A War Diary - Part I
April 2003

by David Turnley

I've spent three weeks mounting a plan to get smuggled into Northern Iraq from Turkey. The first attempt failed. On the eve of the first cruise missile attacks on Baghdad, thousands of refugees are heading out. I'm trying to go against the tide, contracting with smugglers to get me through Syria into the war zone, along with Pete Hornett, Mitch, and Chas, three British ex-soldiers from British special forces who will be working with CNN crews in Northern Iraq.

The four of us are dropped off by car near the banks of the Tigris River on the Turkish side. Waiting for us are two Kurdish Peshmergas whom we met two nights before on our first stab at crossing the border. Paco, the lead Peshmerga, is only about five feet four inches tall but one of the toughest men I've ever met. He is handsome in spite of his crooked front tooth, and he wears white Wellington rubber boots. We refer to him, affectionately, as "the Rat," because of his way of moving in a sharp, frenetic, purposeful way. With ease, he can lug a sixty-kilo equipment case on his shoulders as he races through the mountains in the rain. Every ten minutes the ringer on his cell phone goes off, to the tinny tune of "White Christmas."

Under a raging downpour, Paco and his companion Hamed lead us 3.5 kilometers through fields, ravines, and hills, towards the Tigris. We are constantly reminded to keep quiet and not to light cigarettes or illuminate our cell phones (although, paradoxically, Paco’s phone remains in tuneful operation).

As we reach the river, we hide in the brush to avoid being spotted by Turkish soldiers in watchtowers. After about an hour, our smuggler, Hassan, and two other men -- Kurdish Peshmergas from Syria -- pull up to the shore in an inflatable dingy. I notice that their paddles are broken and I figure the dingy has a maximum cargo capacity of two small children.

Hassan and his friend bark orders to the English Regiment soldiers and me. We're to get on our knees in the dingy. The seven bags we're lugging will be thrown on top of us. The Peshmerga guides will go up front to paddle us to the other side of the river -- the Syrian side. We gingerly climb into the flimsy dingy, but Chas isn't happy with the arrangements and jumps out. We decide that Peter and I will cross first, and then our men will go back for Chas and Mitch.

By now it's the middle of the night. I crouch in the dingy along with Pete Hornett, a tall, physically-fit man with the chiseled looks of the special forces soldier who will travel with me through Northern Iraq in the coming days. Hassan and another Peshmerga, at the so-called helm, steer us across the swollen Tigris. The current is flowing at more than eight knots and they strain to keep the dingy on its path toward the other side of the river. Any minute now, I know, we'll capsize and into the river I’ll go, along with the 10,000 dollars cash in my pocket, my passport, and all of my still cameras and video equipment.

Rushing with the current down the river, we hit a patch of white water rapids and half of it, it seems, pours into the dingy. Just when I think we're going under, we pass through the rapids and reach the Syrian side. Pete and I take shelter in a ravine while Hassan and company go back across the river for Chas and Mitch.

Eventually, we're reunited: seven people and seven bags. Now we make our way by foot for six hundred meters on a hard vehicle track with compacted earth and rock. Then, to skirt a police outpost, we head into cultivated fields, through clay turned to muck by the torrential rain. For the next three hours, we slog through this kind of ground, over rolling fields to our pick-up point: a stack of brush piled on the side of the road. A one and half ton light flatbed truck pulls up. With the help of my colleagues, I just manage to jump on board before it's on its jolting way, careering through the downpour along rutted country roads.

Sometime in the early morning, we arrive at a village where we are hurried into a safe house -- in fact, the home of Hassan, our Syrian smuggler. In a twenty-by-twelve-foot room covered with carpets, we are asked to remove our soiled and drenched clothes and mud-covered boots. We get a fleeting glimpse of Hassan’s wife as she whisks everything off to be cleaned. With wet rags, we try to clean the mud from our bags of gear.

Luckily, we get a call on our Thuraya, a fancy mobile satellite phone that can get through to anyplace from anywhere. It’s our Kurdish fixer/translator Ibrahim, back in Turkey. We also get calls through to our news agencies in Atlanta and England. We tell them that after nightfall, we plan to cross yet another river, this time into Iraq.

Our Peshmerga guides remove their kaffieyhs to reveal their faces. We sit companionably, sharing cigarettes. After we pay them their fee -- the four of us pay $1500 apiece -- I trot out my rudimentary Arabic. We exchange laughs and introduce ourselves. The three men range in age from 30s to 40’s. Two of them have ten children each.

Tea and food appear: warm, fresh pita with hummous, a kind of molasses soup, and yogurt with cucumber. It's one of the best, and most appreciated, meals I’ve had in a long time. Afterwards, four mattresses are laid out on the floor, with blankets. Our Kurdish guides say goodbye. The rest of us -- seasoned well-trained men, absolutely shattered with exhaustion -- quickly fall asleep.

I awaken at 5:30 a.m. to the rattling snores of an Englishman. His two mates are strategizing how to silence him, but it’s no use: nobody can get back to sleep. At six I call CNN headquarters in Atlanta to discover the war had started thirty minutes before. An American cruise missile has hit a Presidential palace and anti-aircraft artillery is reportedly going off around Baghdad. There is other news: an attack on the northern Iraqi town of Mosul; chaos and panic among people trying to flee to Kuwait; a stream of refugees heading towards the Iraqi border.

We plan to hide in the safe house until nightfall, when we will continue our trek and cross the Tigris river into Iraq. On the other side, I hope to find waiting nine bags and cases of equipment that were presumably smuggled across two nights ago. I also hope to find a Kurdish Peshmerga driver and four-wheel vehicle (sent by a CNN producer in northern Baghdad) to take Pete Hornett and me south to cover the evolving war.

Mitch, a big handsome New Zealander who is the epitome of a special forces ex-soldier, quietly uses his Thuraya to call his 11-year old daughter. Last night, before our crossing, I called Charlie, my 9-year old son, in Capetown, South Africa. I wanted to tell him I love him. I reach his mother, Karin, who tells me that Charlie, wearing the soccer outfit I had recently given him, is out playing soccer with a multiracial group of about sixty children. She says it is a beautiful summer night, and she is watching the sun go down.

I get to thinking: a colleague, Yunghee Kim, and I interviewed each other on video yesterday in Turkey. She said I was one of the most motivated, focused photojournalists she knows. She wanted to know if I ever question what I do. I told her I feel like I am simply trying to honor what has always felt like my calling. I try to pay respect to the people who have done this work before me with such commitment and passion. But I also said I often find myself being introspective about what I do – particularly in situations like these.

Now, the night before setting off for Northern Iraq, I have a good cry missing my beautiful son. I look forward to sitting with him and sharing the details of this adventure. He loves me to tell stories that fill him with fantasies about our world, although up to now I have avoided details that could make him afraid for me. I want him to experience the world with a sense of joy and wonderment, not fear. There will be time for fear. So I talk about what I do as an adventure.

Our Peshmerga friends break into my thoughts. They have come to smoke more cigarettes and drink more tea. “America, England, Iraq-- boom, boom," they tell us. We watch Syrian television showing scenes from the first morning of war. As the day wears on, I call the international desk at CNN every hour and ask them to put me on hold so I can listen to CNN radio for an update. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen is saying that 3000 cruise missiles will be unleashed on Baghdad, now, at the beginning of the war.

I am still in a safe house in Syria - a new one. It seems like an eternity that I have been trying to get into northern Iraq. I’ve never experienced anything like this in my twenty years of covering war zones.

Two nights ago, my three colleagues (the ex-special forces consultants hired by CNN) and I left the home of Hassan, the Syrian smuggler, in the back of a truck with all our gear. At the end of the bumpy ride, we were dumped in a freshly-tilled, muddy corn field. Our journey to the Tigris river began.

The mission had a bad feel from the start. Rain cascaded from a dark evening sky, and the air was frigid. About five minutes into what became a three-hour hike to the river in ankle-deep mud, Hassan lost the magazine to his AK47. We waited for a half hour until he found it. The weight of our packs and our sodden feet and pants made the time seem longer.

When we finally made it to the river, we were met by two new Peshmergas who were supposed to take us in two dingys two kilometers down river into Kurdistan. But there was only one dingy, and water flowing into the river from the nearby mountains after days of heavy rain made the water level too high and dangerous for safe passage. We spent a couple of hours making phone calls back and forth to our Kurdish translator in Turkey, sorting out this new set of problems.

There also seemed to be an inter-Kurdish squabble. It turned out Hassan the Syrian belongs to faction that is opposed to the Peshmerga Kurdish guerrillas. We were able to surmise through our rudimentary Kurdish and Arabic that Hassan’s parents were killed. In revenge, Hassan killed many Peshmergas. Apparently, Hassan cannot enter Kurdistan or he will be killed. So he smuggles people out of Turkey and down the river to Kurdistan but he will go no further. Nobody felt comfortable with what we see at the river. The risk of capsizing and hypothermia was uppermost in everyone's mind. After all that, we trekked for two hours to another safe house in another village -- the one I’m writing from now. We’ve been stuck here for two days.

Last night it was decided that Mitch, the New Zealander, and Chas, the Englishman -- who have both been in special forces and are strapping, tough-as-nails men - would cross first and hook up with two other CNN crews inside Iraq. They left as planned, and haven’t come back, so we assume they made it over. Pete Hornett and I are to follow tonight. With Hassan and the two Peshmergas, we once again hike to the river -- only to find new, insurmountable problems. We return to the safe house.

At about 1:30 a.m., Pete is awakened by a phone call from Mitch and so he awakens me. The word is: “There has been some drama” – military parlance meaning “something life-threatening happened.” We learn that Mitch and Chas have made it to Kurdistan after a seven kilometer trek followed by a fast water raft down the river, then a portage through knee-deep swamp muck before another quick crossing into Kurdistan under Syrian-armed watchtowers. At the end, they were dumped in Kurdistan and forced to hide underneath a police station, where they’re calling from now, soaked and cold and not sure which is worse: to expose themselves to armed Kurdish police or to hypothermia.

There’s a flurry of phone calls back and forth between them, us and “Blue Man” -- another ex-special forces guy in Turkey -- and our Kurdish fixer Ibrahim, until everything gets sorted out. After they’re assured the Kurdish police will be friendly, Mitch and Chas go into the station, only to have their passports confiscated. More phone calls ensue. Our Kurdish safe house patron talks to the police, and by 5 a.m. our colleagues are in a motel in a small Northern Iraqi town nearby.

So now I face the same ordeal. I am confident about my physical stamina - I’ve always been strong in that suit. But I worry about hypothermia -- it’s constantly on my mind as Pete and I prepare for the trip tonight. I’m also thinking about what’s ahead. The previous night, Baghdad was heavily hit. American troops now occupy northern oil fields. The Turks, who have entered from the north, are surely making a mess in Kurdistan. Two English helicopters have collided over water in the Persian gulf.

My thoughts are interrupted by a phone call: from my twin brother Peter’s mother-in law in Huron, Ohio. Peter, a photojournalist, is also somewhere in the region and she is concerned about both Turnleys’ safety. I’d already spoken with my son Charlie, this morning. I could feel his concern - and I tried to reassure him that everything would be all right.

I’d also talked with my point person, Gavin Thomas, at CNN headquarters in Atlanta. He’s a tough journalist with a soft heart, a former South African who previously worked with Donald Woods on an East London newspaper that had been the stronghold of legendary South African Steve Biko. Gavin wanted to give me a heads up: CNN had changed its mind about my assignment. Instead of producing documentary features with my still camera -- our original agreement -- I was now needed as a correspondent to cover news. From now on I’m to report directly to him in Atlanta.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious about our trip tonight. Ironically, water and cold pose a different kind of threat than the war zone I’m about to enter -- curiously, water and cold feel like they’re less in my control. I also have to learn to use a videophone in the next several hours to be ready to do my job as a correspondent for CNN. I am confident of my picture-making skills but less so when it comes to setting up technological infrastructure for TV reporting. But, like every other aspect of this journey, I’ll try to break down the process step by step until I understand what needs to be done.

This just in: the charger to my cell phone broke. We are in desperate need of communication at this stage, so Pete and I jerry-rig it with two pieces of wire stuck into the wall outlet. Meanwhile, I’m worrying about my equipment on the other side of the river. Hassan knows where it is but he won’t give us an address for fear that the Peshmergas will discover his safe house over there. He promises to send a coded message by phone, explaining everything to our Peshmerga contact. I pray this information gets through so that when we make it across, we have what we need to work.
All this is swirling around in my head. So is something my point man in Atlanta said to me earlier: how dismayed he was about the journalists who are “embedded” with the military units and how they’ve been sucked in hook, line, and sinker to be public relations reps for the American Army. Even one of CNN’s most seasoned correspondents announced from the field how much fun he was having with his Army unit.

But I keep coming back to the journey ahead. Pete Hornett tells me not to worry. As an ex-special forces man, he reminds me he’s in the risk management business. He says the thing to remember about hypothermia is that as long as the adrenaline is pumping, we’ll live. The time to worry is if we have to wait in the cold after having sweated and gotten wet. I’m not sure I feel better.

We prepare for the trip. I put on a thin pair of socks and a pair of running pants with two plastic bags over each leg and another pair of socks and pants to try to keep my feet dry. I’m ready to leave this room, where I’ve spent the last four days, staring at the ceiling fan overhead, the cushions with Persian patterns lining the four bare walls, the plastic flower arrangements in vases, and the life-size hand-drawn poster of the host family’s daughter. We couldn’t show our western faces for fear of our being discovered and arrested here in Syria. We had to knock on the door when we wanted to use the toilet - a bucket in a chicken coop that I improvised. It’s been quite something to relieve yourself with roosters and chickens watching, gobbling and quacking at your elbow.

Through Ibrahim in Turkey, we make final calls to our smuggler Hassan to find out where our equipment -- theoretically - has been delivered inside Kurdistan. Hassan finally gives us the number of a man in a village. Then he asks for more money for our stay in the safe houses and for the Peshmergas who will take us two kilometers down the river and across the swamp into Kurdistan.

For the third time, we head for the river. The trek through the darkness and the heavy mud feels all too familiar. This time, though, we carry less weight, and I’ve learned how to keep my feet dry. Still, I can’t stop worrying about the possibility of the raft capsizing and the risk of hypothermia.

On a slope overlooking the river, I put my left foot down into what turns out to be the edge of a 50-foot ravine. Pete reaches down and grabs my hand, helping to stop my slide. I am able to crawl and pull myself up over the steep, muddy incline, and we move on.

By this time, the rain has stopped. We reach a point where the Tigris is very wide and fast-flowing but calm enough for travel. Our Peshmergas drop into the brush and after scouring around for about five minutes return with the news that the inflatable dingy is missing. I can’t believe it. Actually, I don’t have to -- a few moments later, it turns up.

We inflate the dingy and set it in the river. One by one, the four of us get in and crouch at the bottom. I hunker down in the back. The Peshmergas, in front, push off with make-shift wooden paddles, and we head down-river. One of them hands Pete a grenade and his Kalishnikov for safe-keeping. After about 45 minutes, we are forced to step waist-deep into the water and portage the dingy across a 500-meter swamp. We then get back in the “boat” and head out onto the water. Here, where two tributaries come together to make the greater Tigris river, is the juncture of three countries -- Turkey, Syria, and Northern Iraq.

I finally find a way to sit on the back edge of the raft so that my feet aren’t under me and going numb. In this relatively comfortable position, it occurs to me that as dangerous as the whole venture seems, at this moment, floating under the midnight stars in the middle of a calm but fast-flowing river, knowing that my cameras are intact and that my traveling companions are tough motherfuckers- particularly the two Peshmergas who, with the other Peshmergas we have met, have redefined the meaning of tough motherfucker - I am feeling a profound sense of peace that I haven’t felt for a long time.

But it doesn’t last. We hit the beach. The Peshmergas start whispering excitedly and with obvious pride: “Kurdistan, Kurdistan.” The owner of the Kalishnikov and the grenade reclaims them and points towards the Kurdish police station where, presumably, our two companions await. Then he kisses me on both cheeks and shakes my hand.

I kneel on the beach and make a whispered call to “Blue Man,” our point person in Turkey, to report our arrival. I also call CNN Atlanta: Gavin Thomas, the man I report to, takes the phone: “Welcome to the show, lad -- glad to have you on board. Let’s get you on the air as soon as possible.” I am excited by the challenge of reporting, but also leaning towards what I know how to do best -- make pictures with my cameras. I will try to do both. But before I can get “on air,” I must find the nine bags of equipment that were allegedly smuggled in.


I wake up in a small motel in northern Iraq. I lie in bed, thinking about the previous night’s celebration with my traveling mates- the ex-special forces guys. We had toasted our successful journey (and ordeal) with Barbados Rum and coke. We had also watched the BBC news reports, noting, with dismay, the many television reporters who seem to enjoy playing war and who have been sucked into the propaganda campaign for the American military. Even more disturbing were the reports that four journalists may have been killed yesterday.

I also think about last night’s conversation with my mother. She said she hadn’t heard from my brother Peter, who is somewhere in southern Iraq on assignment for the Denver Post.

Wake up this morning under pressure -- to get to Sulaimaniya. Our equipment has not yet been located. I’ve been told by CNN to cut my losses if I can’t find the equipment and travel the 600 kilometers to the eastern border with Iran, the place where the Australian journalist was killed by the car bomb. It’s a Kurdish area adjacent to a place where there’s an Iranian fundamentalist ancillary group of Al-Qaeda. The idea is for me to be available to do photographic reports for the Aaron Brown show and standup reporting for CNN.

We spend the morning at the local Kurdish police station. Suspecting the police know where the equipment is, I offer a reward. The police tell me not to leave town until they get back to us. Not long afterward, I get a call that camera gear and sat phones have shown up at a local governor’s office in Dohuk. Interesting coincidence. Still, I’m ecstatic at the possibility of getting the gear back. I was depressed when the stuff went missing, but I believe in good Karma and now things finally feel like they’re coming together.

As I write these words, I’m waiting with Pete and our translator, a local young Kurd named Salar, for a return phone call from a CNN producer who will confirm where we go to retrieve our gear. I’ve been reading some emails for the first time in several days. Being out of contact makes me miss my friends; hearing from them pulls at my heart. I feel some responsibility for causing them to worry so much about me.

So the excursion -- being smuggled across rivers from Turkey to Syria to Iraq -- has come to an end. Finally, we are summoned to the Dohuk Governor’s office in Northern Iraq. When we arrive, the Governor and his entourage greet us at the door. He is a small, solemn man, with a wrinkled forehead that testifies to a life of responsibilities and worries.

We are led down a corridor to his big office and asked politely to sit down. The Governor soberly announces that his “people” have recovered an inner tube with nine cases of equipment tied to it, on this side of the river, just before it floated south into Saddam-controlled Iraq. These people had gone into the luggage and found photocopies of two passports - which the Governor now produces. With an ashen face, he asks if I recognize the passport pictures. I look at them and smile. I say that one of them is my colleague, and the other is me.

With that, the Governor and his entourage breathe a huge sigh of relief and burst out laughing. They tell me they had assumed that the owner of the equipment had drowned. Tea is quickly produced; as we drink, we talk about the war. Then I am led down the corridor to a room where all the equipment is spread out on the floor -- every bit of it. Everything is in good condition except one Apple laptop computer for which I have a replacement.

After two days of travel, I arrive with Pete Hornett in As Sulaimaniya on the eastern side of northern Iraq near Iran. Stayed last night in Erbil with the other CNN crews. It appears the war will not come to the north as expected, as the Turks have been reined in for the time being and the coalition strategy seems to be “take the south and then Baghdad.” They’re counting on the north to simply fold after that.

Tomorrow, I’ll go to Kifri, a town on the Iranian border one and one half hours from Baghdad. My spirits are okay. Saw Michael Moore accepting his Academy award last night on TV. I was happy to see someone with the strength to speak his convictions.

Coming back to the hotel tonight, I notice a piece of paper tacked to the front door. It’s a eulogy to the Australian journalist who was killed near here last week by a suicide bomber. As I go inside, I run into Donald McCullin, a legendary war photographer and someone whose work has always inspired me. He’s been here a month. We talk a while. He is disappointed by what he has been able to cover from the north: when the Turks refused to allow the Americans to enter Northern Iraq from their country, the serious war action took place mostly in the south.

Despite my earlier and highly critical comments about the embedding process, I have been stunned by some of the pictures and footage that the embedded journalists and photojournalists have been getting. Nothing like it since Vietnam. Tommy Franks said he felt good about the process of letting people know the reality of war. There’s a whole generation of Vietnam-trained soldiers now running the show, smart enough to know that their job is to do military work and to let a free press inform the political process.

This war is looking incredibly messy.

© David Turnley


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