The Times UK

By Martin Fletcher

The most immediately striking feature of Halabja is its beauty. Behind the town crinkled green hills flank the snow-topped mountains that divide Iraq’s Kurdish north from Iran. In front a great valley stretches away towards the distant blue waters of Darbandikhan Lake. It is hard to believe that on March 16, 1988 Saddam Hussein’s Mirage jets streaked over this sublime scenery and dropped chemical weapons on Halabja’s 80,000 rebellious Kurds, killing 5,000 and debilitating many more in the world’s worst chemical attack on a civilian population. Halabja now has a memorial with the victims’ names inscribed on black marble

. Photographs show the dead on pavements, in courtyards, falling out of vehicles or cradling their children. The rope with which Saddam’s henchman, Ali Hassan al-Majid — “Chemical Ali” — was hanged in 2010 is on display, as is his death warrant and the pen that signed it. Our translator chokes with emotion as a guide, Mohammed Saeed, who was aged 6 at the time, tells how 20 members of his family perished that day. He calls his own survival a miracle. “God wanted me alive to tell the world the story, and I will do that till I die,” he says.

 

Near by is a cemetery with three mass burial sites for the victims, rows upon rows of headstones, and a sign banning all members of Saddam’s Ba’athist party. The odd ruined house survives. Mustard gas, being heavier than air, still lingers in a few cellars.

 

It sounds macabre, but 25 years on Halabja has become a leading attraction as the three most northerly provinces of Iraq — Kurdistan — join the pantheon of improbable places that people choose to holiday in. The New York Times and National Geographic have listed this largely autonomous “state within a state” as a top travel destination, and at least three British tour operators now offer trips.

 

Having covered the murderous aftermath of the US invasion of 2003, having seen the gruesome results of suicide bombs and the mutilated bodies of Sunnis and Shias floating down the Tigris, I had little desire to return to Iraq, but the idea of holiday companies taking tourists to Kurdistan intrigued me. Halabja apart, Saddam’s genocidal al-Anfal campaign killed as many as 180,000 Kurds and destroyed 4,000 towns and villages in the 1980s. Why would anyone want to visit such a place?

 

On my first trip back to Iraq without body armour, or that nagging fear that I might not come back, I soon discovered that one reason is Kurdistan’s natural beauty — its rugged mountains, breathtaking valleys, ravines, lakes and waterfalls. That is why Western soldiers and diplomats went there for rest and relaxation during the worst years of the Iraq war. Be warned, though; the Kurds’ national pastime is picnicking — and leaving their litter behind.

 

Another reason is the chance to visit a region twice the size of Wales that has only recently opened to the outside world and that has yet to be spoilt by mass tourism. That is presumably why the people are so welcoming. It is almost impossible to stop at someone’s house without being invited in for tea or a meal. Vendors refused to let us pay when we bought hot flat bread from a baker’s oven in Halabja, or sheep’s liver kebabs from Aly Gola’s jigar shop in Sulaimaniya. Unlike other Iraqis, most Kurds really do see the US and its allies as liberators, and revere George W.

 

The third reason, of course, is that Kurdistan is edgy, a tad dangerous, the scene of atrocities like Halabja that lurk somewhere between current affairs and history and still exert a powerful hold on the Western imagination.

 

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has no travel warning for Kurdistan, unlike the rest of Iraq. No bombs have exploded there since 2007. The police have time to enforce speed limits and seat-belt rules, and from Europe you can fly straight in to the new international airports at Erbil and Sulaimaniya without going via Baghdad.

 

But there are still umpteen checkpoints manned by armed peshmerga (Kurdish militiamen), signs pointing to volatile cities like Mosul and Kirkuk just down the road, and borders with tumultuous Syria and sinister Iran. Though Kurdistan now looks more to Ankara than Baghdad, and has its own language and flag, it is still part of one of the world’s most perilous countries, spiced with reminders of the past.

 

As we drive along roads once reserved for Saddam’s military, our guide points out former detention camps and hilltops crowned with old military bases. We visit a tranquil valley that hosts the temple of Lalish, the spiritual centre of the obscure Yezidi sect with its eclectic cocktail of pagan, Zoroastrian, Christian and Islamic beliefs. Yezidis do not accept converts and cannot marry outside their faith, so it is amazing that they have survived so many centuries.

 

We climb up to the ancient caves and catacombs of the St Hormizd monastery, which clings to a steep mountainside overlooking the plains of Nineveh at Al Qosh. On a rocky outcrop stand the once-secret graves of seven peshmerga fighters killed by Saddam’s forces. On another day we walk up to a thunderous waterfall that gushes out of a cliff at Ahmed Awa, but are warned not to venture beyond it. Somewhere in the mountains above lies Iraq’s unmarked border with Iran. In 2009 three young American hikers were seized there by Iranian border guards, accused of spying, and forced to spend the next two years in Tehran’s Evin prison.

 

Sulaimaniya is Kurdistan’s lively cultural capital, but its biggest draw is Amna Suraka — the Red Security Building — a complex ringed by high walls, barbed wire and watchtowers where Saddam’s intelligence agents interrogated, tortured and killed his Kurdish foes.

 

Beyond the rusting tanks and artillery, inside the windowless cell block, you can still see the rape room, the prisoners’ messages on the walls, the bars from which they were hung and the machine with which they were electrocuted. In nearby parks are statues commemorating those tortured by Saddam, and four Kurdish officers hanged for trying to kill him.

 

Saddam left his mark even on the Citadel, the 6,000-year-old fortress which dominates central Erbil. He knocked down part of the ancient walls to erect a modern “Arab” gateway as a sort of grandiose monument to himself. Happily that gateway will itself be demolished as part of Unesco-funded renovations. A single family has been allowed to remain in the Citadel during the work to preserve its claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited “city” in the world.

 

Saddam’s baleful legacy survives in other less obvious ways. The 4,000 villages he destroyed have been replaced by ugly concrete affairs. He deforested swaths of countryside to deny the peshmerga hiding places. He bequeathed to almost every Kurd tales of suffering and bereavement — and often of heroic resistance.

 

I am being unfair, perhaps. I have a journalist’s nose for the bloody and horrific. Kurdistan has been fully liberated for ten years. It is booming thanks to its enormous oil reserves, and moving on. Erbil is acquiring shopping malls, high-rise office blocks, fancy hotels and luxury car dealerships at breakneck speed as it aspires to become a “second Dubai”. The Kurds practise a tolerant, relaxed form of Islam, not the hard-line variety that would hinder such progress. Alcohol is readily available. Many women leave their heads uncovered.

 

But I fly home ambivalent. If you choose to ignore Kurdistan’s recent bloody history there is not too much left for the conventional tourist. The country is beautiful, but it is not yet geared for hiking, riding and other outdoor pursuits. There are some archaeological sites, but nobody seems quite sure what they are. Saddam killed off traditional crafts like rug weaving, so the bazaars are now filled with tacky Chinese goods and there is little worth buying.

 

To really enjoy Kurdistan, I suspect you must be a bit of a war junkie.

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