Iraq: October 2011

Iraq Delegation Report October 12-25, 2011



I.  Introduction

II. Istanbul Orientation

III. Southeastern Turkey

a. Diyarbakir

b. Cizre

IV. Iraq-Turkey Border Regions

a. Zakho

b. Grebye

c. Merkegia

V. Barzani Graveyard

VI. Iraq-Iran Border Region

a. Kani Spi

b. Ranya/Sunnah/Zherawa IDP Camp

VII. Suleimaniyeh

a. Shanidar Cave

b. Nature Iraq meeting

  c. The Suleimaniyeh Protests

d. Suleimaniyeh – Old and New

e. Amna Suraka tour

VIII. Istanbul Final Debriefing


I. Introduction

 Between the dates of October 12-25, Christian Peacemaker Teams delegates Gerald Paoli, John Beal, Rachel Stacy, and Patrick Maxwell traveled through Turkey and Iraq in an effort to understand and record the difficulties faced by the Kurdish peoples of that region. Throughout the delegation opportunities were also presented to understand the present plight of the Kurdish people in context with the past; in particular with the oppression of the Kurds in Saddam Hussein’s Al-Anfal campaign in the late 1980s.

With members of the CPT-Iraq team, delegates interviewed village leaders, met with representatives of local and international NGOs, and toured notable museums and landmarks. Roles were divided among group members, with John as Media Coordinator, Rachel as Worship Leader, Patrick as Writing/Log Coordinator, and Gerald as Team Leader. The role of Process Observer was shared among all delegates.

II. Istanbul Orientation (October 13-14) 

With the exception of Gerald, who’d arrived two days previously, the delegates flew into Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on the afternoon of October 13th. After convening at the airport, we took a taxi to a hostel in the Sultanahmet district, where we would stay for the next two nights. Over dinner, we held a beginning orientation session and took some time to get to know each other, focusing on our respective backgrounds in peacebuilding and our motivations for working with CPT.

The next morning (Oct. 14th) we had time available for sightseeing, and we took the opportunity to visit the Hagia Sophia and Istanbul’s tourist quarter. Back at the hostel, we discussed cultural norms in Iraq and Turkey and assigned group roles (listed above). After a short break, we continued our orientation with a worship session, a discussion of CPT’s sexual harassment policy, an intro into CPT’s past and present work against oppression, and a brief discussion of the delegation schedule.

 On the morning of October 15th we boarded a plane out of Istanbul’s Gokcen Airport to Diyarbakir, where we would meet up with CPT-Iraq team members Lukasz Firla and Stefan Warner.

III. Southeastern Turkey (October 15-16)

To gain a wide-ranging perspective on the problems faced by the Kurds, it was necessary to experience the situation in southeast Turkey. The Kurdish language was banned in Turkey until 1991, and Turkish law continues to outlaw the use of Kurdish in public places and schools. The government refuses to recognize the existence of Kurds as an ethnic minority.

a. Diyarbakir

After meeting Lukasz and Stefan at the Diyarbakir airport, we traveled by bus to our hotel. We walked around the city to get a sense of the massive encampments of Kurdish refugees and the working poor. 

Later, we met with a human rights activist who is affiliated with Amnesty International. She shared her own struggles with the Turkish government and with poverty and social issues among the Kurdish population of Diyarbakir. She was arrested in 2009 and was accused of being a member of an armed terrorist group, despite the fact that her work is entirely non-political. She faces a possible sentence of 18 years. She believes that the government is targeting her for her work with the Kurdish population, and told us that such arrests are commonplace.

b. Cizre

The next morning (Oct. 16th) we awoke early and boarded a bus to Cizre (pronounced JEEZ-reh), another Turkish city close to the Iraqi border.

While the CPT team had arranged for us to meet with the director of the Kurdish cultural center, when we arrived in Cizre, our friend was visiting his sick mother in another town. He arranged for a friend of his who spoke English to meet up with us at the cultural center and translate for us while the director traveled back to Cizre. This friend of the director was a pharmacist nearby and spoke of his nervousness carrying out the request of the director. He feared that he would lose his job if he was observed by the government as being in support of the cultural center.

While we waited for the director to arrive, we were entertained by the youth of the cultural center. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the children sang joyous songs of Kurdish nationalism which was illegal and could cause trouble for the children and for the center.

Once our friend the director arrived we were able to learn about the struggles of the Kurdish people in south eastern Turkey. He emphasized that, in Cizre, armed groups such as the PKK (The Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a pro-Kurdish militia currently on the US and EU terrorist lists) are often hailed as freedom fighters opposing the repressive Turkish government. As children reach their teenage years they are in danger of arrest if suspected to be supportive of Kurdish culture. Over 200 children between the ages of 11 and 18 were estimated to be currently in jail for acts of Kurdish nationalism such as speaking Kurdish in public, singing Kurdish songs, or writing the Kurdish language in school. In response to this oppression, many children choose to join groups like the PKK. Approximately 15-20 youths are estimated to leave the city of Cizre each day to join the PKK fighters in the surrounding mountains.

IV. Turkey-Iraq Border Region (October 17-18)

Cizre was our last stop within the borders of Turkey. Next, we crossed the border into Iraq, met up with the rest of the CPT-Iraq team and visited several villages close to the Turkey-Iraq border that have experienced cross-border shelling and bombing in the past several years.

 a. Zakho

After meeting up with the rest of the CPT-Iraq team, we found a hotel in the Iraqi town of Zakho where we spent the night. The morning of October 17th was spent debriefing our experiences in Turkey and orienting ourselves to the Iraq situation. We discovered that as a delegation we felt a sense of relief being in Iraq after the tense situation in Turkey.

b. Grebye

The first border village we visited was Grebye, a small town situated around a Turkish military base. We spoke to the mukhtar (mayor) of Grebye; and another family of the village. Both the mukhtar, the mukhtar’s wife and the village family informed us that, although the village itself has not been bombed, Turkish forces in the area have been targeting the surrounding mountains where PKK members are suspected to operate. People in the village are afraid and unhappy with the presence of the military base. Children in the village heard the sounds of military activity throughout most nights.

c. Merkegia

Another friend of CPT, agreed to host us in his home in his village of Merkegia. Merkegia is an Assyrian Christian village situated in a predominantly Muslim country. Our friend expressed his desire to welcome all his neighbors in to his house: Muslim, Christian, Kurdish, Iraqi.

We stayed there for two nights (October 17th and 18th).  During our stay, we heard our friend’s perspective on the history of the region including his experiences with the Turkish government and with Saddam Hussein. We were also blessed with a tour around his beautiful fruit orchard that displayed century-old grape vines/trees that had miraculously escaped the decades of shelling. Our friend showed us the village spring and the vast orchards of the village that were heavy with apples, grapes, and quiche. We learned from our friend that there is not a market for these fruits. These economic realities paired with the regular shelling of the region keep the village children away. Our friend’s wife and family lived in another town as he stayed to tend the land.

In our explorations we also unexpectedly came across a local graveyard for members of a local armed group.

 V. Barzani Graveyard (October 19)

On our way from the Turkish-Kurdish border to the Iranian-Kurdish border, we stopped at a graveyard where anonymous Kurdish people are buried. In the Al-Anfal, Saddam evicted between 8,000 and 10,000 Kurdish men and boys from the surrounding region, marched them to the south of Iraq, and tortured them,  executed them, and buried them in mass graves.  This event was part of a larger campaign that cost the lives of over 180,000 people and destroyed nearly 5,000 villages. Some remains of those killed were eventually exhumed and brought back to this graveyard, where they were re-buried. We held a short worship service in commemoration of those killed by Saddam Hussein and for those who survived the terror and live to pass on the memories.

 VI. Iran-Iraq Border Region (October 19-20)

While the Iran-Kurdish border villages face similar conditions as the border villages along the Turkey-Kurdish border, remnants of the Iraq-Iran war add the complications of landmines and current political upheaval complicate the U.S.’s involvement in this area.

a. Kani Spi

On the evening of the 19th, we stopped for a few hours in the village of Kani Spi near the Iranian border. We had planned on spending the night there but security concerns expressed by our hosts prompted us to leave early.

In Kani Spi, our friends described for us their lives; they intertwined their longing for a productive harvest and good education for their children with reports of Iranian shelling and the deactivating of landmines. The father of the family with which we shared a meal had lost a leg to a landmine and expressed his frustrations with the constant fighting between Iran and Iraq.

We shared a beautiful meal with our friends made from delicious simple food of the village. At one point during our visit we shared  moments of common humanity by exchanging heirloom seeds from the U.S.A. with our friends and receiving traditional Kurdish seeds to bring back home.

b. Ranya/Sunnah/Zherawa IDP Camp

We had planned on spending the night of the 19th in the town of Rayat, but our contact's wife was having a baby, so we instead spent two nights in Ranya at the Rayal Cultural Center . We were hosted by friends of CPT.

During these two days, we visited Sunnah, another village that had been the target of Iranian shelling. The village of Sunnah had recently returned from an IDP camp and were working on bringing in the harvest and repairing the village. We witnessed the damage of the shelling on the village and we spoke to members of the local school who had picked up where the last year’s lessons had left off.

We also visited the Zherawa IDP Camp. Since the inhabitants of Zherawa had been prohibited from building permanent structures, most had returned to the dangers of their mountain border villages or sought housing from relatives in the cities. Two elderly families had refused to leave and when they were the only two families left, the government had granted them permission to build permanent homes. We visited with one of these families and listened to their continual challenge to get support for water and power amenities.

 Back in Ranya, we were invited to dinner at the Rayal Cultural Center with the mayor of Ranya. At this dinner we were able to persuade the major to support the two families at the Zherawa IDP Camp and we were also invited for lunch at the major’s house near Dukan the next day.

VII. Suleimaniyeh (October 21-22)

We spent the final two nights of our delegation, before our flight back to Istanbul, at the CPT house in Suleimaniyeh. We were blessed with the opportunity to visit several historical landmarks in the area and speak with individuals who had participated in the protests in Suleimaniyeh between February and April of 2011.

 a. Jasena Cave

On our way to Suleimaniyeh we stopped at Jasena Cave, the home of the first non-state-controlled newspaper during the Kurdish revolts against the British occupation of the 1920s. After exploring the cave and the surrounding mountains, we held a short worship service.

b. Nature Iraq meeting

Anna Bachman, an employee of the environmental NGO Nature Iraq, agreed to meet with us to give us a portrait of the environmental situation in Iraq. She emphasized a lack of water treatment plants, dearth of environmental education, and environmental damage caused by war as the most grave threats to Iraq's ecology.

 c. The Suleimaniyeh Protests

A friend of CPT and lawyer in Suleimaniyeh, spoke with us on the afternoon of the 22nd about the protests in Suleimaniyeh between February and April of 2011. He shared with us his suspicions that the few violent moments of the otherwise-peaceful protests were instigated by members of the KDP political party as a ploy to destabilize Suleimaniyeh and allow them to assert military control over the district. The Suleimaniyeh governorate is currently controlled by the PUK party, a rival of the KDP.

This man, who was very active in the demonstrations and represented several of those arrested in the protests in court, received several threats from KRG security forces, who instructed him to cease his activities. Despite the threat, he remained active, and was shot in the foot two months later by an unidentified hitman. A friend of his, along with a bystander, were hit with bullet fragments in the same incident. Since the shooting, he has received several more threats and has attempted to keep a low profile for the safety of himself and his family.

d. Suleimaniyeh – Old and New

We walked around Suleimaniyeh to see the square where the protests had taken place and to get a sense of the city. Parts of Suleimaniyeh represent an older time where torture and terror was imparted by Saddam’s Regime onto the Kurdish people. Other parts of Suleimaniyeh represent the hopes of the people; the hopes to become an autonomous Kurdish nation, the hopes for freedom of expression and speech and the hopes to be a city known internationally for its ideas and beauty. While the protests were shut down in June, small initiatives by politically active students continue. For example the Cultural Café, which was under renovation when we visited, hosts the emergence of ideas and discussions that represent the future of Suleimaniyeh.

e. Amna Suraka Tour

As our final outing in Suleimaniyeh, we visited the Amna Suraka museum, a former prison that has since been converted to a commemoration of the 180,000 Kurds killed under Saddam Hussein. During our tour, we met a man who had been imprisoned there thirty years ago, who walked the prison with us and offered us a uniquely personal account of the horrors that the prison held.

VII.    Istanbul Final Debriefing

At 3:00 on the morning of October 24th, the four delegation members took a plane from Suleimaniyeh International Airport back to Istanbul, where we stayed until our flight back to the States. While in Istanbul we held a final debriefing session, talked about the things we most appreciated about each other, and caught up on sleep.