A War Diary - Part I
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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