The DA Study Trip to Kurdistan – Between History and Chai, Peshmerga and Daesh

by Valerie Sandersthumb_DSC_2345_1024

If someone had told me a year ago that I would very soon be visiting Iraq, I probably would not have believed them. When our group of students boarded the plane to the Kurdish capital of Erbil in March, many of us were a little uneasy. After all, one does not every day have the chance to visit a country that has been marked by war, devastation, economic crises, strangulating sanctions and the nightmarish rule of Saddam Hussein, only to be half overrun by Daesh.

I was wondering then if it would be possible for someone who has never lived in a war-torn country to fully understand what it means to face an enemy like Daesh. You can certainly take in all the stories and pictures, but it is almost impossible to comprehend what it must be like in reality. When we visited the Baharka IDP camp and talked to women and children from Mosul, who had already been living in UNHCR tents for over a year, when we heard the shelling of the villages around Mosul in the distance, when we visited old concentration camps where Saddam had detained and tortured Kurds, who stood in defiance of his regime, when we listened to Yazidis in Lalesh narrate the Daesh atrocities committed against their people and finally when we visited the Black Tiger Camp, the base of General Barzani, commander of the Kurdish Peshmerga, only then did we slowly begin to understand.

Iraqi Kurdistan enjoys relative autonomy from the central government in Baghdad. Relations are far from good, however. The Kurds blame Sykes-Picot and the Treaty of Sèvres for not deeming them important enough to be granted their own state and view this as the root cause of their many struggles. Today, the possibility of Kurdish independence in Iraq still seems far away. Given the bad relations between Baghdad and Erbil, the low oil prices and the resulting severe economic and political crises, the outlook is grim.

The justification for Kurdish independence, we were told, was that the central government had not abided by the constitution, as former Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, continuously slashed the Kurdish share of the budget. The fall in oil prices then exacerbated the situation, causing cut-backs in public sector salaries, as well as water and electricity shortages. With an influx of many Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), the Kurdish Regional Government, and especially the Dohuk Governorate , came close to its limit, after a ratio of 1 refugee/IDP to every 2 nationals was reached, amounting to a sum of more refugees and IDPs than inhabitants of the region’s capital.

The Kurdish capital Erbil, once known as Little Dubai, was surrounded by towering skyscrapers. Now, however, many unfinished buildings mar the city, which like skeletons remind one of the dire situation in which the region currently finds itself. Nonetheless, Kurdish officials never tired of presenting their homeland to us with an array of the brightest of colors. Indeed, it was often difficult to keep a clear head among all the hospitality, delicious food, chai and the breath-taking landscape.

After our first meetings in Erbil with the Head of the Department of Foreign Relations and representatives of the diplomatic missions of almost all the nationalities of the participating Diplomatic Academy students, we had the chance to meet with the Bishop of Erbil on Good Friday, who not only patently answered all of our questions about the situation of Christians in Kurdistan, but also invited us for mass in the afternoon. Certainly very memorable was a subsequent visit to the Baharka IDP Camp, where around 800 families from Mosul and other Daesh-occupied territories have made a second home in UNHCR tents, lacking even the bare necessities, and where more than 1000 children have to share a single schoolroom. The children were overjoyed and impressed when they discovered that some of the DA students possess serious football skills. After a long day, we descended to the hotel bar for some chai, shisha and even a few rounds of poker.

Leaving early for Dohuk the next day, we made pit-stops at a Roman aqueduct with ancient cuneiform engravings and at the Gaugamela battlefields where we received a history lesson from Zachary McGuinness, president of the Diplomatic Academy Student Initiative. Our journey to the province of Dohuk was well worth its while. Once there, we were greeted by governorate representatives waiting with freshly picked almonds and a Kurdish lunch fit for a king.

While in Dohuk, we visited the recently opened American University campus where we were shared chai and sweets and swapped stories with the Kurdish students about the difficulties of studying, living in such an environment and plans for independence. Many are able to attend the expensive new university only with the help of loans and scholarships, while tuition fees are waived for any student who has a member of the Peshmerga in their family. I was surprised to meet a few students who had grown up not only in my home country of Germany, but also in my hometown of Munich, and were fluent in the language. Their Kurdish roots and the will to do some good for Kurdistan had ultimately drawn them back to Iraq.

Driving up Dohuk’s Zawa Mountain for a panoramic view of the city, we saw not only the many IDP and refugee camps surrounding the city, but also the road toward Mosul, a view even more oppressive when accompanied, as it was, by the distant sound of Mosul’s shelling. In socks we were allowed into the holiest site of the Yazidis in Lalesh where we were granted incredible insights into their lives, heard tales about their gods and tied our wishes into cloth. After a visit to the beautiful and ancient city of Akre, we let the day pass on top of the Barzan mountains with an incredible view of the snow-capped mountaintops of Iraq, Iran and Turkey.

And then, without any notice, it arrived – our last full day in Kurdistan. In the morning, we strolled through the ancient citadel of Erbil, a site, which according to UNESCO, is the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world. Although that did not stop the organization from relocating the last families living on the citadel due to certain legal requirements. The afternoon was marked by something none of us will forget anytime soon: A visit to a Kurdish Peshmerga camp close to the frontline somewhere between Erbil, Mosul and Makhmour. There we met General Barzani, a man who controls a frontline against Daesh of about 1050 km length. After openly answering all of our questions and proudly displaying armored vehicles that once belonged to the Iraqi army, had then been abandoned in Mosul and recaptured from Daesh, he presented each of us with two Peshmerga badges the soldiers usually wear on their field uniforms. Later, when we listened in on Daesh’s radio frequency, where the black fighters talked in Russian about circumvention measures, it felt more like living a real life spy movie than actually being in a war zone.

On the morning of our last day, accompanied by the friendly members of the protocol team and our two bodyguards, we were finally able to visit Erbil’s famous Bazaar to check out weapons stores and to stock up on enough chai, baklava and silk scarfs to last for months to come. After many long goodbyes and thank-you speeches, it was finally time to board the plane back to Vienna, overwhelmed with impressions of this beautiful country, its dark history and its wonderful people. Without a doubt the journey had been highly enriching and had taught us not only about the political situation, but also about the culture and the courage of a people finally on the way to finding their own voice.

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بژی کوردستن – Biji  Kurdistan – Long Live Kurdistan

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