Families find an oasis amid chaos of Iraq
Gali Ali Beg: Majestic waterfall an escape from horrors of jihadists
Tucked into a remote canyon a two- hour drive north of the Kurdish capital of Irbil, this small town is a beacon for Iraqis who pine for a quiet, safe life after decades of upheaval — including perhaps the most pitiless scourge yet — the black flags and the hooded men of the self- styled Islamic State.
The jihadists’ ghoulish beheadings, mass executions, mass kidnappings and mass rapes of young women, and the brutal heat of the desert appear to be forgotten for a moment here, as families of Arabs and Kurds frolic in the cool air of a craggy, narrow mountain valley, picnic beside a fast- flowing river or splash in the clear waters of Iraq’s only significant waterfall.
“This is the only place left for us to go in Iraq where we can be carefree and happy,” Yal Maz Hussein said after he and his nine- year- old son Mohammed took a turn in a rubber dinghy splashing and spinning around a deep pool of water. The cascade is well known to Iraqis because it graces the 5,000dinar note and is considered the most beautiful place in the country.
“There used to be things to see and to enjoy in Baghdad and Mosul, but Baghdad is almost entirely cut off in every direction and Mosul is controlled by Daesh, so it is impossible to go to either place anymore, ” the bookseller said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Four members of Hussein’s family had driven north from Kirkuk, where Kurdish peshmerga fighters repelled an Islamic State assault earlier this year. “The most important thing for us is that it is a change,” he said. “Kirkuk is very near the clashes, so I have my own worries. Staying here is the only plan we have right now.”
There is no way to get to or leave Gali Ali Beg except by the Hamilton Road. A stunning engineering marvel that climbs and descends five mountain ranges and twists its way through a series of gorges, it was named for Archibald Milne Hamilton after work parties, organized by the New Zealander, carved the passage out of stone nearly a century ago, when Mesopotamia’s British rulers wanted a shortcut from the Mediterranean Sea to the Iranian border, and eventually to Tehran and British India.
After the drab sand and rock that covers almost all of Iraq, Gali Ali Beg is a pleasant diversion. At about 30 metres high, it is no Niagara Falls. And the area around is a somewhat tacky mini- Disneyland. Still, for Iraqis the waterfall is an oasis that might as well be a million kilometres from the front lines. As well as dinghies for hire, there are several different lookouts from which to admire the torrent and a stream of chilling ankle- deep water that sluices across the path that everyone must take if they wish to get close to the falls.
“This is our place for now, so I am trying to get papers so that my family can live in this region,” said a real estate broker who had fled with 12 family members from Ramadi, in central Iraq, where U. S. marines once fought al- Qaida and where Islamic State extremists and Iraqi forces clash regularly these days.
Despite being surrounded by spectacular vistas on what was a dazzling autumn day, the savagery of the killing fields on the far side of the Kurdish mountains was a constant source of conversation among those internal exiles fortunate enough to find a haven in quasi- independent Kurdistan.
“It used to be good in Ramadi, but no more. It is so dangerous we couldn’t even go back there if we wanted to. There are bombs exploding all the time,” said the man, who was too afraid for his life to give his name or to allow his photograph to be taken. The aerial bombardment campaign now being carried out against Islamic State followers and their tanks and guns was a positive development, he said, “but airstrikes will never end this war. There have to be ground forces to cut their logistics. This is going to take a long time.”
Like everyone I have met during 10 days travelling thousands of kilometres in Kurdistan, Hussein welcomed bombing by a U. S.- led coalition of warplanes that will soon include six RCAF CF- 18 Hornets.
“The bombing helps, but 100 per cent I tell you, there has not been enough bombs because ( Islamic State) are not good people and they are still winning,” Hussein said. “Nobody knows what to expect next. It is a mystery to us.”