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Wednesday, May 26, 2004

more from iraqi kurdistan

One can profit handsomely from ties they have to others, direct or indirect. I am indebted to Mike and Karim for the connections they have here in Suleimaniya, mostly through their students at the university here. This was how a visit to Khanaqin on Sunday was made possible and how we were able to make a another trip yesterday (Tuesday) out of the city.

The long journey to get here coupled with the hot and long days since has left me fairly tired. Tuesday began with another early morning, with Mike, Karim and I meeting our pre-arranged four-wheel drive across the street. We headed out of the city for about an hour and half to the town of Halabja, scene of the most infamous chemical attack in March 1988 by Saddam Hussein’s regime against the Kurdish people who at the time were accused of conspiring with the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war. Much of the town and many of the surrounding villages were decimated during the war due to their proximity to the border.

One of Mike’s students is the daughter of the top PUK army officer in the area and this tie had been used before to their advantage. In a fashion similar to that on Sunday we had great treatment from the PUK official. We entered to what I expect to be the standard type of office for officials with similar responsibilities. Longer than it is wide with a large but dated desk at one end and the remainder of the room circled with deep but uncomfortable sofas of a similar age.

These officials all seem to hold court in their respective offices, taking appointments as a room full of lower ranking men wait and mill around outside like a troop of personal assistants. This man, however, seemed quite unlike the others we met on Sunday, a clear indication that he was indeed something closer to what Mike and Karim described him as before we got there. He is in control of the area which covers much of where the the Al-Queda cell Ansar-e-Islam once roamed, establishing a Taliban-like government in the mountains near Iran. Perhaps this was the reason for his desk being covered in various papers and every few minutes his phone blurted out a piercing and highly irritating tune like those seemingly favoured by most Kurds. The other officials were clearly less occupied and the men who lined their offices in hindsight now seem to have been more like friends stopping in for tea rather than men from the community arriving for legitimate business or with real concerns.

Despite him apparently being busier than the others, he was just as welcoming to us, if not more so. He accompanied us to the Halabja monument and by doing so made us feel quite important as our vehicle was saluted as we passed all the guards on the way and once there the one guard who accompanied us on the way was complemented by another six or eight, some of whom accompanied us through the building while others waited by the entrance.

The Halabja Monument
The monument itself seems significantly older than its years. I assume that the heat of the sun combined with less than perfect building materials have made the outside of it age quite quickly. Welcoming visitors at the driveway to the monument is a sign which reads: “It’s not allowed for Baaths to enter”. The inside is striking, but at times quite graphic. It begins with pictures tracing the history of the region before one enters a room lined with horrific photos of the victims lying in the streets of Halabja immediately following the attack. In the last room in the ring surrounding the centre is a collection of artwork with various themes, but decidedly more upbeat and leaving one with the impression more of hope for the future than for dwelling on the death and suffering of the past. In the centre is a room which rises to a point in the centre, the Kurdish colours draped from it with the sun in the middle. Below is the memorial itself with space for flowers to be left. Around the outside of the room behind glass are the names of all those who died.

Upon returning to the PUK compound we had the standard lunchtime fare of fried chicken with bread and salad before getting a letter written for us that would allow us passage through the checkpoints in the region. It proved to be a ticket to anywhere throughout a region where otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to get into at all on account of reasonable suspicious attitudes towards all foreigners. The two main places that we managed to visit were until quite recently both centres for Ansar-e-Islam. The first, the town of Biara, is nestled in a steep valley and looked over by the spires of a Sufi shrine. The books of the Wahhabis in the small library of the mosque, though now these particular books sit without being read and the shelves themselves are topped with boxes from the world food program. We all felt most welcome in this town and there was no visible evidence that this was very recently a centre of the group which formed part of the motivation for war.

Mullah Krekar’s Mosque
From there we started heading back but stopped at the mosque of Mullah Krekar, the old head of Ansar before he was captured The mosque itself is quite plain, appearing to have been constructed quite recently and was a uniform sandy brown colour. Again, the letter we had was helpful with the group of soldiers there guarding it. The walls were pock-marked from small arms fire and one good size hole had been blown in the roof. In front of the mosque was a small building once used as a prison and beyond that, large craters almost certainly from the massive air campaign.

Despite returning to Suli thoroughly exhausted around dinner hour on Tuesday, there were nonetheless plans for the evening and we had to get ready to go out again. In calls to Mike since he arrived here he had talked of playing bingo here, and this was on the slate for last night. The game we played was not actually bingo, but something called dumbala. As I had a hard enough time with the numbers in dumbala and needed simultaneous translation, I am thankful that unlike Bingo, there are no letters assigned to each group of numbers. It’s not too clear how much the cards cost or how much the payouts are, but from what I understand the normal practice amongst the group we had last night (which at its peak swelled to about twenty) is to pool any winnings and play until the money is gone. Regardless, I got a few hours of fun and a free lesson in Kurdish numbers for my 5000 dinars (about $3.30US). Of course, a great deal of alcohol was served.

The University of Suleimani
Today I headed off to the university with Karim as I had not yet had a chance to walk around and take a look there. The university had been closed in 1979 by the Baathist government but reopened following the 1992 uprising. There are several thousand students there and overall it appears there is reasonably good facilities and space given the overall situation of the country and the region. I spent some time talking in the student cafeteria where I saw firsthand evidence of what Mike and Karim had talked about a fair amount since I arrived here last week. Despite being an enclave a more liberal attitudes within this already relatively liberal city, relations between unmarried men and women are nonetheless quite reserved. This is not to say there are no couples on the campus, but the practice seems to be most often of courtly love and students apparently rarely date anyone besides the one they will marry. While arranged marriages do occur, I am told that amongst the university-going part of the population it is rare. Mike and Karim both report that they are subject of a bit of jealousy from the male students as they think nothing of saying ‘hello’ or waving to their female students as they would at home to a friend, a step like this for them would imply that they were hoping for a relationship and as such most cannot build up the courage to do this. One particularly interesting difference I noticed on campus compared to off campus was that when men met women they would shake hands, whereas off campus there is hardly any physical contact between men an women. Men often greet one another with four kisses, two on each cheek.

‘Well come U.S.A.’
This afternoon after short time in the bazaar to pick up a few things we set out to find some pro- US graffiti which Mike had seen several times during his stay here. He couldn’t recall exactly where it was but thankfully in time we stumbled across the simple black pain on the sandy-tone wall which read: “Bush. Well come U.S.A. we like USA.” And off to the side was written “P.U.K.”. Ironically, Mike and I returned to the flat for the dinner which we had bought while we were out: US MREs (meal ready to eat). I have yet to ‘enjoy’ mine but as he said while devouring his, “You can’t expect much. It lasts for five years and it comes in a bag.” Maybe I’ll wait until breakfast to eat.