Rocky Road Travel Founder Shane tells the story of that time he was forced to go on the run in Northern Iraq.
How to Dodge an Invading Army
“The Iraqi army have just taken the border town of Pirde 30 miles south of here and may advance northwards tonight. What do you want to do?” asked my local guide; Balin, after pulling me aside from the rest of the group.
It was October 21st 2017, and we had only just arrived in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the oldest continually inhabited city on earth.
I had been managing tours in far flung places for quite a few years leading up to this moment. My job has taken me around the Horn of Africa, through North Korea, across the Middle East and into the jungles of Papua New Guinea, but this is the only real “incident” that I can recall.
The job entails making quick decisions on the ground but this was the first time that a decision of this magnitude needed to be made – and it needed to be made fast.
How the hell did we get into this situation in the middle of an Iraqi crisis in the first place?
Let’s rewind a month to the 25th September 2017. Iraqi Kurdistan – an autonomous region of Northern Iraq had just held an independence referendum.
Approximately 93% voted in favour of independence. The Kurds had felt that independence was either now or never. They were vitally important in wiping out ISIS and so felt they were owed a little something in return from the international community.
In Baghdad, the federal government of Iraq rejected the vote and the referendum would eventually lead to a military conflict between Kurdish (Peshmerga) and central government forces. The end result being that Iraqi Kurdistan lost a lot of territory and income as its borders were pushed back beyond the lucrative oil fields of Kirkuk.
Let’s fast forward again.
Change of Plan
On the 16th October Iraqi forces began advancing north & taking back the disputed Kurdish controlled lands. These areas had been in Kurdish Peshmerga control since the push back of ISIS in 2014.
Most of this land was taken without force as the Peshmerga retreated to shore up the de-facto border.
At the border town of Pirde, they fought back with typical ferociousness and brevity into the night.
Rocky Road Travel had been planning our fourth Iraqi Kurdistan tour for over a year but when the airports and airspace remained closed due to the referendum, we knew we only had one option.
We would meet in Istanbul, fly directly to the Turkish town of Cizre and drive over the border into Iraq. The date was October 16th 2017 – The same day that Baghdad decided Kirkuk province and the surrounding Kurdish areas were rightfully theirs to take back by force.
On October 20th we were driving from the Eastern city of Sulaymaniyah to Erbil.
I had been following developments in Kirkuk governorate closely online and especially the border town of Pirde where fierce clashes were taking place.
We arrived in the city in the late afternoon and encountered little activity in the normally bustling central bazaar. It seemed an eerie calm.
“What do you want to do?” asked my guide, Balin.
“Tell me everything you know right now”, I uttered back.
It turned out Balin’s uncle in law was the head honcho of the Erbil police force. He had been informed that the city was close to an evacuation order and that we should hit the road fast. The Iraqi army were re-grouping at the southern check point and were preparing to advance in the middle of the night.
Still reeling from heavy losses that day, they were fighting for what they saw as their own territory. Revenge was on the cards.
They had come this far so why not continue to Erbil and get rid of this northern threat once and for all.
Towards the Turkish Border
Upon hearing that, there was really only one option in my mind. We were to drive two hours North West to Duhok to be closer to the Turkish border.
As the hours progressed, the likelihood of an advance on Erbil was diminishing, but however small the risk was, it was not one worth taking.
We arrived safely in Duhok that night where we spent the next day visiting the sacred Yazidi temple at Lalish and stopped by the largest Yazidi IDA (Internally displaced people) camp in Iraq – the Shariah camp, to mingle with some of the temporary residents. The following day we continued across the border safely and into Turkey.
This was my fourth visit to the Kurdish region, and it never disappoints.
There is beauty, genuine warmth, a fascinating culture and best of all; surprises around every corner. As a tour manager, it’s always a pleasure to work in Iraqi Kurdistan.