A diary from the front lines with Kurdish militia
By Kevin Sites
In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and newsmakers around the world.
CHAMCHAMAL, Iraq (CNN) -- It's the first day of the war and things are not going so well. I mean for us, not the combatants. So far, the Iraqis have fired three mortars in our general direction and fired rounds from their Russian-made, Dushka heavy machine gun, several of which hit the road behind my partner Bill Skinner moments after he crossed.
Skinner, who was a military chopper pilot at one time, called them harassment rounds. I would, in using the vernacular of "Apocalypse Now," call them harassment rounds with extreme prejudice.
We arrived at this spot shortly after the United States launched its first missile of opportunity on Baghdad to take out Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. We loaded our trucks and headed to the nearest border point that divides Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq from the area occupied by the Iraqi army.
It's a mud-hut smuggler's town called Chamchamal.
We're the first ones on site and drive to the last Kurdish sentry post. The strategically important, oil-rich city of Kirkuk is just 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. We are mobile and bristling with the latest technology, mini digital video cameras and updated videophone, that when connected to two satellite phones, provides a fairly clean picture -- meaning it doesn't look like it was beamed from the International Space Station.
We set up on the spot and begin doing live shots hour after hour from our little slice of the war. We are popular on this first day because the real air war has not yet started and most of the military embedded reporters are either still at the Kuwait starting gate or only shortly from it.
A humble home
It's the second day of the war. I'm trying to make coffee. It's not easy. I'm using an upside down space heater that has one spring coil still turning red. It doesn't make for even heating. I'll be happy if the water's just hot. It's been an hour and I can still stick my finger in it. I shake my head and pour anyway.
We slept inside the Kurdish sentry post. A cinder block rectangle that seems to conduct cold weather better than steel. We spread our sleeping bags on the concrete floor and ate tuna laced with Tabasco sauce, and power bars for dessert.
It is a humble spot. Sunflower shells litter the floor, remnants from long nights spent here by bored Kurdish fighters called Pesh Murgas, which depending on the translation, means "those who face danger" or "those who face death." They wear coordinated outfits usually in khaki or olive drab with baggy pants called sharwals belted with a long wrap, or peshden. On their heads they wear a black and white Jemani, an Arab type scarf, wound like a turban with a little tail falling to one side.
To the man, almost all carry AK-47 rifles with folding stocks and made-for-the-Middle Eastern market Beretta 9 mm pistols with a medallion of an ancient Arab warrior on the grip. We thought some Iraqi defectors might cross the lines overnight and we would be there to meet them with our cameras and questions about life under Saddam Hussein. No such luck.
Team of adventurers
Our team so far consists of Skinner, me, our translator Mohammed, a driver named Khedder and two young Pesh Murga fighters as our local security, Najat, 21 and Ibrahim, 23. Neither looks very fearsome -- Najat barely at the shaving stage and Ibrahim still carrying some baby fat. They are armed with smiles most of the time, but also their Kalashnikovs.
Ibrahim acts like he's fluent in English though the only phrases he uses consistently are Mr. Kevin and Mr. Bill. "Mr. Kevin," he says stopping me, and then pantomimes some amazing complex scenario of which I can follow virtually nothing. My equally articulate response is a thumbs-up sign and a slap on the back.
It is Mohammed, however, who we try to accommodate the most. He is our lifeline, a Kurdish parent to we infants in a strange land. Without him we can't navigate even the most mundane events -- do we want tea or toilet paper? -- let alone pump our sources (the people he introduced us to) on whether they have had any contact with American Special Forces or not.
Mohammed is an educated man. He speaks English, Arabic and Kurdish. He has written three books on astrology and asked us our sign and the year we were born -- before we begin the war together. "I'm a Libra," I tell him, "Nineteen sixty-two. Chinese year of the dragon," I say. I remember reading it off a menu in a take-out restaurant. He arches his eyebrows. "What does it mean?" I ask.
"A peaceful adventurer," he tells me.
"On a not-so-peaceful adventure," I say.