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