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