Driving down the (fully paved, two lane) road between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, 4 turkies and a rooster in the boot and Ed Sheeran on the sound system, the mountains growing in both height and craggyness the further we go and the rain getting harder and harder, it’s difficult to remember I’m in Iraq. I think pretty much everything I’ve ever heard about this country has been heavily related to either conflict or religion and while I was aware that my preconceptions of what being here would be like were probably wrong, I had no idea quite how wrong.
BBQing veggie skewers half way up a mountain, surrounded by the last vestiges of the winter snows, it’s easy to imagine this as a land of Lions and Tigers and Bears (as long as you picture mountain lions).
It is hard to imagine there is a war happening not so many miles away. A war that this weekend spat out 45000 people from their homes, sending them fleeing on foot through mud and pouring rain, with only what they can carry, to make the best way they can to somewhere safer. For many that is initially a newly opened camp with space for 30000 just south of Mosul. It is already full. There are other camps to the East of the city, but when you’re relying on your feet and carrying as much as you can, that’s a world away on the other side of the Tigris river. Many of these people won’t stay long in the camps around Mosul, if they are anything like previous displaced people. Lots will come to Iraqi Kurdistan. Where there is a hidden web of government and NGO cooperation that provides the desperate with accommodation and food, turning the area into a sort of IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) sponge, that so far has soaked up millions. Literally. I say hidden, it is probably obvious to some, but I’m at the very beginning of exploring how it all works and I currently have no idea. But we’re talking huge numbers of people – many of whom choose not to live in a camp (would you?) and make their own way with family, friends and ingenuity. It is hard to find recent figures to give a better idea of the scale of this. According to a 2015 World Bank report, the population of Iraqi Kurdistan had increased by 28% (and this was by Feb 2015) as a result of IDPs and Syrian Refugees displaced by the so called IS conflict. For the UK, that’s like inviting 6 times the population of Wales, or 2 times the population of London to dinner and a sleep over every single day!! Teresa May – you sicken me with your refusal to take more than 350 unaccompanied children.
I often feel pretty out of my depth at the moment – I’m not even a small fish in a big pond – I’m more of a tadpole (with hopes to grow some legs super soon). The people I’ve met this past week are many things, but if I had to pick one word, it would be inspiring (possibly followed by incredibly kind and hospitable, and then slightly crazy, but I think the latter sort of goes with the territory and I’m certainly not one to talk).
See pictures of the rest of my time here in Iraq on my photography website: www.efimages.co.uk