Letter From Chamchamal, Iraq -- March 17, 2003
I've just set up my very first safe house.
The city of Chamchamal is the closest point in northern Iraq to Kirkuk, the oil-rich city which will likely be a major flashpoint in the coming United States war to remove the Baghdad government.
For less than $200 a month, myself and a few other journalists have managed to rent the equivalent of a front-row seat in the upcoming war.
There's even a refrigerator where you can grab a cold one as you watch the fireworks.
We've stocked it with canned tuna, junk food, bottled water and blankets. We've got two generators, two space heaters and between the five of us, well over $200,000 in electronic equipment. We're talking laptops, CD burners, professional digital cameras and every conceivable kind of portable satellite communications tool: Thurayas, Iridiums, Mobiqs and Inmarsats.
I wouldn't be surprised if the United States military hit our house, thinking it was a major Iraqi communications headquarters.
Getting ready is a huge challenge, and a great expense. Gas, which cost about 12 cents a liter a couple months ago, has shot up to nearly 90 cents a liter. We've prepared two barrels full of fuel just in case there's a shortage or hoarding. I fear it won't be enough. I ran out of AA batteries. I searched and searched until I found some real Duracells. They cost double what I would pay in New York, but that's okay.
In war, Energizers simply won't do.
In addition to a gas mask, chemical suit and a bulletproof jacket, I've stocked up on Atropine, a nerve gas antidote, and Cipro, to treat Anthrax. I've bought gas masks for my driver and translator.
Danger is near.
During the first years of the Kurds' autonomy experiment, which began in 1991 following the first U.S. war against Saddam, Chamchamal was frequently subject to Iraqi mortar fire and artillery.
Our little three-room squat toilet piece of paradise is within a couple kilometers of the Iraqi frontlines, and from the courtyard you can see Iraqi positions on the hilltops. With binoculars you can see the silhouettes of Iraqi soldiers shuffling along. I wonder what they're thinking as they amble along the ridge. I wonder if they're afraid, terrified or calmly resigned to the possibility of death.
I wonder if they'll fight, whether the Iraqi positions will crumble, allowing us to smoothly melt into Iraq proper.
I wonder if they'll fight, making the ride a bumpy one.
My landlord, a friend of my trusted driver, has armloads of Kalashnikovs he says we could borrow if we ever need to protect ourselves.
I don't think I'll be taking him up on the offer.
His son stops by occasionally to show off his Browning 9mm semiautomatic. The other day he took me on a tour of the no-man's land between Kurdish and Iraqi forces. Sheep grazed on rolling green hills. Smugglers made their way through the dirt roads in pick-up trucks brought over from Saddam-controlled Iraq. The other night, a shepherd recalls, Iraqi helicopters flew overhead and shot at some smugglers.
My landlord and his family are tough, even by Kurdish standards. Many others living in this dusty frontline town have already packed their cars with their possessions -- strapping beds and rugs to the roofs of their rotting diesel Land Cruisers -- and heading for other parts of the autonomous Kurdish zone.
But our host family is staying put. They seem unafraid. Their living room is filled with pictures of relatives martyred in previous wars, fighting Saddam, fighting other Kurds, fighting Islamic fundamentalists. They're armed to the teeth. I had lunch with them the other day. They keep two Kalashnikovs in each room, as if they were just ashtrays.
Chamchamal is a normally restless city of 58,000 which is the closest point between free Kurdistan and the city of Kirkuk. It's a long hour from the major Iraqi Kurd city of Sulaymaniyah, with its hotels and semblance of urbanity. Chamchamal has the feel of a rough frontier town.
The bazaar is a ramshackle, hastily put up series of mud-brick huts where smugglers trade tips on the best routes and agents of both the Iraqi Mokhabarat spy service and the Kurdish underground are said to roam. As word of Bush and Blair's ultimatum came over Al Jazeera Sunday night, the reality of impending war seeped into the town's consciousness.
The next morning, many of the businesses failed to open, or shut down early when they saw the desolate marketplace. One family spotted another packing up and decided to the same. A kind of low-level panic took hold, and a kind of exodus ensued, with people packing buses and taxis and private vehicles and choking the roads out of town.
I spoke with some of the residents. The stories were all the same. They packed everything they own, fearing Saddam's troops will loot their homes as they did before. They're terrified of chemical weapons. They have no protection. They used to fleeing whenever there's trouble. They've been running from place to place since they were little, escaping this war or that war. They don't know when they'll come back home.
They all seemed tired.
An ancient citadel atop a huge hill in the middle of Chamchamal offers a splendid view of the Iraqi positions across the valley and the town below. I would love to camp out up there and watch the stars. During the day, the air smells of spring. Greenery abounds. The topography is majestically varied, spreading in hills and folds into infinity.
This would be a beautiful land if it weren't hell.