photo: Eddy van Wessel


Sunday, March 25, 2012

When Assad goes, we'll be back

Every spring a new year starts - even though most of the world celebrates the start of a year at January 1, it is far more logical and traditional to do it when the winter gives way to spring. As the Kurds and Iranians do at Newroz, on March 21.

This year, as I am out of Iraq for a while, I was surprised to see that Kurds even celebrate their New Year in Beirut. On an area near the sea at Raouche families gathered for speeches, songs, dancing and of course the picknick. Thousands of people came, draped with Kurdish flags and Kurdish music sounding from car stereo's. When I asked about it, I was told this happens every year, and that they 'are our Kurds' - Lebanese Kurds.

I like this sentiment, as it accepts immigrants as part of the community. But of course, before they became 'Lebanese' Kurds, they lived somewhere else, somewhere in a Kurdish town or village. As most of the Kurds I saw in Beirut seemed to speak Arabic, I expect they are mainly from Syria, and left there because of the hardship before the uprising and probably also after, as many young soldiers have deserted from the Syrian army in the past months.

For my newspapers Trouw and De Standaard I  recently visited some of the first young Kurdish men who sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. Because they could not stomach fighting their own people, as they told me, or because they did not want to join the Syrian army at a time there is no longer an end date for conscripts. Before it was a year and a half, now you do not know when you will finally be allowed to quit. Parents are even sending their sons out to make sure they stay out of reach of the Syrian army.

Some of the young men I found shared a house in the Kurdish capital Erbil, hoping for permission of the KRG to stay and work until things get better in Syria. They landed themselves in hardship: when I visited them the electricity failed once again, they had no more furniture then some mattresses to sleep on and the only income came from what their parents sent them. Nobody in Erbil was helping them.

Slightly better off were the youngsters I met outside Duhok. A large group of young Kurdish men were given sanctuary by their fellow countrymen: Kurds who left Syria after the riots in Khamishlo in 2004. After living in a camp near Semel for a long time, they were given land and houses, and they now have their own sort of small-Khamishlo outside Duhok. There the young men were living with the families; most of those hosted one or two.

Yet the camp that the original Syrian Kurdish group had vacated is also slowly filling up again - even though the situation there has not improved since it was emptied. The Kurdish authorities do not allow journalists to visit the camp, probably because they feel ashamed for the little they are offering these people who are seeking refuge.

Yet is cannot be too hard, as it is mainly single Kurdish young men fleeing the Syrian army who travelled to Iraq. Families are hardly choosing for Iraq, so it seems.
 Photo Yahya Ahmed
Iraq is one of the least popular countries for Syrian refugees. While thousands went to Turkey and Lebanon, only hundreds went to Iraq. Partly because of Iraq's image as a country of bomb attacks, violence and political strife, and also because the areas of unrest in Syria are nearer to Lebanon and Turkey than to Iraq. In this sense it is logical mainly Syrian Kurds choose for Iraqi Kurdistan: it is next door to their living areas.

The Newroz festivities in Beirut showed to me, that Lebanon also is a safe heaven for Kurds from Syria. Like in Iraqi Kurdistan, they can find refuge with fellow countrymen that made the trip before and have since settled in Lebanon. Chances are that the Kurdish community in Lebanon is growing because of this influx, and will continue so, as long as the unrest in Syria continues.

For Lebanon, this influx is of course just part of a much bigger group of Syrians that crosses the border. People who look for safety, away from the violence at home. Yet these refugees do not get much attention of the world, as they are a by-product of a struggle the world does not know how to deal with.

As a result, the world also does not know how to deal with these refugees. It is known, that when you open a refugee camp, it will fill up, as it attracts people. But opening or not opening - people need help. They do not want to stay, they just want to be safe. All of the guys I spoke to in Iraqi Kurdistan, said they wanted to be back home at the first possible instance: ; 'When Assad goes, we'll be back the next day.'

Politicians wonder if Assad is staying, or going. And just in case he is staying, what is political wisdom? In Iraqi Kurdistan, president Barzani showed the dilemma when he spoke to Syrian Kurdish resistance groups gathered in Erbil and promised them his support. In the same speech, he did not at any time in any way support the call for Assad to leave. Syrian refugees have get caught in the middle of a very sensitive political situation, which for their sake should be over as soon as possible. But neither they, nor the politicians seem to have any real influence on that.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Give journalists their information!

Working as a journalist in Iraq is not at all simple. Getting information from government officials is often difficult. To shoot pictures or video outside is often stopped by police or army.

Government departments and ministries hardly have spokespersons, or PR sections that understand the needs of the media. For this reason, many reports in the Iraqi media have an anonymous source. Nobody in the government is allowed to talk to media but the highest responsibles, and they often do not want to.That civilians have a right to information, and that the press is the in between in this sense, is either not known or seen as undesirable. So journalists get their information from anonymous sources in the government.

This makes the journalistic rule that one source is no source a hard one to abide by. The search for a second dependable source is a hard one, if the authorities do not want to comment or speak on the record.

The Culture and Media Committee in the Iraqi Parliament understands the problem, and has demanded that government ministries must be more transparent and provide information to the media, instead of promoting the activities of officials. The committee has sent official letters to all the media offices in the ministries, in which 'the necessity of adopting new media rhetoric' by providing information that media outlets request has been stressed,  AKNews reports from the mouth of committee member Ali al-Shallah.

Currently, about twelve Iraqi ministries do not have spokespersons. Amongst them are the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Trade, Industry, Interior and National Security. The Ministers often do only speak to media of their own party, or to foreign media. Iraqi media from other parties or independent Iraqi media thus can only use those media as their source, or resort to an anonymous source.

It is good to see the parliament committee has understood that this is in conflict with the role media should play in a democracy. Shallah said to AK News: ,,The letter emphasizes that information must not be blocked from media organizations, even if they publish news that the media officials might think would harm their [officials'] activities.''

It was saddening to see the reaction of the Foreign Ministry after AK News reported that the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir could be arrested by the international police of if he attends the Arab summit in Baghdad on March 29. The Ministry accused the agency of 'fabricating [the] issue'. The statement from the ministry read: ,,We warn the agency of the consequences of continuing in this way, which is far from the honest Secretariat of press releases."

Yet it was good to see that the culture and media committee in the Iraqi Council of Representatives reaction calling on the Foreign Ministry to appoint a spokesperson after this statement. ,,The recent statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that targeted AKnews shows that those who wrote the statement did not realize that the situation in Iraq has changed, and that any problem can be solved by the judiciary.''

Part of this problem can be solved when spokespersons are contracted and trained to work in a professional way. This does not solve the problem that anyone with a camera is seen as a danger by police and security police in Iraq. Photographers get into problems whenever they are caught working by these officials. They are demanded to remove the pictures taken, or - worse, even to hand over their memory card.

In the past weeks I have been working with security police in Erbil and Sulaymaniya to talk about this problem - which is much smaller in Kurdistan than in Baghdad. Still, photographers will be stopped by police if they want to shoot a picture of a mosque at sunset. Some policemen are convinced this is how spies get their information, and how terrorists plan their attacks. It is hard to convince them that even a journalist is innocent until proven guilty.

Media in Iraq still have a long road to go in becoming professional - and so do authorities and police. The positive thing is, that many people at the higher levels in the society realise this. Let's hope they will make sure the necessary change is made.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Traffic signs as part of the struggle

Is it short sighted, or policy? Drivers on the road between Erbil and Kirkuk must have been wondering. Why are the new traffic signs in this predominantly Kurdish region only in Arabic and English?

The government in Baghdad decided that it was time for new signs. Drivers in Iraq need to know where to go, even though the roads often are in such bad need of repairs that you wonder if you really should use them. New traffic signs were made, and placed. Signs in Arabic and English. One language for the locals, the other for the visitors.

Those signs are probably quite okay in the predominantly Arabic regions. But not in big parts of Kirkuk province, where Kurds form the majority. Here, you would expect a third language: Kurdish, which according to the Iraqi constitution is one of the official languages of Iraq.

Even worse, Kurdish names are translated into Arabic. Erbil, or Hawler for the Kurdish, becomes Arbil.

At the same time, this region is one of the disputed territories, over which the Kurds and Baghdad fight. The Kurds feel Kirkuk and the surrounding Kurdish area are part of the Kurdistan Region KRG, Baghdad wants them to remain with her. Are the traffic signs perhaps part of this fight? Are they a statement of Baghdad?

That must be how local Kurds view them. Because suddenly an action group surfaced, painting over the Arabic on the signs, adding 'Speak Kurdish!' to make their message completely clear. Also in the city of Kirkuk, were Kurds now are the biggest group, the signs were targeted.

Although the graffiti is written in Kurdish, the message must have gotten to the right places. A few weeks after the signs appeared, some of them have disappeared again: those that were covered with graffiti.The rest stayed - all the way between Perdi, where the river Zab is supposed to be the border with KRG, and Chamchamal, again the border to KRG. As a sore thumb to all Kurds that use the road.

Yet this incident has two sides. The signs in most of Iraqi Kurdistan are also mainly in two languages: only in Kurdish and English - and only in some of the cities Arabic has been added.

The fight is fought at both sides. Traffic signs have become part of a political struggle. Perhaps the solution is to have signs all over Iraq in all three languages? Or would Iraqi's in Basra have a problem with that perhaps?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Doctors do try...

My blog about healthcare in Iraq attracted a lot of attention. Even though he did not mention my blog (which had been published in many places in Iraq), this is a reaction I will not keep from my readers.