Friday, February 28, 2003

I've set up a new webmail account because I can't seem to get into my Hotmail. The address is on the grey bar above. All birthday e-mails tomorrow gratefully received!!

Have you ever wondered where all the crap you throw away goes? Well I can tell you. It ends in the Arbil Bazaar. Went shopping this afternoon with Rusha, one of our Kurdish translators/fixers, to pick up a few bits and pieces for the office. It was quite an experience. All the rubbish in the world you never wanted -- all in one place. It's very well thought out, though, with the rubbish helpfully sold in different streets, so you get the rubbishy books in one street, the rubbishy clothes in another and so on. I shouldn't complain, though, because it gave me a wealth of top photographic opportunities...

Please Do Not Read the Newspapers Unless You Intend To Buy Them
Bazaar Trader
Shoe Shine

An e-mail arrives from Vicky, asking what Arbil's like. Well, it's like this....

Why do journalists always call Middle Eastern cities "sprawling" or "chaotic"? Because they are. Arbil is a largish, rather shabby and nondescript place. I'd call it the Doncaster of Kurdistan. It has everything we need, though -- plenty of fruit and veg, bottled water, shops selling electrical goods, stationary, that kind of thing. The communications are surprisingly good. The TV in my hotel room has BBC World, CNN and Fox News and yesterday I went out and bought a stack of local SIM cards for the mobile phones which allows people to dial a British number and get diverted to local phones. There's even a shop selling Thuraya satellite phones.

We're staying in the Arbil Tower Hotel, a shocking establishment if ever there was.

When the war starts it's set to become the Al Rashid Hotel of the northern front. The place is stuffed with journalists from broadcasters and papers around the world, all pretending not to care what the others are doing but in reality eavesdropping like crazy in case they miss something. In the evenings the thirsty hacks retire to the restaurant/bar (yes, alcohol is available, thank God) to trade war stories and bitch about their bosses. On Thursday night there's live traditional Kurdish music. It's best avoided.
The Kurds may be very nice people but their music sucks. You try listening to this stuff all evening. It makes your ears bleed.
(PS...could someone e-mail me and let me know whether they were able to listen to the music. I want to make sure it works. Ta!)

Thursday, February 27, 2003

Still on the subject of free market forces, I ventured down to the market this afternoon with Rusha, one of our translators, to get some Iraqi monopoly money from a money changer. I had with me US$250 -- three crisp banknotes. I handed them over and got this:

Thank God I didn't ask for any more. I'd have been carrying it home in a wheelbarrow.
I can't seem to access my Hotmail account. Please send all e-mails to the BBC address for the moment.
Free market forces have arrived with a vengeance in Arbil. An economist could write a dissertation on the laws of supply and demand and how they come into play when several hundred journalists descend on a town.

The Americans, not content with preparing to blow seven shades of shit out of this country, have also thrown the local economy into a frenzy. As we spent the day trying to hire fixers, vehicles and television live positions, it became clear that the Kurdish marketplace was undergoing what Alan Greenspan might call a bout of “irrational exuberance. Prices had doubled or tripled because the American broadcasters were prepared to pay what the local wide boys were asking.

It would seem the ancient Middle Eastern art of haggling is a mystery to the likes of CNN and Fox News. They're prepared to pay $$$$$ for whatever they need and as a result when we come along Sheikh Ali Conman expects the same. Arguments that it's all licence fee payers money and we're a public service broadcaster carry little weight around here. It's a case of you pay what I ask and if you don't like it, go somewhere else. Who can blame them? In a few months' time the 7 coachloads of cash cows which arrived yesterday are going to be gone again and Arbil's Mr Bigs will be sitting back, counting their money and praying for the next big pay day.

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Some links to current stories here. We arrived too late for today's session of the opposition conference. Interesting that the Turkish border has been closed. It would explain the endless line of trucks at the border yesterday. I filmed them and will try and upload the video tomorrow.

Jim Muir article
Turkey closes Iraq Border
We've arrived at Arbil -- journey's end -- after 3 days travelling, totally exhausted. More tomorrow but here's an upload of what's been happening for the last few days...which have possibly been the most eventful of my life.

The convoy’s stuck again although we have managed to get above 1000 metres this time, which is more than we did last night.

The soldiers don’t seem to be too bothered. They’re enjoying a snowball fight while we wait. Given the size of the weapons they’re carrying I’d say it’s a relief they’re only engaged in this form of combat.

26th Feb 11:10am
It appears that J’s box on Upmann No2’s was stolen from the lobby of the hotel last night, allegedly by the PDK soldiers. Like good Muslims, they left the whisky behind. Whoever nicked them is in for some disappointment because they’re not very good cigars but it’s a personal tragedy for their former owner.

I, however, don’t go anywhere without the Preservador travel humidor. If I had a link to the company I would add it because it’s one of the world’s great inventions (if anyone finds a link please e-mail me). On this trip it’s gently humidifying a selection of Rafael Gonzales, Partagas, Montechristo and Ramon Allones half coronas. UK price about £8 a stick, plus handling charge, plus mark up….I think about £20 a cigar sounds about right for the cigar-less correspondent. This could prove to be a very profitable assignment.

26th Feb 10:30am

First of all an apology for the delay in uploading this little lot. It’s been an eventful 24 hours.

In brief….

Finally made it to the border town of Salopi, the jumping off point for the bus to Northern Iraq. One of the maps I’m carrying doesn’t feature Salopi on it. After visiting it, I can see why. After the best day of hanging around while the soldiers did nothing in particular we piled onto a fleet of 7 coaches for the 300km trip to Irbil.

Christ knows how many hours we sat around at the border but eventually and amazingly we were allowed through – seven buses, countless hacks (including….Dad, you’ll be impressed, Don McCullin and tonnes of equipment. We’d made it….sort of.

About 100kms into the journey the coaches climbed steeply into the mountains by 300m….and them promptly ground to a halt in the snow. According to the map the hills were going to rise to 3000m and would be completely impassable. No option but to turn around at 2 in the morning and head back to the nearby village of Dahuk. Mad bun fight at reception with CNN and ITN trying to snaffle as many rooms as they could but we managed to secure three rooms for 12 people and were able to bed down on the floor for a few hours. A sleeping tablet….then blackness.

Groggy this morning as we head for the hills again. Second time lucky.

Inching our way to Cizre at 40km/hr because of ice on the roads. I’ve stopped checking the GPS because it says that if we keep up this speed it’ll take us another 13 hours to get there and frankly I’d rather not know.

It’s already been eventful. Somewhere between Adana and nowhere in particular D, J’s fixer, got news of the birth of his first child – a girl. We celebrated by passing around a bottle of 12 year old Ballantyne’s. The call of nature soon ensued and as In Charge Oggy wouldn’t let us open the side door and piss out of the moving coach (health and safety regs you understand) we pulled over at a toll booth and wrote our names in the snow. Mine was in someone else’s hand-writing.

It occured to me for the first time that we’re an all male team….a dozen stinking blokes. If the war drags on I’m going to need a stint in finishing school before I can return to civilisation. My social graces are going to be shot to shit.

On our way to the border… last. The flight to Adana left Istanbul an hour later than planned and once the 47 (we counted them) pieces of luggage were stowed on the coach we were finally able to head off on a bus chartered at extortionate expense.

Watching J at work is something else. J doesn’t carry bags but somehow they seem to make it on and off planes. He gets up from the table without paying for his meal – and yet the waiters don’t seem to complain. Taxis, buses, porters and refreshments just……appear – he didn’t order them, but there they are. Does he understand that someone’s pulling the strings? Or does he think life’s really like this -- that restaurants provide free food for the hell of it, that cabbies are more than happy to offer their services gratis, that guys at the airport wheel huge trolleys full of luggage around just because? I wish I knew.

The most frustrating morning.

Arrived at the airport at 0600 to be told the flight to Diyarbakir had been delayed for an hour because of the snow. This soon turned into a cancellation. Cue much head scratching and map consulting. Plan B….fly to Adana at four o’clock this afternoon and arrange for a coach and two drivers to pick us up and drive the 8-12 hours to the border. Not ideal but if it gets us there, so be it.

So we’re currently getting some sleep at a hotel near the airport while we wait for the afternoon flight.

By the way, the sooner Turkey gets accepted into the European Union and joins the Euro the better. The bill from the hotel came to 1644 Turkish lira followed by six noughts. How many is that? A billion? A trillion?

Sunday, February 23, 2003

An evening "team-building" at the 300 year old Cagaloglu Hammam after dinner at the Haci Abdullah Restaurant. According to the brochure, "Haci Abdullah Restaurant has ISO 9002 Quality Certificate where traditional kitchen is protected in the most modern way." Which my intestine finds very reassuring.

As this link demonstrates, after our evening in the Hammam the Northern Iraq team is now ready to liberate Baghdad!!.
This is the first hotel I’ve ever stayed in that has condoms in the minibar.
Hmmm…..what do I fancy….chocolate? Jim Bean? No, a pack of Johnnies actually.
Might explain the heavily made up Russian Natashas I keep running into in the lift.
Well, the snow abated for long enough for me to venture outside.

First stop was the shopping mall to pick up some hefty gore tex walking boots. Perhaps naively I brought a pair of trail trainers, thinking anything more substantial would be too hot. I hadn’t planned for ankle-deep snow! It cost me $140 but I reckon having a decent set of footwear is more important than the cost.

Just as I arrived back at the hotel the Rome-based engineering team of John, Marco and Francesco were heading out to do some sightseeing, so I tagged along. Went to the Blue Mosque, which looked somewhat out of place wrapped in snow! The photo of me and the pacifist snowman cost me a dollar to let the guy who built it take a picture. Still, money well spent I think.

Arrived back at the hotel to some excellent news….the border permits have been issued and here they are…..

….plus, the border guards aren’t confiscating passports. It’s all looking a lot more positive.
Snowbound in Turkey!

Getting here was painless, if a little tedious. 271kg of equipment to check in and out of customs. 17 bags went into the hold of BA680…but only 16 bags came out again. The unlucky party is SM Steve Dodds, whose bag of clothes failed to turn up on the carousel. BA have until tomorrow morning to find it. So Steve can broadcast but he might stink a bit.

Met up at the airport with the three members of the team who came via Rome….so it’s six here and three more to come.

Some unsettling news reaches us during the journey from the airport. Apparently there are 250 journalists waiting at the Silopi border crossing waiting to get into Kurdistan. There are rumours that the Turks are asking people to leave their passports at the border and collect them on the way out, after this week’s Iraqi opposition meeting. They’ve obviously sussed that everyone’s planning to be there for some time. Plans B, C and D are being formulated.

Had planned doing some sightseeing this morning. Woke up to a postcard snow scene which rapidly turned into a whiteout, making any sights somewhat difficult to see…as the pictures below demonstrate. Only one thing for it. Back to bed.

Friday, February 21, 2003

If anyone else asks me to carry a flak jacket/piece of radio equipment/gas mask for them I'm going to scream. Here's what I've got so far EXCLUDING my own personal stuff. It's getting out of control.


Irbil (Arbil or Erbil) is located close to the Turkish and Iranian borders, 48 miles (77 km) east of Mosul in the foothills of the mountains that rise to the east. The largest city in the Kurdish area of Iraq, with more than 500,000 residents, it is a commercial, agricultural, and administrative center. Irbil lives from commerce and administration, and thrives from the local oil industries. The city is the capital of the governate with the same name. The city is situated at the foothill of the mountains in the east. The population is a mixture of Christians and Sunni Muslim Kurds.

The center of the city rests on a 30 meter tall mound which is made up of ruins from Irbil's long history. One of the world’s oldest continually settled towns, it has been continuously inhabited for about 8000 years. The earliest records referring to Arab'ilu belong to the late 3rd millennium BC. The ancient Assyrian city of Arab'ilu provides a living example of the formation of a Tell (mound). The mound is surmounted by an old Turkish fort. The ancient name, Arbela, is often erroneously applied to the battle fought in 331 BC at Gaugamela, a village west of Arbela, in which Alexander the Great defeated Darius III, king of Persia

With the Iraqi defeat against the international forces, in October 1991 Irbil became the capital of the semi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan. Northern Iraq has been independent of Saddam (and guarded by U.S. and British patrols) since the Kurdish uprising that followed the Gulf war in 1991. In March 1996 a CIA-backed rebel operation to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein failed. The Iraqi incursion into the territory left hundreds of Kurds dead and forced 7,000 more to be evacuated to the United States.

In late August 1996, backed by Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) launched an offensive in northern Iraq that led to the takeover of the regional capital of Irbil and placed most of the region under Massoud Barzani's control. On 31 August 1996 Iraqi troops seized Irbil. The Iraqi troops massed at Irbil consisted of three divisions of 30,000 to 40,000 Republican Guard troops equipped with heavy artillery and surface-to-air missiles. This was the first such deployment by Iraq since shortly after the end of the Gulf War in 1991. When they left, their man Barzani was put in administration. This marked the end of Iraqi Kurdistan's semi-independence. Irbil suffered little damage in the fighting. Most of the destruction was limited to buildings controlled by or identified with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the rival party to Barzani's. The destruction in Irbil of the headquarters of the Iraqi National Congress, which Washington set up in 1992 to undermine Saddam Hussein, fulfilled a major ambition of Hussein's security services.

The the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) controls Irbil and Dohuk, and its rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) administers Sulaymaniyah.


Tuesday, February 18, 2003

I'm Stuart Hughes, a world news producer with BBC News based in west London.

I grew up in the Welsh capital, Cardiff, before moving to the Midlands to study English and American literature at Birmingham University.

After six months of voluntary work with the Iona Community in the Scottish Hebrides I returned to the Land of My Fathers in 1994 and began freelancing for BBC Wales.

I moved to London in 1997, working first for BBC Radio News and then for BBC World Newsgathering.

On April 2nd 2003, while covering the Iraq War in the Kurdish north of the country, I stepped on an anti-personnel landmine. My colleague Kaveh Golestan was killed in the incident.

Five days later, my right leg was amputated below the knee.

I returned to work after six months of rehab and I'm now back on the road, covering events in countries such as Iran, Greece and Cambodia.

Since my accident I've also become an anti-landmine campaigner and a patron of the Mines Advisory Group.

DISCLAIMER: Although I am an employee of BBC News, this is a personal website not affiliated with, endorsed by, or funded by the BBC.