Oct 3, 2016

I am teaching Math, but the government is teaching corruption. I am consolidating society, they are dividing it.

By Muhammad Salah

Since the ISIS war started, or since the Kurdish leaders in Northern Iraq diced to engage in the war, the name of the Peshmarga (Kurdish fighters) has become a well known around the world. Kurdish people are brave, Kurdish people are heroes.

Before ISIS entered Iraq, the Kurdish government  was in a conflict with the Iraqi Central Government. The main issue was about oil as well as the Peshmarga's salary. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) wanted to sell oil and to be able to have an independent economy. Because of this, the Iraqi Central Government no longer wanted to send salaries for the Peshmarga with the Kurdish leaders not wanting to put the Peshmarga under Iraqi control.

Also, in the last two years the Kurdish government employees have not regularly received their salaries. I am among the 130,000 teachers who did not received a salary for September, October, November, and December of 2015. The Kurdish authorities are creative, since January of 2016 the employs are now getting a percentage of their salary. These percentages range anywhere from as low as twenty-five percent. This also affects people receiving retirement benefits.  Their salaries were left the same, without any percentage cuts, but they have not received any payments for the last nine months.

Another way that the government is creative is that they have not cut the salaries for the Peshmarga and security forces or  people working for internal intelligence departments. This has created divisions and tensions among the people. The authorities say, “We will need to use austerity measures and cut your salary. When the war ends with ISIS and the oil prices increase then we will give you back your money.” People do not believe this anymore because we see the high life of the Kurdish leaders has stayed the same as it was before the war. There has been no guarantee that people will not lose their money.  Last year, for two months teachers in Sulaimani were on strike. The authorities did not care.

The new year of opening school was suppose to start on September 17th 2016. Teachers started to organize themselves to protest on that day and to start a strike from the beginning of the year. The Ministry of Education decided to postpone the day of opening to the Sep.27th. Then on Sept. 26th the Ministry of Education published an announcement stating that the school will open on Oct, 1st.  The teachers were committed to do the demonstration anyway. At 9 am on September 27th, teachers started to gather in front of the Directory of Education Building. Not only teachers and government employs showed up. Ordinary people from within the society joined them as well. At 10 am the protesters decided to continue the march towards the Sulaimani Governor's office.

The estimation is that about 5000 protesters were involved in the march. They chanted slogans to tell the government " It's enough" and " stop lying ".  The main demand of the teachers is for the government to pay them 100% of their wages and give their salaries each month and to ask to stop the privatization of the public sector.

To sum it up, the answer of the government is to provide 5,000,000,0000 Dinars to the Ministry of Education. According to the calculations, each teacher will get around 50,000 Dinars or $40 USD. Teachers looked at this as a joke and they have refused the government’s solution. In Sulaimani, Halabja, Garmian, and Rania teachers are on a strike. In Hawler and Duhok teachers are now teaching.   

Oct 2, 2016

The real treasure here is the beauty of the land, not the oil beneath it

By: Rebekah Dowling

In Australia there is continuously growing concern over mining. We talk about losing farmland, homes, traditional sites, polluting waterways, endangered species and climate change.

During my delegation in Kurdistan, Latif shared with us the story of his village's fight against Exxon Mobil. It is a part of the Kurdish story that I can relate to an Australian context and in a weird way that is exciting for me. It is just that we so often portray the Kurdish people as either silent victims or terrorists but hearing this story completely dispels that and crosses contexts and cultures.

Gullan village. Photo by CPTers.
Latif is from a small Kurdish village called Gulan. In 2013 Exxon Mobil moved into his rural farming community to begin drilling for oil. Most of the time people think the can do nothing to stop these massive oil companies but this village was organised and they knew that they did not want an oil company here destroying their land, polluting their waterways and leaving them destitute. Latif said, 'we were sleeping on a sea of oil and freezing to death'. They had seen what oil companies had done in other towns and would not let it happen to them. So Latif and some friends formed a council and began organising demonstrations and informing the people and media what was happening.

The council talking to media. Photo by CPTers.

At first it was very peaceful, they visited the company and the government and tried to negotiate. But the companies knew they had government support which meant military and police. What could these villagers do?

Working on the drilling site continued so the newly formed council organised a demonstration. They called the media and people. They made signs with statements such as, 'Don't destroy our country for bosses pockets!' and, 'We won't exchange water for oil!'.

The police were called to show the government's might, but the demonstrations just grew.
The people brought logs and created a road block to the drilling site. Latif told how the drivers were shocked, this was the first time that a struggle like this had grown out of the people. They made sure everyone knew that they were peaceful, but they would, 'struggle with anyone who destroys our country'.

The villagers blockading the road. Photo by CPTers.
If you visited Gulan you would understand their passion. It is beautiful. A friend described it as the Garden of Eden and imagining it being lost under the machinery of international corporations is enough to bring you to tears. The whole of Kurdistan was like that, heart-wrenchingly beautiful. We would be driving along dusty roads then, wham, another view of endless golden hills, rocky cliffs, hidden gardens, secret waterfalls, grazing goat herds, enchanting stone walls and elegant mosques. The phrase God's Country, kept flitting through my mind. Then you hear these people's stories of war and suffering and it is so frustrating. Doesn't the world know that this place should be treasured not ripped apart by human greed and arrogance?

We visited another town, Hadji Ahmed, where  Miro, a farmer, told us of the complications their area has faced because of oil drilling. When CPT first visited him he could barely access his fields because of the checkpoints set up by Exxon Mobil. They had opened a gas and oil drilling site in between his house and his fields and were forcing him to show an ID every time he wanted to pass and limiting the times he was allowed to do so. Currently because of the bad economic situation'work on the site has been capped, but not before they had cleared the land and dug a 3000 meter deep well. A few weeks ago Miro saw more workers from the Natural Resources ministry scouting the area for potential drilling sites. What will happen to his family, to his walnut trees, to his village, to the remaining natural water sources, if they do find something?

Kak Miro picking up grapes from his vineyard. Photo by CPTers.
According to KRG natural resources laws you cannot just go and drill for oil without following certain procedures in emotional and material compensation and environmental measures. These laws are barely followed or acknowledged. The Natural Resources minister is Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and if KDP wants to drill for oil they will drill. Renas, who is also from the town, said, 'They (politicians) use oil to stay in power. They bring international companies in because they want support from world powers'. And it works. A friend pointed out that Obama has shifted from referring to protecting USA people to protecting their overseas interests. It is in the open. The United States will go to war for oil, and let's be realistic, so will Australia.

Oil in Kurdistan is mostly a curse. Currently in the KRG their are demonstrations happening over months of unpaid wages of those in the public sector, particularly teachers but also pensioners. One reason for the cuts is a dispute between the Iraqi Central Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government over the sale of oil. Yes another oil fight creating problems for people who were always unlikely to benefit economically from it. It is time for all of us to take inspiration from Gulan. We will not sell our neighbor's right to live in peace.
In their final meeting with the Exxon Mobil Latif's friends brought a rose from his garden. He kissed it and showed it to the business men, 'I love my country,' he said, 'and I would not exchange this rose for the entire wealth of Exxon Mobil'. Latif tells me that after that, the men from these oil companies finally understood and said they would not come back.

Oct 1, 2016

I demand that my life and my family’s life be saved

“I demand that my life and my family’s life be saved. That is my message to the world” These were the words of activist Hemn Abdulkhaleq (Hemin Bnaslaway).

On Friday Sep 30th Hemin Bnaslaway, an activist and member of the Peshmerga met with CPT’s Iraqi Kurdistan team and reported that he was abducted from his home in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan by local security forces on September 26th.  Hemin has been an outspoken activist calling for protests within Erbil demanding freedom of speech and an end to government corruption. He believes this was the reason for his abduction.

Hemin sat with CPT and recounted the events of that night.

It was around 6:30 when Asaish security forces suddenly arrived at Hemin’s home in Erbil.  They were in official cars with logos. As the security forces began to pull Hemn from the premises his fifteen year old son began to shout and ask why they were taking his father.  It was then that an officer punched Hemin’s son in the face and arrested him.  The officers also became physical with his pregnant wife. The officers put a bag over Hemin’s head and forced him into their car while they beat his son and put him into a different car.

CPT recorded the interview and these are Hemin”s words…

I did not know where they were taking me but they cursed me a lot and beat me in the car. Then they stopped in a place and took me out of the car. They beat me a lot, especially on the head. After that I did not know what was happening to my son.  They put me back in the car and took me to the Sherawa checkpoint.  There they stopped.

There was a lot of security forces there. Then four security force members came.  One each pulled my shoulders and legs.Then they shaved my head and my eyebrows. Then they beat me a lot.

After that fifteen security forces came. They beat me a lot!  They punched me, they used different methods to beat me. Then they took me out of the room and said ‘You have to go to Suli (Sulaimani), Erbil is not your place because you have planned to do demonstrations in Erbil.’ Then they opened my bag.  I had 89,000 Dinars. They took away my money and they said I had to walk to Suli.

I was not at my best.  I walked for two kilometers then I stopped a taxi.  I got into the taxi and the driver said, ‘I know what has happened to you.

The taxi driver took Hemin to the town of Kirkuk where he found two police officers that offered assistance. He is now in Sulaimani and under the protection of local security.

Erbil and Sulaimani both have security forces called Ashiesh but are controlled by separate party governments within Kurdistan.  The party that is within Erbil is the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The forces now offering protection to Hemin within Sulaimani are the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Hemin’s story gained attention when a photo was posted of him with a strip of his head shaved after his abduction.  Hemin believes that if the government within Erbil knew that this story was going to gain media attention they would have just killed him that night. Hemin is currently within Sulaimani under strict security protocols after the police forces confirmed death threats against Hemin’s life from within KDP. “They have information that people are looking for me and want to kill me.” he said.

“I have been bribed by KDP people in Erbil.  They said I only need to say three words, ‘I was wrong.’ But I am not wrong.” Said Hemin

“I have never been scared of being hungry, or not having money.  I have also never been worried about my death. I always thought that I will be killed one day.  But it is important for me to adhere to my principals.”

When asked about his family he said, “My son has been released.  My family is in Erbil.  They are not at home anymore.  I found them a place. They are also at risk.” he told us.  Hemin also found out that his wife lost their child that night and offered to show CPT the hospital report. Hemin said that he had not previously shared the information about his wife with anyone but is now ready for people to know what has happened to his family.

In the past many journalists have been killed in Kurdistan for speaking against corruption. Hemin requested that CPT help to let people outside of Kurdistan know what has happened to him.  He said that if he dies he would like for the world to know why.

(CPT has started accompanying Hemin.  We are in close contact and will report on any changes in the situation.)