Photos by Kevin McKiernan
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
—W.B. Yeats, “Easter, 1916”
I was sitting on the dirt floor of a hut on the Tigris River in northwestern Iraq, just outside the booming territory established by Iraqi Kurds 21 years ago in 1991, a place that today looks increasingly like an independent Kurdish state. I was negotiating with smugglers to get across the border into Syria, where the civil war against the dictator Bashar al-Assad was raging. I wanted to get what I considered the important but under-reported story of Syrian Kurds, who recently had taken up arms in the hope of establishing their own autonomous region.
When I started covering the Kurdish struggle 21 years ago, the dream of a unified homeland was still shared by many of the 35 million Kurds who spill over the frontiers of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. Today, Iraqi Kurds worry that overt support for Kurds outside Iraqi Kurdistan will jeopardize their own hard-won independence. Western reporters are barred from crossing the Dicle, as the storied Tigris is known locally, because Iraqi Kurdish leaders fear that publicizing the Kurdish autonomy movement in Syria will anger Turkey, their primary trading partner. Turkey has been unable to contain its own Kurdish rebellion, an armed uprising led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. The conflict has dragged on for 28 years, and both sides have been guilty of human rights violations. With Kurds in Syria now supporting the PKK agenda for a Greater Kurdistan, with rebel attacks inside Turkey now intensifying, and with an Arab opposition that includes jihadists finally closing in on the Assad regime in Damascus, the whole region was teetering toward implosion. Once again, the age-old struggle of the Kurds was front and center.
Mother and daughter attend a Kurdish rally in Derik, Syria. The girl has the colors of the Kurdish flag wrapped around her neck.
GETTING TO KNOW THE KURDS: IRAQ
My introduction to the Kurds came in 1991, near the end of the first Gulf War, when a Swiss journalist and I hiked across the Taurus Mountains from Turkey into Iraq. We arrived just as the victorious Allies were designating northern Iraq as a no-fly zone. Kurds in Iraq were still reeling from the Anfal, Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign of the 1980s, which razed 4,000 villages and killed 200,000 people, including 5,000 victims in a notorious chemical attack on the town of Halabja.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait had set off a chain of events that would hurt — then eventually help — the Kurds. A massive, U.S.-led air and ground assault forced Saddam’s troops to withdraw from Kuwait, but then, in an unexpected development, the U.S. decided against removing the dictator from power in Baghdad. Instead, President George H. W. Bush exhorted Iraqi civilians to rise up on their own. Expecting U.S. aid, the Shiites rose up in the south and the Kurds in the north. But when the administration allowed Saddam to use his Soviet-supplied gunships against his own people, both uprisings were savagely crushed. One and one-half million Kurds fled to Turkey and Iran. According to some reports, 2,000 Kurdish refugees were dying every day along the roads.
Iraqi Kurdistan was awash in pestilence. Typhoid, cholera, and bronchitis were spreading unabated: Coughing, spitting adults sat on the roadsides in filthy clothes, next to crying kids. Flies clung to the scraps of dirty food on dirty plates. Walking through the freezing mud at the Sayed Sadeq refugee camp, I photographed Kurdish children in plastic sandals. A refugee asked me what on earth I was going to do with all the pictures. “We want bread,” she asked. “Why picture, picture, picture?” The question itself seemed to form a picture. For a moment at least, it seemed that the camera had changed hands.
This regional map shows Kurdistan in red, a geo-cultural area that overlaps four countries.
In the effort to cripple Saddam, the Allies had bombed the sewage treatment, water sanitation facilities, and food distribution routes throughout Iraq. The water was polluted, and people were dying. At almost every turn, you encountered starving children, barking dogs, and the wretched stench of burning rubbish. The government in Baghdad was regrouping, but the war in Kurdistan wasn’t over. It dragged on and on, like a long day at the end of the world. Life looked like a scene from the Mad Max film The Road Warrior.
Along a mountain road, I watched a father bury his baby daughter, her tiny body wrapped in a woven Kurdish blanket. As he lowered the child into the rocky grave, he held himself erect, his face without expression. I was an awkward visitor at a foreign funeral, but he embraced me afterward, thanking me in Kurdish and Arabic for “honoring” his loss. I could feel his body tremble.
Everywhere you went in those days, you saw burials, bombed-out buildings, downed electrical and telephone wires, looted homes, and the carcasses of animals. Armed bands of Kurdish rebels, the peshmerga (“those who face death”), roamed the countryside on no apparent mission. Cannibalized vehicles blocked the roads, with bullet holes through the windows, stripped of tires, engine parts, whatever could be carried off. With the exception of an occasional discarded Iraqi army helmet, there were few signs of Saddam’s troops, who by then were retreating south.
Despite all the suffering, the no-fly zone imposed by the West offered the Kurds of Iraq their first taste of autonomy. With American and Allied warplanes patrolling the skies north of the 36th parallel, they began administering public affairs, establishing their own parliament, wearing traditional clothes, singing their own songs, and opening Kurdish language schools — all of which had been previously forbidden by the Baghdad government. To their envious cousins in the restive Kurdish areas of Turkey, Iran, and Syria, this part of Iraq — which we reporters referred to as an “enclave” or “rump state” — had become “South Kurdistan.”
Sunni Versus Shia and the Proxy War in Syria
• Alawite Muslims: Predominantly Shia. Alawites make up about 14 percent of the population in Syria. The ruling elites are mostly Alawite, including the dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Shia Iran and (mostly) Shia Lebanon back Assad.
• Sunni Muslims: About three-quarters of the Syrian population are Sunni. The anti-Assad opposition is almost entirely Sunni. The opposition is backed by the Sunni leaders of Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
• Kurds: Largely Sunni Muslims. They have tried to stay neutral in a civil war that in less than two years has taken about 40,000 lives.
• Other players: The U.S. and Israel; China, with growing markets in the Middle East; and Russia with its only military base, outside the former Soviet Union, in Syria.
Shepherds helped to smuggle the writer into Syria.
2012: A Golden Era for the Kurds
Returning to Iraqi Kurdistan after so much time, I was unprepared for the change. The sky-high real estate prices, Western-style fast food joints, $5 mochas, iPhones, MacBook Pros, flat-screen TVs showing Saving Private Ryan in Kurdish, and fancy malls with escalators — conveyances I’d never seen in Kurdistan — and skyscrapers, where recruited workers from Bangladesh and Nepal were polishing faux marble in the lobbies — well, it was all a shock to me.
In the washroom of the upscale Abu Shabab restaurant in Erbil, the Kurdish capital, a dark-skinned, dour-looking Punjabi was handing out paper towels. I had never seen a “human towel dispenser” in Kurdistan, and I stopped to chat. The man said he worked 30 or 31 days straight — depending on the month — and received an extra 25,000 dinars, about $20, for coming in on Friday, the Muslim holiday. He told me he sent home the bulk of his salary, about $450 a month.
I had to admit that the Iraqi Kurds had come a long way since the dark days of 1991, back when they had “no friends but the mountains.” Still, I was taken aback by the specter of hundreds of thousands of sub-wage workers immigrating from poor Asian countries, only to become part of a new caste system. According to my friend Shalaw Askeri, there is more work than workers because Kurds have become too picky to accept jobs like street cleaning. Was this, I wondered, the “Kuwait-ization” of Kurdistan?
When I was here to cover the war in 2003, Erbil had only four hotels, providing spartan accommodations that deserved — in the words of one Kurdish builder — a “zero-star rating.” When I ran into the same builder this time, he’d just completed construction of the luxury Tangram Hotel in Erbil, near the Kurdish Parliament. He told me that 20 new five-star hotels, including two Hiltons, a Sheraton, and a Kempinski, were also under construction.
The Iraqi Kurds’ share of revenue from the central government in Baghdad is 17 percent, about $17 billion annually. But the Kurds make as much as $2 billion — “magic money” as some call it — from oil deals they signed independently with multinationals such as Chevron and Exxon. Chevron, which is based in San Ramon, California, announced in July that it will buy oil rights to explore 490 square miles of countryside north of Erbil. Baghdad has denounced such agreements as “illegal and illegitimate” and has warned the oil giants they will be barred from doing business in the rest of the country, but to little effect.
Despite the U.S. narrative that postwar Iraq is a success story, the country is now partitioned in all but name. In central and southern Iraq, hundreds of people are killed annually in sectarian bombings, but there hasn’t been a bombing in Iraqi Kurdistan for several years. Israel, which has befriended the Kurds as a counterweight to Arab influence in the Middle East, is said to be training and equipping peshmerga forces. Security, like per capita income, is the highest in the country. Here, the Kurds have their own parliament and ministries; their tricolor flag, which first appeared during the Kurdish independence movement in the Ottoman Empire, flies overhead. Tourism is booming. Arab businessmen and vacationers flock here from throughout Iraq, but the Iraqi army is not allowed to enter the Kurdish autonomous region. The Ministry of Education dropped Arabic from the school curriculum in 1991, which means that most people no longer speak the majority language.
The tractors and hay wagons I used to see on the roads are mostly gone. Now it is rare for a family not to own at least one automobile. There is so much traffic that Kurdish police have started enforcing seat-belt laws and fining speeders. The most popular car is the Nissan Sunny, which sells for just over $10,000, putting it within reach of an emerging middle class.
Wealthier Kurds these days prefer the Lexus LX570, although some still drive the broad-fendered Toyota Land Cruiser. That’s the SUV that the Kurds, back in the days of Bill Clinton’s troubles in the White House, nicknamed the “Monica.” Of course, there is also the Chrysler 300 Hemi, the high-performance sedan with smoked windows, thought to be a favorite of American rappers. The Kurds refer to it as the “Obama.”
Kurdistan is still a cash economy, without banks or credit cards. At the sparkling Jaguar–Range Rover showroom next to the Palace Hotel in the city of Sulaimania, the salesman told me most people keep their cash — and a gun or two — at home. One customer arrived with $180,000 — in a plastic bag. The dealership has money-counting machines, but it still took a while to total the sale.
Reportedly, there are now 2,000 millionaires and six billionaires in Iraqi Kurdistan, a territory of five million people that is less than half the size of California. When I was here in the ’90s, the two legendary families, the Barzani clan and the Talabani clan, were fighting a bitter civil war. Today, they still control the two major parties, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). Both families have extensive real estate and business holdings, and both have been accused of corruption.
But despite this increasingly comfortable lifestyle, most ordinary Kurds still cling to the dream of a unified Kurdistan. Many say they support the separatist efforts of the PKK rebels — as long as Iraqi Kurdistan is not threatened in the process — and regard its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, long imprisoned by the Turkish government, as a hero. But Iraqi Kurdish leaders may not share such sentiments. Last year, the Kurdish President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, a former guerrilla fighter against Saddam who was once based in Syria, caused an uproar when he ruled out uniting the Kurds of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran within a single Kurdish state. In an interview with a Turkish newspaper, the 79-year old Talabani dismissed the notion of a Greater Kurdistan as “just a dream in poems.”
Kurdish rebels, with a heavy Russian-made DShK machine gun mounted on a truck, enter the town of Derik, Syria.
After two days of waiting on the Iraqi banks of the Tigris, my fixer, a mustachioed man with gray hair and a 9 mm pistol tucked in his waistband, found a shepherd with a small boat, paid the bakshis, and I was able to make it across the Tigris. This would not be my first time in Syria without papers. In 1996 I had backpacked into Iraq with a hundred armed PKK rebels who were en route to Turkey. We had left the petrol-rich Kurdish region in Syria at night, in the eerie glow of oil fires, and crossed the river at dawn in rubber rafts.
The Kurds have had a painful history in Syria. After WWI and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, French colonists recruited Kurds as a foil to Arab nationalism, giving the educated minority privileges that included a special military unit. The practice left a bitter legacy. In 1959, Kurdish officers were purged from the Syrian army. In 1962, Syria stripped most Kurds of citizenship, forbidding them to own property or hold government jobs. In the mid 1960s, after the hyper-nationalist Ba’ath party came to power, oppression of the Kurds intensified. Soon, Syrian Kurds were forced to carry special red identity cards. After the Assad regime came to power in 1971 following a coup d’état, the persecution of the Kurds began to ease. Turkish Kurds fleeing during the violence in their own country were allowed to resettle in Syria. But Syrian Kurds remained noncitizens.
When I landed in Syria this time, I engaged a fixer named Hassan, a 26-year-old geology graduate of the respected University of Damascus. He told me he was trying to scrape together a dowry to marry his sweetheart of four years, but with the revolution going on, there weren’t any jobs for geologists. Instead, he hires himself out to the few foreign journalists who manage to find their way to the dusty town of Derik, with its 70,000 mostly unemployed residents. In oil-rich Syrian Kurdistan, where most of the country’s 2.5 billion barrels of crude still lies untapped in the ground, the streets are broken and littered with trash, the few cars in sight are old and beat up, and no one has a flush toilet.
It turned out that I was Hassan’s only customer, and because Derik doesn’t have a hotel, he took me to the home of another partisan, a threadbare apartment where six adults and three kids shared four rooms. He parked my backpack against a wall, under framed photos of a family member, a young man killed last year in the Kurdish uprising in Turkey. Hassan and his friends spoke in Kermangi, the Kurdish dialect in Syria. He explained to me, in broken English, that the young man went to Turkey to fight because at that time the Kurdish revolution in Syria was not “ripe.”
Hassan believes the Kurds will be the only winners in Syria’s bloody civil war. That is because they have declared autonomy without open warfare with the regime, and because the Arab militias who make up the opposition are splintered and eventually will turn on each other. When that happens, he believes, control of the Kurdish region will go to his people. Hassan, it struck me, was an optimist.
So far Syrian Kurds have managed to stay neutral in a civil war that has taken 40,000 lives in less than two years. At the moment, there’s an uneasy calm between Assad’s police forces and the Kurdish militias called the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which are composed of secular Sunni Kurds. When police in the nearby town of Qamishli recently rounded up seven Kurdish teenagers for Assad’s dwindling army, the YPG kidnapped 15 cops and soldiers. Shortly thereafter, the unwilling conscripts were exchanged for the government hostages.
That was followed by a similar incident in Derik, and the pattern has repeated itself, sometimes ending in tit-for-tat killings. Hassan said the game has limits. The regime’s forces are stretched thin, and the YPG militias are only lightly armed. Neither the police nor the Kurds can afford an all-out war.
Kurds in northern Syria have formed secret militias called People’s Protection Units (YPG).