One must make hay when the sun shines.

In September 2019 I went with the Middle East Excursion to The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). A ten-day trip through history and culture of the Kurds. An intense journey with less time to reflect on the moments. A journey with intense laughter, goosebumps and some moments of silence.

Within these ten days we met, among others, politicians, visited the refugee camp “Domiz I”, the Amna Suraka Prison, an outpost of the Peshmerga and an orphanage home.

Along the Great Zab, on the way back from the Barzani Memorial Center. (Photo: Lukas Rapp)

A thing I still recall from the town of Barzan where we met a family member of the Barzani clan is their approach towards nature. For more than one hundred years they have some basic rules that define life within the society. Surely there were times, when it was not always possible, but they came back to their roots. Killing animals, cutting trees and destroying nature is forbidden.

Along the Great Zab, a beautiful landscape unfolded itself in front of our eyes. Soaked in the light of the sunset the hills and valleys opened up and showed oneself at one’s best. Fair enough there were plastic bottles and rubbish at other rivers in the near area, but it would be naive to believe that all people follow these guidelines.

Nature, so to say, is one part of the Kurdish region I adored a lot. Often untouched, it is worth travelling through this region to enjoy every bit of it.

All Photos: Lukas Rapp

A big part of these ten days were the understanding and the diving into the culture of Kurdistan. One thing we noticed quickly is the welcoming attitude, especially towards us Germans.

When people asked me about the safety side of the region, one has to be aware that it is a conflict area, but no war zone. True, there are still ISIS sleeper cells, and sure there is a border protected by Peshmerga fighters, as well as armed forces inside the cities, but nevertheless there was not one single moment where I felt unsafe.

All people we met on the street were interested and were open to talk and listen to our questions. We had several joyful moments with big smiles and handshakes — not to forget the tea of course.

A propos tea, if you have been to Turkey you probably know the importance of tea in daily life. Another part of culture and society is the political sphere. As we were an official group we had the honour to be invited to a lot of political departments and institutions where it is good manner to serve tea.

One day we had five official meetings.

There would be so much more to talk about including politics, conversations we had, food, traditions and so on and so forth, but I feel some photos may say more about the experience I had.

Another important part of the tour was the struggle from within and the forces from the outside. Just for you to understand that my words just represent the things I’ve seen and I’ve been told plus my understanding of the world.

It is hard to find words or even where to start with all the struggle that Kurds have been faced with. I feel that the Chemical Attack on Halabja from 1988 is a way of getting a feeling for it.

Inside the Halabja Monument and Peace Museum

We talked to the contemporary witness Omid, who survived the attack and lost part of his family. One detail that still sticks in my head and I keep on stressing about is what Omid described as the sweet smell of the gas. He said it smelled like apple, which was especially appealing for the children to breathe in. He doesn’t know if it was intentional or just the way the poison gas smelled. Sometimes today when he smells sweet fruits he gets flashbacks to this day.

Right: The lines divide families.

In the days before the chemical attack the surrounding was bombarded with napalm, so that the people stayed inside the village and were hiding in the basements. On 16th of March 1988 the chemical attack happened. It caused 5.000 casualties and more than 10.000 were, partially, severely injured. The gas caused blindness and internal bleeding.

Besides that tragedy for the people the whole area got contaminated and it is estimated that it will take up to 80 years until all the chemicals are gone within the soil. Nature suffers still today, as well as the survivors do. High cancer rates, psychological problems, pulmonary diseases and pregnancy loss are still common issues.

Just in 2019 a special hospital opened up to help with psychological as well as all the other issues that are still common in the region.

21 years after the attack. Twenty-one-years.

There is much more to talk about — “Operation Anfal”, the role of the Kurds in defeating Daesh (ISIS) and so on. I can strongly recommend to visit the Amna Suraka Prison near Sulaymaniyah, formerly known as the torture prison which is a museum today.

One last room of the museum I want to stress about is the one that shows landmines, the shapes, the usage and how much explosives are inside. And a quote from landminefree.org: “Mines cost between $3 and $30, but the cost of removing them is $300 to $1000.”

I know the last part is depressing, and often it stays much longer than the good moments. Please read on to conclude with more uplifting thoughts on the journey.

Hookah and a view

But what I’ve learned while being around KRI is that “One must make hay when the sun shines”, and this is what the Kurds do. It could be the raffle within an amazing restaurant’s backyard, a tea and an uplifting chitchat at the side of the street, or simply a warm welcoming smile. Coming from Germany and being aware of the world, I noticed once more that all these simple things that happens throughout the day are the ones that bring us joy. With that being said, you will encounter a lot of amazing individuals on this trip, you will have moments of silence when you are thinking about what you’ve just heard, but you will also have moments full of laughter.

By Lukas Rapp

I am a visual journalist born and raised in Germany, a graduate of the University of Westminster in London, UK. Currently, I live and work in Mainz.