Hiking in War Zones
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In July 2009, three young Americans were imprisoned by Iran for espionage after hiking in Northern Iraq, or South Kurdistan. Accounts vary regarding whether they crossed the unmarked border by mistake, or whether Iranian forces crossed into Iraq to intercept them. Sarah Shourd was freed on medical grounds after fourteen months; after more than two years in prison, her fiancé Shane Bauer and friend Josh Fattal were finally freed last week.
With no surveillance equipment, knowledge of Farsi, or other evidence to substantiate Iran’s claims, the charges against the hikers were ludicrous. It seemed clear that they were being used as political pawns. But despite the anguish that their loved ones were going through, responses to online news coverage frequently seemed to boil down to: serves them right for going hiking in Iraq, the idiots.
Actually, such comments only reinforce their authors’ ignorance of the region. The hikers weren’t stupid. Shourd and Bauer were living in Syria at the time; Shourd was learning Arabic and Bauer already spoke it fluently. If Bauer, a freelance journalist, had been on a formal news assignment at the time of their capture, perhaps their plight might have elicited more sympathy and they might have been portrayed as more than just clueless tourists.
The case was of particular interest to me because I was able to picture myself in their shoes: in February of this year, I visited Iraqi Kurdistan. My trip was, unsurprisingly, of interest to many people, most of them white westerners like myself with little or no experience of Western Asia. But this interest often seems to have been accompanied by assumptions that distort my experience before I’ve even attempted to describe it, and I see the same thing happening to the story of the US hikers.
The most frequent assumption, of course, is the expectation that Iraq is a uniformly dangerous war zone. The steady stream of news filtering out would seem to back this up: bombings, kidnappings and murders occur so often and in such great numbers that they have become normalised, long ago ceasing to shock the rest of the world. But the Kurdistan region, semi-autonomous for twenty years, does not fit this profile. My trip did not afford me any new insights into the issue of western occupation, since the people I met were not under occupation, and as Kurds, they identified with Kurdistan, not Iraq. Shourd and Bauer, with extensive travel experience of the Middle East, would also have been well aware of the differences between this region and, say, Baghdad. Visiting this part of Iraq was not a case of knowingly placing themselves in jeopardy for an adrenaline rush, and since there was no precedent of Iranian security forces showing up on one side or another of the unmarked border to arrest people for espionage, it’s reasonable to assume that their decision to hike in the mountains was as informed as it could have been.
Still, despite the general stability of the region, I found that the tourist board image of Kurdistan as safe was also incomplete. Foreign nationals in Kurdistan, as opposed to in occupied Iraq, do not tend to be at risk of kidnapping or violence, but nonetheless two different kinds of danger made themselves apparent while I was there. The first was a direct threat to my own safety and that of a western friend: a pleasant day with a family who welcomed us into their home turned bad when the father and his brother got us alone. The second danger was experienced by a Kurdish friend who had received death threats for his journalism and human rights activism. These escalated subsequent to my departure, when he helped to organise an anti-corruption protest that was fired on by security forces, resulting in fatalities. Over the course of two and a half months of daily protests, ten people lost their lives, while my friend went into hiding and was eventually smuggled out of the country. He is currently appealing against the rejection of his asylum claim.
I told both of these stories in the zine I made about my Kurdistan trip. Although feedback on the zine has been positive, I’m troubled by some of the responses – or lack thereof – to these specific aspects of it. My personal experience of danger frequently attracted attention, but the issue of the Kurdish protests – which I felt compelled to write about given the western media’s near-total lack of coverage – was barely mentioned by readers, let alone any feedback asking for news of my friend.
Some seemed to interpret my zine as being about, among other things, “the treatment of women there”: apparently a reference to the sexual threat I encountered. I hadn’t wanted to spell everything out to readers, but I take issue with the notion that my experience is indicative of anything specific to Kurdistan or the Middle East. It was frightening and wrong, but could just as easily have happened anywhere: rape culture is a worldwide phenomenon, and in this respect, Kurdistan was just as safe and just as dangerous as my home country. And despite this negative experience, the other Kurdish men I met were honourable and kind. If I felt like generalising, I could do so in either direction, but I find that an unhelpful strategy.
The ease with which others draw their own conclusions about my experience is also illustrated by the numerous references I’ve heard to my “trip to Afghanistan”: apparently western-occupied Muslim countries are interchangeable. And the Afghanistan faux pas ties in nicely with “the treatment of women”, a prominent excuse given for invading that country when it suited certain interests. The Taliban’s human rights abuses had been ignored for a considerable length of time before al-Qaeda attacked on American soil; the west’s concern for Afghan women developed rapidly when doubters needed to be convinced that intervention was necessary for humanitarian reasons. Although there’s no denying that the Taliban’s regime was horrific, representations of Muslim countries as uniformly repressive continue to serve to justify a particular kind of western imperialism and orientalism, distilling their diversity into a single monolithic and barbaric culture. As an English friend of mine said during Egypt’s inspiring revolution: “I haven’t been paying attention. They all execute queers anyway.”
Kurdistan’s protests, which were motivated in part by the victory of the Egyptian people, perhaps felt too far removed from the experience of many westerners for an active interest to be taken. Trying to explain what was going on felt like hitting some kind of invisible wall. For the first week or so after I left Kurdistan, I was glued to the internet, seeking out information on developments in the region, as well as contacting asylum and human rights organisations on behalf of my friend, and trying to figure out the nuances of the situation, aspects that might not be immediately clear to an outside observer. When he was incomunicado for a few weeks, leaving the country and then being smuggled through Europe, I had to prepare myself for the worst. On receiving an email acknowledging that he had reached his destination, I blurted my relief to an Australian acquaintance who’d just called round. “What a daredevil!” she said, in the tone of a disinterested adult admiring a child’s painting, and immediately changed the subject. Maybe she thought he’d just smuggled himself for a laugh. Maybe she thought he’d posted himself somewhere as some kind of wacky stunt.
Kurdish journalists have been beaten, shot at, kidnapped and murdered after criticising the regional government. A place that is safe for tourists is not always safe for locals. Contrary to popular fears, westerners are not always seen as a target, but my own safety is not always the central story. I wrote about my friend to bear witness to what he was going through and the dangers that he and his colleagues faced. If my visit to Kurdistan gets other westerners’ attention simply because they can relate to me, then this is the message I want them to come away with: it’s not about me. The US hikers know it’s not about them either: that’s why, speaking to the media following their release, they expressed support for other political prisoners in the USA and Iran, drew attention to the beatings experienced by their fellow prisoners, and highlighted the ongoing shame of Guantánamo Bay, which was referenced by guards in Evin Prison every time they complained of their conditions. But despite the extensive coverage of the hikers’ case, it’s unclear whether mainstream western audiences are willing to engage with a story more nuanced than that of a hapless tourist.