Between fear and hope in Kurdistan

Wendell Steavenson
4 December 2002

I knew I was going to like Kurdistan after I went to see the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) guy in Tehran about getting into Kurdistan. In the middle of a Ramadan morning he shook my hand (something Iranian officials never do; on account of me being a woman and them being Muslims) and offered me a cigarette and a glass of tea.

We talked about Kurdish politics but they are very confusing and full of acronyms and spats and personality battles and entangled unravelling ever-shifting alliances. The Kurds have two phrases they like to repeat a lot: ‘The Kurds have no friends but the mountains’, and ‘We live in a tough neighbourhood.’ And then they shrug and laugh and offer you another cigarette and talk about a post-Saddam Federal Iraq and inflect their sentences with the word democracy.

The Iran-Iraq border at Marivan is desultory; a few trucks queued up, carbon monoxide in the frigid winter air, Iranian soldiers checking people’s identity documents and bags; but they don’t stamp your passport.

Kurds walk across no man’s land carrying holdalls, greet each other, pick up a load of vegetable, packs of orange soda are passed across the dividing line, cars wait on the other side; there are taxis and people milling about and officials in concrete block rooms with wood-burning stoves making lists and checking names against them.

I took off my headscarf, breathed through chill sunlight, listened to Abba on the tape machine, feeling free after the proscriptions of the Islamic Republic; drove past broken-down villages through mountains until the plain and Sulaimaniya stretched underneath hills which UN money is now reforesting with rows of baby pine trees; stopped in front of the Sulaimaniya Palace hotel, rebuilt with PUK money, looking as high and mighty and swank as a parliament and guarded by soldiers with worn kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.

Inside was a vast lobby with a mural depicting the Anfal (Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds in 1988) - chemical bombs and people dying, peshmerga (Kurdish guerrillas) in the hills, aircraft above. The rooms were just like nice hotel rooms anywhere: bathroom, twin bed, satellite TV, telephone, minibar filled with beer and whisky, ashtrays with the name of the hotel painted on the inside.

In the morning, I sleep-remembered the previous days - interviewing Iraqi intelligence men in prison, visiting the front line with Ansar al-Islam, a nasty group of itinerant jihadis (standing on a parapet as a PUK sentinel watched the smoke of mortar through binoculars a kilometre away) – and the surroundings seemed so western and bland I could hardly recall where the hell I was.

Welcome to Sulaimaniya

In the centre of Sulaimaniya is a busy, cavernous, untidy café, with dirty white painted walls, a floor like an ashtray and riveted metal and plastic furniture. Men with neatly-trimmed moustaches, wearing baggy pantaloons, cupping palmfuls of sunflower seeds, prayer beads wrapped around fingers, smoke furling nicotine from every table covered in tulip glasses of sweet strong acrid tea, and newspapers. All to the smack of dominoes.

A view of Sulaimaniya at night

On the walls, because this is an intelligentsia café, there are pictures of famous Kurdish writers and artists. For example, there is Azad Horami, a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) political commander, musician and writer who was killed in a chemical attack during the Anfal. There also is Ibrahim Mohammed, father-in-law of the PUK leader Jalal Talabani. His picture shows a white-haired patrician distinguished man, an elder and advisor. He went to England after an earlier Kurdish rebellion collapsed in 1975 and died there, three years ago, at the age of 87.

Overlooking the whole café is the bust of a man called Shabab, who died in 2001. He was a well-known, half-loved local crazy man, always shuffling about unkempt and dirty with a pile of newspapers and books; he read too much and did not take the world seriously. Life had treated him badly, he had been hurt, something about his family, people did not know exactly, but he spent all his time in the café, and when he died they made a monument to him. The bust is painted gold and shows a whimsical skinny man with wide 1970s sunglasses, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and his armed cocked in a sarcastic salute. He looks like Elvis meeting Charlie Chaplin playing Hitler.

Learning to survive

There are no statues or murals of Saddam the dashing dictator anywhere in Kurdistan. When the uprising began they were smashed, destroyed, hauled down in a matter of hours.

Kurdistan feels like sharp precarious freedom. It is free under the shadow of Saddam’s artillery, free with its horror memories.

Life goes along not badly at the moment: a little ease, shops open and full (including a restaurant with a big shiny red and yellow sign complete with golden arches called ‘MaDonals’) but not much security – Iraqi secret police sabotage, Islamic guerrillas with assassination cells and al-Qaida links; civil war between the two Kurdish parties, the PUK and Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP); in the mid-1990s, shelling by the Iranians; a brief reoccupation by the Iraqis; groups of Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) militants active in Turkey and the Turkish army that pursued them over the border.

Sulaimaniya is south of the no-fly zone. The Iraqi army is entrenched half an hour down the road along a low ridge of hills. The Iraqi soldiers come down at night and cadge cigarettes from the peshmerga. One local story recounts how villagers overheard a couple of soldiers talking at night: ‘I thought the Jerusalem Army was going to Jerusalem!’ said one, referring to Saddam’s newly-created propaganda army that would supposedly liberate Palestine, ‘I wanted to surrender to the Americans there!’

It’s hard to say how this all feels walking through the thronged Sulaimaniya bazaar on a sunny afternoon, but somehow not quite comfortable.

People survive, it seems, except the ones who don’t. There were details I couldn’t quite bring myself to ask about: a crease in an earlobe that looked like a knife slice; three blue dots tattooed at the base of the thumb; prison tattoos, amateur and scrawled across the backs of hands; scarred foreheads; a missing finger. My driver told me that in prison they had tortured him by pressing an iron to his face – he was a big fat jolly fellow nonetheless.

A place called Pekia – a town build by the Iraqis during the resettlement programme which cleared the villages near the militarised zone adjacent to the Iranian border during what is known as the First Gulf War. The town sits low and hunched, built out of raw breezeblocks, corrugated iron and roofed with mud plastic spread with plastic sheeting and weighted with stones. In November the hills were uncoloured and scattered with naked brown ploughed fields, parked tractors and sheep.

Next to the town was an IDP camp: lines of tents with concrete foundations and electricity, standpipes for water, latrines, ditches, chicken and strung-up laundry. It houses Kurdish families who have come from Kirkuk, Iraq’s biggest oil centre less than an hour down the road. They have been deported as part of Saddam’s ongoing campaign to ‘Arabise’ Kirkuk.

Waiting for the unthinkable

I talked to two brothers in one of these tents. A month ago they had left with their fridge, deep freezer and television. Their bedding was piled in the corner. Borhan was the elder brother, with a single eyebrow and large brown eyes that seemed sad, scared, and cowed. The worry lines on his fleshy forehead were deep. The younger brother, Omar, was sparky, with an amazing graceful smile. He was a high school student, in his last year, and worried about finding a high school in Kurdistan where he could finish the education that he began in Arabic.

Their father was arrested in 1981 because he was a member of the underground Kurdish movement. Borhan was very small at the time; he says his father was held in Mosul jail and for a year and a half they visited him. When they arrived he remembered the authorities took the fingerprints of the adults and then his mother had to rush quickly into the visiting room to reserve a place with a blanket on the floor since there wasn’t enough room because the prison was so crowded with families coming to see the inmates. He remembers the first time they went and he hung back, kept his distance a little diffidently. His father told him to come forward.

‘Why are you so thin?’ Borhan had asked him. ‘You should see the cell where I have to live!’ And his father took him by the hand to have a look.

‘It looked like a butcher’s place,’ said Borhan, sitting in front of me with his painful eyes, remembering. ‘There were torture things, rings stuck in the wall.’

After a while there was no news of their father. They have never had a letter about his fate.

The family suffered, pulled along. The mother got a job; her sons went to work as boys, selling water in garages, selling, beans, pomegranates. After a while things got better and they had a small grocery shop. There was always harassment. In Kirkuk, Kurds are told to change their names to Arabic names and then have the indignity of ‘second class Arab’ stamped in their identification papers. All schools are taught in Arabic. Kurds cannot rebuild or refurbish their houses, they cannot buy new houses and if they want to sell them they have to sell it to an Arab. Arabs get preferential jobs, Kurds get menial jobs or unemployment.

The brothers were asked to join the Jerusalem Army. Armed Ba’ath Party members in uniform came to their house at night. ‘There were never less than five of them,’ recounted Borhan. ‘They were threatening, they wanted to show us they could do whatever they wanted.’ Later the intimidation intensified. The family’s shop windows were smashed; Omar, the younger brother, was beaten up. The family paid bribes, as many Kurds are forced to do, but it only bought a little time. Eventually, Omar was held in prison as a hostage until the family was packed and on the road out.

‘There are lists,’ the director of the camp at Pekia explained. ‘On one side are the names of the families being deported, and on the other a list of Arab families being resettled.’ Lately, Borhan said, the Ba’ath Party had taken to holding meeting in different quarters of the city. ‘We are brothers,’ they announce to the silent crowds. ‘We all have the same fate. If the Americans attack you must join us.’

‘They are so scared,’ added Omar the younger brother. ‘The Ba’ath Party drives around the city in cars mounted with heavy machine guns, there are checkpoints everywhere.’

In Kurdistan there is a sort of mounting excitement, an uncertain unimaginable possibility: Saddam might go. This time the Americans may really attack! Finally, after decades, after rebellion and fighting and chemical attacks and refugee flight and two Gulf Wars, sanctions and economic misery and all the time arrests and secret police and fear always and family members dead or missing or abroad and police at night – maybe, inshallah, dare we speak of a life beyond?

Kurdish officials talk about all that they have achieved in the past decade, thousands of Anfal villages rebuilt, schools reopened, dozens of free newspapers, various political parties.

But those are the Kurds who have been free for a decade. Those who lived in Iraq proper until so recently are more inured, enduring and fatalistic. ‘I think Saddam will survive forever,’ said Borhan. ‘I remember my father telling me so. He said that Saddam would be around even in the year 2010.’

Marooned in Iraq, by Bahman Ghobadi screened at the 2002 Regus London Film Festival

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