Everybody who has visited Kurdistan knows how stunningly beautiful it is. Follow Kurds on Twitter or Instagram and you will often be bombarded with photos of rugged mountains, meadows to picnic on, rivers glitteringly lingering through the landscape, and at this time of year of course the trees and flowers bursting into colour. And now that the New York Times has published about the construction of the first long-distance hiking trail in Kurdistan https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/20/magazine/hiking-kurdistan.html?utm_campaign=likeshopme&utm_medium=instagram&utm_source=dash%20hudson&utm_content=www.instagram.com/p/CclNStshKNM/ the mountains and valleys and their rich cultural heritage are getting international attention. Great – but why does it make me uneasy then?
Most of what I have seen from Kurdistan – and that is a lot in all parts of Kurdistan except unfortunately Rojhilat (Kurdistan in Iran) – I have seen not as a ‘hiker’, but as a journalist. Nature has always been involved in my most memorable, humbling, adrenaline-driven, painful and determining moments.
Memorable – the first that comes to mind are the mornings at the pastures close to Bejuh, also known as Gülyazı, the village where most of the victims of Roboski massacre were from and where all the victims are buried. I went to Bejuh a lot after I first visited it for a news story five days after the massacre. For my research for what turned out to become my first book about the Kurdish issue, The Boys Are Dead, I spent longer periods of time in the village. Part of life was the women going to the pastures up the mountains to milk the goats. They tried to teach me but (I think) they weren’t patient enough with me, but we had a lot of fun.
Sometimes, a Turkish fighter jet would pass high above us.
Humbling – I was in a PKK camp and was brushing my teeth under a walnut tree, looking out over higher mountains on the other side of the valley. The system was ingenious, with a green water hose running through the camp and at one point, you could split the hose and water would come out. At that point, the hose would be positioned on a stone, so when the water started running, you could keep your hands under it. There was a piece of soap on a stone next to it, and tooth brushes and a few tubes of toothpaste were stuck between branches in the tree.
A guerrilla fighter passed by, saw me looking at the mountain peaks. She said: “You know why we are safe here? Because on those peaks, our friends are keeping the Turkish army out.”
Adrenaline-driven – again, in Bejuh, or actually, outside the village, very close to the border with Iraq, very close to the point across the border where the massacre had happened. I couldn’t go to the place of the massacre because it would be considered an illegal border crossing and then Turkey would throw me out. But I needed to check myself if it was true that the path that the border traders who were bombed to death by the Turkish army on that night of 28 December 2011 was indeed a stone’s-throw from an army base, or in other words, if the situation on the ground confirmed what locals had been telling me: the army knew that the group crossing the border that night were not PKK fighters because they knew the path had always been used for trade. It was indeed confirmed.
But the adrenaline was high. I went on the paths with one of the men who organized the border trade. He was much faster than I was, I could hardly keep up. Then I heard some rumbling in the distance. “Get away from the path”, he said, “they are coming.” There they came, the column of border traders with their mules packed with orange packs of cigarettes and tea. I was short of breath from the climbing, my heartrate was high, and I was in awe.
Painful – the valley close to Gever (Turkish name: Yüksekova) where I went in early September 2015 with a group of Kurds who were setting up a human shield tent there to stop the fighting between the PKK and the army that had resumed since the peace process had broken down. I was to stay only an afternoon for a story, but the army closed the road back, and I stayed two nights. It was dangerous, but wonderful because of the group of people, who were so united. When the road reopened, we drove back to Gever, only to be detained at a checkpoint.
After two nights in a cell, I was kicked out of Turkey. I still haven’t come to terms with that, the lump in my throat tells me when I write this.
Determining – only two months after that painful event. I went to the Qandil mountains to interview Cemil Bayık. A guerrilla fighter and I were waiting for him to arrive, looking out into a valley. It was overwhelmingly beautiful, in autumn colours. I felt a deep need to stay there, which frustrated me because I knew I was not a guerrilla fighter. Looking around, tears in my eyes, I thought, as if I didn’t know: “I’m a journalist!” Which meant I could just stay with the PKK for a year or so and write a book about them. I knew that was what I was gonna do, and I did. My journalistic revenge.
Kurdistan’s nature is inextricably connected with its history, its pain, its struggle, its culture, its hospitality, its everyday life. I am so grateful that that is how I have gotten to know it. I think that’s what makes me uneasy: reducing it to just stunning pictures and great hikes, doesn’t do it justice. Oh, and if you go: take your rubbish home.