- 01/01/2003 - 02/01/2003
- 02/01/2003 - 03/01/2003
- 01/01/2004 - 02/01/2004
- 02/01/2004 - 03/01/2004
- 03/01/2004 - 04/01/2004
- 04/01/2004 - 05/01/2004
- 05/01/2004 - 06/01/2004
- 06/01/2004 - 07/01/2004
- 07/01/2004 - 08/01/2004
- 08/01/2004 - 09/01/2004
- 09/01/2004 - 10/01/2004
- 10/01/2004 - 11/01/2004
- 11/01/2004 - 12/01/2004
- 01/01/2005 - 02/01/2005
- 08/01/2007 - 09/01/2007
Time to once again open my life up a little in order to share the plethora of wealth I'm about to absorb. I'm going to be back in Iraq through September, so hop on board and check back every couple of days, I'll do my best to update as much as possible. Questions? firstname.lastname@example.org And check out the site I'm working with: http://www.billroggio.com Support independent journalism!
Monday, February 17, 2003
-France shut out of alliance decision
Pertinent shortwave frequencies:
BBC - 15.565k VOA - 15.205
So, anticipating a long wait before something would happen here, I decide, I gotta take this job... just three days and they said they would pay me immediately. They better... if not, my cash flow will be screwed. Another gamble. I didn't sleep well and had to ge up early knowing the trip to Gaziantep would be tough. Two legs in fact. More than 700km in SE Turkey in some very crappy weather.
The best part about Turkey is that it's cheap to get service here. Definately an eco-style travel destination for the fiscal conservative. Money is rather scarce here, and if you have some, you can get pretty much what you need. This goes into example when I needed to get to Diyabakir. First try, fair price. Let's go. Three hours through the country. Destination: Hotel Class. A "five" star in Diyabakir. Like a wedding gown at a rodeo. I need to find Elif , who is working on some credentials for me (with the rest of the ABC crew). I also want to hook up with Izzet. A very nice (seemingly) Kurd that I got to know the week before. He says his brother is a driver. That and Izzet's English... no problem to cover a Turkish trial.
Nazir is my driver. Good guy. Smoothe manners and seems like an American that can't speak English. This is part of the fun. You tend to learn more subtle things, but learn none the less. Turns out we piece some conversatin together, but not much. We do agree that if I come back to Silopi, he's my driver.
Sunday, February 16, 2003
I was finally able to get a good sleep. Had to take sleeping pills, but it got it done (with a little help from beer). Of course that left me with quite the hangover and in a daze. Won't do that again.
Soley, who speaks very good English, shows up at the hotel and whisks me off. I'm supposed to be tracking down some info for ABC. I need to verify the rumor of a top level meeting between the Kurds, Turks, and Americans, but Soley is leaving to for the Army Monday and wants me to come with him.
After piling into a pickup truck with three of his friends, we take to the backstreets of Silopi. It's like going back in time a hundred years: Push carts, cobblestone streets, vendors. Has a late-1800's feel to it (at least what I think it would be like).
After a few minutes, we end up at one of his friends' house. Like everywhere, you go through a gate and there's the small stucco-like square house. From the outside it looks like a shack. On the inside it is very well kept with Turkish/Kurdish rugs crossing the floor. As per custom, you have to take off your shoes before entering, which we all do. Like everywhere else here, the tea and sweets are soon brought out and we're enjoying a DVD ripoff of Blade II. The quality is horrible and it has Turkish subtitles, but enjoyed it none the less. Another small thing that makes you appreciate home.
I'm probably the first American to step foot in this house and the little girl that lives here is very giddy when she sees me, as was the mother when I first met her. We don't stay too long, maybe an hour, but that's fine with me. I need to get some work done, so I ask them to take me to the border.
There we all get a fun picture with Flat Stanley and Soley and part ways for the final time. Of course, everyone is nervous when the camera comes out, but for Flat Stanley, I'd do anything! It doesn't take long for the border guards to chase me away, pushing me back a mile or so. Can't take pictures from here, so once again I shoot some and walk, shoot some and walk.
From here, the mountains of Iraq are the primary geographical landmarks. As the day grows on, the mountains glow orange and are snow capped. Very beautiful. I can't help but to think of all the refugees who died there 10 years ago and how it will be this time around. I also think of the KADEK rebels over there, and how they'll eventually fit into this story.
I make my way toward Silopi, stopping for better pictures of the tent city, which is slowly being built. There may be 6 people all together working on what is sure to be a major crisis. The Turks are determined to stop the refugees this time. Forcing them into camps on the Iraqi side. So far they've managed just around 300 tents. Considering they expect up to 500,000 refugees, it seems clear the Turks are putting this up as a show.
As I'm walking along, my phone rings. Could only be ABC and it was. It was Elif. She had some good news for me: A job! Only thing was, it had nothing to do with the war. Not only that, it had nothing to do with TV.
London's Daily Mail wants me to go to Gaziantep to cover a sensational trial. Not sensing the war will break out in three days, I jump at the chance to travel a little and make some money. The only problem is that it's more than 700km away and the trial is on Tuesday. Nothing like a good challenge.
I continue up the road and am able to shoot video of various things. The people, more refugee camp, the various military bases. This includes the area that was surrounded by a tall wall that locals say was being used by the Americans that "weren't there. I haven't seen any yet, but the Turkish soldiers get riled up quickly when you take pictures in that direction. To get what I believe is the US base, I hide between some rotted out oil trucks, just out of the guards' view, and shoot away.
I get some good pictures and move on. It's starting to get dark and I have a long trip ahead of me tomorrow. I get back to the hotel, separate my gear, and get ready for an adventure within an adventure.
Saturday, February 15, 2003
Around 7:00 I got tired of twisting and turning and decided I would try to cross the border. I really didn't think I had a chance. In military terms, I was "probing" the crossing. I was unable to find any information on its status before leaving, so I decided I'd give it a shot.
This is where it gets complicated in the decision making process. The strategy all along was to have two bags: A military sea bag which acted as my closet and my day bag. Now my day bag is as big as a rucksack and fits my essentials. The problem is that if I get into Iraq, what will happen to my other gear? My essentials include my helmet, flak jacket, gas mask, one change of clothes, shortwave radio, a satellite phone, and some food. Pretty much everything else stayed.
I didn't think about it long; maybe because I wasn't expecting to get in, I guess. So I headed downstairs and paid for a weeks worth for my room and headed out into the street.
I'd never been to the crossing and had no idea what to expect. Known as Habur Gate, it turns out it's the only legal crossing between Turkey and Iraq. I also find out that journalists have been barred from crossing over for the past seven years while the Turks chase down P.K.K. rebels. To top it off, I hear a story as I leave about a Spanish crew that tried the previous day, but were turned back by the guards. Only ones getting in were the locals, and even for them, it could be difficult. Especially for those that truck oil for a living, which many here do, or used to do before the sanctions.
In this area the local public transportation is a taxi or these little mini buses. A type of which I've never seen. I decide to go with a bunch of locals in the hopes that this white guy American was getting into pre war Iraq. Just walk right in. With me were some fudged up stuff that was supposed to translate into a pseudo UN/ Red Crescent ID card. Didn't think that would work either, but combined with real information that could be checked easy enough, I decided I'd rather try than not.
Obviously, the site of what most assumed was a Brit, hopping into a local taxi/van was a bit shocking. I could feel it. The feelings weren't bad though. In fact, since I've been here, the locals have been nothing but kind.
I think that's what sets me apart from most of the others: I respect these people and I want to prove to them I 'm no better than they are. To me, it's my way of showing I care. I feel whenever I go abroad, I need to be an ambassador for the United States. I want people to remember the "nice American, David, who came before the war". Why? Not sure. That's just how I feel. I've definitely gotten the buzz from the local media and from talking with other reporters that the US is on everyone's shitlist. Even for things we have no control over. It's very frustrating.
It doesn't take long to cover the 13km to the border. We pass a couple of Turkish Army bases, some houses, a tent city beginning to spring up, and miles of oil trucks waiting days to get permission to get into Iraq.
As we approached the border, the van pulled over and the people signaled and motioned for me to get out and walk toward the guards while the van was waved through the checkpoint and into the crossing area. As I expected, I was met by a young soldier. What I didn't expect, was that he was smiling. Soon, two young enlisted soldiers and an officer were looking at my credentials. At this point I was not representing myself as a journalist. I was hoping the language barrier and the decent looking credentials would get me in. Soon, a plain clothes officer came and looked at the credentials as well. This definitely was positive and I was truly thinking they were going to let me in.
My story was that I was going to Iraq to document the tide of refugees as an independent monitor. When I got back, I would file anything I saw with the UN. All of which was true. I just had no direct affiliation with anyone. The rest of my team was already in place in different places in Iraq and Kuwait, and I was the last to get in. That part, of course, was a lie.
Everything was working fine until a female officer came. She could speak some English and definitely seemed to have some major authority there. Her arrival was not unlike that of a submarine. She quickly overruled everyone and told me I would need permission from the governor of Sirnak if I was to cross that border. A mere 90km away. Torpedoes away!
So I headed back toward town. A few hundred yards up the road, I stopped to take pictures of the soldiers and the crossing. Within seconds, the soldiers were yelling something at me prompting a young boy to come over. In pigeon sign language, he told me the soldiers didn't want me to be there doing that. So I walked farther down and started taping again. This time, a jeep came toward me and the soldiers pointed to a huge FORD sign about a mile away. He told me that is where I could take my pictures. Big fun. So I spent a few hours walking, hitching rides, and taking pictures.
Back in Silopi, I post my shot sheet and number, just in case some of the video I had was needed by anyone. As I get ready to enter the hotel where most of the journos were staying, I ran into a black guy. Stopped me dead in my tracks. You have to understand that up to this point I had seen no other Americans, and I thought, "this could be an American". There are also no other black folks (that I've seen) anywhere near this area. So not only did I take a double look, but I also noticed that wherever he walked, heads would turn.
His name is Bernard and turns out to be a native of Belize. He claims to be here to meet his wife, who is trapped in Iraq and can't get out.
Bernard is an interesting fellow. His card says he's a doctor and professor from an Ivy League School and met his Iraqi Kurd wife while studying in England. He says he hasn't seen her in three years and that his wife's family have no clue they're married. Bernard says his wife's family will not give her permission to leave Iraq (custom), so she is effectively "trapped" in Dohuk. Apparently she is working at the hospital there and Bernard is very worried with the impending war. He plans to meet her soon (at the border) and get out of the region before the war starts. Bernard also claims to be a published author. He has a book, which I've seen, that is a bible on proper eating. He's very proud of it. Unfortunately, this writer didn't bring the proper power converter, so I loan him mine so he can get power to his laptop, and we start to walk up the street.
Didn't take long after that, that the two most conspicuous guys in town were stopped by a plain clothes police officer. It's the same guy I'd seen the night before with an AK-47 strapped across his back. In a very friendly way, he takes our names and passport numbers and lets us on our way. It's about then that we part for the time being.
Lunch is about here and I find this great restaurant a few doors down from my sleeping room. I eat there the night before and the food was good. Also no signs of the runs either. I take it as a good sign and decide that is where I'll eat while in Silopi.
I decide to eat outside where they have a covered table. It's cold and rainy, but I'm waiting for any sign of a military convoy or Americans. Pictures of Americans would fetch some good money here. Knowing the success of this trip is one lucky moment away, keeps me on guard most of the time. I guess with the Americans coming yesterday... I'm nervous to miss anything (since I know they're here with more coming).
So here I eat and write in my journal for a couple of hours. In that span of time I draw a lot of attention, making a complete thought on this entry nearly impossible. Mostly the inquiries are from children. There's no doubt that many people here like Americans. I feel completely welcome and unfortunately, too popular. Many people stop by just to say "Thank you". Others quiz me in English about various things. At first people ask if I'm British. When I tell them, "no, American". They smile and say, ..."ahhh, American." Almost as if it is a special thing to be American. I guess it is out here in the post-911 world and I'm not sure if that's good or bad just yet. I still have seen no other Americans, so for now, I'm the popular guy. At least it feels that way.
I finally decide to get warm and move back to the hotel where I find four young men in the lobby talking. After introductions and all, one asks in English, "What's your problem with Iraqis?" He then says, "We're Iraqis". Then they all look up at me. Kind of like the movies.
I start to explain that I don't have a problem with Iraqis at all, but felt that Saddam had to go. The one Iraqi who spoke English begin to translate to his friends and they all seem to agree. He also wants to know if soldiers are coming. I tell him that no matter what, I feel the soldiers will come, and that once Saddam is gone, they will help re-build their country. They all seemed to appreciate that very much. They were very agreeable over the fact that Saddam was using the country for his sole benefit, all while his people starved.
After a few cups of tea, we wish each other luck and I head to the internet cafe to write Heidi.
It's after this conversation that I really see the complexity of my role here. It's a mix between journalist, tourist, and ambassador. Very unique.
Friday, February 14, 2003
Valentine's Day without Heidi. I suppose it's ok, but I'd rather be with her. Actually I wish she were here with me. Maybe not this trip, but I do want her to go with me somewhere interesting. Maybe we'll come here after the war when it isn't so dangerous.
We're supposed to leave for Silopi today, checking out hotels as we go. ABC is sending out its crews soon and Elif has a ton of work to do.
Leaving Diyarbakir, I finally get to start seeing the "real" country. It's been a long trip so far, but probably much shorter than had I not met Elif.
This part of Turkey is mostly rural and very poor. It's dotted with the burned out shells of villages along the highway. The civil war that raged through this area was akin to ethnic cleansing. Turkey uprooted thousands of people, destroying more than 3,000 Kurdish villages in its effort to get the PKK. The IDP's (internally displaced people) were forced to the big cities, helping to create a huge stress on Turkey's economy as well as a huge stress between the Turks and the Kurds.
The snow is still coming down as we make our way through the southeast. It's definitely much deeper outside the city. We have a nice 4x4, so things aren't bad for us. For the dozens that we pass stuck along the road, however, it looks like it's going to be a very long day.
It doesn't take long before we start seeing military convoys heading in the same direction we are: Toward the border with Iraq. Dozens of trucks, a few tanks, and maybe a hundred soldiers. We take some notes and some video as we pass by, trying to be secretive about it. I'm hoping it will be needed by ABC while we wait for their man crews to get here. We'll see.
Since no one really knows when the war will start, journalists are starting to send their advance teams. There's going to be a rush for hotels soon. Elif is here early to grease the wheels. I'm here early because I don't have any support whatsoever and I need to make sure I'm in place when the 4th Infantry deploys here. Hopefully then, I'll be able to hook up with a local company commander who'll let me ride along into Iraq. That's probably the only way into Iraq considering the border crossing at Habur Gate has been closed to journalists and tourists (by the Turks) for seven years or so.
Our first stop is just over an hour later in the beautiful and ancient city of Mardin. The city is perched high on a plateau. Its buildings are the square and tan type that are fairly common around the middle east. I'm told many of the homes are centuries old. It isn't hard to believe. Mardin is most noted for its artisans: Hand woven rugs, fur blankets, and gold jewelry are the local specialties. I'm also told the oldest (and perhaps first) Christian church is here as well. This city has seen more wars in its history than most countries and has been occupied by a plethora of invaders.
We stop here for gas and hope to scout a suitable hotel for ABC. If she likes the hotel, she'll put a deposit down and we'll move on. Elif asks me to pay for the gas, and I gladly do. The bill was nearly $70. I almost choked. These Land Rovers are gas guzzlers too, so I need to get to Silopi quick (before we need to fill up again).
We stop by a hotel which is nothing short of amazing. From the outside it looks like the rest of the buildings: Standard and square. On the inside: Big thick stone walls. Feels like you're in a castle. Large rooms beautifully decorated with rugs, blankets, and pillows. Very, very cozy. Outside are around a half dozen well stocked bungalows. Didn't go in one, but they looked nice as well. Business has been very slow for some time, so I would imagine they were happy to see us, especially with the prospect of more to come. This is defiantly a place I would bring Heidi back to. Prices are very cheap and she would have dream shopping vacation. In fact, Elif bought a nice Turkish rug and goat fur blanket (both VERY nice), for just under 100,000 TL (about $70).
We decided to get lunch here which was also amazing. Apparently a century before, the dining room was used as the stable. Located in the area of the building I would call "the basement". I usually try to eat as much native food as I can and Turkish food doesn't disappoint. Lots of sheep! The four of us ate a great meal, all for around $7. Incredible.
From here we continue south and are soon down in the valley below Mardin on what used to be known as "The Silk Road". No snow at all down here. Very drastic change for such a short distance traveled.
The Silk Road is the historic overland trading route from China to Europe, hence "The Silk Road". Before long we're traveling along the Syrian border which is punctuated by barbed wire, machine gun towers, and minefields. This definitely makes me think about the dangers of trying to cross the border illegally. I'm not interested in going through Syria and I have no idea how well the border along Iraq is guarded. Considering much of the remaining PKK/KADEK fighters are in northern Iraq, I'm assuming the border is porous. I just worry about mines in unmarked fields. I guess I won't be going that way!
We make our way to Cizr'e where I get my first "taste" of shooting in this type of environment. A military convoy is rolling through town, heading toward Iraq. Elif gives me the go ahead to get out to shoot. My hope is that my video of the buildup will be bought by ABC, considering they have no cameramen in the area whatsoever. Things are looking up!! So I jump from the back of the Land Rover into an ankle deep mud puddle. Almost at the same time, my gloves fall in as well, all while trying to ready the camera. The whole while, I'm holding up the Turkish Army. The truck starts honking at me and I clear the way. Looking at those Turks, I could tell they were think ing, "looking that fucking idiot...". I'm assuming the Kurds watching it all from the sidewalks were thinking the same.
Cizr'e is nothing short of a horrible place to live. The main street is dirt and is crammed from side to side with mega potholes and moguls. The road covered with a slick film of orange mud. The holes filled with brown water that often splashes the locals on the side. The buildings and home are very rudiment. Not in the sense of sod by anymeans. The homes were all square and packed in conjoined by narrow alleys, which are in worse shape than the main road. From what I'm gathering, this area of the country gets next to no money for infrastructure. The wounds of war run deep and it's becoming clear to me why the Kurds do not like the Turks. From what I can tell Kurds a definitely second class citizens.
After my near-death experience with the Turkish Army, we (Elif, Guray, and Tariq) go to the hotel. There's actually three: Two are roach motel types. The third is actually pretty nice, about 8 stories and overlooking the Tigress River. Not really much to see. The land here is sparse of vegetation and is complemented by rocks and goats. To the right of the bridge is a good sized Turkish garrison stationed in what looks to be an ancient fortification. I wonder if they're here for the Kurds or the Syrians?
Elif begins to lineup here rooms, which we find the hotel has double rented them to some Australians. She's a bit pissed. Turns out the group responsible is CNN. Jane Eraf to be exact. I guess Elif used to work for here and she says she's a total bitch. Guray and I head to the roof to tape off a nice spot from where ABC may do some live shots. From a TV guy's point of view, it would have been a cool shot.
From what we're hearing, there isn't much in Silopi. People kind of chuckle when we mention "hotel". I personally don't care as long as it has a door with a lock and a roof. That's my definite advantage, I'm not soft like most of these folks.
About 15 miles down the road, we make it to Silopi. Definitely nicer than Cizr'e, but still poor and desolate. After checking it out for a minute, I find a hotel called "The Touristik". They had a room, I took it. Three floors, but small. No elevator, and it figures they'd put me on the top floor. My room is about 10x10 with a small bathroom (and toilet paper!), a bed (with sheets and blanket), and a wardrobe. Not bad for $10 a night. The only problem is that I have to fill the trash can with water in order to flush the toilet. The TV is also completely Turkish. I guess I'll have to watch soccer. No matter, this place is my new home base. It's from this room that I will plan and hopefully achieve my goals: Get into Iraq, hook up with Peshmerga, wait for the 4th Infantry. For the next few days I'll take day hikes around the area getting an idea of what's going on. I have two bags, one for about 5 days supply (plus combat gear), the other for more than 2 months. The bigger bag will stay, and could eventually be lost to the winds of war in the event I get into Iraq and don't come back this way. At the other hotel (Hotel Habur), the place is buzzing with some video shot by some Turkish shooters: 20 brand new jeeps filled with what were clearly Americans. Baseball hats and all. Some shielded their faces, others ignored the attention. Some had guns, and all were heading to Iraq. As it turns out, I also got shots of the same jeeps, but my video isn't very clear.
This video put everyone into action, including Elif. This was big news after all: The first Americans to be captured on video heading into Iraq. Before long, Elif was working here many contacts for satellite time, and her charisma to get a good price for the pictures. Some networks paid more than $1,000 on the spot. I know I can make money here!
I decide to get on my satellite phone and see if anyone back home would be interested in an interview from a resident standing on the Iraqi border. I mean my former station, WSLS, would take a phoner from a car wreck, certainly they'd take one from the tip of the Northern Front.... I was wrong. No interest. Between them, the Roanoke Times, and WROV (where my wife works), I've had it with the local press. I can't understand for my life why the Times isn't interested in an article, or that WROV isn't interested in unique phone calls (FROM IRAQ). Or even channel Ten not interested in anything. I only worked there for five years and am STILL recognized as someone from Channel 10 two years after my contract wasn't renewed. Very depressing. That is why I am literally "The Battlefield Tourist". That's the name of my new franchise idea for an adventure travel TV show. Always thinking big...
Once Elif fed her video to ABC (for $1,500), her, Guray, and Tariq went back to Dyarbakir, leaving me to fend for myself. Truly a stanger in a strange land.
As it turns out, all was fine because the Kurds at the hotel are very nice and we got along fine, even though no one had a clue as to what who was saying. I guess that's part of the adventure of this. These situations are the memorable ones.
One of the Kurds, a guy named Soli, spoke pigeon English, which was just enough to communicate. We talked a bit about the impending war and my role in it while watching soccer and sipping tea. Also turns out Soli is a soldier who has orders to Dyabakir in two days.
After two more glasses, I decided to go to bed. Unfortunately, I didn't sleep for the second straight night. Is it the tea or the jetlag?
Thursday, February 13, 2003
When I open the shades to my window over Diyarbakir, Old Man Winter left us with a beautiful coat of snow, with more falling throughout the day. First thing you notice is that there are no snow plows here. People just do their best to get around, and in snow as deep as it is this morning (maybe 18 inches), it's kind of amusing to watch from my window.
Diyarbakir is the largest city in SE Turkey and is almost all Kurdish. This city was the epicenter of a bloody war that began in 1984 and lasted 15 years. The official death toll is between 35,000-39,000 killed. Several Kurds I spoke to said that 30,000 Kurds alone died, not including Turkish soldiers.
The war was primarily waged by a communist-oriented rebel group known as the P.K.K. (The Kurdistan Workers' Party). They're now called KADEK and are the same rebels the State Department has listed as terrorists. Most are based in N. Iraq where they've been quiet under orders from their imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan. That stability has been holding, but is shaky, with a few reports of shootouts between Turkish security forces and rebels in the countryside.
The city itself has been the scene of battle after battle for centuries. In fact the city, which sits on the Tigris, is nearly completely surrounded by a crumbling medieval fortress. It places second in size only to the Great Wall of China for walls of this historical significance.
Anyway, Diyarbakir is still the central hub in the Kurdish region, and it is here that we need to get our media credentials. This in its own raises an interesting question when traveling: As a journalist, there are times when it is more advantageous to travel as a tourist than as a journalist. Of course there are various reasons for this, it just didn't apply at this time or place. So once again, Elif to the rescue. We get about town and find a photo shop to get the passport sized pictures you need for your paperwork. I had to get "official" permission from my company (on letterhead) stating that I was in Turkey to cover the war. Then I had to get it all to an overworked military post that was very behind because of the holiday. Fortunately, my stuff went through Diyarbakir to Istanbul and Ankara with the rest of ABC's applications, so everything was worked out for me. I would never have thought to get credentials. As an independent journalist, that sometimes slips my mind. A definite lesson learned.
After we got all of this rolling, Elif helped me hook up with a local cell phone. Lesson two for the day: Europeans use cell phones like crazy. So I was loaned one of ABC's cell phones and given a crash course in buying minutes and adding them to my account manually. Now we can communicate, effectively expanding her team for near nothing. My satellite phone was very expensive to use, which I saved primarily to call home. The relationship between Elif and I was definitely one of friendship, but no doubt we served a purpose for one another: She wanted my eyes at the Iraqi border while she waited two weeks for her team to arrive. In return, I needed her guidance in a fairly dangerous situation and I was hoping to land a job.
Around midday I started feeling sick. We were in the local mall at a tailor shop. Elif's money belt ripped (always take a moneybelt) and we were getting it fixed when I started losing my sense of balance. It was very strange and it made me nauseas. I drifted back over to the hotel and slept it off while Elif went to work on the credentials. Maybe just jetlag. Regardless, I decided to take the opportunity to sleep in a comfy hotel room, considering I had no idea what the next few days would bring.
Wednesday, February 12, 2003
TAPE (of bin Laden) THREATENS SUICIDE ATTACKS
I had to wait until 3:00 to catch the only flight into Diyabakir, so like normal, I had to frequent the local bar. In this case it meant the bar in the Ankara airport.
To understand Turkey a little more, its economy is a bit messed up, mostly due to the previous Gulf War as well as Turkey's own civil war against the PKK. Anyway, their money system is quite a mess. So after enjoying a few "Effies" (the local brew), I apparently ended up tipping the bartender somewhere in the neighborhood of $20... At least that's what this English-speaking Turkish woman said to me. When I think about it, it was really like $7, which was appropriate for the amount of my tab. Being confused, I went after the lady to find out what would be an appropriate tip and why. She went on to explain that I had given the barkeep approximately $20 tip. In Turkey, this is a HUGE tip and she told me such a large tip may actually offend some people (somehow I doubt it). Regardless, I certainly didn't mean to tip that much, but the turkish lira has so many zeros, it's hard to keep track of what it's worth at times.
As it turns out,this lady would be a guiding angel of sorts. Her name is Elif Ural and is an experienced fixer out of Istanbul. As it turns out, she's the forward producer employed by ABC News (US). Her job is to travel into SE Turkey and ensure all of the logistics are in place for the flood of reporters expected in the next few weeks. Thinking that I was a soldier, she offered me proper tipping advice so not to "offend" anyone. Advice well taken and a new and very valuable friend found. Turns out, both of us are heading to Diyabakir and she invites me to tag along for a while. Not problem to me whatsoever. If anyone knew what was going on, it would be Elif.
The flight to Diyabakir took about an hour. The plane was full to the brim with mostly Turks and Kurds, but most noticeably, one American. Oh well. Elif and I talked the entire time. Mostly about the war and politics. She believes, as many seem to do, that the US intentions for war is actually about oil. She also expresses other feelings about Americans that I am already aware of, and they aren't good.
As an example, she tells me about how when ABC came to Turkey the previous month for "Good Morning America", she says the arrogance and conceit was way over the top. She told me how she set up a traditional Turkish dance for the show. When the EP saw the dance, the EP apparently asked if Elif could "make them dance faster".
The general feeling I've gotten so far is that Americans are disliked for many reasons, but one that sticks out is that many here feel Americans believe they can buy anything they want and that the rest of the world is somewhat "lesser" than the United States. Although we disagreed on many issues, it did prove to be excellent conversation and a foundation for me to begin understanding how the world truly views us as Americans.
Landing in Diyarbakir was interesting. A definite military presence everywhere, but no sign of Americans. It's expected that the Northern Front on Iraq will be based from a command post somewhere at this airport. This city and airport will be very important to the Allies. So far no sign of American troops, but that will quickly change once NATO works their problems out.
Elif turns out to be true godsend. She speaks very good English and has a ton of contacts. The best part is that she has taken me under her wing, if you will. I got a ride to her hotel and she offered one of the many unoccupied rooms that ABC was already renting in preparation for the war. Altogether they have 10 rooms here, but Elif is alone, so it works out well for me also.
We also had a driver and a technical producer who met us at the airport. Tarik and Guray would be as valuable as Elif. Now the four of us made a team that would be the tip of the spear for ABC's northern front spear.
After dinner, as I typically do, I headed out into Diyarbakir to check out the bar scene. Now, it's not that I'm an alcoholic, I just enjoy checking out bars in foreign countries. It just seems like a great way to meet people. I've also heard it's a great place to get robbed, so I stay on my toes and away from any Russian prostitutes (I don't see any anyway).
Like Elif, it seems as though most locals here think I'm a soldier and my presence seems to excite them in anticipation of more following me. It seems they realize the local economy will do better once soldiers and journalists start showing up in the droves that they do. It also is clear that the people in this part of Turkey hate Saddam. The reason I'm guessing is that this area is primarily Kurdish. Kurds have been brutally attacked, not only in Iraq, but here in Turkey as well. From what I can tell so far, many of the Kurds I have met deeply support the US, more so than the Turks.
The first bar I came to, I had 4 or 5 beers, watched a soccer game, and made some friends, but I was ready to move on, and did. About a half a block down the road, singing and larger than life pictures of dancing women caught my eye. So I headed up the stairs into a decent sized room that was full of smoke and drunk men in suits.
Singing to all of these men was woman dressed in some traditional, but skimpy clothes. It didn't take but a half a heartbeat before I felt like everyone was looking at me. It wasn't the case, but it did feel that way.
Eventually, I was invited over to a table with about a dozen drunk men having what seemed to be the time of their lives. The men were very friendly and we had a phenomenal time (even though I didn't understand much of what they were saying).
During the night, I met a young Kurd named Izzet. Very nice guy who spoke decent English. We talked quite a bit and I told him his English could possibly help him with a job with one of the networks. We'll have to see. I definitely drank more than I wanted, but managed to make it back to the hotel with a promise to Izzet that I'd be seeing him again.
Tuesday, February 11, 2003
I can't believe I'm on my way to the Middle East as everyone around the world holds their breath waiting to see what the US will do. What is actually more unbelievable is that in two weeks, I have completely updated my gear and made my itinerary a reality, assuring that I have no option to turn back.
The days leading up to my leaving was very strange. Probably very similar to those journos and soldiers that do this on a regular basis. All sorts of thoughts are roaming my head: Will my wife be ok? Will I be ok? Did I do my will right? What happens if I get trapped in Iraq for a LONG time? Thousands of questions zipping through my head at once. Made me want to go get some anxiety medication.
Actually leaving wasn't too bad though. Thank god for such a lovely, caring, and seriously understanding wife. I can only guess what's going through her head.
The flight to Turkey was as long as I imagined. I left Roanoke early on the 10th only to sit in a Philadelphia bar for eight hours waiting for my connection to Munich ( bars aren't so bad!). The day changed over as we crossed the Atlantic. A breakfast beer and a short layover later and I was on my way to Ankara. This is where the true adventure begins, because at this point, I'm about to enter the Middle East, with no knowledge of the local languages (Kurdish, Turkish, or Arabic), no points of contact, and no idea if my goals are even realistic. All of this with a war on the horizon. No bother; if all goes well, I'll be on the Iraqi border in two days.
Once in Turkey, I realized my first indication that both Americans and Israelis are viewed VERY differently by much of the world. This would be more evident as the trip went on. The first encounter, however, happened as I entered the airport in Ankara and was forced to pay a $100 entry fee. Everyone else in the world paid no more than $20. I would soon find out this was because the US and Turkey were having some trade issues that filtered down to this form or retaliation.
Soon after that, I seemed to anger a porter with a meager $7 tip. I would also soon find out that a $7 tip in Turkey is HUGE. Obviously being a white westerner was the tip off.
For being in "Europe", it sure didn't seem like it. In Turkey, NOTHING is in English and so far, fewer people speak English than I expected (based on research). Also, what I've seen is more akin to a third world country than one of Europe. Houses, apartments, and buildings all crammed together on the hillsides. Dozens mosque towers popping out of the urban landscape. Ankara is definitely nothing special.
I figure out that there's only one flight to Diyarbakir a day and I've missed it, so I have to get a cab to take me to the nearest hotel. The nearest one, Hotel Star Gap, is more than 20 miles away. At least I got to see some of the city.
Everything is empty because of a holiday. Eid is one of the holiest times for Muslims and I happened to land in Turkey right in the middle of it. Even the hotel I'm in (a 3 star hotel - $65) is empty. This becomes reality when I go to get dinner in the restaurant and there is nobody in there except the waiter and chef. Things are so quiet, I end up eating with the hotel manager Deniz.
Deniz speaks some English and is the first Turk I've actually been able to talk to about the war. You can tell that Deniz is very concerned about war. He says the last war (1991) destroyed their economy and that things are still painful. He actually became visibly upset when I told him I thought war was inevitable.
My first concern for my safety came out of this conversation. Deniz comments: "You're brave for going to SE Turkey". It's one thing for your wife to say it, it's another thing when a local says it. I'm not sure if his concern is legitimate or biased. The SE of Turkey was until recently embroiled in a bloody civil war, much of which took place in Diyarbakir. If Deniz is a Turk, it would be understandable he would have those feelings about a Kurdish area. For me however, I shrugged it off. I knew this wasn't going to be a game when I left Virginia.
Later I would spend time in the lounge watching the Turkish national Tae Kwan Do team shoot pool and a copy of Blackhawk Down with Turkish overdubs. Interesting. I just hope the movie isn't an omen for the rest of my journey.
Saturday, February 01, 2003
Joining the Marines in 1985, my luck did not start well. Back then, President Reagan had us all believing the communists were making their way up from Central America and threatened the country. So, at 17, I enlisted open contract as a US Marine recruit.
At that time, all I wanted to do was fight in a war. I loved history, in particular war (World War II was my favorite). I suppose this love and romanticism is what I was looking for as a young buck ready to take on the world.
Unfortunately, the Marines found out I had brains and sent me packing off to computer school. Imagine that: Go in OPEN CONTRACT and I end up in computers. I assure you I wasn't very happy.
The best I could do for the next three years was ultimately convince battalion to let me join the "training squad". I'm not sure if that was the true name or not, but it consisted of the rifle range instructors and me. Our mission twice a week was to assault, ambush, and harass the "office poages" who were getting their two week refresher course which comes once a year.
That was the closest I came to real combat. One night creeping up a hill rimmed by "poages", gunfire breaks out to my right and almost immediately a rocket flare comes screaming down the hill right at me. Thought I was in Apocalypse Now or something. Anyway, the rocket missed and I managed to throw a tear gas grenade in the CP. Oh fun.
My final attempt to become a combat marine came when I tried in vain to join the elite "Marine Security Guard" unit. These guys were tough and the training even tougher. These guys are the embassy guards of the world and until the mid-80's, were responsible for guarding nuclear weapons on Navy ships.
I remember getting called down to battalion and being told my MOS (job) was too scarce and they couldn't justify sending me. That would end my Marine Corps career.
During the Gulf War, my unit was deployed to Kuwait, but the war was over too quick for me to make a decision. No matter, I had to finish college and get on with life.
I would eventually get involved with local TV news which was a great training ground, but a horrible place to work your skill. It got to the point where I wasn't happy with what I was reporting. Not only that, but I wasn't seeing the news philosophy that management was seeing. This would ultimately leave me without a contract renewal and wondering what it was I was going to do in my life.
Soon after leaving the news, I began my personal training into the world of adventure travel and international journalism. Somehow I needed to find a way to use my skills and my urge for adventure to make enough money to cover the bills. It's been rather tough.
My first trip abroad was to the hurricane ravaged country of Honduras. I followed a relief group in and hoped to get an understanding for this sort of travel.
I learned a lot on that trip, enough so that when I heard President Bush's State of the Union address a year later, I knew the culmination of my experiences was coming to a pinnacle. It was that night I decided to go to Iraq.
I decided I would try to get in through the north with the intention of joining up with a Kurdish Peshmerga unit and witness the Battle of Mosul. From there I expected to travel back toward Turkey to document the humanitarian disaster that was already beginning to unfold with the threat of war now looming very near.
So now it was a matter of guessing when the US 4th Division would come through Turkey. I had a month to decide the window of opportunity to be a witness to history. I decided it would be February 10th - March 10th. Afterall, being a member of NATO, the Turks would surely allow the US in to attack from the north, and no one wanted to be fighting in the summer's deadly heat. The attack HAD to come by March.