In 2005, it was third time lucky – if you can call it that – after two failed attempts on my part to get into Iraq and eyeball the war.
In 2003 Canadian journalist Scott Taylor and I had tried foolishly to sneak across the Turkish-Iraqi border from the South-eastern Turkish town of Silopi, which had a large local Kurdish population. Silopi is also close to the Syrian frontier.
This part of Turkey formed part of the stage of a decades-long Kurdish separatist insurgency, eventually brought to an end.
We hired two pushbikes from some local Kurds. Our plan was to pose as local peasants riding back to our village or if caught play dumb lost tourist. We managed to cycle past the Turkish border checkpoint, which largely ignored us.
Dismounted we began our trek for the border. Darkness began to fall. Taylor, an experienced war reporter with decades of covering global conflicts, noticed a land mine sign. So the only option was to turn back and sneak past the Turkish border post again.
But this time luck was not on our side. Taylor's bike chain fell off and began making a rattling noise, which alerted the Turkish border guards. We were quickly apprehended and taken into the guardhouse and confronted by the Turkish commander, who looked baffled to see us.
We began the dumb lost tourist routine. The Commander was having none of it. He couldn't speak English and we couldn't speak Turkish. So he picked up the phone and called his girlfriend, a university student who spoke excellent English.
He handed the phone receiver to Taylor and Taylor explained our situation. The Commander grabbed the phone off Taylor and spoke Turkish. He hung up the phone. There was a pause. Horrible thoughts of the film Midnight Express then began to run through my mind. Would I be locked up in a notorious Turkish prison?
The Commander pulled out a map showing us where we were. Again we played dumb. Then he gestured with his hand, making a slitting his throat motion and pointing to us. We didn't need an interpreter to understand that if we were caught again we would face dire consequences. Surprisingly we were let go. But our bicycles confiscated we had to walk 5 to 10 kilometres back to the town of Silopi.
I can only speculate that the reason for being let go was the Turkish Commander might have suspected – wrongly – we were Western Intelligence operatives and he didn't want to draw too much attention to his chain of command.
In 2004, Scott Taylor contacted me and asked if I wanted to accompany him into Iraq. Lacking the funds I was forced to decline. Months later, I had received word that Taylor had been kidnapped by Islamist terrorists in the town of Tal Afar, Northern Iraq and held hostage for five days before being released. It was touch and go for Taylor. His Canadian government had abandoned him. Fortunately, a female Turkish journalist, Zeynab Tugrul, who was kidnapped with Taylor, was released and she raised the alarm back in Turkey. Eventually Taylor was released and later became the subject of a television documentary.
If I had the money at the time, I too would have been kidnapped and suffered the same fate as Taylor and Tugrul.
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