CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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Kurdistan Iraq : The flight of Kurdish Women

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During the 1980s, the emigration of Kurds was limited to a small number of intellectuals and political activists, who settlied in England and Sweden, and to a lesser degree France. In recent years that trickle has developed into a mass exodus with tens of thousands of Kurds now emigrating every year.

This phenomenon is all the more paradoxical since, for the first time in their tormented history, most Iraqi Kurds are safe from the oppression of Bagdad. In the de facto autonomous Kurdish region that stretches from the Syrian border to the Iranian border and is home to 3,5 million people, the Kurds are free to run their own affairs. Indeed the situation of the Kurds has improved to the extent that some European countries, including Sweden and Holland, have decided to refuse entry to future asylum seekers coming from Iraqi Kurdistan.

But the arrival, every week or so, of rusty, old freighters unloading their cargo of Kurdish refugees on the shores of Italy and Greece, are testament to the fact that life is not normal in Iraqi Kurdistan. And my investigation shows that although some young Kurds are motivated by improving theirr economical position, the majority want to emigrate for political reasons. 

The fear of Saddam Hussain

The fear that Saddam Hussain’s armed forces, and especially his security services, could come back to Kurdistan after an absence of ten years is widespread. The Anfal campaign of 1988, which claimed 180,000 victims and the chemical bombing of Halabja  (16 March 1988) which killed 5,000 people, have not been forgotten. The Kurds are acutely aware that the weapons of Massoud Barzani and Jelal Talabani’s “peshmergas” are no match for Saddam Hussain’s tanks and helicopters. And if Saddam Hussain decides to invade Kurdistan again, they will have no choice but to flee for their lives to the borders of Turkey and Iran, as they did during the tragic exodus of 1991.

Conflicts between Kurdish factions also play an important role in stoking the fires of discontent. Relations between the two main Kurdish parties, Massoud Barzani’s KDP and Jelal Talabani’s PUK, have recently improved but Kurdistan is still de facto partitioned into two zones,  three if one includes the area controlled by Islamists. “Due to the partition of Kurdistan, my life is in the hands of anybody and everybody”, says a young Kurd from Halabja, who wants to go out. “One day there is a skirmish between the Islamists and  PUK; another time, between PUK and KDP or even between PUK and PKK (Abdullah Ocalan’s party, now called KADEK). It is easier for me to go to Iran or to Bagdad than to Erbil (a city controlled by KDP), where I am stopped at check-points by peshmergas who suspect I am a spy or intent on sabotage”.

Kurds cannot have a passport

The  Kurdish region has no international status -- although it is protected by American and British planes based in Turkey.  Officially it is still part of Iraq. Its inhabitants cannot have a passport, unless they buy a fake one from a smuggler. “We live in a big prison”, says a Christian Kurd from Zakho, “It has been like this for ten years, legally I cannot go out from here, I cannot travel, I have no identity”.

For all these reasons, life in Iraqi Kurdistan is hopeless and young Kurds are desperate to flee. “If a European country declared its borders open to Kurds wishing to emigrate with their families, Kurdistan would be an empty country. Only 2 per cent would stay”, claims a young Iraqi Kurd.

An exodus dominated by men, but...

Initially, a phenomenon dominated by men, emigration is becoming an increasingly popular choice of Kurdish women. While few have arrived in western Europe, where most of them dream of settling eventually, a number have crossed the first border point and reached Turkey. A “Kurdish Women Defence Committee” linked to the “Workers Iraqi Communist Party” (WICP), a small Iraqi Kurdish party, has registered about 30 in Ankara alone.

These refugees fall into three basic groups. The first is made up of young, unmarried Kurdish women who flee Kurdistan because they cannot bear the strictures imposed upon them in a traditional society under strong Islamist pressure. They complain they cannot dress as they wish, and, above all, they are not free to choose their own husbands. The exodus of young men from Kurdistan also means that in many towns and villages there are simply not enough potential husbands to go around.

Divorced women make up the second group. At home, they often face problems with the  families of their ex-husbands, frequently over custody of the children. Some of the women divorced after arriving in Turkey. Living in a single seedy room with husband and children, short of money, waiting for months for the answer of the UNHCR to their asylum application, puts a severe strain on a relationship and Kurdish women are often beaten by their husbands. They divorce to escape the violence.

Widows make up the third and most depreciated category of women. “Their situation is hopeless”, says an activist of the Kurdish Women’s Defence Committee”. “They must submit themselves to the will of their own family and also that of their former husband”.

Zohra, aged 30, is from Penjwin, near the Iranian border. She arrived in Ankara in March 2001 with her husband and children. But her husband, who found a job as a grave-digger at 3 million Turkish liras a day (3 Euros),was unhappy and  blamed his wife for their situation. When he began beating their small son. Zohraleft. She now shares a room with another Kurdish woman, living on municipality subsidies. Her future is uncertain.

Munira, 35, from Suleimanya, has been living  in Ankara for two years. She had problems with the family of her husband, an Islamist. She divorced and with the help of her brother Munira fled to Turkey. She washes dishes in a restaurant and earns 110 million Turkish liras a month, 75 million TL of which pays the rent of the small two roomed flat that she shares with her two daughters. Munira is permanently anxious over threats made by her ex-husband. He has vowed to kidnap their eldest daughter, who is 14, and to marry her to a friend in Kurdistan. Money is scarce and often the family go to bed without eating. But Munira claims she does not regret her decision to come to Turkey. “My life was far worse in Kurdistan”, she claims.

Nilova, 37, is from Kirkuk, the Kurdish oil centre, still under Saddam Hussain’s control. After her husband was arrested and jailed, she decided to divorce. Her ex-husband’s family persecuted and threatened to take away her five year old daughter. Nilova and her child escaped over the Turkish border in September 2000. She worked in a factory in Ankara until she found out a colleague had abused her small daughter. She left her job and married a Kurdish refugee who had received his papers to go to Denmark. Nilova hopes to follow him soon. She does not deny she has entered a marriage of convenience, undertaken with the sole purpose of getting her out of Turkey.

Sahira, 33, also from Kirkuk, is a hairdresser -- a profession which is persecuted by the Kurdish Islamists. Her husband, a Kurdish militant, was arrested and executed in 1995. His family pressed her to marry one of his brothers, according to Kurdish tradition. But Sahira refused and went to live with her children in Suleimanyah in “free” Kurdistan , where she continued working. After her best friend, also a hairdresser, was killed by the Islamists, she decided to flee to Turkey, where she arrived in December 1996. UNHCR rejected her application for asylum. She now lives as an illegal immigrant in Istanbul with her three children, a 12 year-old girl and her two sons, aged seven and nine.  She has tried four times to cross the Greek border with her children, and failed. She currently earns 100 million TL working 12 hours a day in a haidresser’s shop. “I did not imagine it would be so difficult”, says Sahira, “but there is no hope here, and I will try again to make it to Greece with my children”. Asked why she does not go back to Suleymaniah, Sahira answers: “It is impossible. I do not want to live there alone. The Islamists would kill me. This region claims it is a State, but it is not a true State”.

Kurdish women frequently claim to have been persecuted by Islamists because they know the argument carries considerable weight in an asylum-seeker’s file. But UNHCR experts require  documenteded evidencewithout which their application is likely to be refused. Unlike the men who want to leave Kurdistan, these women do not use political words and arguments. Most of them do not even try. But the emigration of these unprotected Kurdish women, alone or with children, designated victims for the regions’s mafia networks, is certain to intensify with the continued dislocation of Kurdish society, caused by the refusal of the international community to find a political solution to the Kurdish problem.

(The Middle East magazine, September 2002)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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