We have returned to Kurdistan. We are again travelling between the frontlines which mark this small country in which territories are under the control of the Islamic State. We will be focusing on the area of Kirkuk, a city which in the past underwent an “Arabization” process strongly wanted by the former Ra’is Saddam Hussein: homes, schools and large scale public investments to attract as many Arabs as possible to live in what has historically been a Kurdish city. As often happens history is forced to step aside faced with a president’s pragmatism. Naft al-‘arab li l-‘arab!, Arab oil for the Arabs! The slogan was the cry of Iraqi nationalist Al-Turayqi at the end of the seventies, yet in this area it is still very popular despite many years having gone by. Proof that history can be rewritten to one’s own benefit, especially the history of Kirkuk, a city sitting on an extensive oil field which is why ISIS is so keen to conquer it.
In this area there are more oil refineries than there are cafés and the smell of gasoline is a constant presence, causing strong evening headaches. In June 2014 the Kurds regained nearly total control of the entire city; in the same period the Arab cities succumbed one after the other and the Iraqi army, armed and trained by the United States, fled the area leaving terrain and weapons in the hands of ISIS.
Today in Kirkuk Kurdish is the prevailing language and if you ask around people will tell you that “it will never fall into Arab hands again.” The city stands 250km from Iraq’s capital city, Baghdad, and halfway between the two largest Kurdish centers: Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and Sulaymanyah, the region’s second city. It is in Kirkuk that you begin to sense the tension.
The arrest of Islamic State terrorists is daily routine; attacks are common and the possibility of dying at a crossroads in one’s is not so remote. Furthermore it doesn’t take long to realize that the hottest frontlines bordering with the Caliphate are only a few dozen kilometers away. We decided to visit some of them: Maryam Bag and Tel Warad are the first two we arrive at. It’s a quick journey by car from Kirkuk, but we have to wait to receive permits from the peshmerga in command to reach the posts only a few meters from the black flags.
As we drive along civilian vehicles are replaced by military ones and checkpoints. We are treading the terrain which until a few months ago was in the hands of ISIS. Vast spaces recently conquered by the peshmerga open up before us. The soldier accompanying us tells us how the terrorists build tunnels to reach the other side and carry out surprise attacks on the Kurdish base: “They suddenly jump out, in the middle of the fields.” The atmosphere in Tel Warad is sombre, there are few soldiers and the thought that some terrorist might suddenly lash out from behind a tree is blood-curdling. We proceed and reach the frontline. Some twenty soldiers are positioned behind earth-filled sacks and check every movement on the other side. ISIS stations are only a few meters away and firefights are not rare.
“They are no actual battles. Those ended over a month ago, but nearly every day we a have a shooting,”, the commander explains to us. They invite us to have some tea and to stop for dinner. We decide to stay a while and talk. They all seem happy to speak their minds: “As a peshmerga I earn very little. The money isn’t enough to support my family. But I feel obliged to do something. This is my land, I can’t leave it in the hands of terrorists,” a young peshmerga tells us. The commander explains that there are few weapons and soon they will run out of ammunition: “All we were given from the outside are these German rifles, unfortunately we don’t have the means to contrast the suicide attacks. They (the terrorists) fill their cars with explosives. A “martyr” can drive all the way up here but we have nothing to contrast attacks of this kind.”
The commander’s face breaks into a smile when we ask him if he knows what Italy is doing in Kurdistan: “We are very grateful to Italy for what they are doing. We know that your men came to train the peshmerga. This fills us with pride.” It’s time to go, the light is fading and the idea of going back in the dark is in no way appealing. We say goodbye and thank them for their hospitality. But before we leave one soldier asks me: “Would you mind leaving me your socks?”