Last summer I had the chance to visit the region of Northern Iraq known as Kurdistan. Arriving in my Dad’s hometown of Erbil, he and I made our rounds; exhaustively visiting various family members and friends as my stubbly, twenty-one year old cheeks were sufficiently tugged and my hair ritually ruffled. During this time, I was able to experience the typical everyday life. Granted, we were there during the holy month of Ramadan, and so most establishments were closed during the sizzling daylight hours, during which you are not to be seen consuming – eating, drinking, smoking, anything of the sort – in public. I was not used to the Middle Eastern climate, so the dense, nausea-inducing air of Erbil’s marketplace was a little disconcerting to say the least, food-poisoning bout from the best kebab on offer (my uncle believes this wasn’t the case) aside. But despite any misgivings, I had the chance to engage in the Kurdish culture and learn the history of the largest ethnic group without a state in the making.
The region of Kurdistan spans across modern day Northern Iraq, Northeast Syria, Eastern Turkey, and Northwest Iran. Hailing from the Zagros and Taurus mountain ranges, the Kurds were first invaded by the Arabs in the 7th century, during which the religion of Islam was instilled upon the Kurdish people. They have endured the pains of displacement and the horrors of destruction numerous times throughout history. In the 16th century, the Safavid Shah, Tahmasp I, ordered the systematic destruction of cities and countryside in Iranian Kurdistan. Meanwhile, still fresh in memory is the Syrian Kurds’ deluge into Erbil; having been forced to retreat from the ongoing conflict on their side of the Peshkhabour border, thousands of Syrian Kurds crossed the Tigris River to seek support from the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Kurdistan was occupied by the Turkish Ottoman Empire from the late 13th Century until its collapse in 1918 at the hands of the Allied Powers. Its defeat was to see the Kurds granted their own independent state through the Treaty of Sèvres – one of its terms being that the Turks were to guarantee this. However, due to a perceived imbalance in power, that treaty was ultimately annulled and replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne, which obligated the Turks in no such way.
Having been shushed for many decades, eventually the efforts of Kurdish nationalist leader Mustafa Barzani paid off. Barzani, who was elected leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party in 1946, guided the Iraqi Kurds to semi-autonomous rule of their region, granted via an Autonomy Accord with the Iraqi Government in 1970. This came after nearly a decade of conflict, during which Barzani had government officials expelled from Kurdish land, and Kurdish villages had been bombed by Iraqi military in response. The rapport between the two parties was short lived; the ‘semi’ aspect of the Kurds autonomy was seemingly too imposing, particularly since the Iraqi Kurds’ lost control over Kirkuk, a historically Kurdish-owned oil-rich province The second Iraqi-Kurdish war commenced, during which Barzani sought and gained the assistance of the Shah of Iran. Saddam Hussein, who had risen through the political ranks during the 70s, had a longstanding hatred for the Iranians, and would be sure to exact his revenge.
He began by nullifying Iran’s support of the Kurds with the 1975 Algiers Accord and then proceeded to invade Iran. The Iran-Iraq war started, lasting from September 1980 until the UN Security Council called for a ceasefire in August 1988, making it the most extensive war of the 20th Century. While Mustafa Barzani had died in 1979, his son Massoud Barzani had succeeded him in leadership of the KDP, which once again aligned itself with Iran during this war. The Iranians provided the Kurds with arms. In return, the Kurds gave them access into Iraq through the mountain town of Hajj Omran.
Visiting Hajj Omran, it was hard to fathom its covert history. The vast, green mountainous landscape debunked any desert-esque preconceptions of Kurdistan that I’d previously held. The calm, subtle breeze in the warm air I welcomed with open arms after the urban bustle of Erbil. The residents were kind and friendly, and the family I stayed with gave me milk and cheese from local produce. Breathtaking views stretched in all directions. Rather, in all directions but one, where the Iranian border lay. Saddam’s retaliation to the Kurds’ aligning with his Iranian adversary was to be one of the most horrifying acts of the late 20th Century. What ensued was the al-Anfal Campaign.
It began in Halabja. On March 16 1988, aircrafts swarmed the morning sky, mercilessly dropping chemical bombs on the Kurdish city and its surrounding roads. Toxic clouds of mustard gas and nerve agents engulfed the air. Some claim that the blood agent ‘Zyklon B’ was also used – the same chemical the Jews were subjected to in the gas chambers. Birds began to fall from their nests; people toppled like leaves to the ground. Those with cars had a fighting chance; they got in and drove as fast they could, not looking back. Others who had too many children and not enough arms to carry them were trapped, and forced to succumb to the poisonous gas. The massacre came to be known as ‘Bloody Friday’; the estimated death toll is 4,000-5,000 and other 7,000-10,000 were injured. Most victims were civilians, mainly women and children. More chilling than any statistic on paper is the fact that Halabja was just the beginning – Saddam was trying to wipe out the Kurds.
The genocidal campaign had eight stages, laying out a prohibition on all human life in designated areas of Iraqi Kurdistan. This even included survivors of the Halabja attack who returned to their homes. Men of ‘battle age’ (between 12 and 70) were usually transported to detention centres; many were simply executed. Those who made it to the centres only had their fates ungraciously prolonged, being rigorously interrogated, then whisked away to be executed en masse. Amidst this slaughtering of males, thousands of women and children perished in concentration camps – by execution via gassing, or deprivation. The final stage ended on September 6, 1988. Al-Anfal resulted in the destruction of 90% of Kurdish villages. Since the 1970’s, that totals 4,500 villages out of 4,655 – deracination on a massive scale, an inevitable consequence of heinous genocide. According to the Human Rights Watch, 1,754 schools, 270 hospitals and 2,450 mosques were also destroyed. The final death toll has been reported as high as 182,000.
Far removed from past horror, in the present day Northern Iraq is considerably safer than before. With 65% of the destroyed villages rebuilt, and interest in Erbil piquing since Iraq’s liberation, Kurdistan has more promise than ever before. So much so, that the Arab Council of Tourism has named Erbil, The capital of Kurdistan, its 2014 Tourism Capital, besting Beirut, Taif and Sharjah, while many are deeming it ‘the Dubai of Iraq’. At Erbil’s heart lies its ancient citadel. Immediately surrounding it on the ground below are fountains and benches galore; traditional bazaars, offering authentic Kurdish food, clothing and jewellery. Slightly further out are a number of impressive, Americanised malls, with one even having its own fairground. It certainly is plausible that in 10, maybe 15 years Erbil will resemble an Emirati metropolis.
The Kurds are proud, humble people, and I observed in multitude how harmoniously they live among one another. Few are shy and reserved, and most generously give money to the less fortunate without restraint. Something that really struck me was when the owner of a small cafe in the mountains kindly allowed us to eat inside his establishment while it was closed, telling us to help ourselves to drinks; he was so matter-of-fact about it. Along with the incredible landscapes, it was these instances of generosity that have stuck with me. With their own parliament, flag, language and national anthem, all that is really left to materialise is the boundaries of Kurdistan; until then, they prevail in Kurdish hearts.