Today is my last day in Iraq. This past year and a half in Erbil has been formative, exciting, stretching, fascinating and, at times, both professionally and personally challenging. I have met some incredibly intelligent, experienced, competent and passionate people. Often doing dangerous work to support people at their most vulnerable.
The Mosul response defined my time in Iraq: from participating in the initial planning sessions last summer, and seeing the start of military operations, to the liberation of Mosul and the defeat of the caliphate. Visiting Mosul this week was one of the biggest professional highlights of my career. Plenty of wise words have been said about the response and lessons we can learn. All I will say is, it could have been so much worse and lots of people I have met here played a significant part in lessening the suffering.
This has been a fascinating time to be in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Whilst intra-Kurdish political bickering has been infuriating to watch at times, the referendum on Kurdistan independence and its implications have been interesting to monitor – even though the closure of Kurdish airspace to international flights was a headache for everyone.
I will miss the mountains, the weather and Kurdish hospitality. I won’t miss the Rotana hotel (except perhaps the laundry service).
Some personal highlights from my time here include:
- Meeting our beneficiaries and the brave humanitarians that deliver our programmes – sometimes at great risk to their lives. Visiting camps in very newly liberated areas early this year opened my eyes to the difficult realities faced by both.
- Working closely with the military has introduced me to a wide range of acronyms but also their impressive grasp of detail. Taking a run around the airstrip as military helicopters buzzed overhead was probably one of my most liberating experiences in Erbil.
- Driving through the mountains on the way to Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah was always a treat, particularly in springtime. I had never expected the landscape of northern Iraq to be so lush.
- Drinking whisky in the Zagros mountains on the Iranian border with some old Peshmerga generals whilst discussing regional politics and the future of Iraq. Finding out that the Kurdish man sitting next to me at the table was a Lib Dem.
- Being interviewed on Kurdistan TV and making it into my local paper (my mum was very proud).
- Reaching out to Iraqi LGBT organisations and individuals to understand better the challenges faced by the community here. For many the situation is unbearably tough – and dangerous – but others are quietly getting by. And having fun.
- Visiting the ancient citadel of Erbil, which never gets old. Finally achieving my dream of owning a Kurdish rug.
- Watching a youth group perform a breakdancing show in Erbil, which reminds me that Iraq has the capacity to keep surprising.
- Discovering a love for karaoke at Tang – the local Chinese restaurant in Ainkawa. Less pleasant for the close protection officers who have had to endure my singing whilst sober.
- Doing circuits with an ever expanding group of awesome people that have become wonderful friends. Which has also helped to burn off the endless Rotana buffet.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… but I have loved it all. I hope I will have an opportunity to return to Iraq at some point, and that our paths will cross again.