This is Joost with a large gun.
Last year, our then 19-year-old buddy Joost Wierenga met Bud Wichers while looking for a camera on marktplaats (the Dutch ebay). After their meeting, Bud, a documentary filmmaker, asked Joost if he'd like to help him film some stuff in Iraq. The only plan Bud had was to find someone from Al-Qaeda, get an interview with him, and film everything leading up to that event. Joost agreed, so they headed to Iraq last year. Over the course of their 35 day trip Joost and Bud had fun, talked to a terrorist, and got marriage proposals. Here is what Joost had to say about the whole thing.
Vice: Hi Joost, most 19-year-old kids go to Lloret del Mar to drink and party, but you went to Iraq last year. What's the matter with you?
Joost: I went with Bud Wichers to shoot a documentary about searching for the remnants of Al-Qaeda. Now that the war is officially over, we wanted to talk to an actual terrorist.
How did you get to know Bud?
He sold me a camera, and when I went over to his place to talk about the camera, we had a conversation that took the whole day. After that he asked me to come with him. He still had contacts in Iraq from the last time he was there three years ago filming for another documentary. So a Kurdic guy he knew, Dlshad, who lived in Kirkuk, told Bud he could set up everything for the journey. Dlshad loved Holland, and provided us with everything we needed: shelter, a car with a driver, security, great stories, leads to talk to people… everything. We ended up staying in his apartment and he drove us around and translated himself. He used the money we paid him to buy two mountain bikes, which stood wrapped in plastic in the living room the entire time we were staying there. To keep your newly bought goods in plastic is a sign of status, albeit a really ugly one. He also bought a really dirty dog, which I had to take for a walk one evening.
How was the country?
It felt like Turkey at first, because it was like a vacation the first few days we were there. We went to a theme park, visited Dlshad's family, and camped out.
A theme park?
Yeah, the region we were in, the Kurdish region of the country, used to be the number one tourist destination of Iraq because of its lush nature. So they had a theme park there. It was just a regular theme park with a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster. We went there twice but there weren't many other visitors.
One of the few women with a niqab Joost saw during his stay.
It's weird to go to a country and find it so different than the image you have of it in your head. The image in your head was probably formed by the media--women in burqas and niqabs, everybody shouting in the streets, screaming, shooting in the air and everybody hating the West. But I've seen more women in a niqab in one day in Munich than I did during my five weeks in Iraq.
One of the many kids rocking a fake gun in the Kirkuk refugee camp.
When did you start filming?
We started filming in a refugee camp in Kirkuk. The Kurdish region of Iraq wasn't fought over that heavily, so a lot of refugees went there during the beginning of the war. We walked through what once must have been a beautiful football stadium. The kids in that camp literally had nothing, so they were happy to see us. They were all carrying plastic toy guns, save for this really cool guy who wore a mask that matched his outfit. When we returned to the camp a few days later it was nearly empty. The government gave about a million dinars, close to 100 euros, to the people there so they could start over with their lives.
This is Julie, or Zara, trying to seduce Joost with a flower.
And what other nice people did you meet in Iraq?
I met a girl who works as a translator for the Americans, Julie, whose actual name was Zara. She wanted to marry me. Dlshad told me in crappy English that she's "a really pretty woman," but warned me that she was probably going to try to have sex with me so that she could claim she's pregnant afterward and get a one way ticket to Holland. She's still sending me Facebook messages, asking if I have a new "GF" already. If not, she's still willing to be mine.
Julie again, with her impressive gun.
Sounds hot. What other things did you do for the documentary?
We went to Mosul. It's a city that's really dangerous for journalists. Everybody we spoke to warned us about that city.
Why is it so dangerous?
Because people from every ethnicity, religion, and background live there. That's why nobody trusts each other and that's why people get killed there. Not one week before we were there a journalist from Baghdad traveled to Mosul with eight bodyguards. They were all killed and her head got sent back to Baghdad.
So getting in there was really difficult. We only managed to get access after talking to a general of the Iraqi army three times. He agreed to fix security for us to get into the city, but without procuring the necessary papers for us. We drove up there in a convoy of cars that belonged to the police and the army.
Why did the general do that for you?
We bribed him.
What did they show you in Mosul?
They showed us a palace that once belonged to Sadam Hussein and his sons. However, right before we got there a bomb went off in the vicinity, which made our convoy (and security) break away and go there, leaving us alone in the car with Dlshad. Dlshad started shitting himself because he hardly knew anyone in that city. He told us we had to leave immediately and that there hadn't been a journalist in Mosul for the last three years. After about 100 meters an Iraqi Humvee blocked our passage and we were stuck at a roadblock with no legal papers. We thought about the Korean journalists who got sentenced to three years in jail for a similar joke and sweated balls.
How did you get out of that situation?
The general we bribed just got word that his money had arrived, so before things started getting grim, he gave word to the people at the checkpoint to let us through. Dlshad was ecstatic with joy.
General Serhat "The Terrorist Hunter" Qader
And did you have other adventures?
When we got home, General Serhat "The Terrorist Hunter" Qader, gave us a call to ask if we would come with his troops on a nightly raid. He thought we were badasses for going to Mosul. He probably also wanted to use us for his propaganda machine, but whatever. We went in a convoy of about 40 vehicles with American and Iraqi troops.
En route to a desert village about to be raided by lots of Iraqi and American soldiers.
Where did you go?
We went to a little desert village where all the men were rounded up and all the houses were searched. They found a large amount of weapons and materials to fabricate IEDs and bomb girdles. The general proudly showed a bag of uranium powder they found in a field nearby.
Raiding a house in a desert village. A Kalashnikov was found here, which in Iraq seems about as outrageous as finding a dirty napkin in my bedroom.
What were the gentlemen you hung out with on the raid like?
I didn't really have time to talk to them until we drove away from the village. But then I talked to Isiah, a really large guy from Texas. He thought I was weird for being in Iraq at that moment and was like, "Why are you guys here? You should be getting pussy in The Netherlands, put that shit on tape!" He told me he hates Iraq to death and that he'd rather be in Afghanistan.
Besides bribing generals and raids and bags of uranium, what else made you notice that you were in a war torn country?
Lots of small things. When we drove around in taski's (that's how they write it on the side of the cars) the drivers literally made you ride shotgun. Iraqi taxi drivers are armed to the teeth, and if you ride shotgun with them they hand you a gun, like this handsomely made customized shotgun! I also drove around town with a Glock in my hand. To give you a better picture of how much fire power these guys carry with them, while I was there I saw a fully loaded RPG-launcher, a PKM machine-gun from the former Soviet Union, and a bunch of Kalashnikovs, all lying underneath the seat of taski's.
I would imagine there are a lot of badasses over there. True?
Sure. Our fixer put us in touch with the Asayesh, the Kurdic secret service. They're an anti-terrorist squad with both armies as secret divisions. We talked to them about the biggest threats in the region, and about infiltrating terrorist groups. They looked like they just came off a film set. They had Punisher-looking badges on their uniforms and stuff.
Amir of Ansar Al-Islam
Cool. And then you met an actual terrorist. Tell me how that happened.
After a lot of secret negotiations with old acquaintances of Bud, we got in touch with an Amir, or High Commander, of Ansar Al-Islam. The BBC would say he's with Al-Qaeda, but that's nothing more than a name describing a network of cells. Anyway, his organization was supposedly one of the few in the region that had access to biological weapons. When we met him, we had to wait for half an hour in a room with guys wearing socks and Kalashnikovs. Before we could interview the Amir, his translator stressed the fact that absolutely no pictures of his feet could be taken, and that we could not ask anything other than the questions we agreed upon beforehand. That was a bummer. The Amir told us he hates the Jews and Americans intensely, and that he won't rest until they leave Iraq. "We'll wipe out the enemy," was one of the tougher things he said. He did tell us his group receives financial support from foreign sources and that he gets weapons from countries like Syria and Iran. BOOM! News! But despite the somewhat lackluster interview, I had fun!
INTERVIEW BY JAN VAN TIENEN
PHOTOS BY JOOST WIERENGA AND BUD WICHERS