I Walked Into Iraq
Fifteen years ago, at the start of the war on Iraq, I left Turkey and walked for four nights through monsoon-like rains into Iraq. I was on assignment for Time. I didn’t tell this story for ten years.
*This article contains graphic photos*
April 9, 2018 marks the 15th anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.
There was a small group of photographers camped out on the Turkish border with Northern Iraq, in the small towns of Cizre and Silopi. I thought entering Iraq would be a cakewalk: All I needed to do was follow the U.S. troops as they made their second push into Iraq, this time from Turkey.
I thought wrong.
At the last minute, Turkey decided not to let the United States use its land as a staging area, so there’d be no U.S. troops to follow. Northern Iraq was only 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) away, but the situation was fluid and impossible to read. The other photographers and I had been in Turkey for a few weeks, trying to position to cover the war. Now we scrambled to try to come up with a plan.
Taking the Alternate Route
All efforts our group tried — from being smuggled in a potato truck to hiring a Turkish driver with political connections — were unsuccessful and ate up precious time in the face of fast-moving events.
Fearful of a rapid influx of Kurdish refugees, the Turks closed the border. I could see Iraq but getting there was becoming impossible. The only way to cross the border would be illegal, and on foot.
The direct route, across the Tigris River, was too heavily fortified by Turkish soldiers to be practical. We’d have to take an alternate route, through Syria, which meant we’d now have to cross the Tigris twice, as well as a couple more country borders.
It was either this or go home. But there was no way I was going to miss covering the biggest war in my lifetime.
Then I got a call from photojournalist Chris Hondros, who’d hired a couple of locals to get him across the Tigris directly into Northern Iraq. They’d left him in the river’s muddy banks at the first sign of trouble. With bad cell phone signals, I had no idea where he was. All I could do was erase his text in case I got questioned by Turkish authorities.
Eventually, the guys he hired fetched him back. He was unharmed, but so frustrated (and muddy) that he went to Kuwait to cover the war from there. Hondros would be killed covering the Libyan civil war in 2011.
Another team, with CNN, had tried to cross the Tigris twice. On their first attempt the swift flow of the river separated them from their gear. On the second, that team took the longer, indirect route through Syria. Not only did they make it into Iraq, but somehow they managed to retrieve their TV gear on the other side.
The Turkish authorities didn’t know what to make of a bunch of journalists gathered on the border, so they watched us closely. It’s a Kurdish area, so they keep a close eye on it anyway, but you could always spot the government spies by their use of English and the nice cars they drove. We felt safer communicating with our editors using (AOL) Instant Messenger, than we did using phones or email. They were watching us like hawks.
I told Jeffrey Smith, Director of Contact Press Images and my brother Albert what I was planning, but I made them promise not to tell my mother. She had always been a big supporter of my career but I saw no reason to make her worry.
A colleague and I decided to ditch pretty much everything, leave it behind at the hotel. I carried only two lenses, two camera bodies, a broadband global area network (BGAN) satellite phone, and my computer. Everything went into double plastic bags to protect it from the rain. No extra clothes or anything. Whatever we needed we’d buy on the other side.
We traveled only at night. We spent the days in safe houses in Syria. It was supposed to be a two-day trip, but the rains turned it into a sloppy and miserable slog. We first crossed the Tigris from Turkey to Syria.
The deep mud was treacherous, like something out of a movie. We tiptoed past both Syrian and Turkish guard posts, rolling through the mud at night and hiding during daylight hours.
On our second night, we were close to Iraq. We needed only to slip past a few more Syrian border posts and cross the river to get there. Then a thunderstorm hit. Every time the lightning struck the whole area would light up.
Passing by small villages was hazardous. I was worried someone would come out to see why the dogs were barking and discover us. Every approaching car would force us to dive into the nearest water-filled ditch. It didn’t matter, we just had to hide.
We couldn’t talk to our guides, as we shared no common language, so we got on a satellite phone and made a call back to Turkey, to a local guide who arranged the crossing. The guides decided we had to make the long, muddy walk back to our last safe house and try again. The lightning made it too easy for us to be spotted.
That was probably the worst part of the trip, being so close and having to make the grueling walk back. I was mentally and physically exhausted. Still, the question of giving up was never raised. It wasn’t even a choice.
We rested for a day. The rain stopped. The last leg, walking to the river and trying to cross again, seemed manageable. From the Syrian side, the river looked narrow and Iraq seemed close. It looked easy. It was anything but. The water was ice-cold, and the river was wider than it first appeared.
Our smuggler’s boat looked like something you’d see kids using in a backyard pool. Like something you’d pick up at Toys”R”Us. Instead of kids, there were four of us adults kneeling and squashed together, using a stick with a piece of plywood nailed to it as a paddle.
About halfway across tracer bullets and other assorted gunfire started bouncing around us. I started to panic. We had three likely and unpleasant outcomes: death by hypothermia, drowning, or bullet.
At this point, most of the world went into slow motion. Everything except the river’s current and the bullets.
We couldn’t move fast enough and the river wouldn’t let us get to where we needed to go. We missed our intended landing point and were forced to abandon our boat in waist-deep water and wade the rest of the way into Iraq
We planned to make our way to the Northern Iraqi police station and safety, but we didn’t know how we would be received. Thankfully, they welcomed us. The Kurdish police were happy to see foreign journalists in their country after living under Saddam Hussein’s oppression for so long.
I showed my passport, filled out a little paperwork, dried my clothes on a heater, caught a little sleep, and was on my way to Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital. I stayed in Iraq for a month, photographing Kurds trying to secure the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and American forces trying to secure Mosul.
Would I do it again? Probably not.
Do I regret it? Not for a second.
As a photojournalist, I wanted to record history. At least I knew I gave it my best. If I didn’t, I would have had to answer to myself.
This is an updated version of a story first published by National Geographic in March 2013 on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War.
Photojournalist Yunghi Kim has covered stories for 34 years in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Somalia. She is a special contributor to Contact Press Images and founder of the Yunghi Grant. Follow Yunghi on Twitter and Facebook.
All images copyright: © Yunghi Kim / Contact Press Images. Please do not repost. A special thanks Kenneth Jarecke for the image edit.