Currently dispatching from Iraqi Kurdistan
Friday, December 22, 2006
Being stranded and not knowing when you'll leave a city you don't really want to be in can be depressing. But actually it wasn't that bad. The passengers on our flight really bonded, and there were many very interesting, nice and smart folks who work all over the world. We jokingly called ourselves The Denver Displaced, but several people from our group also commented on how difficult it must be for those who are truly displaced. We were flying in from Frankfurt, which is a privilege in itself that requires travelers hold certain passports, and we were inconvenienced for only two days. Just imagine what it's like to flee your home, family, work -- your life -- without knowing if you can ever return.
All of us wanted to get somewhere, or more importantly to certain people, for Christmas. I've only spent one Christmas away and it was painful: I missed the traditions and my family. I don't think I'll ever do it again. But spending time with The Denver Displaced was a great experience as well. When we resigned ourselves to the fact that Mother Nature would determine our travel date and time, and that we had no control over the situation, we sat back and enjoyed one another. We told stories, talked politics and created a pseudo support system. We took turns calling Lufthansa for the latest updates and let everyone else know what was going on. Some of us stuck together like glue through all of the airport chaos.
It wasn't like being home for Christmas, of course, and we were all eager to leave. We're currently en route to Denver (literally -- I'm writing from the plane again) and will soon say our good-byes. As frustrating, overwhelming and long as this experience has been, I'm a little sad to leave The Denver Displaced. We needed the Christmas spirit to make it easier, and we found it in one another.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
OK, this is bizarre. Usually when you're in the air you're in a bubble. Not this time.
No one has told us that we're flying into or over a major storm, but I read online -- thanks to this handy internet-on-the-plane service -- that a blizzard has hit Colorado and pretty much closed the airport. So I'm wondering where exactly we're going and when they'll announce it. Maybe they're waiting for Mother Nature to take pity and allow planes to land.
It's ironic that I spent so much time and energy trying to get out of Iraq, and now it looks like I may come up slightly short in getting home in the final leg. I might land in the wrong state. Or if we do land in Colorado the highways are shut and apparently the buses aren't running, and this Hawaii/California girl ain't driving in a blizzard. The airport is nice and warm, at least.
This really wasn't supposed to be a blog about my travels (at least not literally about my travels) but heck, I've been on a plane for ten hours, I've been traveling for 36 hours, and I'm bored. Shoot me an email if you have time.
P.S. I asked the staff, and the stewardess says we're going to try to land or circle and wait for the storm to pass. Turbulence is fun already.
Kurdistan Airlines put me on a Lufthansa flight from Amsterdam to Frankfurt and then on to the U.S. -- it was a complete nightmare, very difficult, but I'm glad to be coming home. And I loved the Christmas-y feel of the little I saw of Amsterdam during my overnight stay.
Unfortunately, Boeing plans to discontinue its internet service on Lufthansa flights (and perhaps others if it's offered -- not sure?) as of January 1, 2007. Bummer. It's a great way to kill time and/or get some work done. And it's free. Boeing, what are you thinking?!?
Sunday, December 17, 2006
I'll miss my connection back to the U.S., which ain't going to be fun to change. Kurdistan Airlines has promised to take care of me, and I will keep them to that. I still plan on being in California by Christmas, though that may take some work.
I'm not 100% certain that the problem is still with the Turkish government not allowing Kurdish planes to use its airspace. At this point, I don't really care. My flight was originally supposed to take off on Monday -- now it's Tuesday; the time for last week's flight to Frankfurt was bumped forward by about 14 hours, and still didn't take off on time; the week before, the flight was bumped forward by a day and still flew about 12 hours late.
Two weeks ago, the flight from Sulaimaniyah to Munich (on another airline) was cancelled. No one knows what's going on, and the local press isn't covering it because, well, Iraqis aren't exactly welcome in other parts of the world so they're not boarding planes. If they travel they're doing so overland -- to Jordan, Syria and Turkey. Kurds are actually fleeing to Turkey (not their favorite country, please see below) because their quality of life isn't exactly improving. (Freedom, sure, but little electricity, low-paying jobs, skyrocketing inflation, etc.)
As I indicated earlier, airlines in Iraq aren't exactly reliable. When my boyfriend traveled to Jordan last summer, the Iraqi Airways flight made a detour to another airport -- to pick up some Kurdish officials who were on their way to South America. The flight of course arrived several hours late in Amman.
At this point, the best I can hope for is to board a plane that will actually fly.
The one thing I've noticed about being at government offices or out on the street is that, at least after dark, I'm the lone woman. The sun sets at about 4.30 or 5pm these days, and I was often reporting until that time. The other day I walked through the bazaar with my friend/translator after finishing up some interviews. The normally traffic-clogged streets were dead, except for a few men with carts selling boiled turnips and men in barber shops. They open at night because that's when the government gives a few hours of power.
The Kurds pride themselves on their female Peshmarga fighters, but in reality, Kurdish women don't hold a lot of power in the public sphere. The Kurdish government appointed a 33-member cabinet (that would be for a population of 4 million) with just three women, two of whom are ministers of state (general ministers.) The power structure may be different in the home, but that of course depends on the family.
I am often the only woman I see out at night, except at the more expensive restaurants. There isn't a lot to do here, so women's patterns are usually home-work-visit family. The secular men drink, a lot, at bad bars. Being out at night as a woman feels like being in another world, but I actually have a pass as a foreigner -- no one much cares what I do and there's no honor to defend. During the day, there are also all-male spots: at the teahouses, or one of Sulaimaniyah's lunch spots. Women often work in civil service jobs that end at 2pm.
It would be easy to blame this all on the men, but women don't always push to be in public spaces. For example, I offered to take two of M's sisters to a coffee at a new cafe that opened up in the popular Zagros supermarket, but this was an entirely foreign -- apparently too foreign -- concept. We went back and forth on it for a while, until they insisted on meeting in a house. We finally ended up at an office and had a brief, and somewhat uncomfortable, chat, which was entirely different from our time in Halabja.
Friday, December 15, 2006
Is Iraqi Kurdistan actually part of Iraq?
Technically, yes, but it's seriously debatable. Most Iraqi Kurds want to create an independent state from Iraq, even though Saddam's days of oppressing Kurds are over. Iraqi president Jalal Talabani is a Kurd, but does that really matter if only a few Kurds feel any connection to Baghdad or care about what happens there?
Aimee pointed out that the NY Times ran an article indicating Kurdish forces would be sent to Baghdad to help manage the conflict there. Both Talabani and Kurdistan Regional Government president Masood Barzani have rejected sending Kurdish forces outside of Iraqi Kurdistan. There are Kurdish soldiers in the Iraqi army, but according to the leaders Kurdistan's Peshmarga won't go south.
The Kurds don't want to get involved in Iraq's sectarian mess. The prevalent attitude in Iraqi Kurdistan? That's their problem -- not ours.
After spending several days fretting over how to get to Germany, Kurdistan Airlines kindly offered to put me on a flight to Amsterdam on my original day of departure and buy me a ticket from Amsterdam to Germany.
Problem solved? Not quite.
Flights from Erbil and Sulaimaniyah haven't been taking off for the past several weeks, or if they have, they're extraordinarily (as in 14 hours) late. I called to find out what the problem was, and I was told that Turkey wasn't letting Kurdistan Airlines (and possibly other Kurdish airlines) fly over Turkish air space.
It must be noted that Iraqi and Kurdish airlines are generally unreliable and their problems extend beyond the Turkish restrictions. I have flown out of Erbil twice and didn't have problems either time, but sometimes the planes take off (very) late, sometimes they change their schedules, sometimes they change their arrival airport. Sulaimaniyah airport has also proved unreliable; it's supposed to be getting better, but I've only known one person who successfully took off or landed there on time. I met some foreign correspondents last year who couldn't get back to Baghdad from Sulaimaniyah; they tried four times to fly, even got off the ground once, until the plane turned around. One staged a protest by lying on the tarmac.
But I wasn't entirely surprised to hear that Turkey would let the airlines pass through its airspace. The other option for leaving Iraqi Kurdistan is to drive to the Ibrahim Khalil crossing at the Iraqi-Turkish border (which is five hours from Sulaimaniyah), drive another three to four hours to the town of Diyarbakir, fly from Diyarbakir to Istanbul, and then fly on to your next destination. It is a serious pain, and the worst part can be the border.
The only time I left Iraq through Turkey I spent about five hours at the border. The Turkish authorities were checking every car and every bag. They weren't happy when they found Kurdish rugs in my suitcase and wanted to seize them. I was told I should only be buying Turkish rugs and was asked if any of my books were in Kurdish or if I supported any Kurdish groups like the PKK (which the U.S. and Turkey have labeled a terrorist organization.) No, I said, I just want to get home for Christmas and take my rugs with me! They probably knew that seizing Kurdish rugs from an American would be bad PR, so they let me go.
Why do the Turks care about Kurdish rugs? Turkey is having problems getting into the EU in part because of its oppression of the 20 million Kurds within its borders. The government is as obsessed with minimizing Kurdish culture as it is with eliminating groups like the PKK.
Needless to say, I can't bring myself to drive an additional eight hours and taking two additional flights to get to Frankfurt. I fear my flight will be canceled or take off late, but I have to take a leap of faith that this time, things will run smoothly.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Kurds believe that they (once again) will be the victims, the sacrificial lambs, of national and regional politics. The report proposes (once again) delaying dealing with the contested city of Kirkuk, which holds about 60% of Iraq's oil. An historically Kurdish city, Saddam sent Arabs (mostly from the south) and kicked Kurds out in order to limit their control there. Most Kurds want the displaced Kurds sent back to Kirkuk and for the Arabs who were settled there to return to their places of origin. According to the Iraqi constitution which was passed by voters last year, there should be a referendum by December 2007 to determine if Kirkuk is integrated into Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan is a federal state with some autonomy from the central government in Baghdad.
The Baker-Hamilton report proposes holding off on the referendum (which would violate the constitution) because it might instigate violence between Kirkuk's numerous sectarian and ethnic groups. Kurds are also angry because the report advocates that oil be centralized in Baghdad instead of controlled by the regions. Three wells are currently being drilled in Kurdistan and that's oil that the Kurds no doubt want to profit from and control, particularly as the rest of the country spirals into war and chaos.
So far, the Kurds have been the Americans' best friends in Iraq. But one person I've talked to said Kurds might actually be drawn into the war if Kirkuk and the other issues aren't dealt with. Over the past few years, Kurds have been attacked in clearly ethnic-related violence outside of Kurdistan, but the Kurdish government hasn't responded with force so far. If the Peshmarga (Kurdish forces) were involved in the Iraq conflict it would be disastrous, as the Peshmarga are very well-armed and were strong enough to defeat Saddam's Republican Guard. I truly hope that it won't come to this.
Baker, who was secretary of state under George Bush Sr., wasn't the most popular man in Iraq even before the report came out. Another Kurd I spoke with here said he felt like the report was written more for the U.S. than for Iraq -- i.e. it was a strategy for the U.S. to feel good about its role in Iraq, but it isn't necessarily good for Iraq itself.
I laughed when I saw a poll that Americans support the report -- most don't even read newspapers, let alone an 82-page report on a foreign country. I'm also certain that most Americans were encouraged simply because they knew the report gave some fresh ideas. Americans, who tend to be optimistic, also tend to gobble up any "good" piece of news or hope about Iraq. Iraqis are quite the opposite -- they are generally pessimistic, and with good reason. I don't think I've heard one positive statement from an Iraqi in the month I've been here. In fact, in the year I lived here I worked with dozens of Iraqis from throughout the country, and I think I heard maybe three positive or hopeful sentences about the future of their country. Being here, even in the stable north, is downright depressing.
It wasn't like that in 2003, I've heard, but car bombs, assassinations, shootings, declining services, an economic depression and deadlock among Iraq's politicians (who are also widely rumored to be sending out their militias when they don't get their way politically) killed that hope. The newscasts in the U.S. and elsewhere make Iraq sound bad, but the situation on the ground is much worse: Kids can hardly go to school, (their teachers are often shot) the government is hardly functioning, the economy is spiraling downward, six million people have fled, residents are afraid to leave their homes and services such as electricity, water and sewage are severely limited.
Most Iraqis I've spoken with don't think there's a solution. Generally the U.S. is blamed for creating the problem, but there's not a lot of hope that they can fix it. Whether the Americans should stay or go isn't the questions most Iraqis ask -- that was debated a year or two ago. Today, the question is: How long will this war last?
My boyfriend is a middle child. I realized the full meaning of this when I first visited his family last year during eid al-fitr, the holiday celebration at the end of Ramadan. M's family includes eight sisters, whom I was (sort of) introduced to when we walked onto his property for the first time.
Older houses in Halabja have large courtyards with fruit trees and two separate units: One contains about four rooms that are the living quarters; the other contains the bathroom and kitchen. (i.e. water is pumped from the tanks on the property into only one unit. There is no government water system.)
When we first entered the courtyard, all I saw was a flurry of women running around, doing, well, everything – too much for me to be properly introduced. They were shaking out the rugs, making food, even moving furniture. You can do a lot with eight women – enough, in fact, that there isn't much need for men. They didn't even need M to move a large couch, let alone do anything else in the house. I realized that my boyfriend didn't have a clear role in this family. Middle children tend to get lost in the shuffle anyway, but M's sisters seemed like they could handle everything themselves, from money-making to shopping to housework.
M's sisters are all educated. That was something their mother insisted on. She, too, is educated, at least by Halabja's standards: She can read and write, and made it through sixth grade. Her girls have gone farther: Most have graduated from universities or institutes (which are like community colleges in
M's sisters put him through college. His dad wanted him to take over the teahouse, but he instead opted for a degree in English. Dad couldn't figure out why his son would turn down the opportunity to have a guaranteed business in a country where wars and sanctions left many of its educated jobless. But M saw a brighter future and chose a different path, and now he's in the
His sisters will probably never leave Iraqi Kurdistan. They went to
Kurdish women don't usually venture far from their families unless their husband's work or decisions require them to. As different as M's family is, it doesn't break all traditions.
I wasn't with my boyfriend this trip but I had a great visit with his sisters, watching bad subtitled American movies and communicating with our equally bad Arabic. Staying at M's house is like having a sleepover. There are four rooms for eleven people, and we slept on thin mattresses that are folded up and stored in a closet during the day. I slept in one of the smaller rooms with five of Mariwan's sisters – at least I think I counted five lumps under the blankets. When the electricity cut at about 9pm, (it went on at 7pm) all we had were our flashlights and a kerosene heater that illuminated the room. We chatted and giggled and instead of eating junk food, we had pomegranates and oranges grown in their yard.
Halabja isn't paradise, that's for sure; I haven't seen roads and infrastructure that bad since I was in war-torn east Congo four years ago. But it certainly has its positive side, including a warm home that is a wonderful place to rest.
"Suffering" is a commonly used word in
In March 2006, the monument commemorating the attack was burned during a protest against the Kurdish government. Kurdish forces opened fire and killed a teenage boy.
As the symbol of Kurdish victimization under Saddam, Kurdish authorities have made a lot of promises to help Halabja. Yet almost nothing has been done. People were sick and tired of being the symbol of Kurdish pain for one day out of the year and ignored the rest. (The government gives another version of the story, arguing that Islamists backed by
The monument is the first thing you see when you pass the checkpoint into Halabja. It's actually on the outskirts of town, where the roads are still paved and the buildings still look new. Halabja itself has a backdrop of beautiful mountains and is surrounded by miles of agricultural land. It's also home to the best pomegranates in the world.
I once recommended some American businessmen drive to Halabja because it was spring and the area is gorgeous at that time of year. They never made it past the monument; the guards there advised them not to go into the town because they might be threatened by Islamists. It's true that Islamists once controlled Halabja, but most, if not all, were forced out by the
The guards probably didn't want the businessmen to see Halabja's reality: crumbling houses, dirt roads, no sewage system. The government is now tearing up the streets to put in a sewage and water system. There's little urban planning, so the project is actually a muddy mess with no routes to divert cars or signs indicating how long the project will last.
I've visited Halabja three or four times in the past year and have never seen projects like this. Yet Halabja residents are angrier than ever: They have totally lost faith that their living conditions will improve, or that anyone will stand up for them. I could feel only negativity pumping through the town, and pain.
Monday, December 4, 2006
The first time I came to northern
This company had to pay for its own generator, but the executives said that they were lucky because at least their business could afford it. People aren't on USAID contracts and generators are expensive; a small, used generator that will run a TV and some lights can't give enough energy to run a hot water boiler. It costs at least $1,500 plus a few hundred dollars a month in fuel, which at this point can pretty much only be purchased on the black market due to the fuel shortage.
Living with two hours of power a day is more than inconvenient -- it's unnerving. You can't keep fresh food in your refrigerator, can't take hot showers, can't watch TV, can't work and have to sit in the dark. Without electricity you feel like you don't have many choices, or much power over your own life.
When I left in August 2006, there was between six and twelve hours a day, but now the shortage is much worse. In
There's no war here, so Kurds are wondering why, three and a half years after Saddam was overthrown and 15 years after the Kurdish government took power, they don't have power. According to Human Rights Watch and other sources, the electricity shortage began when the
Kurds generally blame the Kurdish government, but many Iraqis argue that the electricity shortage is representative of the
The businessmen I drove in with, Iraqis and even some in the State Department
Saturday, December 2, 2006
It's in large part because people here who attempt suicide do so by setting themselves on fire. It's a common technique employed by Iraqi and Iranian Kurdish women who haven't had access to things like pills, and have traditionally ended their lives by soaking their bodies (from the head down) in kerosene and lighting a match.
The number of suicide cases is said to be rising, but it's hard to know if that's true or by how much. Statistics aren't exactly reliable here. Taking one's life is culturally and religiously forbidden in predominantly Islamic Kurdistan, so survivors rarely admit that they were trying to commit suicide. They instead claim it was an accident, but doctors are often suspicious that victims – especially women – were attempting suicide.
Many of the cases are in fact caused by generator and fire related accidents. A smaller number are believed to be murders: Someone puts a bullet in a woman's head and then sets her alight. Assumptions are made; an autopsy is skipped.
I naively thought that I could get some women survivors to open up to me and proved unsuccessful. Which makes sense: Why would a woman who tried to end her life open up to a stranger who randomly walks into a hospital?
Well, some just want to be listened to. There isn't any psychological help for those who need it. Iraqi Kurds who survived decades of war, genocide, torture, displacement and a host of internal conflicts, have zero medical mental health resources. There are religious leaders and families, of course, but only a handful of psychologists.
The women rejected my requests for interviews except at the end of my two-hour stay, when I unfortunately had to leave for another appointment. But I did end up talking to a young man who admitted that he had attempted suicide and appeared severely emotionally disturbed.
I had to wear a face mask and scrubs in the hospital, and as I got dressed I grew nervous. I had never seen a burn victim before, but I'm notoriously bad with blood and didn't want to become lightheaded during the interview. The young man, who was 27, had already been through enough and didn't need a reporter passing out on him.
He had lit himself on fire while drunk, but this wasn't his first suicide attempt. In fact, he estimated he had tried to kill himself 50 or so times. The fact that he hadn't succeeded made me think he was crying out for help, as we say in the States. He and his father blamed his problems entirely on drinking and drugs.
The young man was almost entirely wrapped in gauze and covered with a white sheet. He shook violently from the fever, particularly when he spoke, but said he wasn't in pain. He just seemed incredibly sad, lost, hopeless and, as he said himself, totally out of control. My sadness for him overwhelmed my fear.
There was only one other man in the men's ward, (there are separate sections for women and children) and he bore burn marks on his face. He, like many others who enter the unit, was burned in an accident with a kerosene heater or a generator. Running them is a dangerous necessity in Iraq; there's little electricity and therefore no heat in winter (or air in summer.)
The medical assistant I talked to pointed out that suicides happen everywhere. He was in part trying to emphasize that just because Kurds have a different way of killing themselves, they aren't freaks.
Is burning yourself alive really much worse than putting a gun to your head, or slicing your wrists open with a razor blade? I'm not sure. But the assistant also said something else revealing: He didn't think medical staff needed to answer why someone tried to hurt themselves; that it was their responsibility simply to heal them.
But what does healing mean? There aren't any psychologists, social workers or psychiatrists on staff at the hospital, so fevers are reduced, skin heals or is repaired and burn victims are sent home. But there is no attempt within the medical community to help those who attempted suicide understand why they took that drastic step and prevent it from happening again.