Madam, this is Iraq!

Two nights in a hotel for 120 American dollars. That’s an OK deal in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Stupidly enough I wanted to pay the bill with my credit card. The guy I travelled with had already warned me that a credit card might be useless, but I dismissed that: even in the remotest places in the world, I had always been able to use a credit card, even though sometimes a manual machine was used to make a print of it. So why not in Erbil? The hotel owner made that clear with one sentence when I shoved the card towards him at the recepton desk with a hopeful look in my eyes: ‘Madam, this is Iraq!’.

You could almost forget that in the north of this huge country. Iraq is in the news as a country of bombs and clashes, but the Kurdish region in the north is not like that. The news from there is dominated by the recent elections, by tensions between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen (but that is mainly in Kerkuk, a city outside the official territory of the Kurdish region), and by the PKK that has hide-outs in this region, mainly close to the border with Turkey in the Qandil mountains. In Erbil, there are no bombs, no clashes between different factions, no American soldiers.

Anyone who follows the news about Turkey and its relations with the Kurdish region in northern Iraq more closely would also have heard of Makhmur Camp. That’s a camp about an hour’s drive from Erbil with Turkish-Kurdish refugees who came across the Turkish border in the nineties, when the war between the PKK and the Turkish army was at its dirtiest. Turkey wants Makhmur to be closed because they say it’s a PKK camp (and they definitely have a point), but it’s unclear where the inhabitants of the camp could go. To Turkey, their home country, while they are mostly PKK supporters or even (ex-) members? An interesting story, so, together with a Turkish photographer, I went to the camp to write a story for a Dutch weekly magazine.

And I easily forgot that I was actually in Iraq. Around the camp I saw some heavily armed security, in Erbil some guards in front of buildings carrying weapons, but in general the atmosphere was peaceful. I didn’t feel unsafe for a second, we walked on the street at night without a problem, we had a beer in an open-air bar in a beautiful nice tranquil garden. Only now and then I was reminded of the country I was in, for example when somebody I interviewed talked about the time Saddam was still in charge. And, like I said, when I wanted to pay the hotel bill and showed my credit card. ‘This is Iraq!’ proclaimed the hotel owner with his hands in the air, and my photographer colleague took out his wallet full of dollars and paid my bill too, with a smile and the words: ‘I told you Fréderike, they have no banks here, this is a war zone!’ A war zone it is – a stable one.

The reportage will be published later this year and will at the time of course be uploaded to this website!

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