Thursday, 7 November 2013

This is Iraq

Before coming to Kurdistan I had to prepare the speech which I would tell everyone who asked "where/what is Kurdistan?" and the follow up "no, no it's not the same as Iraq, it's completely safe, they don't have terrorist attacks there," after I had told them where it was. One of the weird things about living here is that I forget that I am living in Iraq, after all Iraq is that far off place that was synonymous, to varying degrees of reality, with terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, fear-mongering, invasion, war, torture, sectarian violence, instability, oil and again terrorism. Things aren't much better now and it would be totally crazy of me to go to Iraq, but as far as I'm concerned, I'm not in Iraq.

Every so often I'll see a road sign to Baghdad or to Mosul, two places which always make me think of insurgency and danger, but which are linked to Erbil by direct roads. Of course these roads are heavily guarded by the Kurdish Peshmerga within the Kurdish region which has levels of autonomy unknown in Scotland or Catalonia. This is why Kurdistan doesn't look like the rest of Iraq and why you don't hear about this place in the news most of the time. There have only been a handful of attacks in the Kurdish controlled region since the 2003 US invasion, nothing in comparison with the endless bombings in cities like Baghdad, Kirkuk and all across Iraq. Of course, Kurdistan is also bordered by Syria to the West, specifically the Kurdish region within Syria, which is even more unstable than Iraq; by Turkey to the North, which has a long history of oppressing its own Kurdish groups (the recently legalized the Kurdish letters Q, W and X for the first time ever!); and by Iran to the East, which, although it may have had slightly less animosity towards the Kurds, holds strong influence over the Shias in the South of Iraq who currently control the Iraqi government and who are having their own disputes with the Kurds over oil and who would be completely against any Kurdish independence.

So this is the view I held when I came to Erbil. It was an island of stability in a sea of war, terrorism and oppression. I mean, this is what makes the region interesting for me. Despite this I thought Iraqi Kurdistan would be safe. And I still do. However, my experience may have been a cause for concern for those outside the region.

On the 29th of September a group of men armed with guns, grenades and bombs attacked the local police headquarters, or asayesh, in Erbil. This was the first officially recognised attack since 2007. At the time I was on my way to work, the school where I teach isn't too far from the asayesh building. In the car a friend called me up to tell me that he had heard about something happening near my school, so I called my school, but they didn't know anything about it. I assume by this point the first wave of the attack had already happened. As we got closer to the asayesh building you could see different armed police and guards running towards it, although it wasn't clear what was going on and there were a lot of cars on the road. Before we could get too close to the site, there were heavily armed policemen forcing all the cars to go around. At that time I saw a trail of ambulances racing past us.

We carried on to school since we were nearly there and we still didn't know the extent of what was happening, but by the time we were getting close, now parallel with the road we had been on before, albeit a few blocks away, we heard a loud, but somewhat muffled blast. "Scheiße!" I said (my driver had lived in Germany for 19 years, so we always spoke in German), as I looked around and saw a column of black smoke reaching into the sky. I'm pretty sure the car shook when the blast went off. It turned out that this was one of the ambulances which had been filled with explosive and driven in after all the security forces had been drawn out by the first wave. We were very close to the school now, so we thought the best idea was to drive me there and find out what was going on. As we approached the sound of gunfire could be heard - this must have been the police killing the terrorists who tried to get into the building.

I got into the school and told them what I had just seen, but they didn't seem to believe that it was a big deal, although they hadn't seen it themselves. Even after turning on the TV to watch the news they didn't feel it was necessary to tell me what was going on and they got a little annoyed when I asked them to tell me something. Faced with such lack of response I turned to twitter and was able to keep up-to-date and used facebook to check up on friends and message family back home. After a few hours I decided it was best to leave, my school is opposite the house of a key politician, but my house was outside the city. A good friend came to pick me up and once I had left the area I felt completely secure. Actually I hadn't felt too worried while at the school, I never thought that something might happen to me unless I did something stupid and got arrested.

Later reports said that 6 police and 6 terrorists were killed. However, as the events were unfolding the death toll was much higher, but the government doesn't want the terrorists to consider this a victory (inshallah they don't read my blog!). The first accusation I heard was Iran, although this didn't sound too plausible to me - a friend told me about Qasem Soleimani, "the most powerful man in the Middle East." It later turned out that the perpetrators were Sunni Arabs from Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS - Shams is Syria). The supposed reason being that the Iraqi Kurds had been supporting the Kurds in Syria who are fighting against the Islamists there. Actually the Islamists in Iraq have had a problem with the Kurds here too, but the region is normally too secure for them to get in. It seems that they were able to enter the region during the run up to the elections when everyone was coming and going and then they attacked the day after the preliminary results were released. Now it's very difficult to move around, especially for single Arab men, many of whom have been refused entry based on this sole criteria.

The Minister of Health denied that an ambulance had been used by the attackers and that it had simply been near to something else which had exploded, however, I saw the explosion and that wasn't a simple car explosion. Since this attack was aimed at the headquarters of the security forces of Kurdistan, the institution which is supposed to protect the region from such attacks, a lot of faces were in need of saving.

In spite of this attack, I still feel safe here and I also feel like I have shared an experience with the Kurdish people and thus feel more determined to learn as much as I can and get the most out of my time spent here. Without wanting to sound too naive, I take this experience as part of the adventure of living in the region and this is nothing in comparison with what the Kurds have been through in the last 60 years. Nor is it comparable to what is going on in the rest of Iraq, especially Baghdad, but then in the end, this really isn't Iraq. It's Kurdistan.

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