I have felt for the Kurdish people for a long time – one of the largest groups of people in the world without their own homeland. The Kurds in Iraq have managed to carve out a relatively autonomous ‘country’ with clear borders with Iraq and Turkey. However, none of their neighbours want them to be independent – the Iraqis want the Kurd’s oil reserves, and the Turks and Iranians don’t want the numerous Kurds within their borders seeking independence. It felt like an interesting time to visit – a week before a referendum on independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. Independence the Kurds believe they are entitled to, not least for their recent efforts in battling IS, and for providing shelter to 850,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees who were fleeing IS (a huge number of refugees for a country of 4 million people). I wasn’t sure what to expect!
I flew via Vienna, and was unsurprised to find the plane filled with aid workers and military personnel. My plane neighbour (Lars from Norway) has lived in Erbil on and off for over a decade. At the beginning he says he was more hopeful and he worked in humanitarian work with living humans. Over recent years, he has found it more challenging to be hopeful and has shifted his emphasis to working with the deceased – specifically identifying the DNA of bones in mass graves. Horrible work, but one that gives family members relief as they can finally know if their loved ones are dead or alive, even if it isn’t the outcome they hoped for.
Erbil airport was a surprise. Aircon, plentiful cash machines, and a nice cafe. Only the VIPs 4WDs were allowed to approach the main terminal, the rest of us were herded on to an old bus to the pick up area about half a km away – I am assuming for security reasons.
I stayed at a great hotel in town – the Erbil View. They picked me up from the airport, and I dropped my stuff off and headed out for a long walk around town. It is fair to say there aren’t many jaw dropping sites in Erbil. In the 40 degree heat, I strolled slowly through the streets (not much in the way of paths) and tried not to melt, and visited the Citadel and the Muzzafariya Minaret and the Hot air balloon in Minaret park.
I noticed hordes of people with Kurdish flags heading in one direction and an overwhelming number of soldiers with guns. This is normally a good signal to high tail it in the opposite direction. Today I decided to trust my instincts and follow them – there were plenty of women in the crowd, every body was drinking sprite or Fanta, and I felt really safe when someone gave me a flag and the next person gave me a hat with the Kurdish flag on it. It turns out I had accidentally happened upon the big Independence rally in Shanidar park. I don’t like crowds at the best of times, and I like political crowds even less. But these were some of the friendliest people I had ever met.
People kept inviting me to dance with them and offering me food! It was like going to a super friendly wedding. I stayed for a couple of hours until the music stopped and the speeches started, and headed back to the hotel for dinner.
The next morning, I got up early to try and see a bit more before the heat got overwhelmingly oppressive. A long walk out to Sami Abdul Rahman Park to see the park and the monument to the the victims of a 2004 suicide bomb attack. It is aptly inscribed with the phrase ‘freedom is not free’.
From there I strolled back to town, and wandered around Shar Garden Square and the Qayssarria Bazaars, endeavouring to resist the huge array of fluorescent coloured sweets. It was hot as all hell, and I retreated into a shady tea shop full of old men (you never see women in these places, they are too busy working), where I had tea so sweet it almost hurt my teeth.
From there I wandered up to the Kurdish Textile Museum – probably not a global museum highlight – and then strolled around the citadel. And then I kept walking until I ran out of steam. If I had more time I would have gone to Lalesh, which was recommended to me on the plane. Next time! And then, after an all too brief visit, it was back to work. I would happily recommend a visit to Erbil for an offbeat weekend – it really isn’t that far away. People are extremely friendly , democratic, non secular and they deserve their own democratic leadership just like the rest of us.
Erbil, 17 September 2017
Note a week later – the referendum was held. Nine out of ten people voted for independence. Turkey threatened to cut the pipeline that allows Iraqi Kurdistan to export oil to the world. Iran and Iraq banned flights to Erbil, and most Western airlines have ceased flights (a challenge for the western military troops who are deployed against IS, as their base is near Erbil). The ban continues two weeks later when I am writing this, and rumours continue that Baghdad will try and retake Kirkuk
From the Observer – While all this may sound rather complicated, in truth, the current problem is straightforward. The Kurds of northern Iraq have proved loyal allies of the western powers since the era of Saddam Hussein. Unusually in a region riven by bigotry and hate, they share the secular, democratic, gender-inclusive and humanitarian values espoused by western society. Whatever the view of Britain and its partners on the wisdom of holding the independence vote, they now have an urgent duty, moral and practical, to robustly support and defend the Kurds as the dark forces of regression and reaction gather.
My thoughts are with the Kurds and I hope we in the west support them to their rightful independence!