ALL ACROSS IRAQ KURDISTAN you can drive for miles, map in
hand, and mark off each succeeding heap of stones as the place
where a village once stood. One by one the Iraqis dynamited or
bombed or poisoned these communities in the name of repressing
Kurdish insurgency and shifted their inhabitants into relocation
centers. You can still see those too, bleak and menacing
blockhouses, hemmed in with wire, where people who had know no
master were confined and supervised. The Kurds have been hardened
by the digging up of mass grave; estimates of missing and dead
range from 100,000 to 300,000. A Untied Nations report concluded
that the atrocities committed by Saddam' regime were "so
of such a massive nature that since the Second
World War few parallels can be found.
" Yet in this landscape of blasted and deserted hamlets there are tow sites that all the Kurds insist you must see: Qalat Dizah Halabjah. Qalat Dizah's turn came in June 1989. As a large market town near the Iranian border, it may have shown a independence of spirit that annoyed Iraqi military planners. They made an example of the place by bringing in the bulldozers and the dynamite. After the expulsion of the population-perhaps 70,00 individuals-the city was leveled house by house. Only the trees were left standing.
By the time I arrived, many of the former inhabitants, finding life insupportable in the refugee camps over the border, had returned to squat in the ruins of Qalat Dizah. A single they dispensary, run by a depressed doctor named Osman Salim, tried to hold the line against malaria, typhoid, and malnutrition. They were Osman's daily enemies, and he was combating them with almost zero resources. "Exactly nothing has been done for the people of Qalat Dizah," he told me, complaining that the storied Western relief effort-which would eventually deploy millions of dollars in hugely successful operation-had not yet trickled down here. The survivors faced another harsh winter, with unclean water and poor food and not nearly enough of either.
Not even this was enough to prepare me for the town of Halabjah, a community that has the same resonance for the Kurds as does the Warsaw Ghetto for Jews or Guernica for the Basques. The town became suddenly and horribly famous on March 16, 1988, when it was almost obliterated by Iraqi bombs and its people were savaged by nerve gas and other poison agents. " I saw the planes come," Amina Mohammed Amin told me through an interpreter. "I saw the bombs fall and explode. I tried to get out of town, but then I felt a sharp, burning sensation on my skin and in my eyes." Mrs. Amin then did something that astounded me. Without warning, she drew up her voluminous dress and exposed her naked flank. Her whole left side, from mid-calf to armpit, was seared with lurid burns. And they were still burning.
"The Red Crescent took me to a hospital in Iran," she said, "and then I had five months in a London hospital. But the burns need to be treated every day." Even as we spoke, her daughters began applying salves to the exposed area. It was hard to took, and hard not to took. Mrs. Amin said that 25 members of her family had been killed that day, which was a terrible figure even if you allowed mentally for the way Kurds talk of extended families. Nizar Hassan, the chief physician at the hospital, told me later that the town lost 5,000 people in the attack, out of a total population swollen by refugees t 70,000. (Later estimates pushed the doctor's body count above 6,000.) I found one of the causes of the horror in a blitzed building. Here, lodged in a basement corner where it fell from an Iraqi Air Force bomber, was a wicked-looking piece of hardware with stencil markings on its side. Worried about fallout from the Halabjah escapade, the soldiers of Saddam had entered the town and carried off all the evidence. Or almost all of it. There was the bomb, and there were the survivors. Halabjah would, after all, be remembered.
YOU CAN'T TAKE MUCH from people who have nothing to lose, yet I was impressed at how the Kurds make the best of hopeless situations. They are tough and adaptable, which is perhaps the key to their longevity in his war-ravaged region. their resilience may face its latest test sometime this summer. Iraqi troops have been massing just outside Free Kurdistan, held at bay by fighter planes of the post-Desert Storm coalition. When that air cover is withdrawn, it is likely that the Kurds will again be under direct attack. I was resting near the town of As Sulaymaniyah, then held by Iraqi troops. We were roasting a lamb for dinner. In every direction the land looked naked and lunar, stripped of life. It was hot. I wondered, out loud, if there was any beer in this wilderness.
"Beer," said one of my Kurdish bodyguards." The Englishman wants beer!" One of the fighting men dropped what he was doing and walked up to me. "How many Saddams you have?" he asked. "many Saddams," I replied. We were talking money. Some of the bills in Iraqi currency are printed with the portrait of Saddam Hussein, leading the Kurds to joke incessantly about " dirty money."
"For 50 Saddam ," the guerrilla said gravely, " I can bring quite a lot of beer." I peeled off 60-it seemed no time for penny-pinching-and my man vanished into the dark. He was back in an hour, lugging an old sack containing cans of frosted Western ale. "Ali, how on earth?" Ali smiled, revealing nothing, but I suspected that he had struck a deal with a bored Iraqi guard in town. A few days later, passing the war-scarred settlement of Rwanduz on our way back to the Turkish border, I was other evidence of Kurdish enterprise.
The owner of a roadside café had scrounged canned goods from somewhere and kept them chilled in a mountain stream, ready for sale. Small boys sold Western cigarettes still in their cellophane-wrapped packages. (How had they gotten them?) families sat eating, half out of cannibalized cars and trucks that were kept going on God know what. The café proprietor and his wife were singing away, dishing up kabobs in exchange for fistfuls of Saddams.These people had been bombed and routed, but they had come back and were evidently enjoying their moment of independence. Kurds, once regarded as suspicious of strangers, now took every Westerner as s friend. "You will tell of us?" The Kurds usually make their appearance in other peoples' narratives by virtue of a readiness to quite their mountain fastness and engage in battle. But their tendency is to go back to the mountains as soon as war is over.
Unfortunately, the Kurds live in an area that is strategically important to three great modern nationalism's, Turkish, Arabic and Persian, and that is enormously rich in the two great natural resources of oil and water. The tendency of nationalism is to try to assimilate minorities and to invent a new "nation" such as Iraq (which is actually three communities, the Suni Muslim ruling group, the southern Shitte Muslim majority, and the northern Kurds, mostly Sunni, rolled into one uneasy state). And the tendency of Middle Eastern politics is to establish control over oil fields and headwaters, not just for their own sake but before anyone else does. The Kurds themselves have certain fundamental similarities. All are survivors. All are well acquainted with dispersal and persecution. But I began to discern variations in their status throughout the region.
In Jerusalem, for instance, there is a small but prosperous middle class of Jewish Kurds who live in peace. In Beirut, however, Kurds are the lowest of the low. A large Kurdish community has been in Lebanon since the beginning of this century, but on the identity card that Kurdish immigrants must carry, the words "domicile under review" appear in the apace for citizenship. This puts the Kurds is almost always a menial, depicted by Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury as faceless toiler and random victim.
Stateless in a state where statehood is itself a tenuous thing, Lebaness Kurds have thrown their support to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. This is a Marxist organization run by an enigmatic figure named Abdullah Öcalan, with a camp in Lebanon's notorious Bekaa Valley. Here the PPK operates under Syrian protection, carrying on a guerrilla war against Turkey. Syria provides an umbrella for the same reason that umbrellas are always provided-water. In Turkish Kurdistan the huge new Atatürk Dam allows the Turks to control the flow of the Euphrates River before it crosses the Syrian frontier. Anxious for leverage, the Syrian regime uses the Kurds to remind the Turks not to exploit this advantage.
THOSE THE RANK AND FILE of the PKK seem unaware that they are foot soldiers in the game of nation. Jawan and Soubhi, two young people who met me in Beirut, conducted me through a series of safe houses (never as reassuring as the phrase suggests, especially in Beirut). All my questions, they said, could be answered when I met the man they call Apo-uncle: Abdullah Öcalan. When I arrived at the camp know as the Mahsum Korkmaz Academy, for a PKK member who died in a battle in Turkey, I found hundreds of young people in well-cut, olive drab military fatigues, much more disciplined and military in aspect than any of the local militias, or indeed than either the Syrian or Lebanese Armies. Men and women mixed freely, a change from the monastic character of the peshmerga camps in Iraq.
Hearing English spoken, I soon found myself talking with Milan, an olive-skinned teenager who had come from Australia, where her Kurdish parents had gone for work. Now she was a soldier in the war against Turkey. "I'm trying to forget I ever know English," she said. "All I care about now is Kurdistan." Unlike rival Kurdish parties in Iraq that seek autonomy within that nation, the PPK calls for a separate Kurdish state spanning the existing border of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. As if to prove her dedication, Milan had just been to a Maoist-style "self-criticism session," held under an awning just off the hot square at the camp's center. Face alight with belief, she invited me to watch rehearsals for the forthcoming PKK fiesta. In a few days tens of thousands of Kurds would converge on the camp for dances and speeches, with Serouk Apo-Apo the leader- the guest of honor.
Apo himself, whom I met later that day, is a stern critic of the Kurdish people and their attachment to tradition. "We are a feudal society," he told me, "and our Leaders have been chieftains who betray us. Our cultural and political level is low." He pointed dark moments in the Kurdish past, such as the role played by Kurdish mercenaries in the Turkish slaughter of the Christian Armenians in 1915. He said that the Kurds were victims of the divide-and-rule mentality and could always be counted on to fight among themselves. There was some truth to all this, but Apo's own chieftain-like appearance and the tame eagle tethered rather eccentrically to his desk didn't inspire the absolute confidence he demanded.
AN EXPERIENCED KURD can tell his grandchildren of betrayal by colonial Britain and France, of promises made by Iran. Iraq, Syria, and Turkey to support the Kurds for long as they were fighting only on the rival's territory, of interventions in Kurdistan by Israel to weaken Arab nationalist regimes, and of promises made by both Cold War superpowers that turned out to be false. Ever since President Woodrow Wilson incorporated promises for Kurdish autonomy into his Fourteen Points following World War I, the Kurds have traditionally looked to the United States as their deliverer from old injustices. George Bush appeared to sympathize with their cause during Desert Storm, yet his subsequent lack of support has left them baffled. Western politicians seem unable to appreciate the depth of the Kurdish yearning for a homeland. I sat with Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union Kurdistan, at his guerrilla headquarters in northern Iraq.
He was telling me about the city he was most fiercely contesting with Saddam Hussein. "Kirkuk," he declared, "is our Jerusalem." Lacking an alternative homeland of any kind, Kurds can emigrate, but they can't escape. In the grim factory belt that stretches between the Spandau and Charlottenburg areas of Berlin, Kurds work to produce the brand name goods of Osram, Siemens, and Volkswagen. The German government doesn't recognize them as Kurds but only as the Turkish passport holders that they are. They tend to cluster in rundown areas like Kreuzberg. My guide to his world was a young man named Bayram Sherif Kaya, born in Germany of Kurdish parents who emigrated from south eastern Turkey.
He divided his day between a Kurdish-language radio station, a kindergarten for Kurdish children, and various Kurdish relief organizations, all of which he helped run. "Fortunately" I speak perfect German and I look European, so I don't have the problems that most of our people have," Bayram doubts that he can go home again. "We are Watched by Turkish Embassy, which hates Kurdish nationalism. We are watched by Turkish extremists, who believe all Kurds ar dogs.
We are attacked by German fascists who shout 'Ausländerraus -foreigners out!' and paint it on our walls." All over Kreuzberg, with its squatters and rent-controlled communes, were the slogans of different Turkish and Kurdish political faction. I paid a visit to Hînbûn, a women's center in Spandau that was originally founded to teach literacy but now serves as a sort of community center in hard times. "Most of the Kurds here come from on single town called Mus, in the Lake Van region of eastern Turkey," I was told by Aso Agace, a Kurdish women who works at the center. "Often they can speak German but not write it, so they need help with form filling, and they need help with the schools, which don't recognize Kurdish as a language."
Hînbûn is a counterpart to the male dominated side of Kurdisch life, in that it is for women only and acts as a support group. It tries to make Kurdish housewives and women workers feel more secure. "People are afraid," Aso Agace told me. "We have also seen pressure from the Turkish Consulate on the municipal government to Berlin, which used to help us distribute our literature." Here, too, one found a sort of transplanted ghetto solidarity. The problem, as ever, was that of trying to survive as Kurds, while not seeming alien to a larger society.
Write by Ed kashi