Iraq's Avasheen: a tourist park in the heart of conflict

Attraction remains popular despite being surrounded by the Turkey-PKK war

The Avasheen resort is in the so-called green zone, but it wouldn't take much to veer into more dangerous areas. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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It's lunchtime, the barbecue is on and drinks are flowing at the Avasheen resort, in Zebare, Iraqi Kurdistan.

The sun is punishingly hot, but the river water is icy cold, making it ideal for cooling off.

Gazebos are dotted around the area, where people cook, relax and eat.

The view is gorgeous – green trees line the area, surrounded by a series of imposing hills and mountains right next to the resort.

We lived with the ISIS war. Why would we be afraid here
Suhaib Najmadeen, 39, =lorry driver from Mosul

But few would dare venture into the higher reaches of those hills.

The mountains that surround the resort are where neighbouring Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerilla group continue with their deadly, decades-long conflict.

The PKK has been fighting in an insurgency in Turkey since 1984.

The conflict has largely shifted to the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan across the Turkish border, where Turkey has intensified its air strikes against the PKK in recent years, therefore restricting the movement of the rebels who have been forced back into tunnels and caves.

While Avasheen is in the so-called green zone, it wouldn't take much to veer into more dangerous areas.

The mountains are now so-called red zones, and straying there means one runs a very high risk of being hit – as many locals have found out.

Suhaib Najmadeen, 39, a lorry driver from Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, is taking a dip in the frigid water.

On a rare day off, granted by a religious holiday that usually leads to road closures, he enjoys barbecuing with his friends.

Mosul suffered greatly during the brutal reign of ISIS, which controlled the city from 2014 to 2017.

The continuing PKK-Turkey conflict seems far from his mind at Avasheen, a place he has visited before.

“Every time we come here, there’s no problem. But in the mountains and other places there is,” Mr Najmadeen says.

Asked if he had any fears given the security situation, he responded: “No, of course not, we lived with the ISIS war. Why would we be afraid here.”

The tragic reality is that civilians have often been the victims of the decades-long war between Turkey and the PKK.

The latter claims it is advocating for better rights for the Kurdish people, while Ankara – along with many western countries – has proscribed it as a terrorist organisation.

As the conflict slowly burns in Iraqi Kurdistan, many residents have perished in suspected Turkish air strikes, while tourists have also been caught in the crossfire.

In 2022, nine tourists died at a water park near Zakho in northern Iraqi Kurdistan when Turkey carried out an attack on what it said were PKK positions.

But many people still visit. The owner of Avasheen, Harman Sadiq Mohammad, says his clients are typically locals, Iraqi tourists, and foreigners living in the region.

“The water is cold, and it’s got good nature, which people like. Also, we have camps to make the people feel more comfortable,” he said, adding that visitors are also attracted by how cheap it is to stay.

“The most important thing is the water. It’s cold and has this chemical that is good for the skin.”

Tourism is vital for the region. Along with farming and construction, it is the most important part of the local economy.

Yet, despite Avasheen's popularity, locals still say the sharp rise in recent Turkish strikes has damaged the tourism industry.

“Most of our tourists come from other parts of Iraq – the south and central. There, the security situation is worse than here,” said Mr Mohammad.

“So for them, here is nothing. I hope the problems can be fixed there, and here also, so other people can come.”

Updated: March 31, 2024, 6:30 AM