photo: Eddy van Wessel


Friday, August 24, 2012

Action pays!

Civil action does have results! That is the good news from Iraq. Protests against traffic signs have resulted in the signs being changed.

It might appear as a small matter, but for nation building it is not. Kurdish civilians in Kirkuk and the border regions of Iraqi Kurdistan protested against the fact that traffic signs were only in Arabic and English, and not in the Kurdish language of most of the people living in that area. The graffiti they used to show their feelings made the signs even unusable. Most of them were then removed.

That was over six months ago. I weekly drive the road between Sulaymaniya and Erbil, and I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this. English and Arabic, and Kurdish added on the bottom.

Yes! I said to my driver. It worked! Some signs were new, some adapted, but now all of the main road through the area near Kirkuk where Kurds are in the majority is covered by traffic signs that also read Kurdish.

My driver was so happy that he stopped for me to make the picture. Language is a political issue in this region, as the Kurds are in conflict with Baghdad over who is in charge in these disputed area's. And now at least the fact that the majority is Kurdish is mirrored in the traffic signs.

To make it more complicated; I do not know what happened in disputed areas where the Kurdish dialect is not the main one of the government, the Sorani. Did they use the Badini there?

Yet the matter is a bigger one. It shows that also in Iraq it pays to show your disapproval. The voice of the people is indeed heard. This is a step forward in the development of the democracy. And that is worth to be noticed.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Rebuilding after Anfal

The Anfal operation left many scars in Iraqi Kurdistan. Saddams operation to destroy the Kurdish villages and its habitants, and thus break the resistance of the fighters still has many effects, even though almost 25 years have passed since the end of it.

For those of my readers who do not know: during the seventies and the eighties thousands of villages were destroyed, in many cases chemical weapons were used and the inhabitants were driven out. Up to 180.000 people died, and only a few of those have been found in the mass graves in Southern Iraq. Women and children were relocated in collective towns.

Not long after Saddam was toppled in 2003, the rebuilding of the villages was started. Foreign aid organisations were asked to support a number of projects in order to turn back the clock. In some places the inhabitants returned and built new houses next to the ruins.

Not all villages were rebuilt, because not all the inhabitants were interested in returning. Some had got too used to the city life, some did not want to live far from hospitals and schools, some did not fancy the tough life of a farmer any more and for some the memories of what happened during Anfal were too painful to even consider going back to the scene of it.

And there are other reasons too, as I found when I visited the Barzan region and went to see the unfinished Bekhme Dam. In a village near the dam project I passed a group of new, modern and brightly coloured houses, clearly the result of a project to rebuild the village. But instead of a lively village with people and cattle, it was a ghost town. Although all the houses were completely finished - they even had curtains covering the windows - none of them was inhabited.

A woman from a nearby house that was built in a more traditional way, told me that indeed nobody was living in the houses. “A company came to build them in 2005, and after that nothing happened”, she summarized. Why? People simply did not like them.

The around hundred houses are built very near to each other, and they lack the garden and the wall around them that houses in Kurdish villages usually have. They were more fit for a town than for a village. Did they perhaps not fit in the mountain climate - too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter? Could it be that a company built them, without asking the villagers if the design fitted their needs? How much money is wasted, by building something that is not used? Does the foreign donor know this?

Yet who-ever made the planning for the village did try hard to accommodate villagers coming back from the towns. He gave them even a little health centre, so long trips to a hospital in a town will not be needed.

The village has another feature. It is split by a hill, which is topped by a mosque, that is visible a long way of, from the other side of the valley. But again, the mosque is not in use. It does not even carry the usual inscriptions about who it is dedicated to. The mosque was built by Saddam, the guards outside told us, in 1987, at the hight (height) of the Anfal operation. It was part of his campaign to Arabise (Arab-ize) the area. Now that Saddam is gone, no-one (no one) wants to use the mosque. The gate is looked (locked) with a chain and a padlock. The villagers are even building a small new one nearby.

Strangely enough, on the other side of the village some of the around (nearly) 40 new houses there are in use, even though they are built to the same design as the other ones. The satellite dishes on the roofs vouch for their habitation. Why did villagers agree to come and live here, and not on the other side of the hill? Perhaps because the original village was on this side? Yet in its place army barracks were built, in use by Saddams army for a number of years. Did his soldiers perhaps use the mosque?

Surely there is no connection to the dam project, that was stopped in 1991 after the Kurdish uprising. The project was very much opposed by the Barzani family, as it would have drowned their village and the whole Barzan area. The company that built the houses would not have done so, if anyone was still considering the possibility of the land being swallowed by water. Also, I have the impression the village is on a high enough level to be safe from the water.

I start to wonder what happened in other projects for Anfal villages. Were the villagers better informed, did the designers listen better to their needs? Was any research done if the villagers would indeed be returning, if they could be persuaded to leave their lives in the towns? How many projects are like the one in Bekhme? Or is the one in Bekhme unique? I invite anyone who knows, to leave a reaction below!

These reactions reached me from outside this blog:

Prem Naidu (GM Marketing at JRDC) wrote:

"Great work done it is long way to remove the scars of Kurdistan"

Ahmed Fouad (Radio Access Network Manager) wrote:

"I guess such operations were deeply effected those people whose their villages was destroyed without a reason, Hope to not repeat such things in the future and to let Iraq be under the control of the new world system politically and economically Thanks for your kind effort Cheers, Ahmed Fouad,"

Friday, August 10, 2012

Don't get ill in Iraq, revisited

The hospital wanted 5000 dollars. As a guaranty, just in case. Even though the staff of the private clinic in Erbil was not sure yet if their surgeon would be able to help the patient who had just cut off two of his fingers, the guaranty had to be paid.

I was witness of the frantic phone calls to get the money arranged. A young worker had been wounded during his work. Of course you want him to have the best treatment, but this is Iraq - where you should not get ill. ,,Will they be able to sew the fingers back on?'' I asked full of doubt. A couple of phone calls did nothing to take my doubt away: this operation that gets done in the West almost on a regular base, rarely is conducted in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Then the surgeon arrived at the hospital, and declared he could do the operation. He predicted a thirty percent chance of success. You do not want someone to spend the rest of his life without two main fingers, so of course, let's give it a try. A long operation started, which was interrupted late at night, around 11 PM, for a phone call. More money was to be delivered, otherwise the surgery would be stopped and the patient stitched up.

Is this about health, or about money? I cannot help but doubt, even though the outcome at the moment of writing is promising. The fingers are back on, the blood is flowing through them. The big question now is if the muscles will heal and if the nerves will grow back.

Healthcare should not be about money. It should be about caring for sick people. Yet in Iraq, it is booming business. Who will teach doctors and patients that not every illness needs a pill, that the body can look after itself in principle, and that all those antibiotics for sure will lead to immunity? That you are still a good doctor if you do not prescribe a bag full of medicine to your patients? That more expensive care does not have to mean better care - as the doctor is often the same, in the mornings at the government hospital, in the afternoon in his own clinic?

This picture (with thanks to Rudaw) shows a Kurdish child with heart disease that is operated on outside the country. Some foreign organisations pay for foreign doctors to come into Kurdistan and conduct operations, like this one: a heart operation for a child. But do local doctors learn from this and can they conduct these operations themselves afterwards?

As at the same time people flee outside the country for their healthcare. Like the mother of a friend of mine. She was all set for her spinal operation, but when she reported to the private hospital in Erbil for the operation, she was sent home again because she did not bring blood for her transfusion. While the doctor had said when the appointment for the operation was made that the hospital would provide that. She has decided she does not trust the doctors and wants to go to Iran for the operation.

My earlier weblog about this subject had an unexpected, indirect result. It made some people in the right places aware that something needs to be done soon. That all those new private hospitals and clinics are only taking people's money but not really adding anything to the level of the care. At a high level it was decided to send Kurdish medical doctors to Australia, to learn and work and return as more experienced and more knowledgeable medical practitioners.

While a contract was signed for that, the Ministry of Higher Education also contacted two universities in Britain, and as one of the advisers to the Minister reported on his Facebook page:

,,I have great news for our young medical doctors. We had a good discussion with Buckingham University (medical school), they will design specific Clinical MD program for HCDP funded doctors, Buckingham will give them FULL GMC registration with perfect hands on training, they will also provide 4 years ( specialty training) for our candidates as well). Buckingham University will also provide one year diploma training for Kurdistani Board students.''

So even though I am told that there might be some problems with the arrangement above (as Buckingham is a private university that does not seem to be able to offer what is mentioned here), at least something is done. The arrangement with some Australian universities holds a promise of some better qualified doctors, although it will take a couple of years until we see the result in the Kurdish hospitals. And in the mean time, how about the education at the medical faculties in Kurdistan? What is done to improve that? Or am I asking too much at the same time..?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Cherish the old stones

My neighbor pulled down his house and is now building something new. The house cannot have been more than twenty years old - at the most. Yet this is the habit in Iraq: old is bad, new is nice. For that reason, hardly anything old is left.

I come from a country where the old buildings are carefully preserved; tourists love the canals of Amsterdam for that reason, and the center of old towns like Zwolle, Edam, Volendam. Preservation is only possible if people see the sense of maintenance, of repairing what is broken. Yet the new riches in Iraqi Kurdistan want new things, and do not treasure the old. They need to show off that they can afford to buy and to build. And when they do, they often use cheap materials like concrete blocks and build houses that will look bad again in a couple of years.

Of course, this is an old and well-known phenomenon and definitely not unique for Iraq. The town of Zwolle that I mentioned before, only kept its beautiful old heart because of the poverty that swept over this once very prosperous trading town. Holland also had a boost of renewal - and yet at the same time people were protesting against it. When in the seventies the metro was built in Amsterdam and a historical but rather derelict neighborhood was to be demolished, protests soared. This was mostly because of the cheap housing that was getting lost, I must admit, but also because an authentical part of town was torn down.

Protests against demolition are not heard of in Kurdistan, and it is hard to get people to realize they should treasure their national heritage. I wrote before in this blog about Al Qosh, and the Jewish heritage getting lost there. I've been there since, taking people to see it, and I talked about it to (international) officials whom I hope can help. Recently the key-keeper of the ruins of the synagogue has died. And the bones of the prophet Nahum the Jews came to worship here up till the fifties when most of them left, have been transferred from the tomb in the ruins to a Assyrian Church nearby - as the Christians consider Nahum as a Saint.

The synagogue in Al Qosh still badly needs repairs. It does not have to be rebuilt, but something has to be done to keep what is left at least. Because it is part of Iraq's heritage. The plight of the Jews, who were very much part of the fabric of the society but left almost all within less than ten years, needs to be remembered and retold. The synagogue will be a landmark in this remembrance.

My present home town Sulaymaniya has lost most of its old Jewish quarters, although the area still is called the Julekan. And there are a few buildings in the town center that still tell you the story of the old town, where the only king the Kurds have had in the last century was from (the ringroad Malik Mahmoud is named after him). In Sulaymaniya's bazaar area there are still some houses from this era, but they are not well maintained and have been divided between a number of families living there.

Even worse is the faith of the heritage of Erbil. The oldest inhabited area in the Middle East, with a citadel that is being preserved with the help of Unesco, it is quickly loosing the rest of its antique buildings. When part of the centuries-old bazaar was pulled down, nobody protested. And the result is of course special; it gave the city the heart it needed, with the citadel as its center. Yet, all this was done without any real discussion about the value of what was being demolished.

And Erbil has an even bigger problem than Sulaymaniya with the preservation of its heritage. Around the citadel, old houses are crumbling. You can see from the way they are built - red brick stone and nice designs - that they must be at least fifty years and perhaps even a century old. Yet they are falling down, are being used for storage, turned into rubbish dump and are pulled down to make space for car parks. And as some of these derelict places are used by addicts to take their shots, I can predict the future: this area will also end up under the bulldozer.

Already now, the local government has been putting up new, but seemingly old walls all around the city center to hide the old and derelict places. And by hiding them, they have ceased to exist.

The last pictures I am showing here were made by my colleague Ako Kaleri, and can be found on this special place. He worries about this national heritage like I do. Because we both know, that countries need their history and they need their heritage. Only if you know where you come from, what your roots are, you can be a full person, and a complete nation.

For this reason I join Ako in the request to our Kurdish politicians and decision makers. Respect your national heritage. Keep it, cherish it. Not only is there no future without a past, it will also bring you income. From tourism, and eventually also from housing prizes. Bring the old houses back to life, with new and modern insides in the old, repaired walls, and people will want to buy them. I have seen this happen in Amsterdam, in Edam, in Beirut, in Batroon, in Damascus even. Old eventually becomes attractive again.

My dear Kurdish politician friends: please look after your past. You only get one. You need it to educate your youth to cherish what is valuable, instead of always wanting something new. Because the day will come, that new generations will be asking the question of who was responsible for pulling down their heritage. Don't let it get that far, please.

This comment reached me from outside the blog:

Azad Shekhany (Dean of the college-university at Sulaimany Technical College) wrote:
this is true Judit in Iraq as well as in Kurdistan and almost in all oil-rich Arab countries. the old objects are considered something of the past that should be 'eliminated'. But when all the precious things of the past will be totally eliminated then these countries will wake up and realize who much ridiculous and senseless are 'modern' houses. Like in Europe until 50 years ago people were astonished by modernism trend, then fortunately they realized they were wrong, and started to rehabilitate the architectural heritage. So it needs time for them to understand, but when they start to understand the value of the old houses, then it will be too late.