Tag Archives: halabjah

Abandoning ship

up-cycled hanging baskets in a Suleimaniyah cafe

up-cycled hanging baskets in a Suleimaniyah cafe

I’ve been off the radar for a while, in a fairly literal way in fact. But first things first; the end of the Iraqi dig in Kurdistan. It all ended with an uncomfortable amount of paperwork for me as we’d found such a lot of stuff at my site – a valuable reminder to try to find less in the future, or at least to destroy a decent amount of it before anyone sees and makes me give it a number. My relentless toil was interrupted by occasionally scowling at people who were relaxing and having a nice time, and by the house being nearly hit by lightning. The latter was a good source of entertainment(/profound mortal terror). It occurred just as we were finishing lunch, announced by a pant-wetting bang and an explosion of fire and dust, before subsiding into normal general fire. We went to the equipment shed, grabbed some shovels and attempted to help our Kurdish neighbours beat the flames out. This achieved little except minor damage to my sandal-wearing colleagues (I deplore sandals as impractical and unattractive footwear and take great pleasure in observing the many varied ways in which their wearers come to harm) and the brush fire more or less put itself out. The Halabjah fire brigade arrived about fifteen minutes later and were extremely confused to find half a dozen sooty, shovel wielding foreigners (some of whom had burnt their feet) and no fire.

Our work here is done, or at least the fire brigade have told us we can go away now

Our work here is done, or at least the fire brigade have told us we can go away now

After a couple of days in Suleimaniyah drinking, smoking and eating an awful lot of ice cream I flew home for a few days, went to Alton Towers to unblock my channels, repacked and headed to charming Swansea (I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Swansea, I think you probably need to go there to understand the resulting cultural whiplash after more or less five months in Iraq. But then I wouldn’t go unless you really had to. Maybe the same goes for Iraq). I then spent two weeks sailing as a watch leader on a tall ship around the Irish Sea, stopping for extended stout-drinking sessions in Dublin, Peel (catching the end of the TT races), Belfast and Peel again. In Belfast we were moored by the Titanic slipway, next to the big studio where they’re filming Game of Thrones, while Ridley Scott had closed the nearby Titanic Experience to film something or other on the escalators, so there was plenty to watch.

The shape of things in Dublin

The shape of things in Dublin

Sitting on the bits after flaking the fore-upper-tops'l halyard

Sitting on the bits after flaking the fore-upper-tops’l halyard

We ended up in Liverpool, causing several thousand pounds worth of damage by demolishing the signal lights while crashing into the Albert Dock lock (I had a front row seat for this as I stood by with the bow mooring lines). Many things happened over the next few days in Liverpool, ending up with clubbing in Matthew Street, which was an interesting anthropological experience. Worse things happen at sea they say, though I’m yet to be convinced. In Liverpool I also found that everything in Iraq had gone very shooty while I’d been gone; I mean, it’d only been away a couple of weeks. It’s a bit disconcerting to discover one’s general place of work is mostly on fire.

Liverpool Canning Dock. View from the foremast cross-trees

Liverpool Canning Dock. View from the foremast cross-trees

Advertisements

Poison

The Halabjah genocide: a true thing of horror

The Halabjah genocide: a true object of horror

On Thursday night I stayed up late and drank quite a lot of gin – L’s brothers had resupplied us with tonic water from Erbil in return for being allowed to sleep on the roof. On Friday morning, wearing my darkest sunglasses, we went to Halabjah to see the genocide memorial museum. This is my third season at this site and up until now Halabjah has figured only as a distant twinkling of lights on the hillside and as the nearest place from which it is possible to purchase (slightly over-priced) beer. The world knows Halabjah for other reasons; the worst ever chemical weapons attack directed against civilians was conducted here in 1988 by Saddam Hussein’s government. Up to 5,000 people died from a combination of mustard gas and nerve agents. After the town was retaken, the Iraqi army razed Halabjah to the ground with bulldozers and explosives.

Dead sheep diorama

Dead sheep diorama

The genocide memorial is an exceptionally ugly monument to an exceptionally ugly crime. Due to the destruction of the town, very few physical objects remain for the museum which is instead filled with the highly graphic photos taken by Iranian and international journalists in the days after the attack. Some of these are reconstructed in manikin dioramas, which are harrowing on several levels. People just dropped dead where they were, the animals died in the fields and birds fell dead from the sky. Many of the photographs showed children. Those with large families found it hardest to get out; they died together in heaps. When they hanged Saddam Hussein they sent a piece of the rope to Halabjah.

Some of the chemical shells dropped by the Iraqi airforce with a truck which was found full of bodies

Some of the chemical shells dropped by the Iraqi airforce with a truck which was found full of bodies

 

Lentil soup at the bottom of my trench

Lentil soup at the bottom of my trench

The week on site has been characterised by lentils. I’ve been digging out the first decent room fill we’ve found here; a good burnt one which all the specialists are disgustingly interested in, and the deeper I go the more lentily it gets. I’ve now reached a seam of almost pure, unadulterated lentils about a foot below the tops of the walls. In some ways it’s odd because there’s a similar lentil plague going on back at the house where we’ve now had lentil soup for lunch for six of the last seven days. This is beginning to seriously upset several team members’ state of mind, not to mention the state of the toilets. I began to wonder today whether I might have fallen into some sort of lentil-induced delirium and was self-generating lentils with the power of thought. Whether these are true lentils or just lentils of the mind, only the floatation residue results can tell. My current running hypothesis for this building is that someone burned down a Late Chalcolithic lentil soup shop; an act with which I entirely sympathise.

The sinister beings living in the house drains have finally been identified as Mole Crickets: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwu3CDmFg00

In the dungeon

The view from the dungeon

Captivity: the view from the dungeon

I’m back in Iraq after an all too brief reunion with pork pies and proper tea. In the last two weeks at home I had three very unpleasant trips to the gym, made some money selling paintings and lost considerably more money gambling at Newbury races. I threw away a lot of broken clothes.

Corpse carpet: what did your last site supervisor die of?

Corpse carpet: what did your last site supervisor die of?

Conditions on this project are grim. I’m sleeping on the concrete floor of a half built house in a Kurdish village near Halabjah. My room, which I share with two other women, has a steel door and a single tiny window just below ceiling height adorned with heavy iron bars. The concrete floor appears to suck up ground water and redeposit it to the interior, meaning that any item left on the floor (such as our clothes and mattresses) are rendered damp and clammy within an hour or so. The light does not work. I keep waking up thinking I’m being held hostage in someone’s basement. This impression is not helped by the feeble foam mattress making me feel like I’ve been the victim of a severe beating, and the rolled up carpet laid outside the door which looks uncannily like it contains a corpse. It’s almost exactly how I imagine a particularly brutal Iraqi women’s prison.

The post-apocalyptic living conditions are somewhat compensated for by Kurdistan in springtime which is truly lovely, with snow still on the mountain tops and all the foothills covered with wild flowers. Everything is bursting with life – the turkeys are engaged in aggressive sexual behaviour and the next building over is full of puppies and the animals they’ve killed. Yesterday there was a frog in the shower. Under the influence of moderate gin consumption, one colleague drew unsound parallels between the excavation and The Sound of Music, leading to speculation as to which of the co-directors was Christopher Plummer and which was Julie Andrews. I certainly hope there won’t be any nuns, Nazis or singing.

Springtime in the Kurdish mountains: these are a few of my favourite things

Springtime in the Kurdish mountains: these are a few of my favourite things

Brittain's best ice cream van, discovered unexpectedly near the Iranian border with a valid UK tax disc and all

Brittain’s best ice cream van, discovered unexpectedly near the Iranian border with a valid UK tax disc and all

Work on site has so far been limited to the removal of backfill from last year’s trenches and mine and L’s heroic mastering of the total station in the absence of a competent surveyor. So far all the food has been yellow, which I find to be a refreshing change.