Iraq's frontline / Iraq
Tales from the front
The battle to take back the Iraqi city of Mosul from Isis has brought a wave of journalists to Erbil. With the combat zone just a taxi ride away, war has brought a new frontline economy to the Kurdish city.
Small groups of reporters sit scattered around the lobby of a hotel in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. A television reporter from a US network discusses the fight against Isis with her fixer and a freelance photographer, who is also here to cover the Iraqi forces fighting to reclaim the city of Mosul, 80km west from where they sit.
On the next table a young female photographer is sipping wine and talking to friends on her phone after a week spent in Mosul, just behind the frontlines, witnessing civilians and soldiers coming back from battle every day. Nearby a group of wire reporters are reeling after narrowly missing a mortar attack that killed at least eight Iraqi soldiers, south of Mosul.
The tables are covered with beer bottles, whisky glasses and bowls of olives and nuts. The conversations range from commiseration to loud laughter across the lobby but the reasons that the journalists are here are the same. At another table, photographers who all covered the Syrian war in 2012 and 2013 share notes on access to the frontline.
In Mosul, Iraqi special forces go from house to house, guns poised, moving through destroyed homes via Isis-made tunnels. They are rapidly losing lives to explosives and car bombs. Journalists travel towards Mosul in shared cars or taxis before getting in Iraqi military Humvees for the bumpy ride into the city. Some stay for a few nights or longer but most return that evening, tired out and covered in dust and smoke.
Erbil’s beer gardens, such as those at the Deutscher Hof and the Teachers’ Club, are popular evening venues. Both have gardens that are cool in the summertime and have indoor seating for the winter. The Teachers’ Club hosts a bingo night and serves kebabs, beer, wine and spirits. The Deutscher Hof, which used to have a branch in Kabul, is popular with security contractors, oil workers and those looking for a fix of hard-to-get pork. Business is good, says Ali Raymond, a bar manager at a hotel popular with journalists. “The journalists work hard all day and then they come here to relax,” he says.
Raymond knows a lot about his customers and will often have their favourite drinks ready before they have the chance to order. Tonight the slow murmur of conversation continues over the clatter of cutlery as returning journalists share their stories.
Isis seized Mosul from the Iraqi army in a lightning offensive in 2014. Since the operation to regain the city began at the end of last October, hundreds of reporters, both freelance and staffers, have arrived to cover the war that is turning into a grinding battle that could last many months. Erbil is the easiest access point to cover the fight against Isis in northern Iraq.
Staffers for the larger television stations and news networks get put up in the higher-priced hotels. Rooms at hotels such as the five-star Divan and the Erbil Rotana cost upwards of €240 per night. At the downstairs café of the Rotana a bowl of mushroom soup costs €13. Freelancers and photographers often share student-type houses, as well as car rides to the frontlines. Meanwhile the cost of covering the war itself starts at about €480 per day for a fixer or translator.
Early in the morning a convoy of cars and taxis heads down towards the front. As they get closer, the road becomes littered with burnt-out cars and broken metal-and-concrete wrecks where houses and shops once stood. The sun is strong and the thuds and booms are loud. Leaving their taxis the reporters continue to the edge of the battle on foot, treading in the tyre marks of cars in order to avoid hidden bombs.
They watch as helicopters shoot down targets and a general’s radio crackles with co-ordinates to send back up to the pilot. A local cameraman watches the plumes of smoke rising from the houses of his village and starts to cry.
The costs and pressure of the work push some journalists over the edge. At a checkpoint on the eastern edge of Mosul a young Iraqi special forces soldier holds back four carloads of journalists trying to access the city. As the hours drag on, a European reporter loses her temper with the situation and her fixer for not getting her to the story. “If they won’t give me access then why am I here,” she says loudly, as armoured Iraqi army vehicles pass by heading into Mosul and buses ship the displaced in the opposite direction.
For fixers such as 26-year-old Ehsan Mamakani, dealing with temperamental journalists is just one of the stresses of the job. He has come under sniper fire in the city of Tuz Khurmatu, navigated the mined ruins of the Christian town of Bartella on the outskirts of Mosul and was mortared during an Iraqi offensive. “After a while you get in the mindset of a journalist, stories become personal and you get used to the danger,” he says.
Mamakani lived on €77 per month when he first came to Iraqi Kurdistan from his home in Iran but now he makes that in an hour by working as a fixer for multiple major media clients and by doling out work to fixer sub-contractors. He has been able to buy a car and two jewellry kiosks in a shopping centre with his earnings.
“Journalists can’t keep up so they start using taxi drivers as fixers,” says Wladimir van Wilgenburg, freelance reporter and analyst of Kurdish politics who has been based in Erbil – on and off – since 2009. “There are too many reporters and not enough fixers. A lot of journalists don’t know the region or the language and leave again after two weeks so they’re dependent on fixers.”
Mamakani is critical of the way the reporters in Erbil don’t venture out of their expat bubble. “The journalists limit themselves,” he says. “There are other areas with amazing kebabs, nightlife, football and underground life in Erbil that they don’t get to see. But I like the journalist community.”
Pushing for access into the heart of a raging warzone isn’t without its risks. Reporters from major media networks have found themselves trapped and ambushed by Isis while covering the offensive. The dangers of the job, both mental and physical, are often only processed in the evening, when friends gather to drink, talk, complain, dance and cry, as they would in any other city.
One night, in the garden of a reporter’s house, the trees still thick with bitter oranges, a group of English, US and Iraqi friends raise their whisky glasses to the cold night sky. Two of the photographers are grieving for friends lost in combat. Most of the party guests have already gone home and the evening is slowly winding down when one man stands up and begins reciting a poem into the darkness in honour of the dead.
Erbil’s changing langscape
No city in Iraq has transformed as much as Erbil since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, a region that gained a degree of autonomy after the US-led invasion, it benefitted from a regular supply of oil revenue combined with relative stability.
By 2013 new skyscrapers, housing developments and hotels had shot up. Erbil also became a hub for those seeking to do business elsewhere in Iraq; it was a place where companies felt it was safe to send their officials. But the rise of Isis – combined with the drop in the global price of oil and disputes with Baghdad over oil revenue – has stymied Erbil’s growth. The war crept to its outskirts and investment slowed. If Isis is driven out of northern Iraq, expect the cranes to tower over Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital again.