Eating your way through the war on Islamic State
by BENEDETTA ARGENTIERI
“You must stay for lunch.”
“Well we should really get going, we still have hours of driving.”
“It doesn’t matter, you need to eat, so you will stay with us.”
When you finish interviewing anybody in Iraqi Kurdistan — but in particular soldiers — there’s always that awkward moment in which you run on a tight schedule, especially on the front lines, but they want you to stay for a meal.
Most of the time, this is non-negotiable.
The front line with Islamic State is a staggering 1,000 kilometers long. I traveled throughout the front on several trips, and I noticed the quality of food can vary depending with who you are eating with. There are several militia groups with different agendas, political ideas and tastes.
Since the war on Islamic State began in 2014, one of the main challenges for both civilians and troops has been their food and water supply. The peshmerga, the paramilitary soldiers of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, are the most numerous and best-supplied fighters — and they’re usually well-fed.
Nonetheless, accessing food supplies on the front can pose a real challenge, especially while fighters are engaged in active combat.
Peshmerga might get meat every third meal or so, but most of the other armed groups don’t have any choice but to go meatless. They eat rice, chickpeas and naan — the local flat bread. Others cook according to the tradition of their village, so a soup might have vegetables instead of beans.
Sometimes villagers offer to cook for fighters, although this raises suspicions about potential poisoning — especially if the civilian’s ethnicity differs from the fighters, or if a village had been under Islamic State control for a long time.
“So what did you eat?” is one of the most common questions I get once I’m back from an overseas trip.
My mother, a proud Italian cook, is particularly obsessed with food and she’s always scared I am not being fed properly. The good news is that I’ve never been so well cared for as I was on the front line in Iraq and Syria.
I always got something to eat at least three times a day, even if it was just goat cheese, olives and bread.
Kurdish hospitality is famous throughout the Middle East, even during wartime. No matter how hostile the situation is, you’ll at least get chai, the local tea — which has a very particular flavor and comes loaded with caffeine.
If you need to talk to anybody or ask permission for anything, they’ll offer you a small glass of chai, sometimes with tons of sugar — and they expect you to drink it.
Also, cigarettes are widely available and the tobacco supply seems essential for the well-being of the fighters. In militia groups, it’s apparently a way to keep morale high — you can run out of food, but not smokes. If you decline a cigarette, you might as well be an Islamic State fighter in disguise.
In any case, food can say something about each group fighting Islamic State on the ground. Militia groups have different levels of funding, and the quality of their supplies reflects that.
On my last trip in May 2016, I first went to Kirkuk, around 235 kilometers north of Baghdad. The oil-rich city has been highly contested between the Iraqi government, the Kurds and even Islamic State.
Currently, it’s controlled by Kurdish forces including the PKK —the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — which has joined the war on Islamic State after shifting its main focus away from Turkey. The front is 24 kilometers south of the city. Although at first the area might appear fairly calm, that’s just an illusion.
“They attack every day, sometimes in full-scale mode, but most of the time with just a couple of mortars,” Jamal, the PKK commander in the area, told me during my visit. “They are trying to find a weak spot to infiltrate the lines.”
Suicide bombers struck Kirkuk 17 times in the first five months of 2016. To further complicate the situation, there are tensions between the peshmerga and Shi’ite militias pushing against Islamic State from the south.
A tall dirt berm running between each forward operating base — each a few kilometers from the next — marks the front line. The Islamic State is 500 meters away.
The PKK’s main base is a compound with two buildings and a volleyball court. The compound is about 300 meters from the closest FOB and lodges both men from the HPG division and the women of the YJA-Star. The PKK is, after all, a gender-integrated guerrilla group.
There was no official cook when I was there. The two units took turns in the kitchen, cooking for the two dozen soldiers stationed there.
“The men prepare food for two days in a row because they are more than us, and then it is us,” said Zallal, a 25-year-old YJA-Star commander. “Of course the food we prepare is more delicious,” she added, laughing.
We sat at a table with a green-and-black plastic tablecloth. In the middle several dishes with dolma — stuffed vegetables with rice which are very popular in the Middle East — bread and raw onions and mint leaves.
“Because it is a laborious dish to prepare, we do it all together so we are faster,” Zallal said. “We cook with an assembly line.”
It takes at least two hours to prepare this meal. First, peel the vegetable. Then boil the rice with tomato sauce and other spices. When the rice is ready, stuff the vegetables, place them in a big pot and cook them an hour or so until they’re soft.
Although I loved the potatoes the most, the fighters preferred the dolma. “Everybody cooks it in the Middle East, so you can see from how the wrapping is made where the person who did it comes from,” Zallal said. “The smaller and tighter ones are made by someone originally from Turkey. The bigger ones are from Iraq.”
Whenever the PKK cooks, it stores some of the prepared food. That way if a battle breaks out, the fighters can just eat what’s left over from previous days.
After lunch, there was more chai— and because it was summer, there were also peaches from the nearby tree.
Sinjar is the home of the Yazidi ethnic minority. The Islamic State attacked the area on Aug. 3, 2014, killing thousands of men and enslaving as many as 7,000 women and children. The United Nations classified the Yazidi massacre as genocide.
Now the peshmerga and six other groups control two-thirds of the area, which is the main supply route from Syria to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city that’s currently under Islamic State control.
Sinjar is around 400 kilometers north of Kirkuk. Although the distance doesn’t seem huge, checkpoints, one-way roads and trucks make the trip an almost 11-hour long odyssey. We needed to make it in two days.
The YBS is an all-Yazidi militia group that formed in the wake of the massacre with the help of the YPG, the PKK-allied Kurdish group fighting the Islamic State in Syria.
There is a general mistrust between the peshmerga and YBS due to political divisions — mainly because the Yazidi accuse the Kurdish fighters of abandoning their posts before the Islamic State offensive. This political tension has led to a supply blockade from the KRG that’s still ongoing.
In a village called Khana Sor, north of the only mountain in the area, we got a lunch invitation from YBS commander Qandil. The venue — a very peculiar-looking villa that is also a base for fighters.
Behind the tall gate, there’s a courtyard with a water well decorated with ceramic vases. During my visit, a small hawk was tied up to it. The building is two stories high with dark marble walls and columns. Under the portico, the table was already set.
They served us yellow rice, tomatoes and chives. There was a giblet soup that was very oily and spicy. The bread was a bit more puffy than usual and had a nice oval shape.
A fighter named Heval Haury was cooking tirsik, a thick sauce with chopped tomatoes, onions and aubergine all mixed together with several spices. You put some rice in your plate and then spoon up the tirsik little by little along with the other ingredients.
The fighters explained that they themselves buy most of their supplies, although some villagers give them eggs and chickens. Of course, we had chai after our meal.
After lunch we were on the move again, crossing the mountain and continuing on to Sinjar. The city has been destroyed. Once home to no fewer than 200,000 people, today just 30 families have returned. Security is an issue since the Islamic State is only a few kilometers away. At six o’clock the evening of our visit, we heard mortars being fired toward the city.
We took shelter in a well-protected peshmerga base. In contrast to other groups, the peshmerga here had a full-time cook. There was a huge kitchen with stoves and two giant pots. Dinner was white rice and an under-cooked but tasty roasted chicken.
The cook explained that he prepares rations for fighters heading for the front, even though each FOB also has its own cook.
For breakfast we had goat cheese and bread. And, of course, chai.
Mosul Dam is 42 kilometers north of Mosul. It’s on the verge of collapsing. But it’s also one of the most peaceful places I visited in Iraq in May 2016.
The zaravani, an elite peshmerga group, are in control of the area. Their base is just a few kilometers from the dam and overlooks the reservoir. After I interviewed the commander and several officials, the peshmerga served lunch.
A soldier made the zalad, a thinly-cut cucumber and tomatoes salad. The cook also prepared a garlic- and lemon juice-seasoned tomato soup with okra, also known as bamyeh. The Iraqi version of bamyeh generally doesn’t have meat. It’s a popular breakfast food — and by far the best soup I had in Iraq.
Rice, chicken and vegetables make for a fairly balanced diet, though it might feel repetitive after a few weeks. But I’m not complaining. Soldiers in battle — and far away from journalists’ cameras — eat much more rustic food than what I was offered.