Feb 19, 2013

Shepherds, Sheep, and Soldiers

On a rainy day in mid-December, the team traveled up into the hills of Kurdistan to meet with two shepherds who had spent nearly three weeks in Iranian detention this past September. The two brothers, both in their early twenties, were grazing their flocks about three kilometers away from the Iranian border on 1 September when they say they were kidnapped by Iranian border guards. The team wanted to hear their story.

Nariman
The team met the brothers, Nariman and Tahar Qadir, in a small village where a friend of a relative lived. (Due to several days’ worth of heavy rains, the brothers were worried that the team wouldn’t be able to access their own village, and so walked for over an hour down to meet with CPT.) Over cups of tea, and by the light of a small window and a kerosene heater, the brothers described their story. The team’s Kurdish co-worker, Mohamed Salah, acted as translator. 

According to Nariman and Tahar, they were grazing their flock of about a thousand sheep near Kelê-Shîn, in the mountainous region of Sidakan. Their family used this area every summer for grazing.  On the morning of 1 September, Nariman took a portion of the flock to higher ground, though still, both brothers insisted, within Iraqi Kurdish territory. All the same, that morning three Iranian soldiers walked down the mountainside and asked Nariman what he was doing there.  He responded by saying that this was his family’s grazing land, and that he had a right to be there.  Tahar, seeing the interaction from afar, came over to join his brother. The soldiers, noticing Tahar’s gun, demanded to know why he was armed.  The brothers said they needed the gun to protect their flock from predators. According to the brothers’ testimony, the soldiers asked to have Tahar’s gun, and he complied. However, the soldiers then blindfolded the brothers, and marched them up the mountain to the soldiers’ base. 

At the base, the brothers told the team that they were beaten by the soldiers and denied food.  Their mother, when she learned what happened, walked up to the base to appeal for her sons’ release. When the soldiers saw her coming, they fired shots over her head, but she kept walking. Inside, the brothers say, the soldiers in the base blindfolded her, tied her hands behind her back, and detained her for eight hours before releasing her. 

The brothers' relative, team co-worker Mohamed, and
team member Lukasz discuss the brothers' testimony
The brothers told the team that they were held for two days at this border base before  the soldiers moved them to a political intelligence prison inside Iran, where they were separated and interrogated for two weeks. The brothers said they were asked if they were members of PJAK/PKK, why they were armed, and what they were doing so close to the border.  They described to the team how both of them feared they might never be released, even that they might be killed, but that they both tried to appear strong and unafraid. Finally they were taken to a general prison, where they were held for two days.  They said the conditions and the food were better there.

Meanwhile, the brothers were unable to communicate with anyone outside. Their father relied on a network of relatives and friends within Iran to find the location of his sons; finally when he discovered which facility they were in, he paid an Iranian lawyer to visit them in prison. The brothers said this visit cost his father 6 million Iraqi dinars ($5000 USD), but the lawyer was able to move the brothers from the political intelligence facility to a general prison within Iran. Two days later, the brothers were released and able to return home. However, they learned that during their captivity, thirty of their sheep had gone missing, a loss they estimated at 7.5 million Iraqi dinars (about $6250). Together with the lawyer fees, this meant their already-traumatic experience became an enormous economic blow as well.

The team told Nariman and Tahar that they planned to visit the Iranian Vice Consul in Sulaimani, to tell him about the brothers’ case. The team had previously met with the Vice Consul to express concerns over the cross-border attacks. Nariman had a message for the team to pass along: “We just want to be able to graze our flocks without being shot at or scared by soldiers, without worrying that we will be killed.”

Nariman and Tahar
Several weeks later, the team met with Hamid Bodaghi, the Vice Consul. He was gracious and diplomatic, and never more so as when he pinned the blame of the brothers’ detainment on a few rogue border officers -- and on the brothers themselves.  “They are shepherds,” he exclaimed, hands spread.  Could they not even prevent their sheep from getting too close to the border? Bodaghi also suggested - before the team could mention the brothers’ missing sheep - that perhaps one or two border officers had maybe taken one or two animals, but who could know for certain? If the brothers wanted compensation, they should take up their case with the Iraqi consul in Kermanshah, Iran, not with Bodaghi, in Sulaimani. 

Nariman and Tahar assured the team that they would return to the same grazing areas this coming April, despite their experience this past autumn. 

...

CPT Iraqi Kurdistan opposes the violence by Turkey and Iran against the Kurdish people; the UN sanctions that collectively punish Iranians and Kurds in Iran; and the calls for military action against Iran.

Feb 14, 2013

Sowing seeds

 The classroom was cold and quite drab, and there were so many old and squeaky benches that it was almost difficult to walk through the room. A group of girls came in and went to sit down in the front benches. Oh, there’s no electricity! We can’t show them the film clips that we’ve prepared! And, says one of the teachers, some of the students need to take a bus at 12 o’clock, so there’s only fifty minutes for the workshop. Hm, we had asked for an hour and a half … More and more students come in, we had agreed on forty but I think that there were sixty or more. Okay, we say to one another, let’s do the best we can under the circumstances.

After a short introduction of us and CPT, I start with the first exercise, the spectrum. “Those of you who believe that there is a lot of violence in your society, you put yourselves on this end of the line. If you think there is not a lot of violence in society, you go to the other end.” They come up, and most of them go to the “alot of violence” end. “Why did you put yourself here?” I ask the guy standing on the far end. “Yes there is a lot of violence," he responds, "for example in the homes, against women". Another says, “Some people have the possibility to go to fancy hospitals abroad if they need care, most of us can’t do that.” A third student says: “There is also psychological violence, like when someone speaks in a degrading way to another.” They have several more examples. I’m surprised at how fast they come to think of different kinds of violence. Girls and boys are as eager to share their thoughts.

Lukasz takes over the facilitation, “So, how are we, as a society, going to move from this side to the other side of the spectrum? There are two common reactions to violence, one is to respond with violence, the other to run away, or just look the other way. Nonviolence is a third alternative, it means to fight for justice and peace without the use of violence.” The students had ideas about how to do this. "We need to learn more ourselves. We need to educate people about nonviolence.". Mohammed and I then shared briefly about Gandhi, about the principles of nonviolence, some different methods of nonviolence. In the beginning the atmosphere was kind of messy, but now every one of them seems to listen attentively. 
    
Afterwards when Mohammed reads aloud what they have written on the evaluation sheets, I feel happy and grateful. “It should have been longer!” one student wrote. “I have learnt that violence only gives rise to more violence.” said another. “You forgot to mention sexual violence.” ”I want this kind of workshop every year.” Maybe we have sowed a few seeds, even if this time the workshop was so short and a bit chaotic.