May 22, 2017

As adults, we are just afraid for our children

By: Julie Brown

The explosion was massive,  even through the small video on Kak Najib’s iPhone you could see the devastation and huge plume of smoke that engulfed the whole side of a nearby mountain. This was just one of many bombs that fell on the area surrounding the village of Merkajia last fall.

Merkajia is an Assyrian village that lies within the northern mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.  These mountains are a dividing point between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan as well as a battleground between the Turkish government and The Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK.  While media sometimes gives nod to this decades long conflict, The realities of life for those like the villagers of Merkajia, people whose communities are on the frontlines, are rarely told.

In November the Turkish Government dropped a barrage of bombs on the area surrounding this small village Kak Nagib, the Mukhtar (village leader) of Merkajia, told CPT. When the first bombs fell it was in the evening Kak Najib was in his house with his family.  He explained that at first they stayed inside their home and took shelter but as the bombs continued to fall they went outside afraid that one would hit the house and it would collapse on his family.  The women and children were sent from the village and only the men stayed behind to protect their homes and property. “As Assyrians we believe that we will die one day and that we should not be afraid of death. I have seen many wars, Saddam forced me to go to Kuwait.  As adults, we are just afraid for our children,” he explained.

Walls inside Kak Najib's house in Merkajia. Photo by: Julie Brown
The bombs also shattered all the windows in every home in Merkajia and cracked several walls. Kak Najib pointed to a large crack in his home just over a large portrait of Jesus hanging in his family room.  When CPT asked how people could be in solidarity with the villagers of Merkajia he simply said, “Let people know that we are being bombed.”  

When the area quieted, Kak Najib went out from his house into the village’s surrounding lands.  There he was shocked at what he saw. When he attempted to survey the damages to the area he found parts of bodies strewn over the landscape.  He said that he did his best to collect them and keep them from the wild animals so that these people could have a proper burial.  Although Merkajia’s residents are not involved in fighting, and even have an agreement with the fighters to stay away from the village, no one is immune from the effects of the bombings in this area. Over fifty bombs hit the area in a period that lasted almost a week.  In the end 16 people were killed and 63 wounded.  All were Kurdish fighters.

Kak Najib showing the historical map of his village's land to the CPTer. Photo by: Julie Brown.
Though no one from the village lost their life,  civilians in the area also continually feel the effects of these attacks.  Many families have left, homes are damaged,and they no longer raise herds in this area because with every bombing the animals are released and lost.  The fields are also constantly burned and destroyed around the village.  The villagers from Merkajia have land deeds to this area that date back to the Ottoman Empire.  Kak Najib held up a large map depicting the Assyrian village’s historic land that his family has lived on for generations.  He remarked, “This is our land, even if it is all burned we will never leave.”

This bombing took place in November, however, CPT records show that over forty Turkish Cross-border bombings on Kurdish areas similar to Merkajia have taken place just in the first half 2017 alone.

Mar 14, 2017

On the cycle of oppression in Iraqi Kurdistan

Photo credit: PBS 
By Gabe Soares

As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote once, “an education that does not liberate, makes the oppressed dream of becoming oppressors”. In Kurdistan, we see clear manifestation of what Freire wrote developing across the social and political spectrum in both directions. While signs of freedom shine across the horizon for some, it diminishes for others, not only due to action of external forces, but by fellow Kurdish compatriots. In Iraqi Kurdistan in particular, one can witness a strange contradiction between independence and freedom, as well as between autonomy and rights. The heroic images of KRG’s Peshmerga fighters on the frontlines with ISIS that have been widespread by the different medias has obfuscated the issues of the internal political atmosphere experience by many dissent voices in the areas under the same government that is in charge of keeping the ISIS threat in check. The ambivalence of having your “so-called protector” being your oppressor is nothing new or specific to this case. It is often that one side of the narrative silences the other while providing a clear cut case of the oppressed becoming the oppressor and taking on elements of their previous oppressor.

The Kurdish Question was born out of the process of the disintegration of the Old Political Order centered in Empires, like the Ottoman and the Persian Empires. The onset of the Nation States in the Middle East came in the aftermath of the First World War, during which not only new borders were drawn, but people were forced to conform to them or be forcibly removed from their spaces within those borders, even through genocide, like the one against the Armenians and Assyrians. Ironically, this genocide had the support of tribes among the Kurdish people, who later would suffer the hardships of these same policies that aimed for Kurdish suppression and disappearance of the Kurdish people in the different States in which the Kurds were divided. In Iraq, the peak of this repression was during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal Campaign and led to immense destruction. It was followed a few years later by an uprising that finally lead to Kurdish autonomy in the country. Unfortunately, so far conflicts, internal divisions and repression have plagued the dream of Kurdish self-determination in Iraq.

Yet many are still trying to find ways to break the cycle of oppression through non-violence. Despite the recent crackdowns on freedom of expression, which often bring back memories and references to Saddam’s time, often in the expression of “as bad as Saddam” or even “worse than Saddam”, activists and Human Rights defenders are still committed to struggle for a more just and free society. However, the conditions for breaking this circle of violence and militarism does not look promising at the moment, especially with the growing foreign support for the continuous flow of arms to the region. Thus, local activists like Awat Hassan are now asking for more international support to counter this trend in favor of non-violence, calling in his own words: “for support from you (internationals) to protect activists and to continue supporting those that believe change can be brought to the Middle East without violence”.

Mar 13, 2017

Activism and family, a mother story

By Julie Brown

Nonviolent movements and campaigns are made of many moving parts.Some are the faces that we see on the television giving compelling speeches in front of thousands, while others are playing crucial roles making these moments happen. SAZGAR GHAFOUR SAEED is an activist, teacher and mother married to one of the public faces of the teacher’s campaign in Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan. One night, after preparing a large Kurdish meal followed by several rounds of tea and snacks, Sazgar put her children to bed, made a final round of coffee, and sat down to tell CPT her story.

Sazgar and her children marching in the city of Sulaimani. Photo by: CPTers
Sazgar is an 8th grade Arabic teacher, mother of four, and wife of Awat Hassan who was one of the main organizers of the teacher’s demonstrations in Sulaimani.  She has been part of the teacher’s movement since the beginning and has seen it evolve from something that once gave her great hope to something that has ultimately put her family in danger.

From the very beginning of the demonstrations Sazgar had many responsibilities. Along with the hectic schedule of raising four children, she also had a full-time activism role. She was supporting the movement with many logistical tasks. She did a variety of things from charging the loudspeaker system to cooking meals, hosting organizing meetings in her home, and attending demonstrations with her family.

The demonstrations were very popular.  The teachers were calling for their full salaries to be paid and also for an end to government corruption. The teachers also engaged in a strike that kept the schools closed for months. As the demonstrations grew, Sazgar’s husband became well known.When I asked about her friends and family’s reactions to the demonstrations she said, “Some were very supportive but others were scared for Awat’s life.” “We had a good feeling. In the beginning of the demonstrations things went well but it didn’t take long before they broke our car’s back window.”

Although the teachers’ campaign remained peaceful with a message of nonviolence, the organizers faced violence and intimidation from local security forces and other unnamed actors. “The more known Awat became, the more dangerous it was.” she said.  

Once the threats toward her family started they were persistent and intensified. Sazgar recalled an evening when her husband was driving their ten-year-old daughter home from a local recreational center and Asiesh Security Forces stopped their car on the road. The security forces detained Awat, separated him from his daughter and put him into their vehicle.Then two men got into the family’s vehicle with her young daughter Ala.  Ala plead and cried for her father as the security forces drove around and argued over what to do with her.  In the end, they put her out on the side of the road alone.  Ala ran home and told her family what had happened to her father.  Sazgar said that shortly after Ala returned home Awat also returned home.  When he got there he was weak in the knees over the grief and guilt of what had just happened to his daughter.

Another evening their car was burned in front of their home as her family slept.  They woke to banging on the windows and she saw a flickering light through the curtains and thought it was the police coming to arrest her husband. When they went outside they saw the fire.  It was so large that they were afraid that it would catch the yard on fire.  Sazgar went inside, woke up her sleeping children, and put them outside through a window.  Once outside the children saw that the car was engulfed in flames and began to cry.   The events of this night left the children with lots of anxiety and her four year old son now suffers from severe trauma.

Their car was burnt while Sazgar and her family were sleeping. Photo by: Gabe Soares.
After this, Sazgar continued attending the demonstrations with her children. When asked about it she said, “Even though we had a burden, I want them to learn to be courageous, speak for themselves, and fight for their rights.”

CPT asked Sazgar if she has any advice to someone else in her position. She said, “It’s important to not give up.  It is challenging due to our children.  We don’t pay as much attention to our own lives as we do to the lives of our children.  I think it will take a long time to normalize my children’s lives. They will not be the children that they use to be.  I think the voices that the government is trying to silence, in the future, will make a change. People will rise up and the bubble will burst.

Now the demonstrations in Sulaimani have ended and the teacher’s strike is broken. When asked about her hope for the future she said, “Hope doesn’t work with these leaders.” “We hope that we will have the knowledge in the future of what is happening to the money and wealth of this region.” She also hopes that her children and husband will be protected. Throughout the campaign many organizers, teachers, and human rights defenders were arrested and detained.  Reflecting on the past, she said,“Next time we will all go out and demonstrate as a family and we will not give up.”

Mar 12, 2017

Kurdish Journalist Apprehended and Beaten.

CPT received a story from a journalist who was beaten on January 15, 2017. He wanted to share his story in hopes that people around the world will know what is happening in this region.

This is Karwan Haji Shamo’s account of the events of that day.

“I wrote a post on my Facebook criticizing the Asiesh (security forces), the Mayor of Bahadre (the town he lives in), and the Kurdistan DemocraticParty (KDP) office in Bahadre. I said that they are the reason behind people from Bahdre not getting hired by the many international companies operating in the area.

At the beginning the Mayor and Asaish didn’t have a negative response, but the head of the KDP office from our area called me and asked me to delete the post from my Facebook. I refused his order. Two days after I received this phone call he sent three armed people to my home. When they arrived it was nine o’clock in the morning. I was just leaving for my office. As soon as the men approached they just started to beat me. Then they took me to the KDP office in Bahadre. Once there, they put me in an upstairs room where I was beaten unconscious. I woke up to them throwing water on me and I saw blood all around. The head of the KDP office told me, “You should not go out with bloody clothes on,” but I refused to change my clothing until I arrived at the hospital.

I was told at the hospital that I could not receive treatment without a report from the police. When I went to police station one police officer recognized me. He told me that I had slandered the KDP and he was also a member of this party. This same officer had also threatened me a few days before and had also asked me to delete my Facebook post. Because of this man, I couldn’t get paper from police station. I had to go to another hospital in another town to receive medical treatment for my injuries. This time I had media with me. Once we arrived to the second hospital a police officer there told me that I should not talk to the media about what had happened to me.”

Kurdistan has become a dangerous place for journalists and activists. In the recent past, several journalists and activists have been killed, arrested, and unlawfully detained in this region for speaking out against injustice and corruption. CPT has reported on many of these instances. For more on recent attacks on journalists, please read the report from Human Rights Watch

CPT Iraqi Kurdistan Team

Feb 4, 2017

Stand With Civil Society in Iraqi Kurdistan

Stand With Civil Society in Iraqi Kurdistan
Everyone is born with inherent rights. Protecting and promoting Universal Human Rights is essential to building and maintaining peace around the world. The newly autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan is currently unsafe for many activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and members of civil society. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is charged with the safety of all its inhabitants  and the responsibility of safeguarding Universal Human Rights within its borders.  We wish to lift the veil of secrecy around recent killings, beatings  and ongoing attacks on journalists, activists, and members of civil society as well as highlight the seemingly systematic campaign of harassment against those exercising free speech in Iraqi Kurdistan.  We also call upon the Kurdistan Regional Government to actively protect those threatened and pursue parties wishing to harm people exercising their inherent rights within in the region.
The Kurdish Region of Iraq has enjoyed freedom and self-rule governance since the United States invasion of Iraq despite the immense toll the invasion took on people in other areas. However, the Kurdish region is also facing the worst financial crisis in its history. In 2014 the budget was cut by the Iraqi Government and the Kurdish Regional Government told its employees that they were unable to pay their salaries. This decision lead to many protests by the governmental workers, especially teachers, demanding that their full salaries be paid and calling for an end to corruption in the public sector. Organizers and teachers peacefully protested for 110 days but beginning in December 2016, the security forces in Sulaimani started using violent means to try to break the teacher’s strike. Many activists and human rights defenders were arrested, beaten, threatened, or had  their property damaged or burnt. Finally, in mid January, 2017, the teachers ended their strike under immense pressure from the security forces. They were assured by the Prime Minister and his deputy no changes would come from the demonstrations. Since the protests ended, the organizers, civil society activists and journalists have faced threats and direct violence. Their families have been terrorized and social media is being used to humiliate them. Along with threats to activists, journalists and religious leaders have also been killed in the region. The government is responsible for its citizens’ security and should respect human rights by creating a space where civil society can act freely to foster and develop a democratic culture in the region without threats, violence and loss of life. 
Awat demands safety for himself and his family
Awat Hassan is a teacher, human rights defender and civil society activist. He was also a main organizer of the 110 day nonviolent teachers' campaign  in the city of Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan. Awat and many his fellow teachers peacefully demonstrated demanding their full salaries be paid and asked the government to stop corruption in its institutions. As Awat became known, he also became a victim of a systematic campaign of harassment and threats by local security forces and other unnamed actors. During the protests Awat was unlawfully detained three times by the security forces and his car was burned in front of his house while his family slept inside the home. His nine year old daughter was also detained along with Awat while he was taking her to a sport club. The security forces took Awat and drove his daughter around in their car ultimately leaving her on the side of the road alone. Awat along with the other main organizers have ended their peaceful demonstrations due to immense pressure from the government and local security forces.
Awat says that he is puzzled by reactions of the security forces as he only organized peaceful demonstrations. Awat and other organizers worked hard to maintain the nonviolent nature of the demonstrations throughout the campaign. In of his speeches he said ‘’Even if they threaten or beat or kill us, we will never raise our hands towards the security forces as they are our brothers and sisters’’
Since the demonstrations ended, Awat and his family are scared for their lives due to continuous threats they receive from the security forces and other unnamed people and because it is not uncommon for journalists, religious leaders, and others expressing dissent within the region to be found dead. His children have also been traumatized by the experiences they have gone through.
Learn more about Awat Hassan and his family's struggle through this video. 
We ask you to take a moment to contact the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government and demand that Awat Hassan and his family be protected from those that wish to do Awat harm.  We also ask that the KRG create space for people to exercise their Universal Human Rights, including the right to freedom of speech, throughout the region.
Please send an e-mail demanding protection for Awat Hassan and his family.
Send an E-mail to Prime Minister of the KRG
Send an E-mail to Deputy Prime Minister of the KRG
Unfortunately, we have been notified that in some cases the automatic e-mail buttons are not working. However, it usually works perfectly on smart phones. In any case, we would strongly urge you to support Awat Hassan by sending the below message to both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister's offices.

Prime Minister's e-mail:

Deputy Prime Minister e-mail:

The message

Dear Sir,

As part of the international community I condemn the harming of activists, journalists and others like Awat Hasan who have been striving to create positive change through peaceful methods around the world.

As Iraq is a signatory of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is the Kurdish Government's duty to provide protection to people such as Awat Hassan living within the KRG and to safeguard their inherent human rights including their rights to safety and freedom of speech.

We urge you to do everything within your power to ensure this man's safety including actively pursuing those who wish to do him and his family harm so that they may once again enjoy the right to security in their home.

Kind regards, 
We would also like  you to post the below message on their Facebook accounts.
@OfficialNechirvanBarzani @qubadtalabaniofficial

 Dear Sir,

As part of the international community I condemn the harming of activists, journalists and others like Awat Hasan who have been striving to create positive change through peaceful methods around the world.

As Iraq is a signatory of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is the Kurdish Government's duty to provide protection to people such as Awat Hassan living within the KRG and to safeguard their inherent human rights including their rights to safety and freedom of speech.

We urge you to do everything within your power to ensure this man's safety including actively pursuing those who wish to do him and his family harm so that they may once again enjoy the right to security in their home.

Kind regards, 

Tweet the below message on their twitter account.

@PMBarzani @qubadjt @DMI_KRG Protect activists, human rights defenders and journalists in the KRG including Awat Hassan and his family. 

Mission: Christian Peacemaker Teams: Building partnerships to transform violence and oppression.
Vision: A world of communities that together embrace the diversity of the human family and live justly and peaceably with all creation.
Values: Christian Peacemaker Teams is committed to work and relationships that: Honor and reflect the presence of faith and spirituality; Strengthen grassroots initiatives; Transform structures of domination and oppression; Embody creative non-violence and liberating love.

Feb 2, 2017

Kurdistan Region of Iraq in the midst of crisis

The Kurdish Region of Iraq has enjoyed freedom and self-rule governance since the United States invasion of Iraq which left thousands of people dead. Since then,the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has established relationships with regional and international powers to seek support for its independence, build up its economy, and attain military support. However, the KRG has not been able to create a space for universal human rights, civil society activists, human rights defenders and independent journalists. Many activists, journalists, and religious leaders have been detained, beaten, threatened and humiliated by the security forces and even found dead. The KRG has not provided security to activists and civil society members who are trying to actively engage in the process of creating a democratic state and society.

Since 2014, the region has faced the worst financial crisis in its history after the the KRG’s budget was cut by the Iraqi Government. The KRG has also been criticized by citizens of the region for alleged mass corruption in its institutions. In addition, the region has been in war with ISIS for more than two years. When the financial crisis started in the region, the government told its employees that they were unable to pay their salaries. After months of nonpayment, the government also proportionately reduced their salaries. Even after the reduction in government salaries,the KRG was still unable to pay its workers. This lead to many protests and a teachers’ strike. The teachers demanded their full salaries be paid and asked the government to stop corruption in the public sector.

In the early stage of the demonstrations, the authorities in the cities of Erbil and Duhok threatened the workers as they attempted to organize peaceful protests. The local government warned the employees that they would face serious consequences if they protest against the government. However, there was a space in the city of Sulaimani for workers to organize peaceful demonstrations and demand for their rights.  The organizers and teachers peacefully protested for 110 days. As a response, in December of 2016, the security forces in Sulaimani used violent means to force teachers to end their strike. Many activists were arrested, beaten, threatened and their property was damaged and burnt. Despite the violent reaction from the security forces, the teachers demonstrations remained peaceful. Finally, in mid January, 2017, the teachers ended their strike under immense pressure by the security forces and were assured by the Prime Minister and his deputy that nothing would change as a result of the demonstrations.

Since, the protests have ended, the organizers, civil society activists and journalists have faced threats and violence. Their families have been terrorized and the security forces used social media to humiliate them. The government is responsible for its citizen’s security and should respect human rights by creating a space where civil society can act freely to establish a profound democratic region without facing threats and violence.

Dec 21, 2016

coercion is not a viable alternative

By: Latif Hars

Gulala and Awat speaking to the teachers in the city of Sulaimani. Photo by: Kasia Protz
We were invited by the two of the main organizers of demonstrations in the city of Sulaimani to accompany them, they said “we really need you  to support us, we don’t feel safe, We fear for our lives and lives of our family members after our cars were burnt and Asai sh had arrested us last month. The security forces threatened us and continue to do so, instead of they protecting us and our property…”
During October 2015 the demonstrations started, they were organised by the teachers in demand for their full salaries. Awat one of the main organizer of demonstrations  told us  what had happened and is happening to him and his family. “My car was burnt, Asaish arrested me, they came to my home, they checked my whole house, destroyed some of my electronic devices and even my children’s toys. Later I was put in a solitary cell, I was not given any food during my time there except one glass of water, over twelve hours.”
Awat told us “the government stopped paying our full salaries in 2015, we began demonstrations in October of 2015, we continued our boycott and protests till October 27, asking for our principal rights, but the government didn’t listen to us. They brought huge army force to end protests and to compel us to quit our struggle for our rights. He said  security forces have arrested and beaten some of the teachers. At the same time government decided to keep three quarters of our salary promising they will pay us back later. Amanj who is Awat’s brother was sitting beside Awat. He told us “security forces arrested me and moved me to Asaishs building, they beated me very badly.”

When Gulala invited us to her house, she said “we just received nine months of our salaries, only a quarter each time. We have a council  of thirty three teachers, the council organizes  the peaceful demonstrations.” she said “I was threatened by Asiash then they arrested me, I was being held for 8 hours, they took away my mobile. When I received my mobile back after four days,  there was a tracking device inside it, I took it out, immediately my phone stopped working.” She added “I can not sleep because the security forces (Asaish).” Teachers stood up for their rights last year, but government still remains silent.
So the teachers didn’t open schools this academic year, they said “We started demonstrations to demand our basic rights on the 27th of October 2016, we are demonstrating in a peaceful way, still after more than a year government is not responding.”
Teachers gathered close to directorate of education in Sulaimani. Photo by: Kasia Protz
“The government isn’t listening to us, so we continue to protest for our basic rights, we care about students but government doesn’t care about them. They forced us to go teach pupils without giving us our salaries. We refused to obey to this decision, we believe teachers whose rights are denied can not provide good education for their students. The demonstrators are not just teachers, but other groups affected by the corruption in the government, they face the same problem.

During last two years CPT had observed teachers demonstrations, we heard from the demonstrators “We have a lot of oil and gas but the government has not given our full salaries, they don’t care about the future of students and our country, they care about their own interests  and positions. Everything is on hold except selling oil, gas and the goods that they bring from outside, just to make it clear, the whole business in the region is controlled by the officials.” In one of the demonstrations that CPT observed, security forces (Asaish) arrested some teachers,  they used tear gas to separate them from each other. Asaish also tried to send the demonstrators home, but they refused it, they told Asaish “We are not here just for our rights, but also for your rights and your children’s rights ” they continued “education is very important for people, we can't give up on the future of our children, our peaceful struggle is to bring real changes, where everyone can have a brighter future, Also to prepare a generation that can stand up for their basic rights and to know their duty and responsibility.”The government has been careless and did not respond to their demands instead they accused teachers and said ‘’Closing down the schools is a crime against the society, and the teachers should go back to their schools regardless if they paid or not or regardless of having a corrupt system.’’
The teachers from Hawler and Duhok cities have same problems, however a political party that is running Erbil and Duhok cities did not let them express their concerns, they forced and threatened them to open schools, and to teach without receiving their salaries.
I heard from many teachers in Sulaimani city saying that “Our struggle remains peaceful, in spite of us getting arrested, threatened, and our cars being burned. We didn’t stop demanding our rights,  and we will continue our nonviolent protests for the future of our children and country.”  During the demonstrations the teachers asked security forces “ Please don’t beat us, arrest us, and threaten us because we remember the former president of Iraq, Sadam Husain and what his regime was doing against civilians” they continued “We are brothers and sisters from the same country, our struggles and future are the same, please understand our peaceful effort.” We heard the same from Gulala, Awat and his brother Amanj “we remember exactly Sadam’s regime and what had happened to us.”  
When you go and observe teachers demonstrations you always hear demonstrators expressing their love and respect for their country,  however you also hear their desperation and heartbrokenness about what is happening here. They said “Our history, culture and humanity had been reduced to oil and gas processes, a small group is running the country with support of some super pack countries and companies, they changed Kurdistan to a small circle of violence and broken dreams. We don't trust human rights organizations and states any more because we didn't see them do anything for us, we believe they work for themselves.”
When I think of their situation I see them surrounded by barbed wired fence if they try to climb out to receive their rights they get hurt if they stay they suffocate. And The only solution is getting freedom and justice back to this region.