IRAQ UPDATE: March 2011


27 April 2011
IRAQ UPDATE: March 2011 

On team during this time were Lukasz Firla, Marius van Hoogstraten, Michele Naar-Obed, Allan Slater, Kathy Thiessen.
Youth Centre English Class
Because the students had asked for normal English classes rather than discussion and because the demonstrations were taking a lot of energy, the team discontinued the class.
Trip to Choman
On 3-4 March, Van Hoogstraten and Slater made a trip to Choman, a city near the Iranian border to renew acquaintances, do groundwork for the upcoming delegation and discuss possible accompaniment of the mountain villagers and shepherds during the time of shelling (mostly planting and harvest).  The leader of the tiny mountain village, Kani Spi told them the shelling usually occurs during planting, which begins around 15 May, and during harvest time.  His brother, a shepherd, said, “ I’m not sure if it will work, but I still think it would be very good.”
A Day in Pshdar Village
Naar-Obed, along with three CPT partners, visited the family of a village leader in the sensitive area of Pshdar district.  In what was once a thriving village of fifty families, the village now consists of five families trying desperately to hang on to their traditional way of life as farmers and shepherds.  The villager received the CPT group with warm hospitality, took them on a village tour, and prayed with them for the day when the village would thrive again.

 Halabja Day of Remembrance
Halabja is the site of the 1988 chemical bombings by Saddam Hussein in which 5000 people died in a few minutes.  Thiessen, Van Hooogstraten, and Firla made a trip to the monument and cemetery in Halabja to prepare for the delegation on the day before Halabja’s annual 16 March Remembrance Day.

The organizers of the Suleimaniya demonstrations asked the team to speak about this tragedy from the stage on the day of remembrance.  Team members stood together on the stage while Obed-Naar read a statement confessing that they and many from their countries had not paid attention to the tragedy when it happened.  She read, “And we carry your voice.  We carry all the voices we have heard over these last four weeks in this Freedom Square.  We carry your voices out over the artificial borders that have been imposed on the Kurdish people.  We carry your cries for freedom and justice to the ears of all who will listen.  We hear you and you are not alone.”  TV news crews filmed the speech, and the team received many comments in later days about this contribution.

  Trip to Kalar
On 19 March, Thiessen, Obed-Naar, Firla and R. a friend of the team, travelled to Kalar, the most southern town in Iraqi Kurdistan controlled by Kurdish Regional Government.  They visited with H., the head of the border police who patrols the Iranian border and spoke to him about smuggling problems.  The next visit was with a group of NGOs.  Finally, the team spent time with the father of H. who is the head of the peshmergas (Kurdish fighters) in the area.  He spoke about his faith, the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism and the difference between it and Islam.

On 20-21 March, the time of the celebration of Nawros, the Kurdish people welcome spring as well as the change of the Kurdish New Year (2711).  The team attended the opening of their neighbor/landlord’s English preschool.  The children were dressed in their traditional finery (boys in Kurdish suits with baggy trousers and girls in brightly colored sequined dresses).  For this holiday, team members went to the square where they met the largest gathering of protestors yet.  There was almost no room to move and the atmosphere was joyful.  The main street of the city was closed off and families strolled in their fine clothes, listened to music, and danced in the streets.
The demonstrations at Azadi Square continued all throughout March.  The White Line reconvened for a few days and then the atmosphere became peaceful and most of the security forces had left so they ceased having a presence.  However, on 6 March, a group of demonstrators who had erected tents in order to vigil all night experienced terror in the form of masked men with fire and clubs.  They attackers burned the tents and beat the young men.  
 On 9 March, the team interviewed N., one of the main organizers.  She said, “After the violence on the first day of the demonstration [17 February] I felt that I had to do something.”  She said she and her husband have Canadian citizenship but want to be considered just two of the people gathered, with no extra privileges. 
On 13 March, word came that the soldiers were gathering again.  However, the team heard a rumor that Joe Biden (vice president of USA) had a word with Prime Minister Talabani and they were withdrawn again.
On 23 March, the team met with P., a Kurd from Australia.  He was arrested in Hawler/Erbil, the capital city of the KRG, for wearing a T-shirt written saying, “No to Corruption, Yes to social justice.”  The back of the t-shirt read, “The answer to the people’s request should not be bullets.”  He was released after many beatings when the Australian government intervened, is determined to kick start the demonstrations in Hawler/Erbil and asked team members to come as observers and to make contact with the US consulate there.
On 24 March, Obed-Naar and Slater accompanied several of the Suleimaniya organizers to Halabja, because the demonstrations there had experienced violence resulting in two deaths. 
Some of the stories from the above update have appeared on CPTnet:
IRAQ REFLECTION: "I want everyone to hear this story"--anniversary of chemical gas attack on Halabja <>
IRAQ: "The Clarification from the Ad-Hoc Committee of Azadi Square" <>  
IRAQ: “The truth has been unleashed”; protest organizers arrested, disappeared, threatened <>
IRAQ: Suleimaniyah demonstrators continue to resist, despite lack of media coverage <>
IRAQ: Fires, broken bodies, arrests, and chaos at Freedom Square in Suleimaniya <>
IRAQ: Protests turn to public mourning, White Group continues strategizing. <>