Everyone says it's beautiful. The post referendum Kurdistan in the context of recent history
by Rachelle Friesen
As the sun sets, its rays shine against the mountains of Bine Rashkin in Iraqi Kurdistan. The world around us turns golden. The farm we visit seems idyllic. Animals are grazing on the hillside as the breeze ruffles the trees down in the valley. Nearby you can hear a fresh water spring trickling behind the Saadi family home. “Everyone says it’s beautiful but if they knew what it was like with the bombings, they would say something different,” shares one of the women from the family.
Cutting through serene mountain landscape and just outside the family home, is a patch of scorched earth. On 23 September 2017, two days before the referendum on Kurdistan's independence from Iraq, Iranian artillery bombarded the area. A rocket landed less than ten meters from the home, shattering windows and piercing both the house and one of the women of the family with shrapnel. She is still in hospital awaiting multiple surgeries to have both shrapnel and glass removed from her body. Iran claims they are targeting fighters in the area, yet the family reports that the fighters are never hit; it is only the villagers that are the casualties.
In the north-eastern mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan both Turkey and Iran frequently bomb farmland and villages, claiming to be targeting various militias. Yet the victims are the villagers, farmers and shepherds, who have become a pawn in a larger political game. Life in the mountains is unpredictable and fraught with fear. The woman we visit with continues, “We are always prepared. When the bombings start we have to leave. We always have to be prepared.”
Her words seem like a metaphor for all life in Kurdistan. For three weeks in September I travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan, taking in the most stunning sites, eating delicious food, drinking sweet tea, and building authentic and lasting relationships. Yet cutting through the serene moments, is a political reality, both past and present, of oppression, war, and instability.
Under Saddam Hussein, the Kurds and the ethno-religious groups of Shi'a, Yazidis, Turkmen, Assyrians and others, were ruthlessly attacked. Implementing the Ba'athist Arabization (a process of making areas an Arab majority) and al-Anfal campaign before and during his eight-year-long war against Iran, Hussein ethnically cleansed vast areas inhabited by non-Sunni Arabs. Gas attacks, torture, bombings, mass executions, and forced migration were the reality in Northern Iraq in the late 1970s and 1980s. Assisting Hussein in his onslaught were foreign governments, including the USA, Soviet Union, France, Netherlands and most Arab states who provided weapons, financial aid and/or the chemical weapons agents to Iraq. Around a million people, mostly Kurds, were displaced, up to 200,000 killed and about 4,000 villages wiped out.
Upon the end of the Cold War and progressing dissolution of the Soviet Union, the USA-led coalition of former supporters eventually invaded Iraq in retaliation for Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The occupation of Kuwait’s oil wells was Hussein’s effort to recoup the tremendous financial debt accumulated during the war against Iran.
Following the popular uprising organized by the Kurdish guerrillas in 1991, which drove Iraqi forces out of the predominantly Kurdish territory, and the withdrawal of US forces, around two million Kurds fled to the neighbouring countries of Turkey and Iran out of fear of Iraq's retaliation. Under international pressure, the United Nations created a safe haven for Kurds in Northern Iraq that the USA and Great Britain enforced with a no-fly zone.
The 1990s were a very difficult time for the Kurdistan Autonomous Region. Iraq was under severe economic sanctions and Kurdistan Region under an additional embargo by Hussein. Given the strife, Kurdish political tensions mounted. An internecine civil war broke out between two Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Once again villages fell under attack and were cleansed dependent on political alliance. In addition, Turkey began to bomb the villages in the borderland regions because of a newly established presence of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) fighting for the recognition of Kurdish rights in Turkey. In the subsequent years, Iran also began to bombard villages adjacent to its borders in its war against the guerrilla groups fighting for Kurdish rights in Iran.
The Iraqi constitution from 2005 recognizes Iraqi Kurdistan as an autonomous region with its own legal system and political structures. Furthermore, the constitution took power over Iraq from the hands of Sunni Arabs and delegated it to the Shi’as. In the last decade, Kurdistan's autonomy, economic situation and position within Iraq and on the global scale have grown and strengthened greatly. In the war against ISIS, Kurdish military forces took control of much of the territory which the previous Ba'athist regime had violently Arabized. When I visited Iraqi Kurdistan, I witnessed a region autonomous from Iraq with concrete borders that allowed for a separate immigration and visa process, as well as policies of foreign trade and investment – pillars of a modern nation state.
I left Iraqi Kurdistan at the end of September. Yet the geopolitics today is entirely unrecognizable from when I was there. On 25 September, Iraqi Kurdistan held a referendum on independence from Iraq, which saw condemnation from the international community and threats of attack from Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Days following the referendum, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey began to follow through on their threats. First international flights were cancelled, then land borders closed with further promises of repression.
Within the last month the Iraqi government, alongside Hashd al-Shaabi (an Iranian and Shi'a backed militia, whose brutality has been compared to that of ISIS), has invaded and taken over Kirkuk and other disputed areas which, since 2014/2015, had been under the Kurdistan Regional Government's control. As Kurdish people, followed by Assyrian Christians and Yazidis, flee the area fearing ethnic-targeted attacks, the Iraqi government continues to re-impose its control over Iraqi Kurdistan and disregard its constitution. Control over borders and export of oil are now gone, while the KDP and PUK once again threaten civil war.
The Kurdish people are left in instability, their lives, once again, relying on the political whims and desires of local, regional, and international politics. As in previous struggles, the Kurdistan leadership seem intent on securing their own gains while the Iraqi government imposes its control. All the while, the international community remains silent, not wanting to make precarious any political alliances that could interrupt their access to oil and regional interests.
As I remember the landscapes and people of Iraqi Kurdistan, I reflect on the last 40 years of life in Iraqi Kurdistan which has faced constant instability. “We always have to be prepared” applies to not only villager life in the mountains, but to the Kurdistan's reality of today. Just as the villagers become pawns for the Iranian and Turkish bombs, sadly so do the Kurdish people for both local and international politics.
The words of the woman from Bine Rashkin continue to echo of how beautiful her farm could have been. I think about Iraqi Kurdistan and how beautiful it could be. I imagine what it would be like if preserving and celebrating Kurdish peoples and Kurdistan's minorities lives were the priority rather than a pawn in a game of political greed played by local, regional, and international powers.