After a cold and wet winter Spring arrived to Iraqi Kurdistan. Its arrival on the equinox of March 20-21 marked the beginning of Kurdish New Year which is the most important and popular Kurdish festival. CPTers dressed up in traditional Kurdish clothes and joined in the amazing atmosphere of burning fires, fireworks, dances, music, food, flowers, community and joy. On the second “picnic” day the cities emptied out and mountains, meadows and rivers filled with thousands of happy faces, smell of coals and grilled meat and sounds of joyous laughter and music. CPTers ate dolmah (traditional Kurdish festive meal) surrounded by lush green hills and snowcapped mountains near the Iranian border and talked about life and the future with partner village families and friends. Besides the great festivities, the year of 2713 (in Iraqi Kurdish count), also brought new hopes for the future of Kurds in Turkey as well as villagers and shepherds in the border mountain regions. Abdullah Öcalan, a jailed leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party) following the long awaited “peace negotiations” with the Turkish authorities, called for a historic ceasefire and a full withdrawal of the guerillas out of Turkey saying: “We have now reached the point of 'silence the weapons and let the ideas and politics speak'.”
The three decades long war between the PKK and Turkish government, which killed more than 40,000 people (mostly Kurds) and displaced over 3 million Kurdish villagers within Turkey, may now be over. However, a sense of cautiousness and uncertainty remains present. Since the announcement of the ceasefire, CPT received news of two instances of Turkish shelling along the border and bombardment within Turkey. The Turkish war planes and US drones continue to fly over Iraqi Kurdistan, seemingly to monitor the guerillas' withdrawal.
Advocating for an end of the cross-border attacks
CPT have partnered with, accompanied and worked alongside the village communities and shepherds affected by the Turkish (and Iranian) cross-border attacks within Iraqi Kurdistan since 2007. Before the ceasefire was announced, the Turkish war planes had bombarded the mountain areas on a regular basis.
As Kurdistan commemorated the 1991 uprising against Ba'athist regime, CPTers stood with banners “After 22 years villagers are still under attack” and “Turkish bombing murders people” in the center of Hawler – Iraqi Kurdistan's capital. Several people, passers-by who stopped for a talk or even helped CPTers holding the banners expressed: “Thank you for doing this and for reminding us this important issue. It should have been us standing here, not you”. Yes, it is so much easier for Europeans and Northern Americans to conduct actions like this than it is for Kurds in an environment so tightly controlled by “security” forces. In addition to people's support and positive responses, CPT felt very encouraged by the renewed interest of the media in this issue, especially NRT (Kurdistan's only independent TV station) which covered the action in a really appealing way.
CPTers re-visited the Iranian vice-consul in Sulaimani to ask for compensation for two shepherd brothers who were kidnapped by Iranian soldiers and tortured in prison before being released on a US$5,000 bail. The team inquired about the responsibility of the re-occurring violence of the Iranian soldiers along the borders. CPTers learned how diplomatic Mr. Bodaghi can be and how cunning he is in washing his hands of responsibility. He spoke of the silliness of the shepherds who graze “too” close to the border, of the rogue soldiers that Iranian authorities can not bear responsibility for, and of obscure offices where supposedly the brothers should complain at.
CPTers traveled towards the northern border region to meet with several people in the course of two days. First of them was Rebaz, who last November CPTers saw half-dead in Sulaimani hospital just after he lost his leg and two friends in a Turkish bombing. This time, meeting Rebaz and his family was also very touching but in a different way. To see him with crutches but burning with resilience and passion for life while holding his two children, seven year old daughter and six year old son, in his arms was an unforgettable experience. His wounds are still healing but he has not lost time. He made arrangements around his house to make his life more livable. He added a new clutch to his car so he could drive only with one leg. He wants to fight for the bombings to cease.
Rebaz told the team: “I am not afraid. I don't care about what the government will do to me. I already lost my leg. But it will not stop me. I don't want any compensation from the government. I want the bombings to stop!”
CPTers continued their trip to meet with the shepherd brothers in a remote village to share with them about the outcome of the meeting with the Iranian vice-consul. The brothers did not seem to expect anything else and told the team: “Even despite what happened to us last year, we are not afraid. We will return to the mountains with our animals soon. It has been our place for generations. We are going back in a month.”
The team traveled to Zhelya village in the mountains above Sidakan (region bordering both Turkey and Iran and experiencing much of the cross-border violence) to meet Sabir and his family and to mourn the loss of Sabir's father who had unexpectedly passed away. CPTers planted an olive tree at the grave of Sabir's father to honor his memory. Afterwards, the team stayed with the lovely family over lunch and ended up playing football with the children from the village and chasing the ball on the steep slopes of this beautiful mountain village.
Accompanying Kurdish activists
In February, CPTers mourned at a cemetery with the families of martyrs of the 2011 protests. At a following press conference, CPTers praised the families' resilience in seeking justice for their sons, brothers and friends and called on to the KRG to listen to their plea.
On the 25th anniversary of the chemical bombing of Halabja, CPters mourned the complicity of the countries they come from in this terrible attack which killed 5,000 people and injured over 10,000 more. The team witnessed and supported a courageous public protest by a group of young men from Halabja. The men stood up in front of a thousand people, mostly VIP guests, just as the KRG prime minister finished his speech. They unfolded their banners asking for recognition of Halabja inhabitants as living beings and not only as past victims who are too often used as political pawns. This action was an act of courage and determination. They asked CPT to stand next to them and to wait until the event was finished. The dense presence of media protected them at that time, but CPTers were not able to contact them a few days later.
In March, CPTers celebrated with women activists the International Women's day by accompanying their march and associated cultural activities. CPT is very encouraged by the growing numbers of people involved in the struggle for a society liberated of oppression against women. The team interviewed several women rights' activists about the changes which their struggle brought as well as the challenges that they face. The voices and experiences of the activists were published by CPT as a report which can be read here.
The team conducted a series of workshops “Introduction to non-violence” among high school students (10th -12th grades). Many of the attending students had participated in a number of protests and demonstrations and had experienced violence used against them. One of the schools which opened its gates was the oldest high school in Sulaimani, one which Serkew (one of the young men killed by the “security” forces during the 2011 Spring protests) attended. The 50 students that participated in the workshop were chosen as representatives from different classes to learn and then to teach non-violence to their class mates. CPTers were amazed by the levels of social and political insights the students showed along with passion to be active and working for social and political change. Hearing the student's thoughts and stories and their excitement about the workshop was very touching. One student said: “We wonder why we never had this workshop before... It is so important. We want to learn more.”
Despite the fact that demonstrations are a sensitive topic, CPT was able to get the Sulaimani Directorate of Education's permission to conduct these workshops. Opening the first workshop, the director told the media: “our society has a long history of violence. But the time for non-violence has come. The new generation needs to search for the new non-violent solutions.”