photo: Eddy van Wessel

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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Grab the vision, don’t let returnees leave again



Back to Canada, to Holland, to Britain. Many of my Kurdish friends who a couple of years ago left their new lives elsewhere to help the Kurdistan Region of Iraq towards a better future, now plan to use their double nationalities and return to what had before become home.

Some are bitter, most are disappointed. They had left behind careers, homes and friends because they felt they should play a role in rebuilding their fatherland. And many feel that if they had been allowed to use their experience and knowledge, things could have turned out quite differently. Then the present economic and political crisis could possibly have been prevented.

Many returnees to the Kurdistan Region have met distrust, and were not allowed to take up the positions that would have fitted their education and experience. And even if they did, their opinions would often not be heard.

Because the very knowledge and experience they wanted to offer their country, was considered a threat by locally educated Kurds, who as they could not compete decideded to block these competitors. And the politicians let them, because they needed to reward the locals to tie them to their parties.

Returnees were often seen as too critical, as in the cultural ways of the region, compliments are expected even when criticism really is due.

The present crisis is partly a result of this policy. Experts who talk about what caused it, name a number of things, and amongst them are nepotism and the lack of vision.

I know of western ministers who employ advisors to read books for them and brief them on the content, so they can get as much information from different places as possible to help them make well based decisions. 

When this is suggested to politicians in the Middle East, the general reaction is: do you think I don’t read books? But they do not realise they can never read all the books that are useful to shape a vision, nor all the background articles on line needed.

Caused mainly by nepotism and the need to buy votes, the Kurdistan region pays 1,4 million people a monthly salary or allowance, of whom 700.000 work as civil servants. And those are said on average to effectively work a total of only 28 minutes a day. 

An economic expert made the sum that this means, that the Kurdish government really could make do with 50.000 civil servants on a full time job.

It also means that often people were not employed for their capacities. Yet government jobs were popular because they came with a car, a piece of land, a pension. This led to people hanging on, instead of finding a job that would really suit them, as the private sector did not offer all those perks.

Whilst the economy was growing, nobody worried about it. Many civil servants had two jobs, and would just sit out their time in the government office before getting some real work done.

But now that war and low oil prices have changed it all, the truth about the government apparatus has been revealed. Because suddenly there is no money any more for all those people working just 28 minutes a day. And their second jobs have disappeared along with the investors and businessmen. 

This is the situation where returnees consider going back. No government income, no other jobs available and yet they have to pay their children’s schools fees – as the private schools offered their children the best education.

Yet the fact that they have learned to think ‘outside the box’ could be valuable, and the government would be well advised to listen to their opinion. Because vision does not come with the wind. It needs different opinions and analyses to be gathered and processed. It needs experiences from abroad to be compared to local ones. But it first and foremost needs an open mind to accept valuable influence from outside.

Returnees offer all that, plus their idealism to help their country to the best of their capacity. But very soon now, they will be gone. And they will not return, as they will not allow themselves to experience the same disappointment twice. Instead, they will put all their energy into building their future and that of their children outside Kurdistan.

It will be a tough decision for politicians, to choose between those who will vote for them, and those who will be able to make the country move out of recession and back into stability. I am not even talking about laying off people, but about getting the right man/woman on the right place to even help prevent too many lay-offs. But it should not be so tough. Not if they really care about the future of their voters.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Start rebuilding Shingal to keep more Yezidis from leaving

Some shops have opened in Shingal, the Yezidi-town recaptured two months ago from the Islamic group ISIS who occupied it for a year and a half. The local telephone tower has been re-equipped, after having been taken out of use as part of ISIS’ no-connection policy. Water tankers drive on and off to bring water to soldiers and shopkeepers, and generators hum to provide electricity.

But the rubble still lies where it was when Peshmerga troops liberated the town in November. Even the collapsed Manara, a historical monument that was part of the face of the town, has been left untouched. As have the roads, of which many are blocked by the effects of the bombing campaigns that eventually led to ISIS fleeing the town.

Some of the enormous tunnel network under the town still has not been discovered. The same goes for some explosives and booby-traps ISIS left behind. And most importantly, ISIS still is out there, only at about 10 kilometres from the town.

Yet the Kurdish mayor of Shingal, Mahma Khalil, states that civilians will return as soon as the most important services have been restored. Give them water and electricity, and they will come back, is his message.


Read more here

Friday, January 22, 2016

The men’s right over women

The news of the sexual abuse in Cologne, Germany during New Year’s Eve reverberated across the West. Over 350 women have filed complaints with the police.

As someone living partly in the Kurdistan Region and partly in the West, I am touched by the way the incident is creating waves that have results for asylum seekers who recently came to Europe: borders are closing and single men are less welcome.

But it also affects those who already are living in Europe; in Germany some swimming pools will no longer accept single men.

Voice from the extreme right claiming that allowing Middle Eastern men in will lead to a rise in sexual violence, have become even louder. Now this can no longer be brushed aside as racist.

I am reminded of incidents we hear of in the region where some of the perpetrators originate: about taxi drivers who abuse women after they step in their cars in their own, and men who grope women in shopping centres and bars.

Read more here

Sunday, January 10, 2016

End the crisis: Kurds must help Kurds

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has started the New Year in a somber mood. To overcome, it needs the help and initiatives of all its citizens.

After four months without salary, many Kurds are desperate. Civil servants did not get their salaries, because the government does not have money due to the low price of oil, the continuing disputes with Baghdad and the consequent budget cut, on top of the costs of the war against the Islamic State (ISIS).

First the lower classes were hit, especially those civil servants who do not have a second job. But as people are tightening their belts, additional income from other sources such as owning a taxi, have decreased as well.

The Kurdish middle class is now also feeling the effect. Doctors, engineers and others working for the government on a higher wage, have hit the end of their reserves too. And with most of those around them not getting paid either, it has become harder to even find loans to tide things over.

Read the rest here

Saturday, January 9, 2016

No democracy without functioning parliament


The Kurdistan Region of Iraq presently has a parliament with not one, but two speakers. In some situations, this might be acceptable, for instance if they would share the presidency of the parliament, but in the reality of Kurdistan it shows that democracy has reached a stalemate.

Since October 12, 2015, the chosen chairman, Yusuf Mohammed, is no longer welcome in the capital of the region, Erbil, where the parliament is based. He is member of the second largest political party in the Kurdistan Region, Gorran or the Change-party.

His banning is the result of a political fight over the extension of the term of Kurdistan’s president Massoud Barzani, who ended his final official term in August without an agreement between the parties about his future. Constitutionally, the speaker of the Parliament then temporarily should have taken over, until a new president was elected. 

Instead, Barzani stayed on, creating a conflict with his supposed temporary successor plus his party, which turned violent when protests – also about the lack of salaries for civil servants - got out of hand.

All Goran MP’s were then evicted from Erbil, or were stopped entering, as were its ministers, who were part of a unity government lead by Barzani’s nephew Nechirwan Barzani. Three months later, they still have not returned to their posts, and their colleagues from other parties are still taking care of their ministries next to their own.

The speaker since has tried to do his job from his office in Sulaimani. He signed his last official document six days after he was prevented from returning to Erbil, on October 18, which was accepted by the parliament. And even though he still receives guests and delegations in his Sulaimani office, his documents have no longer been accepted into the parliamentary system.

His deputy, the senior KDP-member Jaafar Emniki, is now taking care of business in Erbil. Both the speaker and his deputy run their own websites, releasing different versions of the news.

When the internet site Niqash talked to MP’s of KDP, it was told that the parliament is functioning, apart from the ‘former’ speaker, who ‘had to leave his job as he could not act in an independent way’. The only unusual thing is at the parliament is not holding sessions, they claimed.

Yet the remaining MP’s may be going to parliament regularly, but they too cannot do their job, as the 23 parliament committees cannot hold their weekly meetings for lack of members and a quorum.

A parliament that is not discussing issues and voting on documents and laws, whose committees are not doing their work either, is a parliament that is not functioning. That means that the democratic system that it is part of, is not functioning either, because the parliament is chosen by the people to make sure the government is really working on their behalf.

The last time the Kurdish parliament suspended its work was during the civil war of the nineties. The present situation could bring us back to the time when two separate administrations and their parliaments were functioning in the Kurdistan Region, one in Erbil and one in Sulaimani.

Then, the conflict was between the two main parties, KDP and PUK, who both had their own territories. While now Gorran has taken over the former role of PUK, again a virtual wall has risen between Erbil and Sulaimani.

Not only is the parliament not functioning that melted the different territories into one Kurdish entity, these are once again following their own policy. Checkpoints, that were mixed before, are again one-party operations, and those who travel with permits or papers from the one area may have problems traveling in the other.

At the same time, the president has called to prepare a referendum about Kurdish independence from Baghdad. Which makes you wonder: does he intend this as a method to bring together again all Iraqi Kurds, or will the independence only cover the areas where his party is ruling?

The conflict between the parties is a major setback at a time the Kurds have plenty of enemies outside that should force them to unite. Instead, the young democracy has reached a stalemate. The longer this situation persists, the more difficult it will be to get it back on track, with politicians shouting at each other instead of talking to solve the problems, and civilians distrustful of their intentions and the reasons behind them.

The Kurds of Iraq were giving an example to their brothers in other Kurdish regions. They owe it not only to themselves, but also to others who may look at them for guidance, to end the strife – and as a first step get the parliament back in function again. That is the first demand for a government to be able to call itself democratic.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Making space for Jews again in Kurdistan



Baghdad and Tehran don’t like it, and neither do some radical imams. But generally, Kurds are happy with the new Jewish representative in their Ministry of Religion.

Sherzad Omer Mamsani (39) was appointed to lead one of the seven new directorates for minority religions in Kurdistan, set up as a result of a law adopted in the Kurdistan Parliament in May. Next to the Jews, the Yezidis, Sabai, Mandaeans, Baha’i and Zoroaster have their own directorate.

It is not a political post, Mamsani stresses, during an interview in the Kurdistan capital Erbil. In this city he grew up as a so called Benjew – Kurdish for someone with Jewish roots  – and he even still speaks some of the old Aramean language of the Jews of Kurdistan. 

Mamsani will work from his government position for all Jewish Kurds, both in Kurdistan and in Israel. In Kurdistan some hundreds of families still hold on to their Jewish roots, mostly living in anonymity.

Most of the around 150.000 Iraqi Jews left the country after the forming of the State of Israel at the start of the 50s. Those who stayed either converted to Islam, or left in the 70s, when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein targeted the remaining Jewish community.

For many Moslem Kurds their Jewish ancestry is a well-guarded family secret in the mainly Islamic society. That is what Mansani wants to work on: “We will help those Kurds who want to find out about their Jewish roots and work with the government to reunite families.”

Next to these Benjew families, he mentions some 400 families who had gone to Israel but returned to Kurdistan, partly because they did not want their women to serve in the Israeli army.

An important task on his desk is the reconstruction and building of synagogues. Only a few ruins are left. “We want one in every town; a meeting place for the people. But only after the war, as now there is no money.”

Another issue to be solved involves the property Kurdish Jews who left in the fifties had to leave behind. Many houses, grounds and businesses have been taken over since, but in Erbil most of the houses in the former Jewish quarters still are owned by their original Jewish owners.

The new director of Kurdish Jew Affairs is himself a symbol of the anti-Jewish sentiments that have long festered amongst Kurds, fed by their Arab rulers and Islam. When in 1997, during the Kurdish civil war, Mamsani published a book about the relation between the Kurds and Israel, radical Moslems became enraged. That led to an attack in which he lost his right hand.

Still he did not give up his ideals. He has long been active to improve the ties between Kurds and Israelis, for instance by publishing the ‘Israel Kurd’-magazine and by leading a nongovernmental organisation under the same name. His appointment resulted from his own request to the Kurdistan government for an official bureau, to be able to better work for the cause.

“Those behind the attack on me are now probably with daesh,” he says, using the local acronym for the Islamic terror group ISIS. He thinks that the atmosphere in Kurdistan towards Jews has changed because of the war the Kurds now fight against ISIS, distancing many from radical Islam.

He stresses that his position is purely humanitarian. “We Jews have been friends for ages with Moslems and Christians in Kurdistan. We want to explore how we can work together. And since Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, the relation between Kurds and Israel have been stopped.”

Reactions have been mainly positive, he claims. “Not everybody is happy, of course, but last Friday the mullahs in the mosques just preached about us all being one big family.” 

Yet he does mention a negative reaction he received on Facebook, saying: “If anyone thinks he can do this job better, I am happy to leave. But through my work I will show who I am.”

Negative reactions also came from the Iraqi government in Baghdad, that is not happy with the move but cannot do much against it, as the creation of these posts is within the rights of a federal state in Iraq.

The Iranian consul even visited the Ministry of Religion to complain about the new representatives both for Jews and Baha’i, as the latter are seen in Iran as unbelievers.

The appointment of Mamsani appears to be part of a development towards tighter relations between the Kurdistan Region and Israel, beyond the historical ties between the ruling Barzani-family and the Jewish state. Israeli leaders have openly shown support for the Kurdish struggle for an independent state, and according to press reports most of the oil Kurdistan exported this year has gone to Israel.