First Person: Sneaking Into Iraq, 10 Years Ago

Ten years after the Iraq war began, a photographer recalls a harrowing trip.

Soldiers and citizens move through northern Iraq in 2003.

Part of our First Person series, where we invite writers to share personal stories.

Ten years ago, at the start of the war in Iraq, I left Turkey and walked for four nights, through monsoon-like rains, into Iraq. I was on assignment for TIME.

There was a small group of photographers camped out on the Turkish border with northern Iraq, in the small towns of Cizre and Silopi. I thought entering Iraq would be a cakewalk: All I needed to do was follow the U.S. troops as they made their second push into Iraq, this time from Turkey. (Read "Iraq War Medicine" in National Geographic magazine.)

I thought wrong.

At the last minute, Turkey decided not to let the United States use its land as a staging area, so there'd be no U.S. troops to follow. Northern Iraq was only 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) away, but the situation was fluid and impossible to read. The other photographers and I had been in Turkey for a few weeks, trying to position to cover the war. Now we scrambled to try to come up with a plan.

Taking the Alternate Route

Everything that our group tried, from being smuggled in a potato truck to hiring a Turkish driver with political connections, was unproductive and ate up precious time in the face of fast-moving events.

Then, fearful of a rapid influx of Kurdish refugees, the Turks closed the border. I could see Iraq, but getting there was becoming physically impossible. The only way to cross the border would be illegal, and on foot.

The direct route, across the Tigris River, was too heavily fortified by Turkish soldiers to be practical. We'd have to take an alternate route, through Syria, which meant we'd now have to cross the Tigris twice, as well as a couple more country borders.

The author in a safe house in Syria during her border crossing.