D reporter finds Iraq still troubled

by Jenn Buck | 3/30/04 5:00am

Editor's Note: Dartmouth staff reporter Jenn Buck is stationed in Iraqi Kurdistan, helping students at Salahaddin University in Irbil establish an independent campus newspaper. Here is her first-hand account of the situation in Irbil.

IRBIL, IRAQ -- While the last of this winter's snowflakes were falling on Hanover, Dartmouth students migrated out of town, many heading to warmer locales to enjoy spring break.

But one reporter from The Dartmouth headed to Iraq.

I boarded a Royal Jordanian Airways flight at 11 p.m. on the night of Friday, March 19, and arrived in Irbil, Iraq at 8 p.m. Sunday night.

Irbil is the capital city of Iraq's northern region of Kurdistan, one of the oldest continuously- inhabited cities in the world. Two hundred kilometers north of the Tigris-Euphrates river valley -- called the "cradle of civilization" by many historians -- lies the citadel of Irbil, where the Kurdish people have lived for 8,000 years.

But the Kurdish people's history has been a troubled one. Persecuted for years by the Turks, Syrians, Iranians and their own Iraqi people, the Kurds have developed a strong and proud heritage.

Here in Irbil, the Kurdish people have recently been freed from the oppressive and racist regime of Saddam Hussein by the invading U.S.-led Iraqi war. They will tell you so in their own words.

But life has not become easy overnight. Kurdistan may be one of the safest areas in Iraq at the moment -- the Kurds are fiercely protective of the American soldiers here, whom they view as their liberators -- but there is much rebuilding to be done.

Many outlying towns in rural areas of Kurdistan are without power, water and adequate education and sanitation facilities. In Irbil, power is unreliable and often goes in and out for hours of the day. Internet and phone services come and go like passing clouds.

I am spending my days with the U.S. Army's 416th civil affairs Irbil detachment, jokingly referred to as the "416th Lite" as the charlie company unit is smaller than the 404th battalion they replaced.

But the soldiers who are here have a tremendous impact on the local culture. Corporal Joseph Patrick, a 2001 graduate of the University of Vermont, is the NGO/IDP liaison. He works with non-governmental organizations doing humanitarian work and internally displaced persons -- otherwise known as refugees.

Specialist Shaun Chandler, an entrepreneur from Pennsylvania Amish country, is the Ministerial Liaison who meets with the political leaders of the region and co-ordinates their efforts to rebuild the region. His roommate, Corporal Timothy Anderson, works with him to help the government communicate with the local towns, many of which lack phones and are only reachable via a three-hour drive winding through snow-capped mountains of northern Kurdistan.

These soldiers and their comrades-at-arms are doing the work of a large team of officers, yet they are only a few men, many of them enlisted personnel. The members of the 416th team wear many hats, providing humanitarian assistance and putting their lives on the line for the sanctity of the Kurdish people.

The U.S. Army functions as the largest and best-funded organization in the region, as many non-government organizations, including the United Nations, have pulled out of the region following the regular attacks on civilians.

The neighborhood surrounding the soldiers' compound is populated by doting Kurdish families. Every night the local children run up to the fence of the compound, shouting "U.S.A. good!" and waiting for the soldiers to dole out sweets and photographs.

Indeed, Kurdistan is an area unlike any other in the Middle East. Wherever we travel, locals wave and smile.

But the threat of terrorism always looms on the horizon. Today, a convoy of soldiers traveling to the nearby city of Mosul was hit by an explosive, blowing out the windows of their vehicles with huge chunks of debris.

No one was hurt, and the soldiers came back with an increased resolve to bring peace to the region.

American opinion is divided over the war in Iraq, and the politics behind President Bush's impetus to incite the takeover remain shadowed in doubt.

But here in Iraqi Kurdistan, Americans live, work, fight and face grave danger to help a people who have been oppressed for thousands of years.

The stories I have to tell from this town will be emblazoned in my memory for a lifetime. I have seen friends put on flak jackets and helmets, pick up M-16 assault rifles and climb into camo-colored Humvees, gritting their teeth to prepare for battle. I cried as I watched them drive away, knowing they would face grave danger.

I have spent time sitting in the homes of local people who gave me tea and consoled me, shared pictures and played catch with me, and conversed with me kindly for hours -- even though we knew no more than four words in common.I look forward to returning home to Hanover, where I can begin to tell my story.