Mosul, Iraq: Life Finds A Way

Mosul, Iraq: Life Finds A Way

Our drive this morning on the “Highway To Hell” into Mosul, Iraq: 
 

 

DISCLAIMER:

Unless you have made adequate arrangements, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DO WHAT WE DID TODAY. At of the time of posting, Mosul remains an active war zone. Although ISIS/ISIL/Daesh has fallen to the Iraqi forces and Mosul has been recaptured by the Iraqi government, pockets of resistance belonging to the Islamic State remain at large — even today a suspected ISIS jailer was captured fleeing a few feet away from us as we were waiting at the checkpoint outside of Mosul

Our trip to Mosul today was based on a personal decision where unique conditions on the ground at the time were relatively favorable to going — the consequences of your actions may differ from what happened to us, as any attempt to travel to Mosul or recreate this itinerary is entirely of your own accord.

To be once again explicitly clear: If you do decide to travel to Mosul, you are going on your own as The Monsoon Diaries and our travel partners at Young Pioneer Tours and Kurdistan Iraq Tours assume ZERO and NO responsibility for you, your well-being, your safety, and for whatever consequences that befall you if you are to be caught and persecuted by the Islamic State, the Iraqi Government, militia groups, Pershmerga, or the Kurdistan Regional Government.

 

This morning I ventured on the “Highway To Hell” into Mosul. And at the last minute I recruited 2 others to join along:

Venla — 3 days ago, while getting to know the Young Pioneer Tours group on their last day in Kurdistan, I met a fellow traveler from Finland named Venla, who was planning to stay here another month to interview various local women for her project on women’s rights. We struck up a quick friendship and walked together around nearly the entire city of Erbil together the day after. To make the world even smaller, she has been planning to be in Kuwait the same exact day I’m planning to be there in 3 weeks!

João — The next morning while having breakfast at my hotel I met a fellow travel blogger from Portugal: João of Nomad Revelations. I recognized his travel site, and so did he with mine, so it was remarkable how we had heard of each other before finally crossing paths in Iraq; I felt it was as if we were part of this exclusive little travel club. He’s also way more famous than I am, having done this for 15 years and traveling for the past 7 months driving a van with both his wife Anna and his son Daniel!

Neither hesitated at the chance to come with me to Mosul. We all went to bed by midnight deciding to go.

 

 

Just like our destination itself, it is simply remarkable to witness how circumstances can change so quickly.

 

 

Mosul

Mosul was once a beautiful, thriving, cosmopolitan city on the forefront of the civilized world, and Iraq’s second largest with a diverse population of 2.2 million people.

 

Photo Credit: Corriere

 

It then fell into notoriety of the modern day when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, becoming prominent in the news as the city where Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay were killed in a gun battle with Coalition Forces in 2003. For the next decade the city languished for the next decade under US occupation, Iraqi military infighting, and government corruption.

 

Photo Credit: CNN

 

A growing power vacuum and worsening conditions led to its eventual capture by a mere 1500 ISIS/ISIL/Daesh soldiers in 2014, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the beginning of the self-proclaimed “caliphate” at the Great Mosque Of Mosul.

 

Photo Credit: Fox News

 

An exodus of half a million refugees over 48 hours soon followed and the Iraqi Government Forces, allied militias, the Kurdistan Pershmerga, and other international forces made 2 subsequent unsuccessful attempts to retake the city from ISIS/ISIL/Daesh in 2014 and 2015.

It was not until October 16th, 2016 when “the mother of all battles” would earn its nickname: A major military offensive Operation “We Are Coming, Nineveh” was launched, with allied forces attacking ISIS-controlled areas on 3 fronts, village to village, in the surrounding area outside Mosul. This was the largest deployment of Iraqi troops and the world’s single largest military operation since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

 

Photo Credit: CNN

 

On November 1st, 2016, Iraqi Special Operations Forces entered Mosul from the east where they were held back by formidable defenses and the presence of civilians. The “full liberation of eastern side of Mosul” was declared on January 24th, 2017, and the offensive to recapture western Mosul began on February 19th, 2017.

Nearly 5 months later on July 9th, 2017 — exactly 10 months ago to this day — the Iraqi Prime Minister arrived in Mosul to announce victory over ISIS, even though heavy fighting would continue in a final pocket of ISIL resistance in the Old City for almost another 2 weeks.

 

Photo Credit: CNN

 

I know it would be easy for anyone to criticize us for coming here in the first place but when you take what was once a thriving, rich, educated city that had so much history and promise, and have it quickly crumble under the effects of government corruption, international complacency, foreign imperialism, domestic terrorism, and indiscriminate violence, you can’t help but bear witness to your own history in the making. We travel to these places to fully appreciate how similar circumstances could easily befall the very same cities that the more fortunate of us reside in and take for granted today.

We travel because we care.

 

Photo Credit: CNN

 

History knows that Mosul has been more the rule than the exception: All of us must begrudgingly accept that what happened to Mosul can also happen to us, and that some of us are compelled to our duty as human beings to fully internalize that reality — blankets of security can easily be snatched away if we remain complacent to what is going on the world outside our bubbles.

And so today, we decided to briefly step outside that bubble.

At 6:30am this morning, João, Venla and I congregated at the lobby at my hotel, where Abdallah picked us up and took us to the Christian Ankawa district to meet his friend who worked in the Iraqi government at 7am.

 

 

About 20 minutes later his convoy arrived and we set off for Mosul at 7:30am. It was clear his friend was a big deal as every checkpoint we passed through was waving us off.

 

 

At around 8:30am we passed the last Kurdish checkpoint  — the one where we hung out at yesterday morning and marked by Kurdistan’s red, green, and white flags — and drove a few hundred meters towards the first Iraqi checkpoint, distinctly marked by red, white, and black flags.

 

 

We just managed to slip by until one of the officers flagged a man in one of the convoy jeeps behind us: although he was here on an official project, he had a Maltese passport and it was not logged in their system.

Since Abdallah’s friend was not going to leave without the Maltese guy, this led to an unplanned 2 hour wait from 9am to 11am as shit was being handled.

 

 

We would then be told the excessive 2 hour wait was due to their having just caught an ISIS jailer trying to flee the city a few feet away from us. We had shrugged this off as a made-up excuse at the time, but a news article João sent me later proved that they were telling the truth: Iraqi security says Islamic State’s jailer arrested in Mosul.

 

 

As Abdallah and his friend tried to speak with the captain and calling higher offices to let us through on our own without having to wait for the Maltese guy, some of the border guards began asking to take photos with us. Even their captain joined in and tried to practice his English.

 

 

By the time 11am rolled around I started to get antsy: I calculated it would take at least an hour and a half to drive back from the airport for my 4pm flight, let alone 2 hours from Mosul itself with all the checkpoints and potential further drama. I also had left my backpack at the hotel that I still needed to pick up AND I hadn’t yet checked in for my flight (Erbil’s airport doesn’t allow online check-in). I was beginning to consider giving up on Mosul, turning around for the airport, and having João and Venla go on without me.

At 11:10am I became more serious about heading back to the airport as every passing minute was another potential chance I would miss my flight home. Abdallah even began to reason it would be impossible for me to do both Mosul and make it back to Erbil’s International Airport on time.

When 11:20am came around, Abdallah turned our car around towards Erbil in a decision to give up on Mosul, until the captain and his border guards told us “5 more minutes.”

Although those 5 minutes would turn to 15, we felt something was eventually going to give. Finally at 11:35am we got a call from higher authorities and were allowed to turn our car back around and drive onwards to Mosul: Everyone got cleared. I reasoned then that even a few minutes in Mosul may be worth it if I could still make it back in time for my flight.

Alas, it was around this moment and given the context of where we were going, I started to become self-aware of my entitlement to first world problems. One of the kids that had been selling us biscuits and water at the checkpoint had been telling us how one morning he woke up to a bomb dropping on his house and killing his only brother. His family now sleeps in rubble. Another boy said he hasn’t gone to school since it was destroyed a year ago and he “doesn’t know” when he’ll ever go back to anything resembling an education. And here I was feeling frustrated over possibly missing a plane back home.

So I decided to stop worrying about a stupid flight: We go without reservations — we would never have another chance at this ever again.

We drove on towards Mosul, first passing by a refugee camp for those who lost their homes during the conflict.

 

 

About a few kilometers outside the side, we turned a hard right to take a back road and avoid the traffic.

 

 

By 11:45pm we reached Mosul’s city limits on the east side, the same side where Iraqi Special Ops entered on the dawn of November 1st, 2016 to retake the city back from ISIS. This was where we began to see the extent of the city’s devastation.

 

 

 

Bullet holes lined their walls of the few buildings that remained standing. This was their reality.

 

 

As we went deeper into the heart of the city, we passed by a large makeshift mound topped by a few military bunkers overlooking the city.

 

 

Once past the mounds, we saw some of the rebuilding efforts and a few new, modern buildings. The reconstruction costs are estimated to be $50 billion USD, $1 billion alone going into Mosul Old City.

 

 

 

Nevertheless, some structures were waiting for a full demolition:

 

 

We eventually hit the very center of the city. Perhaps a sign that a way of normal civilized life was returning were the traffic jams. But then we realized that’s probably because most of their bridges have been destroyed.

 

 

We then reached the ruins of the once internationally renowned University of Mosul, now destroyed at the hands of ISIS.

 

 

To give you an idea, this was University of Mosul before ISIS:

 

University Of Mosul before ISIS

 

And this is how it looks today:

 

Today

 

We took a chance at stepping outside our car to get some fresh air. Everyone on the streets immediately stared at us. At one point Iraqi military came by and thought Venla was a bride of ISIS until João stepped in and charmed them out of suspicion.

 

 

From here you can go further into Old Mosul, where 4000 bodies are still reportedly buried under the rubble and the smell of death still permeates the air:

 

 The following 3 videos of Old Mosul were taken by João:

 

The following 6 photos of Old Mosul were taken by João:

 

 

The following photos of Old Mosul were taken by Venla:

 

When we got out of our car at the ruins of the University of Mosul, Abdallah arranged for a local friend to take João and Venla under his care for the next few hours while Abdallah would take me back to the airport.

So as João and Venla stayed behind to explore more of Old Mosul, Abdallah and I sped back out towards Erbil, breaking every single traffic violation that could be broken in a still active war zone, including speeding into the direction of oncoming traffic:

 

 

Scenes of devastation continued to follow us on our way out.

 

 

As we were left the city, we drove along an endless caravan of trucks carrying wreckage and rubble as part of the cleanup process.

 

 

Abdallah would make good time and thanks to our earlier befriending of the border guards this morning, we were whisked right through the 3 Iraqi checkpoints back into Kurdistan.

 

 

It was ironically the last Kurdish checkpoint that gave us the most difficult time, but somehow we still got through.

 

 

By 2:20pm we approached Erbil International Airport. Given the lack of time to pick up my stuff at the hotel, Abdallah and I instead called for the hotel to send a driver over with my bag.

Remarkably, that worked better than I thought. A driver pulled through and I was reunited with my bag outside the entrance to the airport road by 2:35pm just as we were about to turn in. I gave the driver 10,000 dinars for his troubles.

 

Reunited with my bag although at this point we were doing to seconds in making my flight!

 

I still needed to check into my flight, however, and I had until 3pm (an hour before departure) to do so. You’d think that arriving at the airport by 2:40pm I’d have plenty of time, but Erbil’s International Airport is different: there are at least 4 layers of security you need to go through before you even reach the airport!

 

 

First they searched our entire vehicle with bomb-sniffing dogs, drug-sniffing dogs, armed guards and by opening all our compartments.

 

 

Then after saying goodbye to Abdallah, I rushed into a separate airport building called the “Meet & Greet Area.”

Here they checked for confirmation of my boarding passes (so if you haven’t checked in, you’ll need to show copies of your bookings), x-rayed my bags, and patted me down.

 

 

After this you have to wait for a separate bus to take you to the main departure terminals.

It was now 2:53pm which I meant I had only 7 minutes left to make it to the check-in counter.

 

 

By 2:57pm there was still no bus, and I resigned that I was going to miss this flight. Then I noticed one of the people who was waiting with me for the bus hop into a waiting taxi. I ran after and asked if we could take taxis to the departures terminal instead of waiting for the bus. When he nodded I then pleaded if I could join him. His name was Haithan, who was heading to Dubai, and thanks to the kindness of strangers he gave me a free ride to the terminals (he first asked for 5,000 dinars but since I only had $20 USD bills he instead let me go for free).

By 2:59pm we reached the departures terminal and thanking Haithan as I ran out, grabbed my bags and encountered another security screening process. Once again they checked my confirmations, x-rayed my bags, and patted me down.

I then sprinted towards the check-in counters, making it sort of just in time at 3:02pm where they said they’d allow me an extra few minutes just because Erbil is notorious for not accepting online check-ins: WHEW.

I finally got my tickets and sauntered my way into salvation, going through one last formal rounds of security screening before boarding my flight to Vienna.

 

 

What a day.

After landing in Vienna and having a 14 hour layover here before my flight home to NYC, I was welcomed back by my local friend Daniela (who joined us last month on our Central Europe monsoon) once again at Duzi’s Shisha and Cocktail Bar. Hard to imagine we were both just exactly here only 6 weeks ago.

 

 

And hours later, I met up with Mariana from Brazil, whom I had befriended 9 months ago when we met back at a hostel in Belgrade and recently went on an adventure of her own to Kabul, Afghanistan.

 

 

There was a lot to catch up on.

 

- At time of posting in Mosul, Iraq, it was 22 °C - Humidity: 57% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly sunny

 

Alqosh: Vestiges Of Assyria

Alqosh: Vestiges Of Assyria

 

After an hour in Lalish, we drove towards the ancient Assyrian town of Alqosh, located 50km (31 miles) north of Mosul.

 

 

Here Alqosh is primarily inhabited by ethnic Assyrians of the Chaldean Catholic Church and remains one of the few places on this planet where the Neo-Aramaic language is still spoken.

 

 

Once reaching town, a road to your right leads up into the mountains.

 

 

Drive for a few minutes and you’ll see Saint Matthew Monastery‘s cousin, the Rabban Hormizd Monastery.

Founded about 640 AD by Rabban Hormizd and carved out in the mountains 28 miles north of Mosul, it was the official residence of the Church patriarchy before becoming a prominent Catholic monastery after unifying with Rome in the early 19th century.

 

 

Once you park your car at the lot, climb up the 100+ steps to the top. You can see that it was a former burial site for the Christian patriarchy.

 

 

There’s a cave underneath where reportedly a man lived here for 20 years before moving to California. I couldn’t find any news reports about it, but the story has stuck and tour guides still talk about it today.

 

 

The views from the monastery:

 

 

There’s a lonely church at the very top with nobody around:

 

 

Within the interior wall of the church is a doorway that leads to a network of caves built within the mountain. They once housed monks who were living and studying here.

 

 

The caves, the church, and the monastery have now been completely abandoned; a newer site was built in 1859 1 mile away to house the monks in a safer location. The ancient monastery today is now a simple tourist site and a place to pray for those passing by.

After about 30 minutes here Abdallah and I kicked back with a Coke and watched the rest of Mosul go by.

 

 

We then drove back to Erbil in the evening.

 

 

And just for the heck of it, Abdallah and I bought some fruits for his family on the way back.

 

 

I then hung out at Abdallah’s place eating fruit with his family before heading back to my hotel for the night.

 

 

- At time of posting in Alqosh, Iraq, it was 15 °C - Humidity: 95% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: rain

 

Lalish: The Yazidi’s Last Stand

Lalish: The Yazidi’s Last Stand

 

Trying to escape the thunderstorms that were about to overtake the site of the Battle of Gaugamela, we drove north towards Lalish.

 

 

After a few checkpoints we reached a quiet area up in the mountains to reach the Yazidi village.

 

 

 

The Yazidis are a group of people who believe in Melek Taus, a benevolent peakcock angel part of an ancient gnostic faith. However, ISIS/ISIL/Daesh and some members of the Islamic community view the peacock angel as an interpretation of Lucifer (aka Satan) thusly considering the Yazidis to be “devil worshippers.” As a result they have been targeted as part of a systematic genocidal campaign by the Islamic State leading to countless refugees fleeing the nearby city of Sinjar in 2014-2017 from persecution. Although thousands have been killed or taken in as sex slaves, many surviving Yazidis would arrive here in Lalish as part of a last stand for survival.

Of all the people that ISIS fought, the militants were particularly vicious toward the Yazidi, one of Iraq’s most mysterious religious minorities, who were massacred by the thousands.

The Yazidi allow no outsiders to convert to Yazidism and the contents of their holy text, the Meshef Resh or Black Book, are only for other Yazidi. In the most general of terms, they believe in one god and that the angel cast from heaven in Christian faiths is now the reconciled leader of all angels, and takes the form of a peacock. Some Yazidi don’t wear blue.

– The New York Times, A Journey Into Iraqi Kurdistan

Lalish itself is a tiny (like the size of 2 city blocks), 4000-year-old mountain valley village in northern Iraq 36 miles from Mosul, and located above the town of Shekhan, which had the second largest population of Yazidis prior to the genocide committed by ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. It is also home to the holiest temple in the Yazidi faith, dating back to the 25th century BC, from the time of Sumerian and other ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. Later the temple became location of the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, a central figure of the Yazidi faith.

At least once in their lifetime, Yazidis are expected to make a 6-day pilgrimage here to visit the tomb of Şêx Adî and other sacred sites.

The faith holds that every Yazidi should take a pilgrimage to the center of their world, or Lalish, a lovely mountain village about 30 miles southeast of Duhok. The Yazidi believe that Noah’s Ark came to rest here after a snake used its body to plug a hole in the boat, thus saving all of creation.

– The New York Times, A Journey Into Iraqi Kurdistan

 

 

Take off your shoes here as you enter as shoes aren’t allowed in Lalish.

 


 

Since I came in right after a thunderstorm, barely anyone was around when I arrived to visit. However, my friend Rik was able to get this photo of a more bustling village only 3 days ago:

 

Photo Credit: Rik Brinks

 

As you get deeper into the village, it becomes hard to believe this was once home to a refugee crisis in a time of war only a year before.

 

 

Eventually we came upon the entrance to the temple. When you enter, don’t step on the threshold as the Yazidis believe that angels rest in doorways.

 

 

Within a few paces past the doorway, you’ll reach a room full of oil lamps used from previous pilgrimages.

 

 

Inside the air was cool and moist. A woman pressed her forehead against a threshold, kissed it and mumbled. Others walked around Adî’s tomb, chanting; holy water burbled up from deep within the mountain. In one room I found two holes in the floor. One went to heaven, the other to hell, but no one would tell me which was which.

– The New York Times, A Journey Into Iraqi Kurdistan

Accompanied by a helpful Yazidi boy that was marking my way with the flashlight from his cell phone (there is otherwise no light here), we were able to reach the sacred tombs within seconds of entering the temple.

 

 

After about a few minutes here in the darkness, we headed back out into the village and up to the top for views of the conical roofs characteristic of Yazidi sites. These roofs signal to Yazidid pilgrims that they’ve arrived to the tomb of Şêx Adî.

 

 

You can climb up further to see more houses in the villages. However, all the people I saw were Pershmega soldiers (with their boots respectfully removed as well) guarding the place.

 

 

After about 45 minutes here we drove out for a much needed lunch at Niroj Restaurant.

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Lalish, Iraq, it was 17 °C - Humidity: 85% | Wind Speed: 16km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy

 

Finding The Battle Of Gaugamela

Finding The Battle Of Gaugamela

 

Driving from Mar Mattai/Saint Matthew’s Monastery and closer towards the besieged city of Mosul, we reached the fabled site of the Battle of Gaugamela.

 

 

Also called the Battle of Arbela, here lies one of the greatest military victories in history and the decisive battle between Alexander the Great and Darius III’s Persian Achaemenid Empire. In 331 BC Alexander’s heavily outnumbered army (31,000 to Darius’ 1 million) emerged victorious due to his superior military tactics and brilliant deployment of light infantry. His victory at the Battle of Guagamela would thusly ensure the fall of the Achaemenid Empire.

Climb to the top of the mound here to get a sense of this immense battlefield that saw up to 90,000 casualties, where only a mere few hundred of them belonged to Alexander The Great’s forces.

 

 

With Mosul only a few miles away, it appears that peace on these lands continues to remain elusive.

 

 

In 331 B.C. the Persian king Darius III picked this now peaceful place to face Alexander the Great of Macedonia once and for all. The ensuing fight, the Battle of Gaugamela, saw Darius’s far greater force suffer such horrific losses that soon the Macedon kingdom would stretch from Greece to Pakistan. The battle counts as one of the most important military victories of all time, Mr. Schute said.

“Can you feel it?” he asked, as he imagined the war elephants, the scythed chariots and the tens of thousands of soldiers lining up to hack each other to bits. “I get here and I can feel it.”

– The New York Times, A Journey Into Iraqi Kurdistan

Having an impending thunderstorm blowing in your face as you’re witnessing this and hearing the story kinda helps you “feel it.”

 

 

As we were taking this in, the gales of winds began to overwhelm us as storms approached in our direction. We quickly got back into our car and drove up north towards Lalish.

 

- At time of posting in Gogjali, Iraq, it was 27 °C - Humidity: 69% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly cloudy

 

Mar Mattai – An Oasis By Mosul

Mar Mattai – An Oasis By Mosul

 

After an exhausting day driving around southeastern Kurdistan, this morning Abdallah and I set out at 9am west of Erbil towards Mosul. You would expect that we drove by a ton more military bases today.


 

By 9:45am we had reached the main checkpoint between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq, most notably the infamous region of Mosul that had been ravaged by the recent conflict with ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. You could see many cars trying to get out and not many trying to get in.

 

 

We even tried to meet the captain of the checkpoint in his office, to see what the situation was like on the ground.

 

 

After half an hour waiting for him, we decided to instead drive onwards to a nearby Pershmega military base.

 

 

Apparently today is payday! People seemed to be in a celebratory mood.

 

 

As we approached Mosul, we took a detour right for Mar Mattai.

 

 

About 9km from here we started driving up Mount Alfaf.

 

 

About 20km away from Mosul, we reached Dayro d-Mor Mattai aka Saint Matthew’s Monastery. 

 

 

The Monastery of St. Matthew/Mar Mattai Monastery is recognized as one of the oldest Christian monasteries in existence and was profiled recently in the New York Times for its magnificent library that was almost lost to ISIS/ISIL/Daesh:

By August 2014, ISIS’ ominous black flags snapped just three miles from where I now stood. Under the cover of night, the monastery’s manager, a priest named Yousif Ibrahim, whose brother had already been murdered by the militants, spirited away scores of ancient documents, the last of the monastery’s once magnificent library, and even a discolored hand bone fragment believed to have belonged to St. Matthew the Hermit, who founded the monastery in 363 A.D. He was certain the monastery would be lost. But then the airstrikes began and the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Army turned the tide on the ground. The caliphate began to crumble.

It was now May 2017 and most of the artifacts had been returned to the monastery. 

It’s amazing to know that I’m standing right now where all of that had just happened.

 

 

The monastery was founded in 363 by the hermit Mar Mattai who fled Roman persecution and according to legend, went on to heal the sister of Mor Behnam and converting the family to Christianity. Their father King Sinharib of Assyria murdered Mar Mattai’s son and daughter in retaliation, before eventually making amends by giving Mount Alfaf for Mar Mattai to establish his monastery, where he was quickly joined by a small group of followers.

Although the monastery was later attacked and sacked by the Kurdish people multiple times throughout the rest of its history, it now has been ironically protected by the Dwekh Nawsh and the Kurdish Pershmega military having once housed refugees fleeing ISIS/ISIL/Daesh 3 years ago.

The Syriac Orthodox Church currently maintains the site while sustaining the small farming village below. Every year, September 18th commemorates the day of Mar Matti’s death.

 

 

For being one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world in one of the most dangerous war zones of recent memory, it remains remarkably well preserved.

 

 

You can climb up to the top for stupendous views over Kurdistan.

 

 

The monastery once housed as many as 7,000 monks during its peak in the 9th century. Today only 5 people reside here: a bishop, a boy and his family — all survivors of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh.

The fact that the monastery still stood; that this Christian boy and his family were still alive; that a small group of North Americans now felt safe enough to travel here — all of it seemed like a miracle. – The New York Times, A Journey Into Iraqi Kurdistan

 

 

About about 30 minutes here, we soaked it all in and drove closer to Mosul for the site of the Battle of Gaugamela.

 

- At time of posting in Mar Mattai, Iraq, it was 18 °C - Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 16km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly cloudy

 

Sulaymaniyah: “The Paris Of Iraq”

Sulaymaniyah: “The Paris Of Iraq”

Within a one hour drive from Halabja away from the Iran/Iraq border, we reached Sulaymaniyah. 

Known for its open, relatively liberal and tolerant society when compared to other cities of Kurdistan, this sprawling city has been regarded as the capital of enlightenment among the Kurds and on the national level “the Paris of Iraq.”

 

 

The main thing to see here is the Amna Suraka Museum, a security fort built in 1979 by East Germans that was used by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athists Party as a headquarters for his security officers. Here thousands of Kurds and other enemies of Saddam’s regime were brought in to be interrogated, tortured, and executed. This complex can be compared similarly to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and his Tuong Sleng security/torture/execution prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (which I had visited back in 2010).

It’s free to enter.

 

 

Before entering any of the buildings, there’s a series of decommissioned tanks and heavy artillery that had belonged to Saddam Hussein’s army outside where you can play war to your heart’s content.

 

 

Building 1 features the house of mirrors, a memorial room featuring 182,000 shards of glass, each symbolizing a life lost during Saddam’s Anfal Campaign against the Kurds. The 4,500 light bulbs above each represent a destroyed Kurdish village.

 

 

Building 3 houses the prisons where Kurdish prisoners were detained, tortured in various ways, and executed without trial. The first room is a holding area where they would cram scores of people in small rooms for processing.

 

 

Then the interrogation rooms themselves:

 

 

They’d separate women and children in other parts of the prison:

 

 

There is a newly renovated Building 5 that was once the dormitories for the security staff. The bottom floor is a memorial to the 182,000 that died during Saddam’s Anfal Campaign and the great exodus of 1991 during this time of turmoil.

 

 

The second floor is a tribute to the Kurdish Pershmega fighters and has been recently opened to commemorate those men and women soliders who died fighting ISIS/ISIL/Daish of recent day.

 

 

The newest exhibit profiles the thousands of remaining unexploded ordinance that still can be found in Iraq from the days of Saddam Hussein and ISIS/ISIL.

 

 

We spent about 45 minutes here before finally having an overdue Kebab lunch nearby.

 

 

The only other sight to see in Sulaymaniyah is the city center of Sera/Azadi Square.

 

 

I recommend walking there as you’ll have to otherwise drive through the intense bumper to bumper traffic of the frenetic Sulaymaniyah Bazaar:

 

 

Sera Square itself isn’t much but a convergence of all the main roads in Sulaymaniyah. We spent not even a few seconds here before heading back out.

 

 

And after a quick tea and shisha at View Café, a thunderstorm began to set in and we rushed to take the 3-4 hour evening drive back to Erbil before it got too dark.

 

- At time of posting in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, it was 17 °C - Humidity: 85% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: thunderstorm