tion tins, the odd army boot, and re­mains of ex­ploded ord­nance. Mine­field mark­ers be­came a con­stant ac­com­pa­ni­ment. The ap­proach to our high camp was chal­leng­ing due to the un­sea­son­ably deep snow. Then on reach­ing the in­tended vicin­ity of our camp we were bat­tered by in­tense winds. With dif­fi­culty and an ir­ra­tional fear of hit­ting land­mines we cut our tent plat­forms into the frozen snow and erected flimsy tents. These were pro­vided by our lo­cal guide and were the equiv­a­lent of de­part­ment store beach tents that of­fered neg­li­gi­ble pro­tec­tion against the el­e­ments. Our ex­pen­sive moun­taineer­ing tents re­mained

be­hind as we had been as­sured we did not need them. Any­way, by then our group was fa­mil­iar and we adopted cosy sleep­ing po­si­tions. For­tu­nately the wind eased overnight and we slept well in our dis­torted tents.

The next day we awoke at sun­rise and as­sessed the moun­tain con­di­tions, geared up and began the fi­nal as­cent. While pre­dom­i­nantly firm snow, there were some tricker rock sec­tions to over­come. Two hours of mod­er­ate yet scenic climb­ing saw us reach the lower sum­mit. Here the winds were pow­er­ful yet the view was over­whelm­ing. We could ob­serve rugged peaks in all di­rec­tions and sighted the moun­tain range that con­tin­ued deep into Ira­nian ter­ri­tory. We pushed on, gain­ing the fi­nal heights to stand on the true sum­mit. It was in­deed a lofty peak and ful­fil­ment showed on our faces. Af­ter cel­e­bra­tory hand­shakes and the oblig­a­tory pho­tos we were ready to de­scend. Fac­ing down the long slope this was no­tice­ably trick­ier than com­ing up. With a few stum­bles, and ap­pli­ca­tion of our self-ar­rest skills, we man­aged to reach eas­ier ground and ar­rived back at camp for a short but sat­is­fy­ing rest. Break­ing camp we made a long push to ren­dezvous with our trans­port. Our suc­cess de­spite all of the many hur­dles made the trudge through the deep, soft snow en­tirely bear­able.


Hav­ing sum­mited Hal­gurd over two days, we spent the rest of the trip tour­ing and im­mers­ing our­selves in Kur­dish cul­ture and his­tory. We headed east and ar­rived in As Su­lay­maniyah, the most lib­eral and West­ern-styled city of Kur­dis­tan. While ap­pre­ci­at­ing the ex­trav­a­gance of a de­vel­oped city it was here that we were con­fronted with the hor­rific modern his­tory of Iraq. We vis­ited Amna Su­raka, or the Red Prison, which had func­tioned as the head­quar­ters of the north­ern di­vi­sion of the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s for­mer se­cret in­tel­li­gence agency. It was now one of the world’s most dis­turb­ing mu­se­ums memo­ri­al­is­ing the hor­rors in­flicted un­der the Ba’athist regime. Be­tween 1986 and 1989, the Iraqi state con­ducted the geno­ci­dal al-An­fal Cam­paign against the Iraqi Kurds. Led by Ali Has­san al-Ma­jid un­der the di­rec­tion of Sad­dam Hus­sein, al-An­fal utilised bomb­ing, death squads, forced re­lo­ca­tion, scorched earth tac­tics, tor­ture and im­pris­on­ment, and chem­i­cal war­fare in an at­tempt to de­stroy the Kur­dish pop­u­la­tion.

The chem­i­cal gas at­tacks, part of al-An­fal, earned alMa­jid the nick­name of ‘Chem­i­cal Ali’. A Hu­man Rights Watch re­port doc­u­mented the “sys­tem­atic and de­lib­er­ate mur­der of at least 50,000 and pos­si­bly as many as 100,000 Kurds” as a re­sult of al-An­fal. Dur­ing the first Gulf War of 1991, the Kur­dish Pesh­merga con­ducted an up­ris­ing in north­ern Iraq with the re­solve of lib­er­at­ing the coun­try from Hus­sein’s con­trol. Though ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful, the re­bel­lion saw the takeover of Amna Su­raka by the Kurds.

De­part­ing As Su­lay­maniyah, we hastily drove through Kirkuk, only re­cently on the front­line, and an on­go­ing loca- tion of sui­cide bomb­ings, ar­riv­ing back at Er­bil where we had be­gun sev­eral ad­ven­tur­ous days ago. We were most grate­ful for the calm and re­as­sur­ing na­ture of our new­found friends Haval and Wa­hed. We cel­e­brated in their homes with amaz­ing Kur­dish hospitality in a binge of eat­ing that con­tin­ued for most of the day. Though be­ing a for­mer sol­dier of Sad­dam Hus­sein’s army, Wa­hed had be­come our best ally through mil­i­tary check­points and car break­downs. He had for­gone the stereo­types of Western­ers and their ex­cesses, with a re­laxed, joy­ful na­ture re­plac­ing his ini­tial ap­pre­hen­sion. By shar­ing his and his fam­ily’s sto­ries he had shown a hu­man side to a war-hard­ened gen­er­a­tion of Kurds.

We fin­ished with some Ger­man beer be­hind the stal­wart walls of the well-con­cealed Deutscher Hof Er­bil, a pop­u­lar drink­ing hole for ex­pats, the lo­ca­tion of which now seems some­what hazy. The fol­low­ing day we con­cluded our Kur­dish jour­ney ex­plor­ing Er­bil. The Citadel is said to be the old­est con­tin­u­ally in­hab­ited place in the world. The nearby Grand Bazaar was colour­ful and fas­ci­nat­ing, wel­com­ing and cheer­ful. I sensed the peo­ple here were not in de­nial of the hor­rors in­flicted by past and present, but their hu­man spirit su­per­seded the ex­trem­ism of re­li­gions and regimes.

On my flight to Jor­dan, I re­flected on an in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence. I was in awe of the friendly Kurds who wel­comed, fed and guided us. With­out them and the de­ter­mi­na­tion of our team we could not have achieved a goal from the up­per ech­e­lons of global ad­ven­ture. For many ad­ven­tur­ers we go to the moun­tains to es­cape the modern world. Yet on this trip, nat­u­ral ex­plo­ration and world pol­i­tics were in­ter­twined. This is the re­al­ity of to­day’s ex­plorer.

The route was scat­tered with spent car­tridges, ra­tion tins, the odd army boot, and re­mains of ex­ploded ord­nance.

Ap­proach­ing the sum­mit of Mount Hal­gurd, at 3607m, the high­est peak wholly in Iraq. Just beyond is the Ira­nian border.

Kur­dish Pesh­merga art­work on the wall of one of Sad­dam Hus­sein's for­mer ex­trav­a­gant palaces.

Cau­tion is re­quired; mines and un­ex­ploded ord­nance are scat­tered through­out Kur­dis­tan.

Cel­e­brat­ing the Yazidi New Year in Lal­ish.

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