6 April 2012
IRAQI KURDISTAN UPDATE: January-March 2012
On team during this period were Bud Courtney, Lukasz Firla, Ramyar Hassani, Amy Peters, Garland Robertson, Kathy Moorhead Thiessen, Patrick Thompson, and team partners and translators Mohamed Salah and Parween Saeed.
The team visited the courthouse in mid January to witness a number of cases in the personal court involving divorce and separation at the invitation of a friend who works with the judge in that court. Following the trials, the team met in the judge’s chambers and discussed a number of issues with him, particularly regarding domestic violence and women’s rights in this society.
The team also met in January with the Suleimaniya staff of WADI, a legal assistance program for women and children in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). They have a number of projects in the regions and invited the team to become involved with any that were of interest. Hassani and Courtney traveled to Halabja a few days later to join the WADI team there and helping out with the Mobile Playground project, an endeavor that brings games and sports to the villages around Halabja. The team also met with the staff of WOLA, associates of WADI, who work with women within the shelter system. Hassani and Courtney visited one of the shelters four days later.
In March, the team supported additional activities pushing for women’s rights within the KRG, including an International Woman’s Day (8 March) action outside the central law court asking for the prosecutions of men who have committed “honor killings” under a new law that addresses this issue. Because this action had received authorization from the Asayish (Kurdish secret police), a police escort consisting of about twelve police officers in full riot gear accompanied the demonstrators, positioning themselves directly between them and the court, raising the question of whom escort was protecting, the women or the court?
Thompson and Bud Courtney attended a two-person play in March about a man who kills his wife, however due to the language barrier and a translator who seemed heavily engrossed in the play, Thompson and Courtney left with no understanding of what had happened.
Moorhead Thiessen toured a woman’s shelter in March, where most of the residents have fled in fear for their lives. On arriving at the shelter, Moorhead Thiessen was met with suspicion about her reasons for visiting, “You know we don’t have very much funding and we don’t want to be compared to the shelters in America,” the director said, thinking Moorhead Thiessen had come to “inspect” the facility. However Moorhead Thiessen was able to comfort the director and made it clear that she was there to gain a greater understanding of women’s issues in the KRG.
CPTers also attended a string of workshops in the Culture
Café dealing with women’s issues. Moorhead Thiessen, Thompson, and Roberts
attended one about prostitution in the KRG and what laws regarding it should;
CPT friend and Partner Parween also attended. A strong turn out of men and women resulted in a lively
debate where the laws of Canada and Holland, among many other points, were often
mentioned. The following day there was a debate about the need for a Kurdish
feminist theory to cover all the issues that Kurdish women face; again the
workshop resulted in a lively debate although the participants were mostly male.
The team made a number of trips to the internally displaced or refugee camps during in January. Twice the team visited Mahkmour where 10,000 persons live. The team met with a number of the village spokespeople including two men who were relatives of twenty-five of thirty-five people killed in the 27 December Turkish bombing of the village of Shirnak. The team had an appointment with the Turkish Consulate the following day and so the villagers they asked that the team convey the message that the villagers are not terrorists, they want peace but they also want their human rights.
The following day, the Robertson, Peters, and Courtney met with two vice consuls. For almost an hour and asked if they had ever visited the village. In the course of discussion, the consuls were asked if they’d ever visited the village. They said no and the team expressed some interest in opening the doors to a dialogue with the villagers. At the end of the meeting, one of the consuls said they would consider the offer and call the team.
The team returned later in the month to Mahkmour to talk to the villagers about the meeting. The spokesmen were reluctant to meet with the consul and felt both the Consul and CPT should speak to PKK leaders. Team members told the villagers that they did not need CPT to speak for them. Courtney explained, repeatedly, that if both sides could sit down together and talk to one another, perhaps, in time change and maybe peace could come about. They also said they would consider the proposal and call the team.
Two days after visiting the Consulate, the team traveled to the border village of Basta to attend the wedding of a friend’s nephew. They also traveled to Zhelya, another border village and had lunch and discussion with one of the families, the son and father of whom had both been badly injured by the bombing and shelling. Then they traveled to Qaladze to meet with the Minister of Education and one of the teachers of the village in hopes of fostering a project with the youth of the village of Sunnah. The road was cleared for this to happen but the day the team traveled to the village they had to turn around just beyond the final checkpoint because of a snowstorm in the region.
In general, the winter has been a very difficult one for the
villagers in the mountain border regions. There has been heavy snowfall and
extreme cold. However, Firla and Salah did make the trip to Sunneh with guest
Ludo in February. Near to the area
of the demolished 2011 Internally Displaced Persons camp they were able to
observe the new, more permanent camp (made up of small, white portable cabins)
that the government is preparing for the 2012 shelling season. One of the
villagers told them, “I am so unhappy with this new camp. It is near to a
village that will not allow us to bring our animals down to safety. They need
the grazing land for their animals. So our goats and cows will have to stay up
the mountain where it is not safe and we can not care for them.”
Networking with local Christians
The team met with Jantz and Sebastian in January, two monks staying in the Old Church near the bazaar. Jantz plans to be in Suleimaniya for ten years and is hoping to establish a Christian/Muslim dialogue. He invited the team for tea and discussion, in which Thompson, Firla, and Courtney partook.
In January, The team attended two sessions of the courtroom trial for Ibrahim Kaka Hama and Bilal, activists who were accused of collaborating in the shooting of a police officer during demonstrations last year in Halabja. The team’s good friend, K, who has done pro bono lawyer work for those injured and arrested during the demonstrations said, “Even though this is not my case, I have read all the reports from the trial. I am absolutely sure that he is innocent. I feel that he has been set up.” The trial continues on a bi-weekly basis. The team’s conversations with supporters of the two men say that much of the testimony from witnesses is hearsay evidence.
Courtney, Moorhead Thiessen, and Salah were present in the courtroom during the sentencing of a man accused of shooting another man, Omer, in the midst of the demonstrations. K represented the family of the murdered man. The courtroom erupted in screaming and wailing when he was given a life sentence. Family members of the condemned asked that they be killed instead of the condemned man receiving his sentence. They cried that he was innocent. Security personnel quickly caught hold of the prisoner and the family members and rushed them out of the room. Two families had lost a son, father, and husband—one to death and one of life behind bars.
Visitors to CPT
In February, Ludo Hekman, an independent Dutch journalist, stayed for a week. He had met the team two years earlier and was interested in writing stories regarding the border issues, and Christians in volatile areas between KRG and central Iraq. The team traveled with him to Sunneh, and Zharawa. There they discussed the life in the village and the effects of shelling from the mountains. They also rode to Kirkuk and visited with Father Silwa and the Archbishop.
The team received word that Sami Rasouli (who lives in Najaf, Iraq and is a member of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams) and Tom Fazwy (a doctor from New York who is doing research on use of depleted uranium in warfare in Iraq) were passing through Suleimaniya. Over supper the team heard many stories about the early days of CPT and MPT in the south as well as information regarding depleted uranium. One such story was about the CPT/MPT action in Fallujah, where they had asked to help to rebuild a house. Permission to do this was denied, so they decided to pick up the rubbish on a street. The action gained a lot of attention and press coverage. Sami said, “people came out to join us in the simple action of cleaning a street.”
Brother Jens, a Catholic monk, and his friend Andres Rump from Germany spoke about his concept of documentary-making. He presented the team with a copy of his first documentary, “Sheikh Ibrahim and Bruder Jihad,” about the life and friendship of a monk and an imam in Syria. Andres is looking around the Suleimaniya area for a topic to make another documentary and spent time discussing possible subjects and themes with the team.
Courtney and Firla supported Salah other activists and family members in creating a Valentine’s Day action to remember the five young men from Suleimaniya killed during the sixty-two days of demonstrations last year. The action took on a hearts and love theme and moved throughout the city to the spots where each was killed. Other civilians and media joined the action as it progressed. Later, Courtney was recognized quite often as the team traveled because his guitar playing and peace songs were featured on KRG TV.
17 February was the anniversary of the first day of the demonstrations. Moorhead Thiessen, Courtney, and Firla attended a vigil at the grave of the young man killed on that day in 2011. Then Courtney and Firla joined one of CPT’s partners to observe the activity in the main city square. A number of anonymous people on Facebook had called for people to gather there. However, no organized demonstrations took place because the security forces were out in large numbers. They arrested people seen to be waiting to protest and beat many with batons, especially those with cameras. Firla and Courtney were in the company of Federation of Civil Societies member, Fallah, who was able to stop them from pulling out their cameras. Team members witnessed the beating of a journalist friend but were unable to intervene. The media reported that all persons arrested were released later that day.
4 March was the 21st anniversary of the Kurdish 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein. This day was marked as a national holiday for the whole KRG; however, CPT members failed to find any celebrations to mark the event within Suleimaniya, possibly because of the bad weather.
16 March marked the anniversary of the 1988 Halabja chemical attack. Instead of attending the traditional speeches on the 16th, in which politicians talked about how they are “working to make things better in Halabja,” Kathy Moorhead Thiessen and Patrick Thompson visited the city a day earlier. They went to the memorial monument, observed the people busy making preparations, and then made their way into the bazaar. It became apparent that westerners don’t often do this after Moorhead Thiessen in Kurdish asked for directions into town and was politely pointed in the opposite direction towards the monument.
20-21 March was Nawroz, a festival celebrated through out the Kurdish region and beyond. The festival is a pre-Islamic Zoroastrian festival marking the coming of the new year. Within Suleimaniya and some of the other larger cities, it is marked with huge daylong street parties with dancing and singing, and eating and everybody out in their finest Kurdish dress. Lukasz Firla joined the celebrations wearing a brown Kurdish Suit donated by friend and fellow CPTer Ramyar Hassani. Firla had many compliments on his suit and many, many young people wanting their picture taken with him. Thompson and Firla spent the day with in Suleimaniya soaking up the atmosphere and spending time with Kurdish friends in one of the popular café’s (where there was even more dancing and singing, and lots of people).
Meanwhile Moorhead Thiessen was in Raniya with CPT partners and friends Khalid and Nishtiman enjoying another Kurdish favorite pastime, the picnic. Moorhead Thiessen was able to spend a lot of time with Khalid and Nishtiman’s families, speaking a little Kurdish, and generally enjoying the lovely spring weather in a borrowed Kurdish dress.
Kurdish CPT Intern
leaves Iraqi Kurdistan for Colombia team
In February, the team said goodbye to Ramyar Hassani. En route to get the visa stamp, his passport traveled through several countries that would not allow a young Iranian man to enter. His document with the visa arrived in Suleimaniya just hours before his plane left for Colombia.
Death of a teacher
On 7 March, the team attended the memorial service of an American English teacher shot by one of his pupils who then shot himself. This service was scene of reconciliation, with the parents of both of those who died embracing and sharing in forgiveness. There was a strange atmosphere, however, with a round of applause after every prayer, speech, and song, which lead to one friend of CPT saying, “there was too much clapping, I didn’t like it, so I left!”
Taking a stand
Finally, March saw CPT friend and partner Mohammed Salah, take a stand on his own, outside the local Goran political party headquarters while the new prime minister came to visit. Salah with a sign that read “Don’t be afraid of reform, start with your self, make history for yourself” stood alone, while the local media ran around taking his picture and interviewing him. On the evening news he had more coverage than the prime minister’s visit. Salah has become something of a local celebrity and hero.