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John Simpson

Letter from Erbil, Iraq

John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor
Erbil is one of the half-dozen places which have a claim to be the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth

December 2012

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I simply wouldn't have recognised this place. In 2003 it was small and dusty and the roads were bad. There were, as I remember, three tall buildings and no more — and they weren't much to write home about. The most interesting thing about Erbil was the citadel, around which the city centre still gathered. It was a huge pile of ruins at least 5,000 years old, and the rest of the city seemed to match it in dustiness and age: especially, I thought, my hotel room. There were only four habitable hotels in Erbil at the time, and the others were even worse.

And now, only nine short years later, Erbil seems to occupy an entirely different place on the planet. I came up to the roof of my charming new hotel a short while ago to record an interview with someone and do one of those tiresome things called 'pieces to camera', when the correspondent suddenly appears in vision and starts talking confidentially: a bit, I always think, like those monologues in Richard III when the hunch-shouldered king turns to the audience and reveals with a smirk on his face who he's going to bump off next.

After I'd done my stuff, I just stood looking out at Erbil from this vantage point, 12 storeys above it. Cranes everywhere, beavering away to put up more high-rises. Long straight streets in what would previously have been open scrubland. Remarkable numbers of cars travelling in both directions, with the kind of aimlessness you associate with far greater and more famous cities than Erbil.

Vast advertising hoardings, with smiling women and children on them and, occasionally, some fairly odd English. If I brought you up here you wouldn't guess, I promise you, that you were in the northern third of Iraq — a country which we still associate, sadly, with car bombs and violence.

But Erbil scarcely feels like part of Iraq any longer. True, the Iraqi flag still flies in the few places where it absolutely has to. Otherwise there's a new flag everywhere, which you won't find in your pocket atlas: red and white and green stripes, with a golden sun in the middle of it. It's the flag of the autonomous region of Kurdistan.

Being decoupled, partly at least, from the rest of Iraq is the best thing that has happened in Kurdistan since the Mongols decided to move on somewhere else. Having oil helps immensely, of course, even if the profits have to be shared to some contested extent with the rest of the country, and it explains why the planes landing at Erbil's vast but mostly empty new airport are full of foreign businessmen with smiling faces and briefcases full of samples and documents. The British, who after WW1 absentmindedly tied the Iraqi Kurds up into a nation with Sunnis in the centre of Iraq and the Shias in the south, took the lead 80 years later in separating off the Kurds and protecting them from Saddam Hussein.

I can scarcely even see the citadel from my rooftop here: we must be a good four miles of new building away from it. It's one of the half-dozen places which have a claim to be the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth; though I suspect that Jericho and Damascus probably existed before Erbil arose. But who's counting?

Nowadays Unesco and various European organisations have moved in to restore the buildings in the little town at the top of the citadel, and very beautiful they are. When I was in Erbil in 2003, waiting for the invasion of Iraq to happen, I used to climb the steep, twisting lane to the top of the citadel and wander round, by preference in the evenings, and wish some money could be spent on doing up these superb buildings. I don't think it ever occurred to me that it would be. Or so soon.

Sadly, I still associate Erbil with some pretty bad moments. It was here that I came with a couple of colleagues to explain to our translator's mother that he had been killed while working with us. A short way out of town an American pilot, after flying for ten minutes over a large group of American and Kurdish forces we were with, decided that we all looked like Saddam Hussein's army. He dropped a 1,000lb bomb right in the middle of us. Eighteen people, including poor Kamran, were killed.

The fact that our 25 cars were all decked out with the orange panels that marked us as belonging to the coalition didn't seem to make the pilot think about it. Nor did the fact that most of the vehicles were American Humvees, and that one of them was equipped with the biggest stars-and-stripes I've ever seen. And flying at 1,000ft, if that, he can't have failed to spot them.

I shan't be seeing Kamran's mother this time. Nowadays I wouldn't even know how to find her house. I saw her a few months after the disaster, and she and her daughters gave us a banquet. She never blamed me for leading her son into danger, though I still blame myself. 'If we're with the Yanks we should be OK,' I remember saying to my colleagues as we joined up with them. Not a good call.

It was a wild and dangerous time, and several journalists were killed in different incidents, including four friends of mine. My colleague Tom Giles and I, still limping from our bombing wounds, obeyed the call of nature by the roadside — and uncovered in the most natural way possible a couple of neat little landmines dug in beside the tarmac.

And now all that is completely done with. In only nine years the world has turned. Erbil has become rich and safe. I don't often get the chance to say this kind of thing, and it feels good.

John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.

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