8 May 2008

by Michele Naar-Obed

“We are surrounded by hostile neighbors.” “ They want to destroy everything that we build.” These are two sentiments we frequently hear expressed in the Kurdish Region of northern Iraq.

CPT has been working in the Kurdish North since 2006. The team has seen military attacks by Turkey and Iran in the northern border villages. Car bombings have occurred in Suleimaniya and the capital city Erbil. Kirkuk, not part of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), is also a frequent target of bombings that seem to increase whenever the referendum to make it part of the KRG comes close to a vote, and the memories of genocidal attacks against the Kurds by Saddam’s Ba’ath Party are still fresh in the Kurdish collective memory.

The Kurds of northern Iraq are visibly tired, distraught, and close to despair. In addition to feeling victimized by the external perpetrators of violence, a large portion of the Kurdish population feel besieged by the systemic violence that comes out of the corruption and oppression by the tribal parties that hold the power and purse strings very tightly. If people are not part of a tribe or pledged to a party, economic, educational, and societal benefits can be outside of their reach. Necessities such as water and electricity are abundant in neighborhoods occupied by “important people” while other neighborhoods are sparsely supplied. If people expose or challenge the corruption of the parties, they risk imprisonment.

Kurdish Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) that are not party-affiliated lack financial support. One independent women’s rights group has been unable to work for almost a year because it has not received any funding. The women fear the authorities will terminate their NGO status. Yet CPT continues to meet dedicated, resilient, and persistent Kurdish people who continue to operate with not much more than their vision. They know that their best defense lies in an educated society that can recognize and be recognized for its contributions to the greater world community.
These visionaries want to challenge the violence of both foreign powers and the corruption in their society using the tools of nonviolence.

People here have asked CPT for trainings on human rights and nonviolent tactics. Some have asked us to connect them to the broader world community of nonviolent activists and some have asked us to walk beside them and give them visibility as they attempt to implement their nonviolent campaigns.

Our team struggles with understanding our role here. Instead of intervening in active lethal conflict, we often find ourselves working on violence deterrence through human rights advocacy and nonviolence trainings. Yet, every time we speak of closing up shop, Kurdish visionaries insist that we must stay, knowing that we offer no material or financial aid. Even though we have difficulty articulating the importance of our presence, sometimes, our team feels called to stay here. Maybe it’s best not to argue with visionaries.