While we were in Suleimani, we were asked to visit the writers in Kerkuk (Kirkuk on our maps). Since Kerkuk is the one place in Kurdistan where there are significant incidents that threaten peace, government officials who live in the city themselves offered several guarantees of our safety. They would travel in the bus with us, as would armed guards; we would enter only the Kurdish area of the city; and we would not stay over two hours.
Many of us were frightened, but we wanted to reach as many Kurdish writers as we could, and we credited the information that the officials gave us, so we decided to go. We never saw any evidence of the problems, as we were assured.
In Kerkuk, we learned that the problems, which evidently only affect the Arabic part of the city, come from a border dispute. Though always a part of greater Kurdistan, Kerkuk was not part of the original area of Kurdistan which Saddam Hussein agreed to give to the Kurds. It has only been taken into Kurdistan since the fall of Saddam Hussein two years ago. We were shown the old border on the way into the city, just meters outside it.
Though Kerkuk has a population of at least a million people and the great majority are Kurds, there are 200,000 Arabs living there. There is responsible Arabic media working for peaceful multiethnic coexistence, but there are also some violent separatists. Two years have not been long enough to secure the new border completely.
On the way out of the city, on the road to Arbil/Hawler, we saw the fires that burn away natural gas from the oil fields. They were close, maybe 150 meters from the road. Immediately afterward, we were back within Saddam Hussein's boundary of Kurdistan and safely launched on our return.
That night the television announced, “International PEN visited Kerkuk.” One Kurdish writer told me, “Thank you for coming to Kerkuk with us. Though Diyarbakir might be considered the mind of Kurdistan, Kerkuk is its heart.”