From here to where?

 by Bud Courtney

It is late afternoon. The sun has disappeared. It is fairly cold. We are seated on benches in front of a home in the Makhmoud refugee camp in northern Iraq, speaking with Josef and Armeena. About two years ago, they were part of a delegation of about forty-six persons who formed a Peace Brigade. They had intended to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and deliver a letter to him simply explaining that this group, and the Kurdish people, were not terrorists. They wanted peace. They wanted what all of us want (and many of us expect) -- our basic human rights. Mr. Erdogan refused to meet with them. Instead, the group was arrested, tried and sentenced to ten to fifteen years in prison. Josef and Armeena fled. Ten of the group remain in prison today.

Eighteen hours later, three of us CPTers are seated with two vice-consuls in the offices of the Turkish Consulate. We have brought with us a tin of cookies and a letter explaining our hope that this New Year could, indeed, be the year where people tried to find alternatives to violence and that we will look back and say 2012 was the year of change. “I realize that violence does not work,” vice-consul Cafer Agik told us, “but the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] are terrorists and when they attack us, we have to fight back.”

At the refugee camp, we had informed each group we spoke with that we would have a meeting at the Turkish Consulate the following morning, and asked what they would like us to say on their behalf. Repeatedly, the message echoed Armeena’s words to the Turkish judge when she was tried for her participation in the Peace Brigade. “You have sent my children to the mountains. I have three martyrs, my children, killed by the government.” And another Josef stated, “Here in the camp are children, women and old people. Erdogan sees us as terrorists. I do not want to kill police, but I want our right to live together.”

(Makhmoud refugee camp)

A span of twenty hours. A refugee camp tucked away off the back-roads outside the city of Hawler, and a modern office in the city in a recently constructed office building offering spacious views of the region from every window. All the parties we spoke with expressed the realization that violence does not work. Yet each side lives seemingly far removed from the realities of the other.

In the Consulate, we had talked of education, constitutional change, and seeing one another as human beings. I was truly grateful for the opportunity to meet with the refugees in the camp and the vice-consuls at the Consulate who took considerable time to dialogue with us. But upon leaving, I continued to wonder what it will take for both sides to sit down, to look one another in the eyes and share their common humanity. Only then can this year be the year when people take real risks to enact change.