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Spring 2003 | Volume 26, Number 2

A Year in Iraq
Negotiating Hope for the Kurdish People

“Words fall short during times of war, like the wings of Icarus. All I can offer are mementos of the past, which I pass on to you like small stones on a beach. These pebbles are part of a path, but they cannot represent the entire experience. It is only the beginning of a trail, an introduction to the Kurds, so that readers can continue their own journey …”

IN 1993, AFTER BEING MARRIED for two weeks, my husband and I packed up 10 boxes of used books, flew to Istanbul, Turkey, and bought two bus tickets to Northern Iraq. We went there to teach English to Kurdish English teachers, local leaders and interested community members, and to deliver food, clothing and medical supplies to the Kurdish widows of the Iran-Iraq War and the 1991 Gulf War.

A Kurdish boy herds sheep near the village of Suleymaniya in Northern Iraq. Because of land mines planted by Iraqi soldiers, the job can be perilous. Every year, Doctors Without Borders treats Kurdish children who have lost limbs in contacts with land mines.  

I will never forget my first bus ride through Eastern Turkey to the Iraqi border. Leaving the many-domed city of Istanbul — a tangled mesh of Western and Eastern customs, mosques and cathedral-like churches — the landscape panned out flat, barren. The most unexpected shock was the 10 military checkpoints established by the Turkish military to control the movement of the Kurds who live in Turkey.

At the first checkpoint, the police boarded the bus and checked everyone’s Turkish identity card and for us, our passports. At the second one, we were taken off the bus and ordered to stand in two lines — one for women, one for men. The papers were checked again; this time radio calls were made.

The third checkpoint was at a military station; two large tanks were on either side of the highway. The police came down the bus aisle and told my husband to come with them and told me to stay on the bus. I saw my husband enter the station, and I decided to get off the bus. On the way down the aisle, a Kurdish woman grabbed my hand and shook her head, a frightened “no” in any language.

Two weeks seemed like a very brief marriage interval, however, so I continued on, walking quickly past the front desk so that they would not stop me from finding my husband. Locating the right room, I sat by my husband and said: “We are teachers who are going into Iraq.” The commanding officer eventually let us return to the bus. We heard other stories of people who were less fortunate. In Turkey, Kurds often “disappear.”

There is only one road into Northern Iraq from Turkey. The Turks stamp your passport with an exit mark, and there was no entrance mark to the no-man’s land, the no-fly zone, Iraqi Kurdistan. From the border, we traveled to the Kurdish village of Shaqlawa, where we had rented part of a house from Khakha Muhammad, his two wives and four children. This village, surrounded by mountains and green, rolling hills, is a place that holds many memories for me.

Every week, Khakha Muhammad invited us over for a meal. Chima, a 10-year-old girl with straight black hair cropped under her ears and inquisitive eyes, spread a large tablecloth on the floor, lit a kerosene lamp, and brought two trays full of stuffed eggplants, peppers and grape leaves, brimming with rice and lamb. Khadija, the eldest wife, sat near me; her black dress with embroidered gold sequins covered her folded legs. When Khadija realized that she was unable to have children, she arranged for one of her most beloved cousins, Fatima, to become the second wife in the family. Khadija’s favorite child, Souza, a 5-year-old with curly ringlets and a round baby face, sat on her lap during dinner. The amiable relationship between the two women and the two young daughters was readily apparent. The two sons were more reserved in our company, like their father.

Often, we would bring a photo or an object to talk to the family members about, and we would ask them to tell stories about their lives. With the kids, we would play language games. Pointing to objects, we asked, “Tsia?” “What is it?” They would reply in Kurdish, and we repeated the word; then we would reply in English, and they repeated the word. Our first attempts at repetition always led to bursts of giggles as we learned the new sounds.

Khadija wanted to know where my gold was. When they are married, Kurdish women are traditionally given large amounts of gold jewelry, which functions like social security. If the husband dies or divorces her, the wife has enough capital to survive. During the economic sanctions that followed the first Gulf War, the Kurds sold their cars, refrigerators, televisions, carpets, clothes and furniture, and the women sold their jewelry, in order to feed their families. Khadija inquired whether I had been forced to sell all my jewelry. Under sanctions, it took an entire grocery bag full of Iraqi money to equal a $100 U.S. bill. Today, inflation has rendered Iraqi money near worthless.

Like money, hope is also in limited supply for Kurdish families such as Khakha Muhammad’s. Their people’s long history is one of repressive rule by neighboring countries, crushing poverty and a series of failed attempts at achieving their own state. The Kurds are, in fact, the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland. Primarily Sunni Muslims, their numbers are far greater than the Palestinians, and ancient maps mark out Kurdistan as a region encompassing parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Azerbaijan. Kurdish populations live in each of these countries today.

Before World War I, Kurds were part of the loosely controlled domains of either the Ottoman Sultan or the Shah of Iran; the uncertain boundary between these empires kept a measure of power in Kurdish hands. After the end of the War and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Kurdish nationalists pressed for an independent state or local sovereignty. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres included the formation of an independent Kurdish state, but it was never ratified.

Since then, the Kurds have lived under the rule of their neighbors. The Turks use draconian measures — such as executions, massacres, destruction or relocation of villages, torture and interrogations — to control their Kurdish population. The Kurds in Turkey have not been allowed to speak their language in schools or wear their Kurdish dress, and the democratically elected Kurdish leaders were forced out of Parliament. The violence has escalated into a civil war, which is not named and which was rarely reported in the press until just recently. Turkey opposes Kurdish sovereignty in Iraq because it might encourage the hopes of the Turkish Kurds for self-government.

The British controlled Iraq after World War I and promised a degree of Kurdish sovereignty. Kurdish leader Shaikh Mahmud Barzinji wanted complete sovereignty, however, and British troops were called in to control the area. They bombed the Kurdish city of Sulamanya, the first air bombing of a civilian area in history. The British went on to set up a monarchy of wealthy Arab landowners in Iraq and granted the country quasi-independent status in 1932. A revolutionary coup for national independence occurred in 1958.

The Arab Baath Socialist party — which would eventually be led by Saddam Hussein — took power in Iraq in 1963 and began a planned genocide of the Kurdish people. Tanks descended on Kurdish villages. Men, women and children were forced to dig a large pit, ordered to stand in front of it, and machine-gunned-down so they could be easily buried. Other villages were burned to the ground, and villagers were relocated to concentration camps. Kurds were forced out of their homes in the Kurdish village of Kirkuk, where large oil reserves lie. Kurdish leaders and fighters were executed, and their families interrogated and tortured. From 1975 to 1978, Iraq deported more than 350,000 Kurds and burned 240 villages. More recently, Iraq sent approximately 500,000 Kurdish civilians to detention camps in 1987 and used chemical weapons to kill more than 5,000 Kurds in Halabja in 1988. Over several generations, many Kurds fled into the mountains, while others waited for a brutal Iraqi regime to end.

In 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the United Nations forced him back. Economic sanctions against all of Iraq were implemented, and the United States and Britain established the no-fly zone to protect the Kurds in the North from the Iraqi president. From that point, the Iraqi Kurds lived in a no-man’s land. The food-for-oil program in Baghdad, controlled by Saddam Hussein, allowed very little aid into Northern Iraq, and only a handful of humanitarian organizations provided assistance to the Kurdish people. Doctors Without Borders offered medical assistance to the many victims of land mines — often young children who herd sheep in the hills.

During our year in Iraq, I heard many firsthand stories of people whose villages had been destroyed or whose breathing was impaired because of chemical weapons. I saw children on crutches, missing limbs. As a teacher and humanitarian aid worker, I listened to the complex historical and cultural voices around me. We lived amidst great suffering, but we joined the Kurdish people in working toward hope against all hope.

For the Kurdish people I met and came to love during my year in Iraq, persecution and betrayal has dimmed but not extinguished hope. The Kurds took advantage of the period of relative peace between the two Gulf Wars, establishing a democratic parliament six months after the first conflict ended. Today they hope that as a minority in Iraq their rights will be protected.

As I watched news of the war during the past several weeks, I mourned for those who died, and I hoped for a quick resolution. Now I wonder whether the Kurdish children have enough to eat and how the country of Iraq will be reconstructed. In a situation as complex as that of the Kurds, we must not grasp at easy answers, but rather work toward nuanced understanding and compassion. After witnessing so much suffering in Iraq, I decided to complete my Ph.D. research on how societies work toward healing and reconciliation after violence. With a research fellowship, I studied how state and artistic structures, like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, attempt reconciliation.

As a professor at Seattle Pacific University, I teach students about Middle Eastern literature and international fiction. When I teach poetry by Arab women, I read and explain the poems dressed in my brightly sequined black Kurdish dress, answering questions about what it was like to live in Iraq. Perhaps such exchanges will lead to more cross-cultural understanding. For me, negotiating hope for the Kurds involves increasing awareness of the Middle East in the classroom and applying the knowledge I’ve gained to consider ways of resolving difficult post-war reconstruction issues in Iraq.

Kimberly Segall holds a Ph.D. in literature from Northwestern University. Her love of modern and contemporary literature is richly flavored by a global perspective gained not only in Iraq, but also in her experiences teaching English as a second language in China, teaching at an international school in India, and interviewing and studying authors in South Africa. With the help of a Seattle Pacific faculty research grant, Segall is currently writing a book on how South African literature, theatrical performance and political commissions shape issues of social forgiveness. This summer, she will take 17 SPU students to South Africa to study its literature, theatre, culture, history, politics and humanitarian needs. Because her mother-in-law works for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Amman, Jordan, Segall also hopes to deliver food and medical aid to Iraq this summer. She is planning to write on the role of traumatic memories in the development of Kurdish identity.

For Further Reading:
The Kurds: A Nation Denied by David McDowall (Minority Rights Publications, 1992)
The Kurds: A Concise Handbook by Mehrdad R. Izady (Taylor & Francis, 1992)


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