Reporter’s Notebook: Evacuating Iraq in the Time of Coronavirus
My last day in Kurdistan for a long time. I will miss it dearly
The driver picked me up late at night on April 2 to take me to Erbil International Airport. I hired him because he worked for one of the major NGOs in the city, meaning he had the proper permissions to drive around. Iraq and the autonomous Kurdistan Region have been under lockdown for weeks due to COVID-19, aka the coronavirus. People can only walk to nearby supermarkets and pharmacies.
We were stopped numerous times during the roughly four-mile drive to the airport. At one point, I had to show a letter from the US Consulate saying I was traveling abroad.
The anti-virus measures in Iraq include a flight ban. On March 17, the Iraqi government closed its airports to passenger flights. It only gave 24 hours notice, and flights were already limited before that. Turkish, Emirati and Jordanian airlines had already stopped services to and from Iraq.
I didn’t make it out. I was stuck in Iraq.
I spent about two weeks in an apartment, continuing to file stories as I called and messaged sources via WhatsApp throughout Iraq and Syria. Then an email from the consulate in Erbil came just before 5:30 pm on April 1.
“Action: Flights available for U.S. citizens to depart Iraq,” read the subject line.
Days after the ban began, the consulate started emailing American citizens about possible Qatar Airways flights that might reach the US for a short period. They sent the same email reading “flights may be available this week” several days in a row. Some of us were skeptical. Other Western embassies informed their citizens of these exempted flights as well.
The consulate told us that destinations would be limited and that this arrangement would likely not happen again. Being the snobby New Yorker I am, I assumed JFK would be one of the destinations. However, the email said only Miami and Montreal were available from Erbil, via Doha. So I bought the Miami ticket for more than $3,000. I then bought a separate ticket from Miami to LaGuardia in New York City for a slightly cheaper $28.
I saw many people I know when I got to the airport. I quickly met another American journalist and teammates from the Kurdistan Rugby team. The expatriate community in Erbil very much resembles a small town, where everyone knows and works with each other.
The atmosphere was joyous. The last few weeks were stressful. We weren’t able to move around and didn’t know when we would be able to go home. We eagerly started to line up at the check-in counter three hours before the scheduled flight time. We wanted to get home.
The line wasn’t moving, though. We realized nobody had been checked in. Worry started to set in. I checked Twitter. A source had tweeted an article saying the Transportation Ministry had canceled all the previously exempted flights. I didn’t believe it. Numerous consulates fought for this flight. Qatar Airways sent a plane and charged us each thousands.
Then the men in maroon jackets – the Qatar Airways representatives – starting making announcements in Kurdish, Arabic and English. People started to gasp. An employee told us that the flight was canceled and would leave the exact same time tomorrow.
The frustration of people was clear, perhaps especially for locals. Crises are not new in Iraq. I recall a conversation with a Kurdish friend shortly before the lockdown. I asked if he was worried about the virus, to which he replied “no.”
“In my life, we’ve had the Iran-Iraq War [1980-1988], the Gulf War [1990-1991], the Kurdish civil war [1994-1997], the Iraq War [2003-2011], ISIS, the Battle of Kirkuk , and now this,” he said. “It’s just one more thing. All we know is war in Iraq.”
I saw a local traveler speaking to an airline employee in Kurdish. After receiving the news, he switched to English, loudly cursing “Iraq” and “this country” as he threw his bag to the ground. It was telling of the frustration people have felt for years.
We headed for the door, but airport security would not let us leave. They wouldn’t tell us why. Much to our dismay, they continued letting would-be travelers in.
A friend of mine pleaded with a guard to let her out with her cat. She said it could not stay in the airport for 24 hours. I did not know how to explain this in Kurdish, so I tried Arabic.
“No Arabic. I’m Kurdish,” said the guard.
Many Kurds dislike speaking Arabic, and Kurdish is the predominant language in Erbil.
Confusion quickly set in. Social distancing was impossible in the check-in area, which now had hundreds of us in it. An announcement over the loudspeakers told us to leave our would-be checked bags and take our personal luggage to the gate area. Most people refused this.
Instead, we lined up at the check-in counter and went to sleep. Airport staff handed out food: croissants, potato chips, soda and water.
We made friends. I met an American military veteran who was now working as a contractor.
“I don’t know how y’all do it,” he said to me. “How you can come here, and not be military?”
We discussed our drastically different experiences in the country. I’ve experienced Baghdad nightlife, the Kurdish mountains, and Chaldean Catholic beer gardens. I’ve reported from Kurdish military bases during war and violent protests in Baghdad. But for the most part, I felt safe during the year and a half I lived in the country.
I passed out sometime around 3 am on the cold, asylum white, airport floor. I woke up to the sound of people moving. I went over to a British contractor working at the airport, who told me they were working to receive permission from Iraqi authorities to take off.
An email from the consulate then came in.
“It WILL depart,” it read, referring to the flight.
And it did. Amid all the conflict between the US and Iran in Iraq, our government helped us get out.
The check-in went smoothly after that. I breezed through the remaining security checkpoints. Erbil International Airport is heavily guarded, and there are multiple screenings both inside and outside the airport.
At the last scanner, I saw the same guard whom I spoke to about the cat. He smiled and spoke to me in Kurdish.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“About a year,” I replied.
“You are welcome in Kurdistan.”
That will be my last day in Iraq, Kurdistan, Erbil for a long time. I will miss it dearly, and it was not how I wanted to say goodbye. But in a way, it was a fitting end. Locals fed me like they always did. Friends surrounded me. And I was safe.