Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Eternal Vigilance . . . and Liberty

Thomas Jefferson once famously quipped, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."

His may have been the shortest expression of the subject. But he was by no means alone. I am given to understand that John Philpot Curran wrote, in 1790: "The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; and which condition if he break; servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt."

However you want to put it, I saw that "eternal vigilance" in practice in Turkey and Iraq.

Everywhere we went, there were checkpoints every so-many kilometers:





Our drivers always got nervous as we approached the checkpoints. One never knew what might happen.

Most of the time, the Kurdish guards merely guessed that we were Americans, asked whether that was the case, then waved us through. But a couple of times they asked for our passports and made us get out of the car.

I first became aware of the security situation while driving through southern Turkey. Our driver was insistent that I take no pictures of any of the police ("Jandarme"--not spelled as the French do!) installations we saw along the way.

Fully enclosed, with machine gun emplacements at each corner, at least (plus, occasionally, additional machine gun booths in the centers of the walls), the Jandarmes' installations were protected with sandbags and guards. Occasionally they would stop you and check your ID.

No one was interested in helping me take photos . . . of those or many other sights. So, I never got pictures of some of the more "interesting" things I saw on my trip. But I surreptitiously took the risk of a few shots.

The photos I took, however, are only of installations in northern Iraq. People were still nervous about me taking pictures, but with my lens at 200mm, I think they felt I was far enough away I might get away with my activities.

You can tell these pictures are from within Kurdistan by the bright colors of the Kurdish flag with which they painted their installations:



In Kurdistan itself, you'd see emplacements not only on the road, but in small outposts off to the side--up in the hills or mountains surrounding you:



I'm particularly astonished, now, that I got this shot:


Where were we? Near the border with Turkey?

The colors on the pole tell me this was a Kurdish checkpoint, but I don't recall many (any?) Kurdish soldiers (peshmerga--"those who face death") wearing berets, and we saw relatively few heavy trucks during our forays in the country. . . .


At one point we thought we were lost, way out in the countryside. I mean, it felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere. But we knew we were near Mosul--an infamously unfriendly place to be. Had we taken a wrong turn? What was the right road?

We saw these peshmerga at a tiny outpost off to the side of the road. We stopped and asked for directions.

I wanted to take their picture, my driver went white: "No! No! Put the camera away!"

The peshmerga looked at me and smiled and waved a greeting, very much to say: "Please feel free!"

So I took their picture.



Here's the guy who stood guard in front of our hotel at one of the cities we visited:



I was struck by how unaware he was of my presence and my photographic activities. . . .


People ask if I felt "safe" while in Iraq.


Personally, I never felt threatened. As the three men who have lived and worked in the region commented--with surprise and pleasure--at the end of our trip: "We never heard a gun shot! . . . That's a change!"

However, two days after we got into Iraq, I remember hearing on the news that the Turkish foreign minister or someone strongly suggested Turkey should invade northern Iraq and take out the Kurds, sooner rather than later. I thought, perhaps, we would be stuck in Iraq a bit longer than we originally anticipated!

And while we were driving through Turkey on our way to Iraq, I asked about all the heavily-fortified police emplacements.

"That," Bob said, "is so the Turkish government can maintain control of this road. They want to keep the road open. Just east of here, the PDK [Kurdish Democratic Party] is causing all kinds of havoc and has shut down the highway. . . ."

As I repeated Bob's statement to M, M refused to comment.

Our taxi driver, a Kurd (though from within Turkey), heard and understood my comment, and protested: "Kurdie! Democratie!" Loosely translated: "Kurds! [We are] democrats!" Or, "Kurds! We are in favor of democracy!"

He indicated that the Kurds never cause problems.

M rolled his eyes. "It depends on who you talk to," he said quietly.

It always depends on who you talk to.

Is it the Kurds who are causing problems for the Turks, or the other way around?


One last series of shots. These are from the Turkish-Syrian border. From the Turkish side, of course. Looking across a barbed wire fence and "no man's land" (filled with landmines, I was told) to Turkish watchtowers . . . and beyond . . . right on into Syria.



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