Dec 24, 2011

Bound to not get away

By Garland Robertson

They are teasing us. Flirting about, jumping from ledge to roof to line and back again. They move according to their spatial awareness. Who knows what they are thinking. Yet we are certain these small flying creatures are innocent, not knowing the promptings that surface for us as we stand by idly waiting.

Already we have waited for an hour, inside the prison courtyard. We have come to gather with family and friends of Ibrahim, a man who before resided in Halabjah. Police officials apprehended him more than two months ago and brought him to this closed facility. Outside the entrance to the prison, guests purchased an assortment of fruits and pastries to share with the inmates. This once-a-week encounter is all the opportunity provided for family and friends to stay in touch with their husband, father, brother, uncle and friend. Now as we wait, the others throughout the 30-meter square yard spread rugs and mats with provisions brought for sharing a picnic experience with their imprisoned host. We are among more than 40 people most of which have made the journey from Halabjah to the provincial capital city of Sulaimaniya to see Ibrahim once again.

(photo: the watch tower of Ibrahim's prison)

The reason for Ibrahim’s confinement is too typical. Several years before, Ibrahim had worked passionately and effectively with one of the leading political parties here. He became a respected and trusted leader in the region where he once lived. However because of corruption practices of that party Ibrahim had chosen to join with an emerging party dedicated to expose secret governmental practices that funnel resources away from community service programs. Repeated efforts to lure him back into the previous political fold were unsuccessful, so now he lives here, in this prison, charged with a violent crime that prevents him from posting bail. He will be here until his court date arrives.

Ibrahim’s arrest happened in a public protest conducted in Halabjah. Security forces from outside the city were dispatched to disperse the group who had gathered for the public demonstration. An hour before the scheduled start time, one of the visiting soldiers identified Ibrahim as the chosen target, and then the violence began. Several other soldiers approached and began beating people and shooting into the air to drive the people away. Ibrahim was beaten and struck in the back of the head by a stray bullet, and then his friend transported him to the hospital for treatment.

During a week of recovery, friends and political leaders of the previous party affiliation visited with Ibrahim. They urgently solicited his return to the party. He declined. A few days later he was directed to report to the police headquarters to answer questions. While there police officials charged Ibrahim with inciting violence against the visiting soldiers, and told that one of the soldiers had been shot and killed as a result of his encouragement of violence.
No one knows how long Ibrahim will remain here. In a discussion with family members before being allowed to come inside, we were told that some persons have stayed here for more than 10 years. The door opens and the prisoners walk cautiously down the steel stairway to be embraced by their family and friends. We talk briefly with Ibrahim. We want him to know of our interest in his detainment. He is fearful some secret proceeding will sentence him into oblivion before anyone has a chance to defend him. Witnesses once before employed to testify against him refused to follow through with their mission, but Ibrahim knows there will be others. It is a routine proceeding, fabricating a case against someone who has embarrassed a powerful opposition party. Maybe the next time, employed witnesses will be too desperate to tell the truth.
We prepare to go. They are still there, to tease the others while they share the picnic together. I can guess what the prisoners are thinking, "...if I were a bird or an international human rights worker, I could fly away too."

Dec 7, 2011

An apple a day...

(a November reflection)

an apple a day keeps the doctor away why can’t thousands of apples hanging from acres of trees keep bombs and shells away. Why are the rosy apple-cheeked children not running through the orchards, plucking ripe fruit from the abundant trees?

These were the questions that we, the CPT Iraqi Kurdistan team and the Autumn delegation (from the USA) asked ourselves as we visited the mountain village of Merkajia. This tiny settlement is unique in Northern Iraq in that it is mainly a community of Assyrian Christians. One family fled to the valley running from the massacre of Christian population in the years preceding the fall of the Ottoman Empire (1915-19. ) This family grew to over 100 households.

Our host, N. told us of his family’s roots on the land. They had planted hundreds of fruit trees, especially apple, grape and quince. These have been destroyed several times through various Iraqi and Kurdish conflicts over the years. But the villagers have persevered and replanted orchards and rebuilt houses.


It seemed like an idyllic situation. Apples were hanging in abundance and grapes in huge purple and green clusters. The water of the Kani Rush (Black Spring) encircled each tree illustrating ancient irrigation techniques. As we roamed the orchards with N. he plied us with all the varieties, urging us to taste and to learn that each was better than the last.

But N. is living alone in his house. His wife and children are in a city two hours away. They have spent most of the summer separated due to fear. The village is situated in a valley on one side of the border mountains between Kurdish Northern Iraq and Turkey. The sparsely treed peaks are the territory of armed fighters, trying to protest the oppression of Kurds in that country. In retaliation for this, Turkey sends military jets over the mountains in an effort to eradicate this opposition group. The civilian villages are caught in the middle.

Thus, the stony roads of the community are now bereft of children’s laughter. N. longs for the day when his family can be together in the village again. However, this will not happen until summer when school in the far away city ends for the older children. And then, the shelling will probably begin again as it has for many summers.

The delegates and team members were eager to volunteer to help harvest the mighty bounty of fruit. It soon became apparent that N. was reluctant to show us where and how to do it. Finally, he was honest with us. “There is no market for the apples”, he said. Fruit from foreign orchards can be brought into Kurdistan more cheaply than I need to make the harvest worth my while. Maybe someday soon there will be a window of opportunity when I can sell my apples, but that time is not now.” So we had to be content with carrying two crates of apples back to the CPT house with us to share with friends and neighbors.