March 28, 2003
The last word
I know I said I would stop posting to the blog, but I want one last word. Somehow to my more recent visitors I have become a symbol of the independent voice being stamped out by the corporate media. Ironically, I get many more visitors now that I’m shut down because of references all over the net to my “silencing.” A journalist never likes to become the story himself, and I feel that I’m being used against my will as an example of the nasty American media monolith. I’m happy to be an American and I’m happy to work for the mass media. And I was happy to have this blog, and I would be happy if a lot of people read it and enjoyed it for what it is rather than as a symbol of something bad. Thanks. Peace.
March 25, 2003
Goodbye for now
My editors have demanded that I stop posting to this site until the war ends. And they pay the bills, so what can I do. Thanks everyone for reading, and I hope to be back here soon. Peace, Josh.
March 23, 2003
Why is the US bombing friendly Kurds?
In addition to all the targets the US and Britain are hitting in Baghdad, they also dropped a few bombs here in Kurdistan, near the territory that an Islamist group called Ansar al-Islam controls. Ansar has killed several top officials of the Kurdish governments and tried to kill many more. They blew up women’s hairdressers in the center of Erbil, so now if a woman wants to get her hair cut she has to go to the suburbs. They are probably connected to al-Qaeda, and George Bush (but very few others) thinks they are connected with Saddam Hussein. Most people were expecting them to get bombed once the US started attacking the rest of Iraq.
What’s strange and disturbing about this is that most of the damage done appears to be to another Islamist group, Komal, whose territory is adjacent to that of Ansar al-Islam. (Confused? Kurdistan is also home to Turkish army troops, radical Turkish leftist Kurd PKK guerillas and Shia militias backed by Iran, all of whom control bits of territory here.) I'm not in that area now but according to the BBC today, something like 50 Komal members were killed, many more than the Ansar al-Islam casualties. This is probably because Ansar expected to be attacked, while Komal didn’t. So Ansar went into hiding once the air campaign started, and Komal thought they were safe in their bases and homes. Not so.
I met the leader of Komal, Ali Bapir, and a journalist for the Komal newspaper, who was one of the nicest people I’ve met here. Komal are strict – Carolina had to cover her head before Ali Bapir would meet her – but nice. Both Ali Bapir and the journalist were good people, religious but not radicals. In Ansar territory people apparently live in Taliban-like conditions. Komal forswears this sort of coercion. They cooperated with the government and didn’t do anything to hurt anyone.
I went to their main town, Khurmal, and got the sense that the people there liked them. It’s a traditionally religious area and people want religious leaders. Even when the government accidentally killed four Komal members, including a leader, thinking they were Ansar, Komal didn’t retaliate. That move earned them the respect of even secular Kurds.
But they are Islamists, and the Kurdish government in that area, the PUK, doesn’t trust them. People in this part of Kurdistan are blaming PUK leader Jalal Talabani for their deaths. They suppose that he gave the Americans information that Komal was just as dangerous as Ansar and should be taken out too. This is just speculation, but now speculation matters. This war is as much for Iraqi public opinion as much as it is for territory. And this incident has upset people here. It will probably push some Komal people into the Ansar camp, and cause ordinary Kurds to trust the US a little less.
The reason I met Komal is because of a strange mistake by Colin Powell. In his address to the UN Security Council where he laid out his case against Hussein, he said that a facility used by Ansar al-Islam was used to make chemical weapons, and he showed a slide of the facility that was labeled “Khurmal.” That got Komal panicky, and they invited journalists to Khurmal to see that they were not producing chemical weapons. (The facility happened to be in the next town, Serget, which was controlled by Ansar, and Ansar also invited us over to see that they weren’t making chemical weapons, either.) All the journalists assured Komal that it was just a strange error, that the US would never bomb them. But whenever I try to imagine the logical, sensible thing in this war, I’m usually proven wrong.
Yesterday an Australian cameraman was killed by a car bomb in Khurmal, and all the suspicion is that it was Ansar. (Ansar territory is just over the hill from Khurmal and their long-bearded men easily mix with the long-bearded men of Komal.) This is the first non-Kurdish casualty in an Ansar attack. I am afraid the US may have rattled another hornet’s nest.
March 21, 2003
You can't think about war all the time
One of the few things that’s been working the last few days is the Crystal Cinema just below my hotel, which plays C-grade Hollywood movies and pornography. I wonder if this is the only place in the Muslim world that has pornographic movie theaters. The Crystal is open only in the morning and early afternoon and is frequented by big groups of teenage boys. And when they don’t get enough pornography there, they can go to the internet café next door where every customer is either chatting or looking at porn.
This is a very traditional, male-dominated society. Women work and get college degrees and so on, but they can’t, for example, kiss a boy before they get married. Women don’t have to cover their heads like they do in Iran but you’ll never see a miniskirt on the streets of Erbil. (Guys here go on summer evenings to an amusement park in a nearby Christian village, even though the park here is better, because the girls there dress more skimpily.) Young men and women can’t even be friends, as it would cause an intolerable amount of gossip for the girl. In extreme cases, women are killed by their families if they have sex outside marriage.
Because of all the courtship rules this is also the land of tragic love stories. We come across them all the time – one girl who works at the hotel is an Arab, and is in love with a Kurdish guy whose parents don’t approve because she’s Arab. And so they forbade him from seeing her. My translator is in love with his cousin (who he calls, with his typically quaint English, “my beloved”). But his family thinks she’s not good for him because she’s illiterate and he has a college degree. So they steal kisses in private. And another translator we used once was in love with a Spanish woman who was working here (and who Carolina, by bizarre coincidence, knows) and both of their parents disapproved. Her parents went so far as to isolate her in some village in Spain and forbid calls from anyone connected to Kurdistan.
You may be seeing pictures of Baghdad burning and thinking “Oh God, Josh is in that?!” But nothing like that is happening in Kurdistan. The only action here has been one reported skirmish between Kurds and Iraqi soldiers that I’m not even sure happened. It’s really quiet here, I don’t know what percentage of the city has left but I think it’s about 60 to 70 percent. At night you can hear every car driving, even blocks away.
People here seem relieved that Iraq is sending its Scuds to Kuwait, since that suggests that the Kurds are not a target.
I have a little something on the TIME website, check it out here. Mine's at the bottom.
March 20, 2003
The war has started and the Kurds are totally alone. Not only are there no American troops here, but their own leaders are AWOL, too. The two leaders of the Kurdish government, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, as well as their top deputies, are in Ankara negotiating with the US and Turkey over the increasingly irrelevant northern front. Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi and leaders of the Turkmen and Assyrian minorities are there as well. I suppose they didn’t expect the war would start so soon, but I wonder if their people will hold them accountable to the fact that they were less concerned about being with and protecting their people than with negotiating over Turkish troops (which, in my opinion is less about real fear of the Turks and more about not wanting to give up their share of the Iraqi pie).
In fact, over the last months the Kurdish governments here have done little to get people ready for war other than to organize protests against Turkey. They always complain that they don’t have money for gas masks and ask the UN or the US to provide them. But they haven’t tried to do anything, any low-cost measures that people can use to protect themselves. It seems they’re often too concerned with playing the victim card than with actually not being victims again.
A report I saw on FOX last night said that the US had spent millions to protect Israel against a possible Iraqi retaliation. And they were willing to give Turkey billions of dollars in aid and the right to put their troops in northern Iraq. And what have the Kurds gotten out of their cooperation with the US? No gas masks, no guarantees of protection, possibly a few guns for the peshmerga, but basically nothing. If I were a Kurd I would be livid with my leaders for being the second worst bargainers in the world, behind the Bush administration.
Anyway, it’s calm here this morning, almost no shops are open but a few people are out in the street and there doesn’t seem to be any panic.
And those of you who speak Spanish should check out Carolina’s blog, Ojo. A link is to the right. (And if you don’t speak Spanish, there’s also an automatic Google translation to English that at least gives you a flavor.) Last night she reminded us that Iraq is the land of 1001 Arabian nights; last night, Scheherazade ran out of stories.
March 19, 2003
The last few days in Kurdistan the rumor mill has been running at full speed. Yesterday we heard that Taha Yassin Ramadan, vice president of Iraq, had been arrested because he sent his family to safety in Britain. But then last night he was on Iraqi TV, so who knows. (It could have been old film, apparently Saddam Hussein used that tactic during the Gulf War to make it seem like it was business as usual.) Today it’s been about Tariq Aziz. The rumor was that he tried to flee from Baghdad to Kurdistan but was stopped by a Republican Guard unit. He ordered the driver to run through the roadblock and the soldiers shot him. People here are really abuzz about it. Officials here denied it, as did US and Iraqi officials but MSNBC, Sky News, Kuwaiti TV, the Russian news agency Interfax and others did. And then later this afternoon Aziz had a press conference in Baghdad to disprove the rumors. I suppose it was part of a deliberate misinformation campaign by the US, Iraq, the Iraqi opposition, or who knows who. Or maybe just war hysteria. But that was what was going on today.
People continue to stream out of Erbil or get ready for war. Below is a photo of a guy with a photo developing lab, he is building a brick wall in front of it so that looters can’t steal the equipment inside.
March 18, 2003
The War Economy
I got up at 4 to watch George Bush, as did a lot of people here. I was mainly relieved that he didn’t declare war just then. But most people here believe it could start any moment.
The war economy is kicking into gear. Gasoline, which had been about 50 cents a gallon here in Kurdistan, is now $2 a gallon as people start hoarding it. Plastic sheeting, which people use to cover their windows to protect against chemical weapons, went from 25 cents a meter to 65 cents. Today I went to a town right on the border with Iraq proper, Kalak, and people there said they couldn’t afford the plastic to cover their windows.
On the main roads you can see cars and pickups loaded down with stuff. One family of 11 people was jammed into a single Opel Vectra (about the size of a Honda Accord). I saw pickups with five people in the front seat and six children in the back, on top of all the family’s possessions.
My translator is now alone in his house with his cousin, who is about the same age. My driver decided to keep his family here, because when he fled during the Gulf War his house was looted.
The exchange rate, which had been 8.5 dinars to the dollar, dropped to seven to the dollar today. Readers with a better knowledge of currency rates are welcomed to try to explain to me why.
March 17, 2003
War Panic in Erbil
Today is the first official day of war panic in Erbil. Yesterday everything looked much like it has since I got here. Today many shops are closed, there are fewer cars in the street and people tell me their neighbors are fleeing the city for towns further towards the Iranian border. My translator's family all left for their hometown of Koy Sanjak, which is closer to the Iraqi lines but which they feel is less of a target. Shopowners are emptying their stores, putting their stuff in more secure locations in case there is looting during the war.
Most people are afraid of chemical weapons. As you know, this area was attacked hundreds of times by chemical weapons during the Anfal campaign of the 1980s. The most notorious incident, in Halabja, was 15 years ago this weekend. Over 7,000 people died in that one attack. Now people here are afraid that it will happen again. But people aren’t preparing much. Very few people have gas masks – other than the foreigners, of course. There is a military market here in Erbil, and I went a couple of weeks ago to stock up. I bought four German-made masks (for me, Carolina, our driver and translator) for $150, a little out of the range of ordinary Iraqis. The dealer told me the only locals who bought the masks were the richest ones. “The poor people want to die,” he said. “The rich people want to live 200 years.” One political party today was giving out leaflets on how to make a homemade gas mask. You take flour, coal and salt, wrap it in a cloth and hold it over your mouth.
I personally think the chances of a chemical attack are slim verging on zero, otherwise I wouldn’t have come here. But I don’t blame people for panicking. I’m told that during the Gulf War in 1991 Iraqi planes dropped white powder on Erbil and people went hysterical, thinking it was another chemical attack. It was flour.
People seem to think the war will start immediately. One woman I spoke to today was afraid because her son was in school and she worried what would happen if Erbil were attacked while he was in school. I am skeptical. I think that even if George Bush gives up on diplomacy, as he seems likely to do today, it will be at least a couple of weeks before anything starts. Due to the confusion in Turkey, there are still no American troops here (except for a few CIA paramilitaries) and it seems foolish and counterproductive to start the war without some sort of northern front. But who knows, this whole war seems foolish and counterproductive so maybe I’ll be proven wrong.
March 16, 2003
Remember the PKK? Before anyone had ever heard about the Iraqi Kurds, most western people’s knowledge of the Kurds was limited to Turkey, where the socialist Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK in Kurdish) fought a 15-year war for an independent Kurdistan. Something like 20,000 people died in the conflict. But in the last few years Turkey has succeeded in kicking most of the PKK out of Turkey, and they’re here in Iraq. Now I’m trying to visit them.
The goal was a village called Darawe, a village high in the mountains in a no man’s land between the forces of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party and the PKK. I was there with my girlfriend and fellow journalist Carolina trying to get permission to go even further up the mountain to a PKK stronghold to interview the current leaders of the PKK. In the end I didn’t get make it, they were in another place and I’ll have to try again. But I spent several hours in the home of Esad, a shepherd in Darawe, and it was interesting enough.
March 12, 2003
Kurds and the War
There was a debate yesterday on al-Jazeera between two Kurds, one pro-Saddam and one anti. Most of it went how you would expect, according to the account I read on kurdishmedia.com. Until this:
None of the participants called for a free and independent Kurdistan. The silence was broken when Adnan Kushah, a caller from London, told the programme, "I want to tell something to the whole world through this channel. Kurdistanis are not Iraqis and they don’t want to be Iraqis. Kurds are different from Iraqis. South Kurdistan is not Northern Iraq. Kurdistan has a population of around 40 millions and it has been occupied by Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Kurds are calling for an independent united Kurdistan."
Al-Jazeera has been accused in the past by Kurds of broadcasting wrong and false information about Kurds in south Kurdistan. Like many other television stations, Al-Jazeera regards south Kurdistan as Northern Iraq.
And who doesn’t refer to it as northern Iraq, I wonder? (By the way, in the language of the nationalist Kurds “South Kurdistan” is what we refer to as “Iraqi Kurdistan.”) It makes me wonder what sort of nationalism is fomenting among the Kurds of Europe.
An Aside from Serbia
Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated today in Belgrade. It has nothing to do with Iraq, but I wanted to comment briefly anyway. On the BBC today he was eulogized as the best hope for reform in Serbia, and I’m sure that will be the tone of most of the media stories about him. He was the westerners’ favorite because he spoke in their language. Many Serbian politicians, even democratic ones, still harbor a lot of resentment against the west for supporting the Muslims in the Bosnia war and for the 78-day bombing campaign in Serbia. Djindjic was pro-west until the end. This also made him unpopular in Serbia, and he was successful in politics not because people liked him but because he was a shrewd political operator. Most people suspected that he was involved in the mafia, and also distrusted him because he had cooperated with Slobodan Milosevic in the past. It was fashionable among my friends to hate him.
That said, I suspect just about everyone in Serbia is mourning today. It was a shock for me to see that he was killed, and it’s truly sad news for a country that I called home for two years. There are a lot of reactionary idiots in Serbia and he fought hard against them, and for all his faults he was still the leader of the people who wanted to bring Serbia into the west. The people of Serbia have suffered a lot, and this will only add to the suffering. My condolences, Serbia.
March 11, 2003
When I first got to Kurdistan about six weeks ago there were about 25 journalists here. That blossomed to several hundred when Turkey let several busloads in for the conference of the Iraqi opposition that took place here a couple of weeks ago. Now I think it’s down to 200 or so, but that’s still a lot for what is basically a small place. We’ve changed the place in big ways and small. For example, I think the furor over the Turkey move I wrote about yesterday wouldn’t have been so large if there weren’t 200 foreign journalists here. And when I first came, the waiters in the hotel would shyly refuse tips. Now they have no such compunctions, and I suspect some of them may be starting to think I’m cheap compared with my colleagues.
There a lot of serious, professional journalists here, several of whom were here (or other parts of Iraq) for the first Gulf War and a few of whom are real experts on the region. There are also a lot of clowns. The worst offenders, naturally, are American TV. A sample of what they’ve done:
March 10, 2003
Today in Erbil 300 schoolchildren protested against Turkey. As anyone who follows Kurdistan knows, the biggest news here for the past couple of weeks has been the possibility that Turkish troops may come into Kurdistan. Nothing is decided, but the Turks are apparently asking the US, in return for letting American troops base on Turkish soil, to allow them to come into Kurdistan. This has caused widespread indignation. Besides the children’s protest there have been women’s protests, student protests and something that was supposed to be a naked protest, though I’m pretty sure that was a translation error, on the main border crossing between Kurdistan and Turkey.
This sentiment appears to be genuine, people really don’t like the Turks here. But it’s also heavily encouraged by the government.
A few photos
This is your first view in Kurdistan if you enter from Syria (by a little motorboat across the Tigris). This was taken on my first trip to Kurdistan; this time I went through Iran.
This is on the border between Kurdistan and Iraq proper. This guy changes money from the old Iraqi dinars, which are used in Kurdistan, and the newer ones, with Saddam Hussein's face, which are used in Iraq proper. Just to get some souvenirs I changed $1 with him, which got me 3000 dinars. That required 12 of the largest bills they have, 250 dinars.
The smoke you see behind him is from a gasoline fire. People try to smuggle gasoline from Iraq proper into Kurdistan, where it's more expensive. But if the Iraqi troops catch them they burn the gas. Apparently this is done 1. to intimidate potential smugglers and 2. because gas is so cheap there that it is easier to burn it than to transport it back to somewhere it could be useful. I don't know what gas costs in Iraq proper, but in Kurdistan it's about 50 cents a gallon.
Lest you think everyone in the Middle East hates America... I've had the Big Mac there, and it's not bad. This restaurant is in Suleymaniya, there is also a fake McDonald's advertisement in the soccer stadium in Erbil.
March 09, 2003
Welcome to my blog, all. First, to introduce myself and The Other Side. I am a freelance journalist based in Erbil, in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. I am new to the world of blogging, and I heartily thank Chris Boese, a friend of a friend whom I’ve never even met, for suggesting this to me and for setting up all the technical stuff.
I chose to call the blog The Other Side for a couple of reasons. One, I want to show the other side of the news. I don’t intend for this site to be a substitute for the ordinary media, but as a complement to it. You can get good information from the New York Times, BBC and Associated Press. But you won’t hear unvarnished opinion from a guy on the ground, or what ordinary days are like for the people here: about pornographic movie theaters, tragic love stories or the sunset over Erbil.
Secondly, “the other side” refers to the land outside America’s borders, a big place that most Americans, even well educated ones, are not very familiar with. Reading the news about the Middle East or Indonesia or Venezuela is as about as meaningful as watching a game of Risk if you don’t know what the streets smell like there or what people eat. I hope this blog can be a small substitute for that sort of experience.
By way of introduction, I’ll start with the basics: What is Kurdistan? The great majority of the people living in the three northernmost provinces of Iraq are Kurds who are Muslims like the majority Arab population in Iraq but who have a distinct language (related to Farsi/Persian, but not Arabic or Turkish) and culture. Throughout history they’ve gotten shafted out of their own country (aside from a Soviet-backed enclave in Iran that lasted from 1945-1946). But after the 1991 Gulf War, the first George Bush encouraged the Iraqis to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The Shias in the south and Kurds in the north obliged, but then Bush realized it was spinning out of the US’s control, stood back and let the Iraqi forces put down the rebellion. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Kurds. After some clashes, Iraqi forces pulled back and since then have let the Kurds take care of themselves. At first, it didn’t go well – the two main Kurdish factions fought a civil war for several years. But since 1998, they have stopped fighting and have built one of the freest, most peaceful places in the Middle East.
A friend of mine told me about a debate that took place recently in Berkeley between Christopher Hitchens and Mark Danner in which Hitchens argued for the war, using Kurdistan as a model for a future democratic Iraq. If you ask most people here they’ll say they agree, or rather dodge the question by saying that anything is better than Saddam Hussein. I asked got a more nuanced answer when I asked one local journalist for the only independent newspaper in Kurdistan, Hawlati (Citizen). “I would like that all of Iraq be like Kurdistan,” he said, adding that “we still have a lot of work to do,” pointing out several basic freedoms that people lacked. (It should be noted that he was a former member of a far left-wing party, now banned, whose leader was assassinated by Islamists for suggesting that if men could have four wives, that women should be able to have four husbands, as well. This is not a mainstream view in Kurdistan.)
One of the common misconceptions about Kurdistan is that it’s democratic. The last Kurdistan-wide election was in 1992, and the power-sharing agreement that resulted ended up in the aforementioned civil war. They haven’t tried again. The two main parties each have militias of tens of thousands of fighters, which the governments are only now starting to consider integrating into a Kurdistan-wide force (just in time…) This is not most people’s definition of democracy.
This journalist enumerated several other problems. The government hasn’t known what to do with the rise of Islamism here, and in general it’s done very badly. At times it looks the other way when Islamist groups attack “inappropriately” dressed women in the streets but other times completely cuts the groups out of the political process, or cracks down in such a brutal way as to create sympathy for the Islamists.
Press freedom is also limited. All media except Hawlati are organs of one party or another, and Hawlati journalists have been arrested several times and have on occasion been imprisoned for what they write. “We publish things because we are brave, not because we are free,” the journalist told me.
But – and this is an important point – people don’t care about all this. They have TV and newspapers and schools in Kurdish, and the Turkoman and Assyrian minorities have their media and schools as well. They can speak freely in the streets, and have personal freedoms that are rare in this neighborhood.
Take Internet access. In Iraq proper, it is heavily restricted and basically unavailable to the ordinary person. In Iran it’s expensive and there are few public internet places. Likewise in Syria, and in addition there yahoo, hotmail and any sites from Israel or Lebanon are blocked. Here, though, Internet access is relatively cheap (a little more than $1 an hour in internet cafes) and the cafes are everywhere.
That’ll be it for today … soon to come will be more reports, focusing on particular issues, relating particular incidents, etc. Stay tuned.