Iraqi Kurdistan: Resisting a Land Grab with Gifts of Threatened Grapes

by CPT Iraqi Kurdistan

ExxonMobil oil well, Shaqlawa District: bulldozer operator cried while destroying vineyardOn 6 August, a hot sunny Ramadan day, CPT Iraqi Kurdistan visited the villages of Haji Ahmad and Sartka in Shaqlawa District, where they had learned that villagers were protesting the takeover of their generations-old vineyards and orchards by U.S.-based ExxonMobil.

Haji Ahmad’s mukhtar (mayor) spoke with tears in his eyes about his vines and about the worker who also cried while bulldozing them. “He understood what he was doing, how much damage he was causing, but he was forced to do his job,” said the mukhtar.

In May, before the destruction took place, the mukhtar and other villagers protested and stopped the destruction, but government officials arrested him and brought in soldiers and security forces to “protect” the development. They also threatened villagers with repercussions if they spoke to the media.

Kak Miro bears grapes to offer CPT & land takeover enforcers.Sartka resident Kak (Mr.) Miro and a friend took us to the well construction site. ExxonMobil had confiscated and blocked off the only road leading into the village orchards and vineyards. The villagers have to ask company security for permission to enter their land, which it often denies. When allowed access, they cannot bring vehicles into their orchards and vineyards, so the ripe fruit dries out because the villagers cannot harvest it.

The Irish construction manager called by security seemed confused with an international human rights organization demanding access to the orchards and let us in. Kak Miro gave us armfuls of beautifully ripe grapes and talked about the history and geography of the land. We took pictures. As we drove back, a truck full of military men with angry faces and fingers on rifle triggers stopped us. They were the Zeravani, Kurdish government Special Forces deployed to guard the construction. The officer took our camera, searched the pictures, and tried to delete them. A passionate discussion broke out, mostly between Kak Miro and the unit officer. We presented our NGO status documents. Kak Miro offered the soldiers some of the grapes. Eventually, the Zeravanis let us go. We rejoiced with Kak Miro and his friend that we had been able to enter the site and secure the important photo documentation. We planned the next steps and asked Kak Miro about his safety.

“We are not afraid of them,” he said. “We don't care what they do to us. We will continue. And we would be happy if CPT could accompany us.”