A Long Walk to Freedom in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

A Long Walk to Freedom in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

A photojournalist joins the pilgrims in the mountain trails of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where she rediscovers her faith in humanity one step at a time.

The articles appears in Vol. 31: The Freedom Issue.

dawn in Akre, an ancient town hoisted against a
mountainside and encircled by sun-soaked sage grasslands. I’m being
ushered from the main square towards an entanglement of walkways
through the bazaar, and I’m not alone. Carts loaded with apples,
dates and parsley, under which dozing cats rest, are heaved into
position as the first distant sounds of motorbike horns flare.
Smoke flees from roadside tea shops teeming with aged men and
ashtrays, while young boys hurry past me laden with stacks of
freshly baked bread. Led by Laween, my Kurdish-Syrian guide, and my
hungry stomach, we enter a delightfully small restaurant discreetly
carved into the bazaar, fit only for ten or so visitors. Our
beaming host carries a tray of piping-hot sugared tea as he
stumbles across a floor littered with crushed walnut shells. He is
followed by a younger man who covers our table with fresh bread,
wild honey, cheese and tahini as an audience of elderly moustached
men look on from the narrow doorway, cigarettes lolling from their
mouths. This is the start of our walking journey across the
Kurdistan Region of Iraq. After all, only good can come from a
large breakfast at the beginning of a day’s walking.

Until recently I had never thought of myself as a walker, but
rather as someone who liked to take a walk. My gentle excursions
through the depths of the English countryside have mostly been in
solitude, punctuated only by extended breaks and by getting
agreeably lost in and among woodland and lakesides for many miles
at a time. As a photojournalist, though, I have been expected to
walk. Most memorably I walked the world’s largest annual
pilgrimage, Arbae’en, through Iraq in 2017 and 2018. It was there
that I met my partner Leon McCarron, a man who has singularly made
a living from simply walking – or as he puts it, “human-powered
journeys”. He fondly told me about the mystical northerly reaches
of Iraq and his longing to walk there again with me. And so,
presented with the opportunity and with Leon’s encouragement, I
found myself walking from west to east across the Kurdistan Region
of Iraq at the end of 2019.

Today there are over 25 million Kurds across Syria, Turkey, Iran
and Iraq, a fifth of whom live in Iraq. After the fall of Saddam
Hussain in 2003, Kurds were granted an opportunity to establish
control over their mountainous territory, which exists in the
autonomous locality of Iraq. Driven by oil-fuelled optimism, they
transformed the region, building shopping malls, skyscrapers, bars
and even a ski resort. The youth still remain optimistic about the
future their forefathers fought for now that there is relative
stability and security has returned to the area. The Kurdish region
has been bombed, evacuated and resurrected, a site of displacement
for hundreds of years as well as a place of trauma, newly ploughed
land and intangible hope. Presently the greatest threat facing the
region is not conflict, as many are led to believe, but rather
globalisation. More than ever, traditions and heritage are on the
verge of collapse – and these are the very things that walking
trails seek to protect.

Over the past two years the Abraham Path Initiative, an NGO
based out of Harvard, has carved the first cross- cultural
long-distance walking trail, which sweeps from the west to the east
of Iraqi-Kurdistan. It believes that by building cultural capital
in rural communities, the path will encourage economic development
and further peace-building. I have also witnessed the desire to
experience meaningful, authentic trips to places that few have gone
before becoming an increasing trend in global tourism. The trail
requires a large group of collaborators to make this possible. From
drivers and translators to guides, mine advisors, guest house
owners and local restaurants, the trail offers an in-depth
understanding of not only the landscape, but also its culture and
history as told by locals.

In the war, I was walking during a dictatorship and in a place of pain. Now when I walk, I walk without the pain. It’s heaven.


We follow the walkways of Neanderthals alongside shepherds in
the meadow grass lowlands and along humble tributaries leading to
the Great Zab River, towards the ancient Assyrian hilltop town of
Amedi. We travel on foot with Yazidi pilgrims towards the mountain
valley temple of Lalish, the holiest site for the Yazidi faith, and
wander down roads built by Saddam Hussein. Later on as part of an
assignment, I walk inch by inch with de-miners from Mines Advisory
Group, which is restoring the land and saving lives in a country
that has more than eight million active landmines lying ominously
only inches below the soil. As a photographer one has to move
slowly enough to encounter chance and to see the world fully and
with clarity. This is what walking allows; the opportunity to be
humbled, to better understand the world and to be questioning. It’s
about the spaces in-between, rather than the walk itself.

Until I met Ahmed, I’d never been taught to walk. I never knew
there was more than one way to move your legs. Ahmed is part of the
Peshmerga military, which literally translates to “those who face
death”, and lives in the most easterly snow-capped point of the
Kurdistan Region of Iraq. At almost 70 years old, Ahmed walks as
though carried by the wind and held by the mountains that surround
us. I, on the other hand, feel as though my
limbsarerootedinthesoilasweclimbhigher.Hetells me with handfuls of
hopeful words and encouragement, “Swing your arms, lean, follow me!
You’re a proud walker, Emily. A great walker.”

Ahmed’s story is one of sacrifice and, I learn as I continue to
walk over the following weeks, one sadly shared by all who live
here. These tales lace the trails and are part of the very fabric
of the land. The day after Ahmed and his wife Fatemah married, the
war began. They hid in a cave only minutes from their family home
for a month, which we visit during the midday heat. We only intend
to stop at his house for tea, but unsurprisingly Fatemah has
prepared a feast for us. Mountains of fresh salads and pomegranate
molasses lie on a thick tapestry rug alongside chickpea soup, dates
and hand-made bread. I turn to Ahmed and ask what it means to him
to walk. “In the war, I was walking during a dictatorship and in a
place of pain. Now when I walk, I walk without the pain. It’s
heaven. How could this not be heaven? Before, we had no right to
breathe, but now we’re free. Imagine, at the top of this mountain,
where we’re walking, was an Iraqi military base. Now you see
they’re free. The mountains are free, and we sacrificed our blood
to be free. I sacrificed my blood. And here I am, walking

This isn’t my only encounter with the Peshmerga. Nights later,
we enter a small village suspended like a luminous jewel among the
Zagros mountains. I’m led barefoot into a narrow sitting room,
seemingly fumigated with men’s cologne and cigarette smoke and
lined with the obligatory part-peeling, part-squeaking faux-leather
sofas that are found in all Kurdish households. I’d come to
understand that upon entering one of these rooms, you would be
expected to stay with your hosts for a minimum of two hours,
consume plenty of black tea, and be routinely offered plates of
fruit and cigarettes. It’s a rite of passage and one I have learned
to speed up over the years, usually by hurrying into the women’s
quarters with a camera. This evening, however, I stay seated. Lit
by a single naked bulb and a large TV screen churning out dramatic
Kurdish music videos, a smiling Peshmerga general looks out from
his large desk. “Welcome to Kurdistan! We are so glad to see you
here in this beautiful land; a land made for walking! Please, join
us for dinner!” It’s then I notice the bleating sheep through the
window nearest to me have disappeared. Only the rope remains. Hours
later, mutton is on the menu for our evening meal. The power cuts
and we’re lit by the orange glow of gas heaters and phone lights
dancing as their owners shuffle across the floor seeking out food.
We sleep in modest rooms that evening, as we do most nights, and I
think deeply about how impactful simply walking is, both for myself
and for those living along the trail.

It’s not just the military who encourage walking, but the youth
too. Every weekend thousands of young Kurds take to the hillsides
for hiking trips. Arez, a mechanic during the week and mountaineer
at the weekend, is one such individual. “The outdoors plays a huge
role in surviving tough situations. I lost a lot of dreams when I
left Baghdad, as well as friends and family. I was working at least
two jobs from the age of 16 and studying all the while. I had to
survive to handle these situations. I think the outdoors was the
escape – the mountains gave me purpose. It’s like a free therapist.
When I’m at the top of a mountain, I think about nothing. I feel
reborn and prepared for life.”

I personally came to Kurdistan bruised from years of working in
the field. In many ways, I sought safety in a land that has been
bruised and beaten too. I found an affinity with its walkways and
mountainsides. The landscape and people healed me and restored my
faith in humanity. More simply, I realised that a lot of good can
be done by a walk, a large breakfast and the company of kind
strangers. As a photojournalist, I often find myself in strange and
seemingly disconnected scenarios around the globe, but each is
connected by walking and the people I meet along the way. How very
familiar it is to embed myself within a family, to experience a
temporary inclusion, a home, a site of love, and then to

For the first time, in Kurdistan I felt compelled to stay – and
so at the end of 2019 I moved to the city of Erbil in the heart of
Iraqi Kurdistan. Still, it is my job to be a familiar stranger, to
suck out people’s poison and meet their inner child, peering from
behind their ribcage in all its imperfect perfection. I am both a
keeper of secrets and a teller of stories, who, for now at least,
can be found hiking in the Kurdish countryside at weekends.

At this time of immense uncertainty and new global order, one
can only hope that old barriers and misconceptions break down and
that we open the way for new forms of travel. It is time for other
regions and countries to take their rightful place as desirable
destinations. We must move beyond closed borders and narrow minds
to a more accepting global society. Sometimes it takes a monumental
crisis to see what we value, want and need – but perhaps the answer
lies right beneath our feet.

The Lowdown

For more information about the Abraham Path Initiative, visit

To discover more of Emily Garthwaite’s work, go to emilygarthwaite.com

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