After the events of my last post (Taksim Square protests) I flew to a city in Eastern Turkey called Diyarbakir, which I’d found earlier was the closest city to the Iraqi border crossing that had both an airport and a bus station which I could find online references to having a bus to Iraq (As a result of the trip it also appears you could fly to the interestingly named city of Batman and catch the same bus later on its route, although I would recommend Diyarbakir for having slightly more things to see and do).
I was travelling with a friend on this trip and we’d anticipated that the Turkish part of the journey would be fairly event free but once we were into Iraqi customs things would quickly become a bit more tense, little did we know the terrifying situation we would be driving into…
The logistics of catching this bus were simple, we woke up early and asked a taxi to take us to the Diyarbakir bus station (The locals speak Kurdish and we found that “Autobus” was the term we needed) where there were ticket offices for various companies advertising routes to Iraq, we opted for Best Van Turizm just because this is the company we’d heard about online. We quickly showed our passports and purchased two coach tickets taking us to Dohuk in Iraq for $30 each. The bus did continue to Arbil (The capital of Northern Iraq) but we couldn’t confirm whether it took the road going through Mosul, which is something we definitely wanted to avoid. There’s a couple of reasons for this, firstly only Iraqi Kurdistan is visa free, meaning we could be kicked off the bus at a military checkpoint as Mosul is in Iraq proper, and secondly, Mosul is consistently regarded as one of the most dangerous cities on earth, as it is an Al Qaeda/Former Ba’ath stronghold, with Westerners being a major target for kidnapping and assassination. Scary stuff.
Our bus rolled out of Diyarbakir coach station at about 11am and we were told it should take around 10 hours to make it to Dohuk, giving us plenty of time to find a hotel. We spent about 5 fairly relaxing hours taking in the scenery, snapping photos of signs that said “Batman” and seemingly stopping for 30 minutes at every service station Eastern Turkey has to offer.
Things got a bit more confusing once we stopped in Cizre to pick up some more passengers. There was a pretty heated conversation between 4 young guys (Who I’ll refer to from now on as the “4 Kurdish Lads”), the elder of our two bus drivers and a couple other guys on the street. After a few minutes of this the 4 Kurdish Lads got on the bus and demanded to sit in the front four seats causing a couple of people to have to move which seemed a weird thing to do.
Once we started moving again I realised we were going back the way we came and we pulled into the last service station we had been in, the older bus driver made some sort of announcement that we couldn’t understand and signaled for us all to get off the bus. We tried to get some more info out of him but we couldn’t understand each other, my friend called up a Kurdish guy he knew back in England to try and get him to translate but due to different Kurdish dialects he could only translate that the driver was telling us not to worry. In the mean time a guy from the bus, who was dressed in traditional Kurdish clothing, had gestured to me a sort of closing gesture which I took to mean the border was closed, he also made a “hopeless” gesture which didn’t fill me with confidence about the situation.
Fast forward about an hour of waiting the bus driver starts to shout and everyone rushes back onto the bus, progress! Just as a note, instead of continuing down the motorway to find a safe place to turn around the coach driver decided to drive down the hard-shoulder in the wrong direction for about half a mile instead as seen in the following picture;
After half an hour we pulled into Silopi bus station, which is a few miles before Silopi itself, and then the Iraqi border is about 5 miles on the other side of the city on the same road. Everyone got off the coach and started hanging around and again we couldn’t get any information about what was going on. After a while another tourist coach turned up and a Kurdish guy who got off it approached as introducing himself in English telling us he’d lived in Glasgow for ten years after being displaced from Iraq as a refugee during the Kurdish Genocide. He explained that the border was closed and that it was something to do with the Taxi drivers who ferry people across the border.
We continued to wait a few hours and eventually an armoured car turned up with a few guys in it who were in casual clothing, yet armed with pistols and sub machine guns, they started mingling and chatting with the drivers of the now four coaches in the station as well as the drivers of a couple of border taxis that arrived. Over about a period of two hours this conversation seemed to gradually increase in anger with a larger crowd of passengers forming around them, the English speaking Kurdish guy refused to translate any of the events to us which didn’t help our nerves.
During this conversation I’d texted a friend in England (Thanks Chris!) to see if he could find any news about Silopi and he responded that there were violent protests regarding the imprisonment of the Kurdish political leader which had escalated to fire-bombings targeting police as well as tear gas in response. We guessed that these protests were blocking the road but we couldn’t figure out the taxi drivers involvement in the whole thing and why there had been such an argument. As the argument seemed to reach a climax the crowd dispersed with everyone getting back onto the 5 coaches now in the station, a couple of taxi drivers seeming to join each bus standing at the front, and then left the station in a convoy with the armoured car following up at the rear.
For the rest of the story to make a bit more sense than the events did at the time I’ll explain what we later found out to be the cause. Local Taxi drivers were exploiting their monopoly of ferrying people back and forth a few miles over the border by charging extortionate rates of $20-30 a person as well as forcing passengers to carry their tax free allowances of cigarettes on behalf of the drivers when travelling in the Iraq-Turkey direction. With a full 9 seater minibus the drivers can make hundreds of dollars for very little work. The governments of Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey had granted permits for buses to start operating across the border meaning you could now travel a lot further for $30 and not have to deal with the exploitative taxi drivers. Obviously they were not happy about losing their business and had seemingly decided to piggy-back on the larger protests in Silopi and attempt to block the buses coming through. The bus drivers had negotiated passing through with some of the taxi drivers but this message clearly had not propagated through their ranks as we were about to find out.
Everything was fairly calm as we reached the centre of Silopi, we kept our eyes peeled for the big protests as we stopped at some traffic lights. Suddenly there was a massive bang at the back of the bus, we quickly looked round and realised all of the locals had dived onto the floor of the bus! We couldn’t tell what was happening so decided to follow suit and get on the floor too, the taxi drivers on our bus jumped off at this point waving their arms signalling to someone to stop. We quickly pulled away from the lights with the armoured car now flying past the convoy with its lights blaring.
We headed quickly through the town and noticed the windows of the coach in front shattering as something was being thrown at them, hearing a few more loud bangs in our bus as well. For some reason our immediate reaction to this had been to start laughing, not really sure why, but as we started to exit the far side of Silopi things took a more worrying turn. We were travelling at a fairly decent speed down the motorway when suddenly the bus came to a halt we looked out the front and saw a row of taxis blocking the road and a crowd of taxi drivers starting to circle the bus shouting. My brain started to go into overdrive a bit trying to figure out what to do if things got more violent, eventually settling on sprinting into the darkness alongside the road with my passport, wallet and phone and hope for the best!
Luckily, before things escalated, our driver got onto the wrong side of the road and slowly pushed through, the five coaches then raced down the motorway towards the lights of the border, two coaches down the wrong side, until we hit the queue to the border when all 5 were now racing down it in the wrong direction.
As we reached the border we cut in front of the queue and more loud bangs started to hit the bus! As the five coaches stopped in the border compound it seemed we were still targets! Everyone flew of the buses and stormed the single passport control window practically throwing their passports in to be stamped out of the country. At this point the 4 Kurdish lads who we’d taken a bit of a disliking to earlier showed themselves to be thoroughly decent guys who guided us through the custom points forcing themselves into the crowd with our passports to get them stamped for us.
The crowd squeezed back onto the buses and we rolled over the bridge into Iraq. Relief. Relief to be in Iraq? This really wasn’t how we’d anticipated this exact moment, this was the part we were supposed to be most nervous about. The 4 Kurdish lads walked with us to the Iraqi immigration building where our passports were stamped into the country whilst we enjoyed a complimentary cup of tea. We got back on the buses and rolled on towards the Iraqi border town of Zaxo where we stopped to get petrol. At this point we got a close look at the damage to our bus realising that several windows had been smashed! Luckily the windows were double glazed and only the outer pane was gone, explaining why we hand’t seen any glass inside the bus.
Next the bus headed onto Dohuk, we estimated we would get there at about 3am meaning it was going to be a bit sketchy finding a hotel but luckily we knew of one near the bus station. This turned out to be useless when the coach driver decided he was going to drop us off on the hard-shoulder at the junction for Dohuk rather than bother going into city, luckily another passenger was being picked up by a friend at the junction and offered us a ride into town in their pickup truck. Again this was pretty sketchy but at this point our brains were pretty much fried. The guy seemed nice enough and drove us to a hotel, we got the cheapest room we could which thankfully turned out to be wonderful, the air conditioning being a god send after the day we’d had and, after a celebratory high-five for ‘safely’ making it into Iraq, we promptly gave into exhaustion and crashed out.
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