On a sunny spring morning in Iraqi Kurdistan, Community Peacemaker Teams made a trip to the mountain village of Basta to visit our long-term partner Kak Bapir and his family. The road wound through green grassy slopes and military checkpoints. Streams flowed through valleys far below us, shepherds on donkeys watched their flocks grazing, and birds flitted around. Above us rose the stunning vista of the rocky Zagros Mountains – the peaks still covered in snow, and Iranian military bases on the border just visible to the naked eye.
CPT has been periodically making this journey for fifteen years since we first made contact with Kak Bapir. Iranian and Turkish bombings, ostensibly targeting PKK guerillas, had made the local villages unlivable. CPT advocated for a shelter camp where villagers could take refuge and to rebuild infrastructure after they had returned home.
The bombings have become less frequent in the Basta region recently, though the area is still highly militarized. But on this occasion, we were making the trip to Basta just to keep in touch with old friends.
Over a delicious home-cooked meal of chicken, beans, rice and qoraw (yoghurt soup – a local delicacy), we chatted about peacemaking. Kak Bapir has actually been involved with CPT a lot longer than any of our current team, and some of the members he mentioned in stories were people none of us have ever met. Despite the circumstances that had brought this Kurdish village elder and an international human rights organization together, the stories were full of laughter and fond memories.
Kak Bapir is a sheikh—a leadership role in his local community which means he has been called on at times to do some peacemaking of his own. His father was a sheikh before him, and so from an early age, Kak Bapir had an opportunity to observe a traditional Kurdish method of conflict resolution.
“The best tool for peacemaking is the dinner table,” his father used to say. Well, I’m paraphrasing a bit here, because most Kurdish people don’t actually use tables. He used the word “sifra,” the mat where Kurdish cultures sit on the ground to eat, just as we were at that moment.
Kak Bapir learned this by example when his father brought together two warring families after numerous people had been killed. The sheikh butchered several animals from his own herd, sat the two families down to eat, and said, “Nobody leaves until you have made peace.”
Kak Bapir later copied the strategy when an incident of adultery threatened to spill over into violence. At another time, when Kurds had been forced to flee to Iran to avoid the persecution of Saddam Hussein, Kak Bapir witnessed an Iranian soldier beating a Kurdish refugee. He invited the soldier to dinner without telling him he had also invited the other refugee. At the table, as equals, the soldier apologized.
The residents of Basta are proud of its history as a “peace village.” The local oral history narrates how Basta was the setting for long and ultimately successful peace negotiations between the warring Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Kak Bapir’s father was instrumental in getting the two armies to sit down together while the whole village pitched in to cook the food.
There is a long history of conflict in Iraqi Kurdistan. Even in Kak Bapir’s lifetime there have been numerous wars—Iran against Iraq, Ba’athists against Kurds, Kurds against Kurds, US invasion, and bombing campaigns by Iran and Turkey. The bombs are still falling in these Iraqi Kurdish mountain regions, with a deadly blast occurring the day after our visit.
But the desire and the ability to make peace is ever-present. Even those who experience much war, also carry a long history and depth of experience in making peace. The Kurdish examples of Kak Bapir—developed over generations of sheikhs acting as elders in their communities—are a great testament to that and remind us how much we can all gain from the knowledge held in our various cultures.
But that doesn’t mean peacemaking is easy. In Kak Bapir’s words, “The most important thing is to be honest. A peacemaker can’t be corruptible, and they must always tell the truth, even when it costs you.” These lessons get learned the hard way in Iraqi Kurdistan, where CPT focuses a lot of its work on supporting journalists and activists who are targeted and imprisoned for speaking the truth and denouncing corruption.
The way to peace is full of joy and friendship; but is also slow, complex, and sometimes dangerous—somewhat like the road back from Basta, where stunning views and fresh mountain air mix with blind turns, hair-raising cliff edges, potholes and military checkpoints.
But it’s helpful to know that we don’t travel alone. The desire for peace is buried deep in each of us, and there are many inspirations and lessons to be learned from others on the journey. Peace and peacemaking bring out the best in us, allow for human flourishing and bring people together from across all kinds of divides. Whether in village disputes, standing up to corruption or resisting the military encroachment of neighbouring countries, Kurdistan is full of courageous and creative peacemakers working on a better future.