April 1 – 10, 2014.
“You should tell your friend you were kidnapped,” says the dark-featured young man I met a short while ago, cigarette dangling from his grinning lips. The car careens down a dusty new highway in northern Iraq. The man has a bulwark of long eyelashes around his murky eyes, and short dark hair with a hint of silver emerging from the edges. “It is April, after all,” he says with a wink. As I peer out the window, oil wells, billboards for Turkish and Russian companies, and craggy mountains whiz by.
It would make a great April Fool’s joke, but I don’t want my friend Lucy, a fellow Canadian who works for UNICEF and is discouraged from venturing out of her compound without an escort, to misunderstand and send an entourage of UN security SUVs after me. I already worried her enough the night before when I arrived in Iraq and promptly got myself lost. The bus from Diyarbakır, a working class Kurdish city in eastern Turkey, dropped me off at the wrong spot. On top of that I forgot to get Lucy’s phone number, had no local currency and twilight was fast fading to inky black. “I’m worried about you. You should be here,” read her Facebook message that I would only later see.
Lost. In Iraq. After dark. Yet I wasn’t at all concerned, because while technically in Iraq, I’m actually in the northern autonomous Kurdistan Region – an ‘island of stability,’ as the present cliché goes. A couple of guys in a passing taxi immediately offered to give me a free lift. Soon I’m laughing with Lucy at a restaurant in the extravagant Dilshad Palace, an imposing luxury hotel across the street from the towering Ferris wheel in the Dream City complex UNICEF resides in.
It’s hard to fathom that barely 60 kilometres away is Mosul, one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. Meanwhile in sleepy Duhok, the small city where I’m staying in northwest Kurdistan not far from the Syrian and Turkish borders, I walk alone in the dead of night past shops protected only by blankets draped over the doorways.
The man in the car joking about kidnapping me is Lokman Derky, a London cabbie here visiting his hometown. Derky and his friend Ahmed overheard me asking some cheery security forces for directions to a bank earlier that day and offered to escort me to one. Barely 90 seconds later they insist on taking me to lunch, typifying the extraordinary hospitality that I was bombarded with every day in Kurdistan.
We walk to the restaurant along a sunny street lined with kitschy pastel buildings. Old men in tea houses finger prayer beads and wear the traditional Kurdish garb of sand-coloured baggy sirwal pants, open jacket, chequered keffiyeh and waist sash. Cream coloured Japanese taxis cram the streets. A jungle of bright flags – triangular pennants with the proud green, yellow and red of the Kurdish flag, and square emblems of the political parties competing in the upcoming election – crisscross above us.
Derky gushes about his beloved homeland, painting a picture of a nation rising. I admit with a sheepish chuckle that I didn’t tell my family I was going to Iraqi Kurdistan because I knew the only word they would hear was ‘Iraq.’ He’s eager to disassociate the Kurdistan Region with the chaos and terror of the south.
The Kurds’ unofficial but historic homeland, where they’ve lived for thousands of years, stretches diagonally down from eastern Turkey into northern Syria, northern Iraq and western Iran. Iraqi Kurdistan gained de facto autonomy in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, and has enjoyed relative stability since American-led forces ousted Saddam Hussein, tormentor of Kurds, in 2003.
“If you call anybody Iraqi here they’ll be very upset,” Derky informs me. He speaks with a calm, steady confidence. “When your family asks you, don’t tell them you’re in Iraq. Tell them you’re in Kurdistan.
“I always tell people in England that Kurdistan is different, that it’s not like Iraq. You can go there and it’s safe,” Derky explains with unassuming pride. “But people don’t believe it. When they hear Iraq, they think it’s all bombing and killing and stuff. To be honest, we have nothing to do with Iraq. It’s like a pizza – it’s all together, but the slices are different.” I hear these sentiments every day here, perhaps most pithily expressed by a taxi driver named Aziz: “Kurdistan good. Iraq no good.”
* * *
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is just as keen as most ordinary Kurds to distinguish their region from Iraq. When I met Derky and his friend we were outside of a Duhok government office where I’d just finished chatting with Hameed Salih, the courtly, silver-haired spokesperson for the Duhok Governorate.
“I’d like to assure everyone that Kurdistan is not Iraq,” Salih told me as I sipped candy-sweet Kurdish tea in a rococo chair in his dark-wood paneled office. “Kurdistan is completely different. Safe, stable. There’s lots of opportunities for investment and work. People are coming from other parts of Iraq to start their business here.
“Our language, our traditions, the behaviour of our people, everything is another world from Iraq,” he said with the same self-assurance that Derky later imbues. “The mentality of people here is completely different from the mentality and ideology of people in the south.”
In terms of stability, violence and the business environment, the Kurdistan Region and the south of Iraq are indeed two different worlds. Benchmarking the Kurdistan Region, a recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) ranks Kurdistan 55th out of 159 countries for quality of life, while Iraq hobbles along at 134th.
The EIU report also rates Kurdistan 83rd out of 181 countries for political stability and security, whereas Iraq places 177th. It says crime is “remarkably low by international standards.” According to Kurdistan Region Police statistics, crimes decreased from 398 in 2012 to 328 in 2013, out of a population of over five million. There’s been zero violence against foreigners at least since the American invasion of 2003.
“It is even safer than Canada, except for the traffic,” Salih said with a smile. “Be careful when crossing the road!” He’s only half joking – traffic accidents kill more than two people a day and newspapers now refer to them as “white terrorism.” A lack of public transportation, low duty taxes on cars and a hot climate means nearly everyone travels by car.
The EIU report says “The KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] has shown a clear commitment to attracting businesses through the laws that it has passed and the institutions that it has created.” Taxes are low, starting a business is uncomplicated, and Westerners don’t need entry visas. As a result, foreign direct investment is high and many major airlines including Lufthansa, Emirates Airlines and Turkish Airlines now fly direct to the booming capital Erbil. The annual growth rate has been hovering steadily at around eight per cent, fuelled in no small part by an estimated 45 billion barrels of petroleum reserves, the fourth largest in the world. Major oil companies such as Exxon, Chevron, Total and Gazprom have invested some $20 billion over the past few years. This is in stark contrast to the rolling blackouts, red tape and bungling governance in Baghdad.
My own limited experience with bureaucracy in Kurdistan seems to confirm the high marks for efficiency. I sighed upon learning I needed a permission letter to visit a refugee camp just outside Duhok, expecting the usual red tape and churlish bureaucrats I’ve become accustomed to in this part of the world. However, to my pleasant surprise it took only 15 minutes in a luminous office full of smiling officials offering tea and repeating over and over again, ser chava – welcome.
* * *
“The economy is very, very good,” Derky tells me over lunch later that afternoon. The table bulges with flatbread, chicken and lamb kebabs served with rice and raisins, salted yogurt drinks and lentil soup. “You can’t compare it to Iraq, Syria, or even Jordan.” He tells me foreign workers come from eastern Europe and elsewhere in search of higher wages. A Georgian family working in my hotel confirms this, telling me the wages in Kurdistan are higher than back home.
Kurdistan even attracts tourists now, as the KRG invests in hospitality to diversify the economy. “Have you seen the Other Iraq?” asks a website run by the KRG-affiliated Kurdistan Development Corporation, part of a campaign promoting foreign investment and tourism. “It’s spectacular. It’s peaceful. It’s joyful. Fewer than two hundred US troops are stationed here. Arabs, Kurds and westerners all vacation together. Welcome to Iraqi-Kurdistan!”
Arab Iraqis come to escape the heat and volatility of the south. In 2013, about two million tourists visited Duhok alone. Sixty per cent came from the south, and most of the remainder from bordering countries like Turkey and Iran. There are still very few from the West.
“Our region is rich in beauty. We have mountains, rivers and forests. We want to show these places to tourists,” Duhok’s director of tourism Abaidullah Dawd Ali tells me in his office in the pyramidal Directorate of Tourism. He assures me Kurdistan is safe, “unlike central and southern Iraq.” They’re trying to encourage tourists from Europe and America, but most Westerners are still too afraid to come.
Kurds from the diaspora are also returning. “Every day we hear about someone else coming back,” Derky tells me, many of them with citizenship from places such as Germany, Britain or Sweden. His friend Ahmed, a Kurd with British citizenship who works for an oil company, chimes in: “It’s like America two hundred years ago. People come from abroad to start a new life.” Derky himself plans on moving back with his wife next year after having a baby, and opening a barbershop. He’s building a house in a village on the outskirts of Duhok, which itself is growing so fast that he sometimes finds himself getting lost.
This is a far cry from the Kurdistan he grew up in, back when Saddam Hussein was in power. “It was like hell. My father was killed when I was two years old,” Derky tells me. “Saddam used to kill people just because they were Kurdish. It didn’t matter what religion they were.” Saddam’s forces decimated Duhok after the Kurdish uprising in 1991. Derky went to England as an asylum seeker in 2002, and is still fiercely loyal to the country that welcomed him in his time of need.
Party because of the boom in Kurdistan, the Kurds are developing a stronger national consciousness and sense of pride. Derky used to hesitate before telling people his ethnicity, despite never having thought of himself as an Iraqi. “Now I hold my head high and tell people I’m Kurdish.”
* * *
With Kurdistan’s recent success, calls for real independence are getting louder. “We’re dying for it,” Derky proclaims, though he points out they’re already almost there. “It’s already independent. The Iraqi prime minister can’t even come here without permission.” Iraqis outside of Kurdistan need a visa to enter the Region. Derky claims it’s easier to go from England to France than from “Iraq to Kurdistan.”
The KRG has its own army, intelligence service, police, prime minister and national anthem. Kurdistan has enjoyed de facto autonomy since American-led forces established a no-fly zone in April 1991, forbidding Saddam’s warplanes from crossing the 36th parallel just south of Erbil, now the capital of Kurdistan. This followed a failed uprising against Saddam in 1991 after the Gulf War. The movement was initially encouraged by George Bush, who later reneged in order to maintain a strong united Iraq to balance anti-American Iran. Baathist troops slaughtered tens of thousand of Kurds, and 1.5 million fled their homes. One year following the establishment of the northern ‘safe haven,’ Kurds cast their ballots for their own government, the KRG.
However, the nineties were marked by civil war between rival factions in Kurdistan, as well as sanctions from both the United Nations and a bitter Saddam, who also prevented the Kurds from developing their massive oil reserves. The current stability is largely a product of the otherwise disastrous American invasion, assisted by Kurdish forces, that ousted Saddam in 2003. In 2005 a new constitution formalized Kurdistan’s autonomy with the establishment of a federal republic, and soon after, the Kurds began to develop their oil industry.
The KRG doesn’t mince words about its ultimate goal. “The dream of every Kurd is of course to see an independent Kurdistan,” Salih, the government spokesperson, told me. “The Persians have their country, Turks have theirs. So it’s not strange for us to dream of our own country. Maybe the situation right now isn’t that promising, but who knows. Maybe after five or ten years, our dream will turn into a reality.”
The Islamic State’s blitzkrieg that overran one third of Iraq a couple of months after I was there has seemingly sped up Kurdistan’s journey to independence. The Peshmerga Kurdish military forces, despite initial setbacks, have stopped the militant group from invading Kurdistan. In June the Peshmerga captured Kirkuk, regarded by many Kurds as their spiritual homeland, and Masoud Barzani, president of the KRG, vowed to never give it up. With Kirkuk, where it immediately built its own pipeline, the KRG effectively doubled its oil production. It now controls one-fifth of Iraq’s territory with 6.5 million people and is planning a referendum on independence.
* * *
Iraq’s Kurds still have one hell of a struggle ahead of them. The US, though a close ally, is opposed to independence because of the instability it may cause. Turkey, Iran and Syria, fearing independence movements from their own Kurdish minorities, are also bound to oppose a Kurdish state, though Turkey has notably softened its position recently.
The KRG is only supposed to sell oil through Baghdad, and depends on payments from the central government amounting to 17 per cent of Iraq’s oil sales. Baghdad has cut these off since the KRG started shipping oil independently at the beginning of this year, via a pipeline to Turkey. This oil will be difficult to sell since potential buyers fear legal reprisals from Baghdad. The KRG also still lacks the infrastructure to export enough oil to make independence financially feasible, and may fall billions short of its budget without Baghdad’s help. There’s no love lost between Erbil and Baghdad. Salih, the government spokesperson, has several altered pictures mocking Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki on his Facebook profile, some even depicting him as a Nazi.
The Region, and Kurds in general, are not nearly as united as the KRG portrays them. The Kurdish people probably don’t have a common ancestry, being descended from various Indo European tribes of different origins and at different times. As a result, there are four separate and non-mutually intelligible Kurdish languages – Kurmanji, Sorani, Zaza and Gurani. Though they have existed as a coherent group for over 2,000 years, possibly much longer, a national self-consciousness didn’t emerge until the late nineteenth century. This isn’t unusual in the Middle East, where identity was historically based more on religion than ethnicity. Though three-quarters of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, the remainder practise a number of different beliefs, such as Alevism, Yezidism, and Yarsan.
Iraqi Kurdistan is cut in two. The Kurmanji-speaking northwest mostly supports and is controlled by the Erbil-based conservative, tribalist Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), itself under the reign of the prominent Barzani family. The Sorani-speaking southeast is controlled by the centrist social democrat Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), ruled by the Talabani family and based in liberal Suleimaniyeh. Both parties are accused of corruption and nepotism. Even the much-romanticized but badly-equipped Peshmerga is run as two forces under the two main political parties. The Islamic State is in fact most effectively being fought by the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot the People’s Protection Units (YPG), whose strict leftist ideologies conflict with the conservative KRG.
Another challenge the KRG faces is a flood of asylum seekers. There’s over 200,000 mostly Kurdish refugees from Syria, and when Mosul fell to IS, 300,000 Iraqis poured in. The Kurds are well acquainted with refugee life, many having seen it from both sides of the fence. Half the Kurds I meet, including government officials like Salih, have themselves sought refuge in Turkey, Iran or Europe. Perhaps that’s why most people I meet seem so sympathetic and welcoming to the refugees, at least the Kurdish ones.
“To be honest, I don’t call them refugees. They are Kurdish,” Derky told me, saying he wants to welcome them the way England welcomed him. “It’s their home too. This country belongs to all of us.” In 2011 after an influx of refugees from Syria, the KRG started issuing renewable six-month residency and work permits, and allowed refugee children to enrol in local schools. This level of hospitality is rarely shown to asylum seekers, though critics accuse Barzani of trying to wield his influence over the region’s Kurds.
The KRG opened the sprawling Domiz refugee camp just outside of Duhok in April, 2012. Initially designed for 25,000 people, it now it bursts at the seams with about 65,000. “It’s become like a small city,” Edris Saleh, in charge of the camp, told me. Countless shops sell everything from video games to kitchen appliances to wedding dresses. Giggling, uniformed students stick their heads out of school buses rumbling by. There are over 4,000 children going to six schools, a tiny fraction of the more than 30,000 children in the camp. Though not a pleasant place to live in for years, Domiz has reasonably good conditions by global standards.
* * *
It’s hard not to root for the Kurds. The largest nation without a state, they’ve had a ferocious history. Though nominally autonomous under the Ottoman Empire, several unsuccessful uprisings were brutally suppressed. Following the collapse of the Empire after World War I, European powers established puppet mandates in the Middle East. The Kurds found themselves without a country, despite earlier promises of statehood from the Europeans. When they rebelled in the British mandate of Iraq, the Royal Air Force took the opportunity to test out its new delayed-fuse bombs on Kurdish villagers. Saddam Hussein’s forces killed 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds and destroyed 4,000 villages during the genocidal Anfal campaign in the late eighties, which included mustard and sarin gas attacks in Halabja and other villages.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey also crushed Kurdish independence movements and forbid Kurdish languages, schools, associations and publications. Tens of thousands were killed during rebellions in the twenties and thirties, and during a massive insurgency from 1984 to 1999 the Turkish military scorched 4,000 villages. At least 35,000 people perished.
In Iran, government forces burned down 200 Kurdish villages during clashes with separatist rebels in the 1980s. In Syria, Kurds have been persecuted by the state, their culture has been supressed, and in 1962 120,000 were stripped of their citizenship. This history of subjugation gave rise to the common aphorism that the Kurds have “no friends but the mountains.”
These historical underdogs have become darlings of the Middle East in Western media. Kurdistan is safe, economically thriving, pro-Western and largely free of the sectarianism and extremism found elsewhere in Iraq and other countries in the Mideast. But the Region isn’t free from its own problems, many of which may make independence even harder.
* * *
“To be honest I don’t really like the place at all,” kvetches Tristan Dunning, a disgruntled Australian political science professor at the University of Duhok who’s written about Kurdistan and spent considerable time in the Mideast. He has bright blue eyes behind his rectangular glasses, and a blazing red beard and long hair. We’re drinking beers in Efes bar on Nohadra street, one of the only popular pubs in Duhok. “There’s a façade of open-mindedness and liberalism, but it’s just a façade,” he tells me. Dunning is especially sick of the way women are treated here.
“I feel really bad for the smart girls because they’re just treated like shit,” he laments, and then gives an example. “When Facebook started, some of them had their photos up there, but what the boys did was cut the women’s heads off and put it on top of a porn actress. That’s pretty much the level that you’re working with.”
I’d realized how conservative male-female relations are in Duhok after Lucy told me that my staying on her couch had occasioned a small uproar amongst her colleagues when they found out, and I had to promptly check into a nearby hotel. But patriarchy here goes way beyond expectations of chastity. Honour killings, female circumcision and arranged marriages are common.
“They cut women’s clitorises off. Aside from hating women, why would you do that?” Dunning cries. Between 40 and 80 per cent of women in Kurdistan are circumcised. Over 12,000 women were killed for ‘shaming’ their families from 1991 to 2007, according to the Doaa Network Against Violence. “It’s enough that a woman gets a text from a man and her family finds out. That can end in murder,” Dunning tells me. The difficulty of life for women has led to an epidemic of suicides, often in the form of self-immolation. According to local NGO WADI, 10,000 women and teenaged girls have incinerated themselves to death since 1991.
The street we’re on, Nohadra, is the original Assyrian name of the city. The once magnificent Assyrian Empire ruled over what is now Kurdistan from about 2500 BC to 612 BC, and half a million of their Christian ancestors remain in Iraq. One million Assyrians fled Iraq following the American invasion and ensuing insurgency. Those who remained were hunted by the Islamic State during the summer and have now mostly fled to Kurdistan.
A short way from Efes pub is the Assyrian Culture Club, a bar and bingo hall. One night I go to a convention there, which turns out to be a giant party. “What the hell are you doing here, man?” a tipsy young Assyrian-American named Frederich Dawood asks me, amused at seeing a Canadian walk in off the street. Duhok is barren of Western tourists. Syriac music blasts on the speakers and the elegantly dressed guests link arms to dance, some of them waving the blue, red and white Assyrian flag. The heavily made-up women, astonishingly beautiful, are wearing short, tight dresses and high heels. This is an extremely rare sight in Duhok, though Christians tend to be less conservative than Muslims here.
“This is all Assyrian land,” proclaims Joe Danavi, a polished young Assyrian doctor from Chicago and a director of Gishru, an Assyrian organization that takes members of the diaspora on trips to their ancestral homeland. “There’s an active Kurdification going on regarding identity,” Danavi tells me, yelling over the deafening music. “The curriculum for history is 90 per cent incorrect. When they talk about ‘Kurdish’ history, they’re basically talking about Assyrian history.” There are K-12 schools teaching in Syriac, but not universities.
Danavi also says the KRG doesn’t take care of Assyrian historical sites. “When we go up to these ancient sites, we seldom walk out without crying, because we see the deplorable state that they’re in,” he tells me. “Our ruins are covered in graffiti and they’ve been used for target practice.” He also says the KRG claims the sites are Kurdish. “They’re plagiarizing. They’re taking credit for something that’s not theirs.”
Danavi accuses the KRG of neglecting Assyrian interests and controlling most Assyrian political parties. However, he tells me the government is very tolerant towards Christians in general, even building churches for them. The Assyrians want an autonomous region like Kurdistan, but Danavi says the KRG wants to annex the Nineveh Plains, the ancient homeland where most of Iraq’s Assyrians live. “Without a land, without schools, without some sort of self-determination, we will be extinct.”
* * *
The day I met Derky, he ended up taking me, a complete stranger, first to a small town near Duhok called Bardarash, and then to his family’s home where we ate an extraordinary dinner together on the floor. “If you come to my home and stay with me, you become part of my family. You don’t even need to knock when you come back,” he told me. The exact same thing happened several times at the refugee camp. My friend Lucy wasn’t at all surprised when I told her. “Happens all the time,” she said with a knowing smile. She is enamoured with the Kurds, and it’s easy to see why.
It’s hard not to fall in love with them when shown such hospitality, and to get carried away in their quest for freedom and independence. But after talking to Dunning and Danavi, I take pause, and remind myself that no country, no people are free from demons. I leave on a chilly day as a dusty sky consumes the sun. The border is anarchy, and as the dark clouds let forth a roaring deluge, I offer a silent benediction for Lokman Derky and his compatriots.
During my time at the Domiz Refugee Camp in April, 2014, I was befriended by a gracious young Syrian Kurdish man named Abdullah, from a village near Aleppo. He’d joined Assad’s army in late 2010, a few months before the protests that led to civil war. “When the government gave orders to attack civilians, I decided to escape,” he told me, and he payed a people-smuggler $1,000 to take him to Iraqi Kurdistan. He said he hoped the Free Syrian Army would defeat Assad, but said the FSA and Syrian National Coalition don’t support Kurdish rights. He told me Syria’s northern Kurdish regions, called Rojava (Western Kurdistan), were relatively safe enclaves, being mostly ignored by Assad’s forces. But recently, he said, a Jihadist rebel group he called Daish was attacking, and he mentioned a specific town. “Daish?” I asked him, and soon figured out he was referring to a group that I and most of the world at that time was only vaguely familiar with – ISIS. The town he mentioned, which I’d never heard of before, was called Kobane.
On June 9, almost exactly two months after I left Iraqi Kurdistan, ISIS shocked the world by seizing Mosul, a major city in northern Iraq. Over 300,000 refugees fled to Kurdistan, bringing the total number in the Region to 1.4 million, almost one quarter of its population. In early August ISIS came within 30 kilometres of Erbil, and attempted to exterminate the ancient Kurdish Yazidi people in Sinjar (or Shingal), triggering an exodus of tens of thousands. The Peshmerga, hitherto reputed as invincible, were unwilling or unable to stop them. In mid-September, Isis launched a major campaign to take Kobane (Ayn al-Arab), a Kurdish town in northern Syria on the border with Turkey. The battle remains ongoing.
Please see here for a selection of my photos from Domiz Refugee Camp.