Rolling Stone – October 16, 1997
Surrounded by the frozen ridges of the Zagros Mountains in northern Iraq, 18 Kurdish families live in what was once a summer home of Saddam Hussein. Saddam fled the Zagros six years ago, during the Kurdish uprising at the end of the Persian Gulf War, and his palace – once an opulent edifice of stone and mosaics – has been reduced to a roofed hulk, gutted by the insurgent Kurds, picked over and abandoned. The tile work has long since been shattered and the leaded glass windows smashed. The driveway is strewn with ceramic shards. The almost 200 impoverished Kurds who squat here now were driven from their homes, in nearby Ashawa, when Iraqi troops obliterated their village during the first weeks of the uprising.
Rasa Hassan, 40, a short man with a push-broom mustache, lives here with his wife and nine children. He invites me in out of the cold to have a glass of chai, the tea that Kurds serve in small glasses with a layer of sugar dumped into the bottom. Rasa wears the traditional baggy pants, called shalvar, bound with a waist sash, and a head wrap called a sarbend. The space that Rasa’s family occupies was once Saddam’s parlor. It is so large that they use only one corner, sitting on rugs spread around a stove fashioned from a 20-gallon drum and fed with scraps of wood. The stovepipe runs out a hole pickaxed through the concrete wall, and the empty window frames are covered with blankets to trap the warmth. We leave our boots at the edge of the rug and gather around the stove, on pillows. In the dim light, we sit immersed in the smells of wood smoke and Rasa’s pungent yellow tobacco. Like most Kurds, he is proud, sometimes to the point of self-absorption. He talks freely and is quick to laugh, playful and a good host.
Rasa was an Iraqi conscript while this palace was being built, during the 10-year war with Iran, in the 1980s, but he deserted and became a guerrilla with the Kurdish Democratic Party. Before the 1991 uprising, Rasa’s flocks of sheep were thriving, and he had saved enough money to build a two-room stone hut. Then the Ashawa Kurds rebelled, and Saddam struck back, forcing Rasa and his family to flee. “Saddam attacked Ashawa with tanks and helicopters and foot soldiers,” Rasa says, speaking through an interpreter. “We ran to Turkey. The snow was deep, and it took us 12 days. My father was too old, and he laid down and couldn’t get up again; so he died. When we got to Turkey, we lived under plastic tarps and slept on the ground. We had nothing.”
After several months in a United Nations refugee camp, Rasa learned that the United States had forced Saddam’s troops to evacuate Northern Iraq, so he and his family returned home. They found Ashawa leveled. “The Iraqis took everything before they left,” Rasa says, “every blanket, every sheep; then they used tractors to destroy my house and everybody else’s. I am a poor man now. Sometimes I find enough work to feed my children, but that is all I have until Allah smiles on me again.”
After our second chai, Rasa guides me around the palace to meet his neighbors. On the second floor, in one of Saddam’s huge guest rooms, a young man lives with his two older brothers. This man lost an arm fleeing to Turkey, and then lost his foot last year when he stepped on an Iraqi land mine. No prostheses are available, so he has fashioned a kind of shoe to cover the stump on the end of his leg. He clumps along behind as Rasa and I finish our tour.
“Living here is neither life nor death,” Rasa says, standing on the palace’s marble steps. “Living here is some kind of other place, somewhere in between. According to the radio, things will get better, but we don’t know. Right now it is bad, but we are Kurds, and this is just the way things have been for us.”
There are at least 25 million Kurds in the world today. Most of them are living in an area roughly the size of New York and California combined that is divided among the modern nations of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. There are more Kurds in this region than Greeks in Greece, Jews in Israel or Czechs in the Czech Republic. Yet the Kurds are a persecuted minority in all the countries that comprise their war-torn homeland, and during the last 30 years, hundreds of thousands of them have been killed, and millions more have become refugees, In fact, the closest the modern Kurds have come to their own nation is a triangular area at the northernmost tip of Iraq; it touches Syria and is bordered by Turkey on one side, Iran on another, the third cutting across Iraq at the 36th parallel. These roughly 20,000 square miles are known informally as the Protected Zone, a piece of Iraq from which Saddam’s forces have been either entirely or partially excluded, under the verbal threat of American retaliation, since the last days of the Persian Gulf War, in 1991. At the moment, the zone is home to some 4 million Kurds and controlled in equal portions by two competing political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The KDP represents the more traditional, rural northern reaches of the Iraqi Zagros; the PUK is affiliated with the urban and intellectual southern areas. The two parties are further divided by clan loyalties, historical grievances and financial disputes. The zone’s three largest cities are Dohuk, the commercial capital of the provinces along the Turkish border; Erbil, in the southern part of the zone and one of the oldest cities in history; and Sulieymaniyeh, the commercial capital along the Iranian border. Dohuk is controlled by the KDP, Sulieymaniyeh by the PUK, and Erbil has changed hands three times since the zone was established. It is currently in KDP hands.
The road to Dohuk is dotted with aging Volkswagens, which are serviced by men selling gasoline out of jerrycans on their shoulders. The highway carries a steady traffic of oil trucks moving crude from the Iraqi lines outside Erbil to the Turkish border, and around the international trade embargo. Smuggling has always been a Kurdish craft. Commerce flourishes inside Dohuk. The smell of fresh bread fills the streets at first light, and the bazaar is jammed with shops. Many residents are poor, but few are destitute; begging is rare, and the markets are full of fruits and walnuts. Even though there has been no fighting in the city for six years, the war is not easy to forget.
In the late 1980s, Iraqi military leaders – who had long chased down, tortured and killed individual rebels – adopted a policy of executing Kurds en masse, which was called the Anfal campaign. Many of these Kurds came from the Dohuk region. From February to August 1988, Kurdish villagers were flushed out onto roads by chemical-weapons attacks. They were rounded up and taken to transit centers, where men aged 15 to 70 were separated from the women, children and elderly. The men taken from Dohuk have never been seen again. In some areas, thousands of women and children were also killed. According to Human Rights Watch, the Iraqi military murdered more than 100,000 Kurds in 1988 alone.
The transit center in Dohuk was Nizarkeh Fort. The Iraqis hauled captive Kurds to Nizarkeh from the mountains in military trucks and unloaded them in the fort’s barren courtyard. Among the tortures described by Kurds who survived was the forced ingestion of gasoline, scalding with boiling water and simple bludgeoning, using sticks, clubs and tire irons. The fort lay vacant after the 1991 uprising, until 1995, when a relief organization turned it into housing for some 12.7 families of Kurdish refugees.
Asya Brahim, a 43-year·old widow wearing a long skirt and a hand-me-down sweater that she received from a Western relief agency, lives in a second-floor cell that held more than 100 women during the terror of 1988. Asya shares the room with her two daughters, her son and her daughter-in-law. They sit the way Kurds do in any room, arranged around its edge, with their backs to the walls. “My husband died when we were young and just getting started,” Asya says. “He was peshmerga [a volunteer soldier; literally, “ready to die”]. The Iraqis executed him when my son, Sulliaman, was barely born. Now Sulliaman is peshmerga himself.” Her son sits against the opposite wall, his Kalashnikov leaning in the corner. He is on duty at the front for 15 days with his Kurdish Democratic Party unit, and then off 15 days here at home with his family. During the September 1996 fighting with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, he saw action in the mountains near Erbil. Now, he is often stationed on the plain, facing the Iraqi army, 10 miles southeast of town. He earns $12 worth of Iraqi dinars a month, which is his family’s only cash income. They survive on wheat, lentils and oil provided by the U.N. World Food Program. I ask what it’s like living amid so many past horrors. “A boy downstairs went crazy when he learned about what the Iraqis did in this place,” Sulliaman answers. “The boy thought the wheat his mother cooked was worms. He thought the water from the faucet was blood.”
Like most Kurds, Bhajat, the 40-year-old peshmerga who drives us from Dohuk through the mountains to Erbi, calls the nation they do not have Kurdistan. Bhajat’s leg was savaged by shrapnel ro years ago, when he was an Iraqi conscript in the war with Iran. He steers high in the seat of his 10-year-old Toyota Landcruiser, using his stiff leg on the accelerator. At a truck stop along the way, Bhajat scoops yogurt and fried egg off his plate with a piece of doughy, flat bread called nan and watches a television tuned to an Iraqi channel. After a few minutes, he dismisses the TV with a wave of his nan and a diatribe in Kurdish. Our translator, Raschid, is reluctant to translate. He does so only after cautioning me that Bhajat is a crude man. “He said,” Raschid stammers, “that all these fucking camel jockeys have countries and the Kurds still don’t have shit.”
Explaining why there is no Kurdistan requires a long lesson in geopolitical history, but one major factor has been the Kurds’ penchant for fighting one another. The Kurds have never carried the weight in the region that their numbers imply, because they have never exercised their power as a single people. Rather, they have been divided by geographical and clan feuds, and their response to external threats has been piecemeal and often self-defeating: The Kurds who fight the Turks fight the Kurds who fight the Iraqis who fight the Kurds who fight inside Iran. This communal fractiousness is most evident in the Protected Zone, split between the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, with one occasionally shooting at the other. For all its good intentions, the Protected Zone is unable to protect the Kurds from themselves.
The most recent fighting between the Kurdish factions took place in Erbil in September 1996. Six months later, Erbil still feels like the front lines. The road into the KDP-controlled city is dotted with peshmerga machine-gun nests. A high-ranking KDP official was killed in a car-bomb explosion not long after my arrival, and many Kurds, so that they can leave on a moment’s notice, are selling their furniture, clothes and jewelry in the bazaar two blocks from the Erbil Tower Hotel.
The Erbil Tower is an eight-story modern concrete pillar visible from all the rooftops of this ancient city. The house rules there require machine guns to be checked at the desk, so there is a constantly evolving stack of Kalashnikovs behind the clerk. The hotel boasts modern elevators, but everyone uses the stairs, because the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan still controls the city’s power plant and frequently interrupts the electricity. The PUK also controls the reservoir, so the rooms only have running water for brief, widely separated intervals. In the restaurant, the interruption of commerce is evident, even in the peculiar syntax of our Kurdish waiter. When I ask for jam, the waiter answers, “There is jam” (meaning that, indeed, jam still exists somewhere in the universe) “but there is no jam” (meaning that in the immediate moment, the hotel is without it). Yogurt? “There is yogurt,” the waiter affirms, “but” – he shrugs – “I am afraid there is no yogurt, either.”
After lunch, I sit in the Erbil Tower’s lobby, talking with an old Kurdish man. We discuss how much longer the enmity between the parties can last. The old man advises me not to forget how stubborn Kurds are. To illustrate his point, he tells a Kurd joke: There was a man trying to pound a nail into a wall, but he couldn’t make it go in, no matter how hard he struck it. Finally, he threw down his hammer in disgust, went around the wall and found a Kurd leaning his head against the other side. The old Kurd almost falls off the couch laughing at the punch line, and he’s still chuckling when I leave a few minutes later.
Safe from Iraq, least until U.S. interest wanes, the Protected Zone has no protection from Turkey. The Turks are the Americans’ longest-standing ally in the region, and the U.S. has never publicly criticized the Turks’ treatment of the Kurds, even when it’s been as brutal as the Iraqis’. Since the inception of the Protected Zone, the Turks have regularly crossed the border into Iraq to attack Turkey’s own Kurdish rebels, led by the Workers Party of Kurdistan, known as the PKK. For years, the PKK has called for turning southeast Turkey, where some 10 million Kurds live, into a separate Kurdish nation (it has, however, recently shown signs that it is willing to accept a negotiated settlement that maintains Kurdish rights). The PKK guerrillas use the Iraqi border in the Zagros as a staging area for their assaults inside Turkey, and the Turkish army pursues the PKK at will.
One of the Turks’ Iraqi battlegrounds has been Kani Masi village, a settlement close to the Turkish border that’s marked by 100 huts built around an Assyrian Christian church. We are shown around by Zayiad Michel, the master of the local school which until recently taught children up to the third grade. “When the Turks were here last,” Zayiad says, “every night was lit up by muzzle flashes and tracer bullets from their fighting with the PKK. Our school is now closed because the classrooms are full of people from the villages that the Turks attacked. We have Kurds from Tranish who were attacked by helicopters, Kurds from Beduha, where cannons killed seven children and eight mules, and Kurds from Betkar, where the Turks burned the almond orchards.”
“What do the Kurds of Kani Masi want?” I ask.
“Peace,” Zayiad says.
The schoolmaster’s wish stands no chance of coming true. Instead, in early May, two months after our visit, the Turks crossed the border at Zachoe, with 350 tanks and 50,000 motorized troops, and struck east into the Iraqi Protected Zone. The Turks claim to have killed some 960 PKK guerrillas during the first month of their occupation; Kani Masi was one of the Kurdish villages that disappeared behind Turkish lines.
There is no loose talk about Kurdistan inside Turkey. Simply using the word is a violation of Turkish law, as is flying the traditional Kurdish flag or referring to people by their Kurdish names. Since 1984, the PKK has fielded Kurdish guerrillas against this suppression, and has grown to some 15,000 troops, which operate largely from mountain redoubts in southeastern Turkey. The Turks deploy an army of around 350,000 against them, along with a corps of about 6o,ooo dragooned Kurdish irregulars. These irregulars are recruited from the rural Kurdish villages in the war zone. The men of each village are offered the opportunity to join the Turks’ force and fight the PKK. The Turks then destroy those villages that refuse. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 2,685 Kurdish villages inside Turkey have been all or partially depopulated since fighting with the PKK began, and most of the destruction has occurred in the past five years.
I first encounter the Turks’ war in Atroosh Camp, a haven for some 12,000 Kurdish refugees from Turkey, who fled across the border into the Iraqi Protected Zone and now live in a sea of tents spread across a valley below the road from Dohuk to Erbil. The U.N. is now closing the camp in response to Turkish complaints about PKK recruitment there. Trucks have arrived to haul the worldly possessions of the Kurds who are leaving today. They’re piled high with mattresses, bedding, cooking pots and live chickens strung up by their feet so that they can’t fly off. Nearby, a group of Turkish Kurds sit barefoot around the perimeter of a white canvas tent. They serve chai and recount what happened when the Turkish army visited their village, Hellal, in 1993.
The Turks gathered all the men and asked who wanted to join the Village Guards and help the Turkish army protect Hellal from the Workers Party of Kurdistan. When no one volunteered, one villager was thrown under the tracks of a tank and run over, and two others were shot in the doorway of their houses. Next, the Turkish artillery started random bombardments. When the soldiers returned again, they killed five brothers from one family, tied their bodies to the bumper of a truck and dragged them back and forth in front of their family’s house. One mother had a son kidnapped, and when his corpse was returned the next day, a hand had been cut off. Two of her remaining sons were shot to death in front of her.
Eventually, the villagers fled for Iraq. The journey took seven days, and they were bombed and strafed by Turkish aircraft all the way to the border. I ask one woman if she’ll ever go back to Turkey. She is 55, with henna stains on her fingertips, and she makes no attempt to hide her fury. “Turkey?” she wails. “I would bury my husband and children before I would ever go back there. Never. I would set fire to myself first.”
Persecuted at home, Kurds flee to Baghdad, Istanbul, Tehran and Damascus. They flee to Beirut and to Athens and to Nashville, Tenn. At least 5 million Kurds live outside their native countries. The preferred destinations are Germany and Sweden. There are some 600,000 expatriate Kurds in Germany, most of whom arrived during the West German boom, 30 years ago, when the Germans were eager to import labor. There is no such importation going on now, and migration to Germany is arduous. Only those with resources can try. Even then, some make it and some don’t.
Forty-six Kurds who did not are being held by the Republic of Lithuania in the Pabrade Foreigners Registration Center, among the flat conifer forests an hour outside Vilnius. These people are officially stateless, since all of them were traveling on forged documents, and remain in legal limbo. The Pabrade FRC is a former Soviet tank base that was reclaimed as an immigration prison last January. I visit two days before the Kurdish holiday of Navroz, which celebrates a mythic Kurdish liberation.
Kamal Hussein Maloud, 35, acts as the Kurds’ spokesman. He fled, in June 1996, from Dohuk, in the Protected Zone. He had been a peshmerga and a rising young officer in the Kurdish Democratic Party. Fluent in English, he acted as a KDP press liaison for foreign journalists, but, finally, he decided to flee the war and set out for Germany. His 26-year-old brother-in-law insisted on coming with him, so they sold their possessions and bought stolen Iraqi passports. Leaving his wife and children with his father-in-law, Kamal and his brother-in-law crossed into Turkey on 10-day visas, issued at a border crossing, then rode the bus from the border all the way to Istanbul, where they made contact with a Kurdish middleman who sold them visas for Ukraine, the only country between the Bosporus strait and Berlin that would accept their Iraqi papers. The plane ride to Kiev, Ukraine, was Kamal’s first ever.
In Ukraine, Kamal contacted a Kurdish smuggler named Salah, who agreed to include them in a group of 10 people he planned to transport to Germany, for $3,500 a piece. The plan was to cross into neighboring Belarus by van, then continue across Poland to Germany, shepherded on the journey by a Russian on Salah’s payroll. At the Polish border, the Russian took them on foot through the woods, where, in a matter of minutes, the Polish border police tracked them down with dogs, arrested them and turned them over to the Belarus authorities. The Belarus border patrol locked them in a windowless cell for 10 days, then put them on a train to Moscow.
In Moscow, Kamal says, the group was taken in by a fellow Kurd, who contacted Salah in Minsk, Belarus. Salah sent them money to travel back to Belarus to try again, since the Russia-Belarus border required no papers to cross. This time, Salah had a new plan. There would be 46 Kurds making the next attempt, including five women and nine children. Salah hired a new Russian, and he led the Kurds on a five-hour march through the forest and across the Lithuanian border. Next, they were carried by bus to the Polish border. They planned to cross into Poland at night, so they waited, in a shed previously occupied by pigs, for dark to fall. But suddenly, in an explosion of searchlights, the door crashed in, a dozen armed men stormed into the shed, and someone shouted, “You’re under arrest” in Lithuanian, a language none of the Kurds understood.
At the Pabrade Foreigners Registration Center, where the Kurds have been held for almost a year, the men share the second floor of a shabby brick barracks with a group of Afghan prisoners. They sleep on bunks in a single large room heated by steam pipes and have cleared one corner for a mosque, where prayers are conducted five times a day. The bathroom includes a dozen sinks and squat toilets, half of which are stopped up. The Kurds smoke whatever cigarettes they can afford. Relatives occasionally wire money to the local Western Union, but otherwise the prisoners are all broke. The women and children live in a separate building, where they sleep in double beds. All of them had to leave their husbands and either all or some of their children behind when they fled. Three of the women are close to catatonic. Another, Nadia Tahir, is nearly hysterical. She breaks down sobbing as she talks about her flight from Baghdad, where her Kurdish husband had been an Iraqi military officer and was discovered spying for the Kurds. He fled and told her to follow, so she left her children behind with in-laws and went. Nadia never found him. While looking at her children’s picture, she wails, once so hard that she falls from her chair. “We have jumped from the oven into the lime kiln,” she says. “What are we to do?”
This, of course, is the Kurdish question without an answer. Still, it is Navroz, and when the holiday begins, even the Kurds in the Pabrade Center celebrate. The Navroz myth tells of the overthrow of an evil tyrant who once ruled the Kurds. The blacksmith who finally slew the tyrant king passed the news of the regicide to the rest of Kurdistan by lighting signal fires at night. So, to mark the first night of Navroz, Kurds light bonfires. When informed of this, the center’s administration grants permission for the Kurds here to do likewise, in the yard where the Lithuanian guards normally train. Their blaze is a few discarded beams and a truck tire, stacked and ignited with gasoline. As the fire gains hold, the Kurds huddle near it in the frigid dark, absorbing its warmth, until finally they form lines and begin to clap and dance a Kurd step: right forward, right back, right across left, side step and repeat. The lines shift and scissor to the music of the claps – left forward, left back, left across right, side step and repeat. Black smoke swarms off the flaming tire, snow falls in large white clots, and the Kurds dance until midnight, trying their best not to worry about what happens next.