Gareth Smyth: Kurdish memories
By Gareth Smyth in Tehran
March 19 2004
Northern Iraq has become the centre of a Kurdish renaissance, as the
inspiration of Kurdish autonomy spreads to the 15m Kurds in Turkey, the 6m in
Iran and the 1m in Syria.
This is not a renaissance driven by politics. "It's the right to sing, the
right to dance," an Iranian Kurdish fighter now in Sweden once told me.
Yet just a year ago, as the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein began,
the Kurds of Iraq fled to the mountains terrified of chemical bombardment.
I well remember the eerie sense of driving down into Arbil as all the other
traffic - families crammed with bedding on trucks, tractors and cars - went the
When the war started, the Kurds feared the worst. Around 60 per cent of the
Iraqi army was deployed in northern Iraq, and the Kurds knew well what it was
"Experience has made me pessimistic," said Kamil Ajal, a 39-year-old Kurdish
peshmerga, as we stood on an old fort in Chamchamal, under 2km from the first
Iraqi positions, just bombed by US missiles.
"My house has been destroyed four times," he calmly continued. "Once, in that
field over there, I saw the regime's helicopters kill with rockets an innocent
woman and her daughter. I would like to see a democratic regime - but I fear
that in the end the world will allow Saddam to annihilate us."
In Chamchamal hospital, Musa Mrad, the director, admitted he could do little
to help if things went wrong. There were no masks for chemical attacks and for
conventional attacks, he would try to keep people alive until they reached
Suleimaniyah hospital 60 km away.
Abdulrahman Mustapha, a man of 60, sat by the side of the road to Kalar,
waiting for a van to return from the electrical grinding mill, so he could load
the sacks of flour onto his donkey and take them to Biarush, his village, half
an hour away. "My tribe were nomads before we settled down around 50 years ago,"
he said, with irony. "During the war against Iran, the regime levelled our
village and took us to a collective town. In the intifada of 1991 we fled to
Iran but returned and rebuilt our original village. If Saddam knows this, he
will behead us."
As the war progressed and Kurdish forces pushed forward, the fear gradually
I went to Mosul with Hoshyar Zebari, a leading Kurdish official and now
Iraq's interim foreign minister.
For Hoshyar, this was his first time back in his home city for 28 years. As
we arrived with two jeep-loads of peshmerga fighters, there was small arms fire
and the occasional explosion in the city, but Hoshyar pointed at the river,
explaining how as a young man he'd swum from one bridge to another. A few years
later he'd smuggled out his wife and two children on donkeys through Turkey into
We visited Hoshyar's old house, where I sensed he was remembering his two
bothers killed by Saddam because of Hoshyar's activism.
In the villages around Kirkuk and Khanaqin I saw Kurds returning to villages
from where they'd been displaced by Saddam's "Arabisation" programme over three
At Tapa Chermu, near the Iranian border north-west of Khanaqin, I witnessed
the first family from the Palani clan climb down from a truck 28 years after
they were uprooted to a camp in Anbar province in south-west Iraq.
"Watan, watan ('homeland')," said Samir Jamil Habib, a man in his 60s raising
his arms skyward in gratitude, delighted he could now die in his ancestral
Remarkably, I found little desire for revenge among the Kurds. Samad Ali
Bahram, a 53-year-old refugee in the muddy Banislawa camp near Arbil, his teeth
recently knocked out by Baathist security police, could distinguish in his pain
and anger between "Saddam, the mad dog" and the Arabs who had been his
There were always pundits predicting civil war. There still are. And there
has been an extraordinary amount of US mismanagement in the past year,
especially in delaying Kurdish resettlement in Kirkuk.
But, by and large, the peace has held and there has been progress. "The worst
is over," said Hoshyar Zebari, when we went to Mosul.
When you remember the 4,500 destroyed villages, the uncounted mass graves and
the blood on the walls of the torture chambers you have to say he's right.
Also in Mosul, I met Ahmad Hassan al-Jabouri, an Arab from Tikrit who had
spent four years on death row in Abu Ghraib prison.
"Executions were on Sunday and Wednesday, so you can say I died twice a week
for four years," he said. "Can you imagine what that's like?"
I told him flat out that, thankfully, I couldn't.
Gareth Smyth covered the war in northern Iraq from early February to late