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.

Darawe consists of just a few houses, and it had been raining softly and everything was mud. Cows were grazing around Esad’s house, five little chicks followed around their mother. A couple of men walked by carrying nets that I first thought were for fishing but which he told me were used to catch martinets. Esad showed me two of the birds that he had caught recently that he held in a handmade wooden cage. They eat them; apparently they’re more tender than chicken. He has a pink satellite dish, and when he’s not watching al Jazeera or movies on German TV he plays cards with the rest of the men in the village. The night before we came, he said, they’d been up until 3 am playing. His surroundings are modest, but I think he’s relatively well-off. His son made him promise that if he did well in school last year they could take a trip to Tehran. He did, and they did. Now the son is in high school, in a town an hour down the dirt track, and the father wants him to go to university.

They are not far from the Turkish border, and his and the surrounding villages were bombed several times by Turkish planes during the 90s in indiscriminate raids on the PKK. He, like everyone else in Kurdistan, hates Turkey. But he was an intelligent guy. We had stopped at his house the day before and said we wanted to talk with the PKK. He offered to take our business cards up to the PKK checkpoint and arrange something for the next day, which seemed pretty savvy. So he seemed to be the kind of man I could have a dialogue with, not just an interview, so I tried to argue with him a little. I told him I thought Kurds were overstating the Turkish threat (just as Turks were overstating the Kurdish threat). I said that even if the Turks come, everyone will be watching them and if they committed any atrocities, it would be all over the world media the next day. And the Turks know that and will be careful. “I may be a shepherd, but I’m not naïve,” he told me. “I have sources in the Iranian government and I’ve heard that Iran has promised Turkey more money than America to refuse to let the Americans use their bases, and that without the Americans here Iran and Turkey will cooperate in attacking Kurdistan.” This seemed farfetched to me, but I was still happy to hear a conspiracy theory when I thought the people here were too credulous and earnest to go in for that sort of thing.

Later, a couple of PKK soldiers showed up to tell us not to leave, that hopefully someone would be coming soon to arrange an interview for us. In the meantime, we talked to them about the PKK. But soon one of the soldiers, Agri, an Iranian Kurd, wanted to ask me some questions. I was game. A short excerpt:

Agri: How do you feel about America’s interventions, not just in Iraq but around the world.

Me (eyeing his Kalashnikov): Well, it depends on the situation.

Agri Does Bush represent the people of America?

Me: Yes, most of them.

Agri: I know that 85 percent of the people in America oppose George Bush. And how many people didn’t vote in the last election? 40 percent.

Me: More, I think.

Agri: Then what is democracy, what do you mean when you say democracy?

Fortunately here one of his comrades arrived and interrupted us and I didn’t have to answer the question. And so we left, bumping in our Land Cruiser down the road to try another day.

March 16, 2003 in Iraq, Kurds, Politics, Turkey | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 10, 2003

The Turks

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.

You may have read articles about this – now that there are hundreds of foreign journalists waiting for the war, we’re desperately trying to find news. But there’s one thing to remember: The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is now bellyaching so much about the Turks, invited Turkish troops during the civil war to help fight the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). And after the war a Turkish-led Peace Monitoring Force kept the two sides from fighting. And all of this happened without the Turks doing anything untoward. Now the KDP doesn’t want them here and it’s getting everyone agitated.

This brings up the remarkable phenomenon of Kurdish public opinion. You only have to interview one man on the street to find out what every Kurdish person thinks. There is very little independent thought here. Any KDP official, from the president to the lowest local party hack, has the phrase “democratic, federal Iraq” on the tip of his tongue. But I didn’t realize the full extent of this unanimity until I interviewed a 12-year-old boy in the border village of Kalak. I asked what he thought about the war, and he said it was a good thing because it would result in a democratic, federal Iraq. I found the similar phenomenon in the Balkans, it’s at least in part because they have faced an external threat for so long that they have surrendered their power of dissent to their leaders. (This could be happening in America too, alas.) The few people I’ve met here who are marginally independent thinkers tell me that if the KDP didn’t want people to be angry about the Turks, they wouldn’t be. And now the schoolchildren of Erbil are being indoctrinated, as well.

All that is not to say that the Turks’ intentions are honorable. They apparently have no interest in fighting Saddam’s forces, just in coming to northern Iraq and camping out, which is not really being part of the team. There are more than a thousand Turkish troops already here, who came to fight the PKK during the mid-1990s and who the Kurds don’t want but can’t make leave. The Peace Monitoring Force’s mandate expired in 1998 and they won’t leave, either.

Anyway, the Turks’ main reasons for wanting to put troops in Kurdistan seem to be: 1. they fear the Kurds will declare independence and they want to stop that, fearing that it may encourage their Kurds to do the same 2. they fear that the Turkomans (an ethnic minority, who are basically Turks and number about three million in Iraq) will be attacked by Kurds or 3. they fear that Kurds may rush to Kirkuk, which Turks claim is historically Turkish/Turkoman, and seize the significant oilfields there.

The first is fairly unreasonable, as no one in the world would recognize an independent Kurdistan and it would likely be attacked by Turkey and Iran. Kurds, when they’re being honest, will tell you that they dream of an independent Kurdistan but that now is not the time.

The second and the third seemed unlikely before this brouhaha started, but perversely the threat of Turkish invasion has increased the chances that either Turkomans (Turkomen?) will be attacked or that Kurds will seize Kirkuk, precisely because Kurds now trust the Turks less than ever. In this atmosphere of suspicion a small incident could escalate quickly. People suspect that Turkomans, in particular their biggest political coalition, the Turkoman Front, are agents of the Turkish government trying to destabilize Kurdistan. And in the chaos of war, it’s possible that a Turkoman threat may be imagined and that people would retaliate. And also, if a rumor starts that the Turkish army is moving towards Kirkuk, Kurds may do the same en masse, which would in turn prompt the Turks to really move to Kirkuk, and then it would get messy.

In the end I don’t expect any of this to pass. If there is a significant American presence here that will dampen anyone’s plans to cause trouble. And even if there isn’t, I don’t imagine that Turkey would be so stupid as to muck up their biggest ally’s war. But keep an eye on this area anyway.

March 10, 2003 in Kurds, Politics, Turkey | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 09, 2003

An introduction

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.

March 9, 2003 in Kurds, Politics | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack