For my final night in Kurdistan I slept in Halabja. The village cum town has a horrific history. During Saddam Hussein’s rule as leader of the Ba’athist Socialist party, he committed atrocious massacres of the Kurdish people. Arguably the single most inhumane act was to drop a chemical bomb on the town of Halabja on March 16, 1988. Within 60 minutes of detonation, more than 5 000 civilians lay dead and thousands more devasted by the mustard gas.
My ride to Halabja from Sulaymani offered beautiful views of the surrounding countryside, rolling hills and to the east, the snow-tipped mountains that formed the border with Iran. I was dropped off in the centre of town. My first mission was to find a place to sleep. I had no information and my Kurdish language skills were as abysmal as when I arrived five days earlier.
The word ‘hotel’ and the gesture of my hands under my head as a pillow had done the trick in the past. I would give it another go. As I walked the bazaar, there was not a single pair of eyes that was unaware of my presence. A slow head nod and a spoken ‘Salaam’ turned glares of curiosity into smiles of welcome in 98% of cases.
Two men dressed in camo fatigues slung with AK rifles approached me. Kurdistan is littered with checkpoints manned by Peshmerga (soldier in Kurdish). They usually just wanted to see my passport and visa stamp. I never felt threatened.