KURDISTAN IRAQ : A Photographic Who is Who












Dubai, UAE


King Faycal

Saddam Hussain



 A few words of explanation.

For 35 years, I have photographed Iraqi Kurdish personalities. Some of these accumulated photographs were published in newspapers, magazines and books before being returned to their files; this is the ordinary work of a photojournalist. The totality of these photographs, sorted and classified, tell the story of the Iraqi Kurds from 1971 up until today. In publishing this book now, my aim is to help Kurds of all generations to immerse themselves in their history. I was fortunate to be able to capture 35 years of images of Iraqi Kurdish personalities. It is normal that I should share my photographic memories with the Kurds who so warmly welcomed the two Kutschera, the journalist and the photographer, even during the most tragic moments of their history.

With all our gratitude,

From guerrilla warfare to power, moments from the Kurdish saga of the last 35 years.

Jelal TalabaniLooking today at photographs of Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talbani receiving a statesman’s welcome from the presidents of the Big Powers in Washington, London or Paris, it is nearly impossible to imagine the despairing times Iraqi Kurds have lived through over the last 35 years. For example, how could one imagine that Jalal Talabani, photographed in the mountains with his Peshmerga (Kurdish freedom fighters), would a few years later become the president of Iraq? Young Kurds today in their twenties who live in the autonomous, soon to be federal region of Kurdistan, where order and security prevail, ignore the conditions under which their parents struggled for years as Pershmerga in the mountains of Kurdistan.

Looking at the photographs of these Kurdish personalities, fighters and intellectuals, taken at different stages of their careers, is like flipping through an illustrated book of Kurdish history.

Ironically, it was Baathist officials from the Iraqi ministry of information in Baghdad who sent these two journalists — a writer and a photographer — to visit the Kurds in the north during our first visit to Iraq in 1971; we had planned on reporting from the Arab marshes in the south. This is how I came to take my first photographs of General Barzani in the small village of Haj Omran near the Iranian border.

It was one year after General Barzani and Saddam Hussein, then vice-president, signed the 11 March 1970 agreement. And in spite of an attempt to assassinate General Barzani, the "honeymoon" between the Baath and the Kurds was still going on. At that time, Sami Abdul Rahman was minister for northern affairs of the Iraqi government in Baghdad and Ali Abdullah was governor of Suleimania; I photographed both of them in their offices. I also photographed Dara Tawfiq, then editor of "Al Taakhi", a Kurdish newspaper based in Baghdad. These were all typical photos of Iraqi officials posing in their offices. I could never imagine that less than three years later I would find them once again living in makeshift shelters in Kurdistan. War had broken out between the Baghdad authorities and the Kurds and the Kurdish Iraqi officials of yesterday were now the rebels who rallied General Barzani in the mountains.

Idris & Massoud BarzaniBut before this deterioration of relations between the Kurds and the Baath, we made another official visit to Kurdistan in 1973, traveling through Baghdad. We take advantage of a prevailing artificial peace to travel around Kurdistan, meeting new personalities. I take photos of the two Barzani brothers, Idris and Masoud, who though still in their early thirties are already playing a leading role in the Kurdish movement.

In March 1974, war broke out and we entered Kurdistan by passing through Teheran and Haj Omran. In the Kurdish stronghold, General Barzani formed a war cabinet, and a Kurdish administration is set up in mud houses and tents next to a torrent located in the valley of Choman and Nawperdan along the famous Hamilton Road. It is in this setting that I photographed the ministers, directors and other officials of the Kurdish administration who led the Kurdish national movement up until its collapse after Saddam Hussein and the Shah embraced to celebrate the Algiers Agreement in March of 1975.

It is also in 1974 that thanks to Dara Tawfiq, the former journalist and then minister of information of Kurdistan, that I was able to photograph General Barzani during his daily walk, accompanied by his most loyal Peshmerga, with the imposing snow-capped mountains of Kurdistan in the background.

The following years were terrible. In 1975 Kurdish leaders exile themselves to Iran, Lebanon, Europe and the United States. Several hundred thousand Kurds take refuge in Iran, while the border zones of Kurdistan become forbidden areas: all villages are razed, orchards are destroyed, springs are filled, thus implementing a policy for the "desertification" of Kurdistan. To fight a guerilla war under these conditions, without being able to benefit from the support of the local population, is nearly impossible, especially since the Kurdish movement is now split; its two main parties, Idris and Masoud Barzani’s KDP and Jalal Talabani’ PUK, are waging a fratricidal war. The Kurdish movement is now a mere shadow of its former self.

In 1977, during our last visit to Iraq under Saddam Hussein, we asked to return to Kurdistan; our visit there was brief and appalling. The ministry of information provided us with a car and a driver/interpreter who closely monitored us. The only personalities I was able to photograph were selected by Baghdad. Reluctantly, I took a few photos under the surveillance of our interpreter/driver. On the way back, I photographed the collective towns under construction to house the Kurds expelled from their mountains; it was a sinister sight. We knew then that it would be a long time before we returned to the area.

But history can be full of surprises. The Islamic Revolution broke out in Iran, and in November 1979, after crossing Iranian Kurdistan by car, on foot and on horseback, we arrived in Iraq close to the Iranian border where for the first time we met Jalal and Hero Talabani at their HQ in the valley of the parties. A little farther on, we again met Dr Mahmoud Osman who had been our interpreter at each of our meetings with General Barzani at Haj Omran. Photographing these two Kurdish chiefs with their Peshmerga, I almost felt that I was back a few years ago photographing General Barzani and his sons with their Peshmerga. But taking a closer look at the photos from 1979, one can see from the Peshmerga’s badly shaven, caved in cheeks, and their odd uniforms, that they were living through difficult times.The Kurds endure a long waiting period in the 1980s. The Iran-Iraq war drags on and Iraqi Kurdistan is living through some of its darkest years; little news filters through to the outside. During this period, we were invited to attend several conferences organized by the Iraqi opposition in Iran. Thanks to these trips, we resumed our contacts with the Kurdish resistance in exile, and we were able to visit Karadj, near Teheran, where the Barzanis and their partisans occupied a district of the city.

Having photographed the Kurds in their mountains, I have no desire to represent them in this suburban setting, with its small, well-aligned houses. The only photos that remain from this period are a few portraits of Idris Barzani and some other personalities attending the anti-Saddam conferences.

Our perseverance in attending these conferences finally pays off. In 1985, the KDP gets the green light from the Iranians: we are allowed to visit the liberated areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, in Lolan and Chwarta, across the Iranian border. Walking or riding under a blazing July sun, sleeping in the open, we follow Dr Said Barzani, who is in charge of the Lolan district. He introduces us to displaced families of Kurds who, driven away from their villages by the Iraqi army, have taken refuge in improvised shelters or in caves. The photos I took in liberated Kurdistan during this summer of 1985 are among my favorites. At Raja and Ziweh, a large refugee camp near the Iranian border that we visited several times after 1985, we again meet Masoud Barzani, and are introduced to his advisers Hoshyar Zibari, Roj Shawes, Fazel Mirani, Georgis Hassan. I take photos of these men without knowing that they are to become the most important leaders of the Kurdish administration when they return from exile in 1991. But at that time they meet us sitting on blankets in modest houses lacking all the modern conveniences.Back to Teheran for another conference of the Iraqi opposition in December 1986, where I take my last photos of Idris Barzani who dies prematurely one month later.The cease-fire of August 1988 --"bitter as a cup of poison" for Khomeini -- is a new disaster for the Kurdish movement. No longer fearing an Iranian offensive, the Iraqi army is free to concentrate its forces against the Kurdish guerrillas who encounter their most difficult days ever. At Rajan, Fazel Mirani shows us the chemical warfare equipment found on a captured Iraqi soldier.

Dr Mahmoud, etcFortunately for the Kurds, Saddam Hussein is mad enough to invade Kuwait on 2 August 1990. In only a few hours, Saddam Hussein accomplished what the Iraqi opposition failed to do with years of propaganda: he focused on himself the hate of the entire international community. An international coalition is formed to chase the Iraqis from Kuwait, and in September 1990, Mrs. Danielle Mitterrand's France Libertés Foundation invites a Kurdish delegation to Paris. The delegation meets with officials at the ministry of foreign affairs and at the Elysée: "This is an opportunity to explain the Kurdish issue", says Dr Mahmoud Osman, member of the delegation, "even if this invitation is only semi-official. We were invited to the Quai d'Orsay, and we met some of the advisers to the president at the Elysée Palace... Doors are opening".War breaks out and history accelerates.

The defeat of Iraq in Kuwait provokes the Kurdish uprising of March 1991, followed quickly by a new collapse and the tragic exodus of two million Kurds towards the borders of Turkey and Iran. The shock caused by this exodus forces western countries to intervene on behalf of the Kurds and to create a safe haven to allow for the return of the refugees.We take advantage of this situation to return to Kurdistan after years of absence, traveling through Turkey. During this summer of 1991, the Kurdistan we see is a ruined country... but a festive atmosphere prevails along the congested roads bringing the refugees home. Confronted with this confusion, Kurdish officials attempt to set up a semblance of administration. The town of Shaqlawa has become the rallying point for all the Kurdish leaders. This is a rare chance to find all of them together, spontaneous and without pretense, having their meals in informal settings, conversing around big tables. Never again shall I enjoy such freedom to photograph them.

This same summer we meet Nechirvan Barzani for the first time. He is relaxed in front of the camera, which is quite pleasant, and I enjoy meeting this new generation of Kurdish officials during a time of pervasive freedom that allows us to interact so freely with people. The following year we come to report on Kurdistan’s first free elections. Meetings take place all across the country. Impressive crowds wave their party’s banners and flags, greeting their candidates with loud cheers. I realize now that I took many photos during the electoral campaign with a wide-angle lens, wanting to show the throngs of excited supporters as much as the candidates themselves.

The years that follow are frankly sinister. The euphoria of the elections has given way to a blocked political situation. The two main Kurdish political parties cannot agree on how to share power to run the affairs of the country; and so the KDP and the PUK partition Kurdistan. The economic situation is no better, with a double embargo: an embargo enforced against Iraq by the international community, and an embargo against Kurdistan enforced by the Iraqi government that refuses to give up its authority over Kurdistan. Under such conditions, the reconstruction of Kurdistan can only be slow. We meet Kurdish officials only intermittently, and the monotony of my photos -- portraits, official meetings -- mirrors the prevailing morosity.The political atmosphere remains tense for some years.

It is only at the beginning of 2002 that Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani meet at Sari Rash and agree to normalize relations between their two parties and to convene the parliament on the 4th of October 2002. We leave Kurdistan the day before, doubting that the meeting will actually take place: we had already witnessed several missed rendezvous. But at the Syrian border along the Euphrates, we meet Mrs. Danielle Mitterrand on her way to Erbil where the parliament will in fact meet on the agreed day. For us it is too late to turn back. That is how I missed the opportunity to photograph this historical event: the reconciliation of the two parties. But on 29 November 2002, I was able take photos of Masoud Barzani and Jelal Talabani sitting side by side at a conference in Paris.

In April 2003 we are back in Iraq, crossing the Syrian border at Rabia, north of Mosul. we enter the country legally for the first time since 1977. There are few changes in Kurdistan since our visit the previous year; Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, there have been no more clashes in Kurdistan, and Saddam Hussein's regime has just collapsed. For the first time in its history, Kurdistan did not suffer from the war. Borders are open, and Kurds begin to return home after years of exile. A new generation of politicians takes over; while photographing them, I can see just how much the Kurdish world has changed and the time of the Peshmerga leading an armed struggle in their mountains is over.

But suddenly the Kurds, who had been watching from afar the deterioration of the situation in Arab Iraq, are themselves confronted with the increasing violence. On 1 February 2004 two suicide bombings during the Id ceremony cause several dozen victims, including some of the personalities I had photographed a few months earlier in their offices, smiling and more confident than ever after the fall of Saddam Hussein.This terrorist threat compels Kurdish authorities to take very strict security measures for the parliamentary elections of January 2005. These first elections of the post-Saddam period for both parliaments, in Baghdad and in Erbil, take place under strict surveillance. Public meetings are forbidden and Kurdish leaders meet their partisans in closed rooms with tight security. I long for the electoral campaign of 1992 and for the close contact I then had with Kurdish personalities. However, I was able to take photos of Masoud Barzani praying with Arab tribal chiefs during the campaign of 2005. I thank the security officials who allowed me to capture this moment.

A few last words in conclusion:

A kind of complicity can develop between the photographer and the photographed that allows the photographer to obtain a spontaneous and natural attitude in front of the camera. Being forgotten by one's subject can make the profession of photographer even more exciting and magic. I was sometimes fortunate enough to experience this while photographing Kurdish personalities, and I thank them for that.





















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President Hafez al Assad

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Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2012