photo: Eddy van Wessel


Friday, November 23, 2012

The fear underneath

The threat is always there, here in Iraqi Kurdistan. The threat of violence and war, struggle and strife. Yet some times it is more apparent than usually. Then people take their savings from the bank, the check points work more strictly, the media talk about hardly anything else anymore and politicians are out of reach because they are too busy solving the issue.

That is what is happening at the moment, with the tension that has grown over the Dijla Force, the military operation started by the Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki in three provinces that border the Kurdistan Region. This covers also the so-called disputed areas, which Kurds feel should be part of their region, like Kirkuk, Mahmour, Khanaqin.

This issue of the disputed areas was supposed to have been solved under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. A census and a referendum should have taken place long ago to decide who is in charge in those areas. In the mean time, the Kurds have gained the administrative power and are guarding the safety, making the disputed areas a relatively safe place to be.

Yet while the Iraqi president (and Kurdish leader) Talabani was in Germany for medical treatment, and against his earlier requests not to, Al-Maliki has created an Operation Command in Kirkuk, to 'fill the gaps in the safety'  between the local police and the Kurdish security forces, so he says.

The Dijla (Tigris) Force has enraged and frightened the Kurds, who still remember well how their people were treated by Saddam's army in the eighties and nineties. I saw the Iraqi army move around in their vehicles in the areas just outside of the KRG, and I do not have problems imagining that this creates fear. At the same time it should be noted that Al-Maliki has the right to send troops to those areas, as they are officially still with the Baghdad government. But the Iraqi PM knew he was treading on dangerous soil.

It is the memory of what happened and the fear that it will again, that has made the Kurds hang on to their own fighters, the Peshmerga, even though the force was supposed to have become part of the Iraqi army. They have learned not to trust Baghdad, and even though now the Kurds have their own federate state inside Iraq and have seats in the federal parliament and ministers in its government, the trust still is minimal and easily lost. So it was the Peshmerga that was called in to counter the Iraqi army; facing it in the disputed areas to make sure it does not cross the borders into areas under Kurdish rule.

The media in Kurdistan are playing an important role in this sentiment. They report on hardly anything else, quote politicians calling it a dangerous development, and create an atmosphere of crisis. And suddenly the normal life sort of stops in Kurdistan. I heard of people who took their money out of the bank, fearing they could not if the war started. I try to have appointments with politicians but am told they are too busy with this issue. And the media show me, meeting after meeting, of politicians who discuss and then come out with a statement against the Dijla Force. Taxi drivers and others talk of the threat of war.

The only positive thing that has come out so far, is that the Kurdistan Parliament has found a consensus on the subject. Politicians in this country behave often as if they are each others' worse enemies, but considering the Dijla Force the parliament came out with a unanimous condemnation, uniting for once both the government and the opposition.

After a deadly incident happened involving Iraqi soldiers and police and civilians, the Kurds also had the ear of the Americans. Vice-president Biden chose an Arabic magazine to speak out against the force, and threatened to put the disputed areas under American military rule if the issue is not solved.

Since then, Al-Maliki has offered to put the force under a joint command, and he promised to send his vice-PM to Kurdistan to discuss the matter. That should have released some tension. Yet for civilians, nothing has changed. Is it safe to buy a new car? Why clean up the outside of your house if it could be war any moment? Why build a new house if it might get damaged by the military?

Those same people were saying very recently: let's buy a new car, and a new sitting room, and a bed room, because we do not know how much longer we will be able to enjoy our money in peace. I hardly know any place where there are so many car sales and so many furniture shops as in Iraqi Kurdistan. Consumption to ward off the fear, to hide the insecurity about the future.

Will we keep our own Kurdish state? Will the tensions with Baghdad lead to fighting? Will the fighting from Syria spill over? Will the animosity between the Kurdish politicians again lead to war, like in the nineties? Questions in the back of the minds of many people in Kurdistan. It only takes some movements and words of politicians to bring it out again.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Kurdistan has stamps, so it exists

On my desk are two stamps. One for Kurdistan, one for Iraq. What is so special about them? Well - many things. First of all, the fact that they are on my desk.

In the beginning of my stay in Iraqi Kurdistan, one morning post from Holland landed on my desk. To my big surprise, because I did not think Iraq had a working postal service. The envelop contained an invitation, of which the date already had past some time ago. When I took a good look at the envelop, I found it had been posted about a month earlier, the address had been translated into Arabic and it had been stamped by Iraqi post.

Since then, occasionally a man with a clipboard would come into the office delivering post that had been sent from Europe, making us sign for the delivery. And without exception these letters would have been posted about a month earlier.

I assumed the postal system was working only in one direction - into Iraq. But then a traveler from the Netherlands took it upon himself to find Iraqi stamps. And in this search he also found a post office in Sulayamniya, that was also sending mail. How to send mail from outside the post office remained unclear, as there are no postboxes on the streets.

Not very journalistically I had assumed that the postal system was not working, as in this day and age of internet Iraq had made the same jump forward that it also has in other fields. For instance: no cable internet here - when I arrived first in 2003 I found that most internet was based on a satellite connection. When it snowed in Germany, we would have no internet in Iraqi Kurdistan - but after opening up in 2003 the area went straight for the newer solutions on the market for internet. Wireless was also normal, where in many countries you still had to hook up the computer with a wire to the network.

Yet I now realize my reasoning was not too solid, as until recently many Iraqi's hardly had an email address or hardly took the time to see what was sent to them that way. Only since the protests of 2011 Facebook has got a big following in Iraq - and mainly amongst the young.

Another reason to not really take any notice of the postal system was the fact that there are many alternatives to send post to and from Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdish companies in the Netherlands, Germany and Great Britain have for years been sending goods to and from Kurdistan, for an euro per kilo. And since a couple of years also international transporters like DHL are active in Kurdistan.

This alternative system is also working on the transfer of money. In the beginning (2008 mainly) I had to get money transferred from Europe by person by plane, or by Western Union.That system still works, but  now the Iraqi and Kurdish banks also transfer money from outside the country. They are expensive, as banks in this country charge for everything - some of them even for keeping money on your account without moving it.

Next to the banks there is another, informal system. Bring the amount of money you want to transfer to a special office in the Netherlands, and without the money actually being transferred, even the same day you can collect the same amount from an office in Kurdistan.

Back to the stamps. How cheap they are: 250 and 500 dinar, which is not even 25 and 50 dollars cents. Who would be able to send mail for such a small an amount in the West?

What is  really special is that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has its own stamps. And that they are sold next to the Iraqi ones. For all those that say or write to me: Kurdistan does not exist, now you see it does. Look at the side of this stamp. The proof is in the eating of the pudding: Kurdistan has its own stamps, so it exists. And so does postal service in Iraq. I apologize to all I have been informing incorrectly. But please do not send me any mail that way. It takes too long to reach me...

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Come, but don't stay

,,Your government wants to keep us out. That is the only reason why you are organizing this briefing.'' We are in the final stages of a workshop for journalists in Duhok, about the 'Economics of (illegal) immigration', when one of the participants, who is eager to leave, verbally lashes out. It seems all the information offered during the day is lost on him.

For months, I've been trying with my team to brief journalists about the sometimes dramatic results of illegal immigration. Because even though Iraqi Kurdistan is booming, young people still pay as much as 20.000 dollars to a human smuggler or a Schengen visa to get into Europe. Why? Because many Kurds who emigrated make it seem like the West is the paradise, the place to be. But if you look at realities, it often is far more attractive for young Kurds to stay in their own country.

For one, salaries are now as high in Kurdistan as in the West, and the oil money flowing in allows the Iraqi government not to tax those salaries. So for many people the economic situation now is as good here as in the West, or even better. Even the jobs they may find are better, as many Kurds are on the lowest ranks of the job ladder in the West, washing dishes, cleaning, and working on the roads.

The 20.000 dollars spent on a Schengen visa and a smuggler also have to come from somewhere. Families borrow it, and then are left with a big amount of money to repay to lenders demanding a fast return. In the past, it has landed relatively rich families in poverty; as the breadwinner that went to Europe is not allowed to work there while his asylum application is being processed and cannot send money home. And with most asylum seekers from Iraqi Kurdistan now being denied asylum, there is no way the money can be paid back from an income earned in the West.

And the 20.000 dollars will buy you a taxi in Kurdistan, which is a very good source of income in a country  without public transport. The money would help towards the building of a house, as most people want to own their home. It can be used in many positive ways to improve the life of an entire  family, while when it is used to get to Europe the chances are huge that it is lost because the person is send back.

Those that do find ways to stay - which is getting more and more difficult and often means an illegal stay - have to do work they would never want to do in their own country. Do they realize this when they set off? Probably not, as the Kurds they know have told them they had no problem in finding a management job - when in reality they are washing dishes. It seems a waste of time for those that are talented.

At the same time, the loss of young, educated Kurds going to the West also means a brain drain for Iraqi Kurdistan. Why educate the youth if they leave and use the knowledge elsewhere? It is a loss of money and energy. But what does the government do to keep her talented youth in the country? Is there a policy?

The project to help young Kurdish graduates to conduct a masters study in the West therefore is a good start. In that way, young people get the chance to see the realities over there, and at the same time gather knowledge that is useful for their future and that of their country.

I think that one of the reasons why young people keep sneaking to the West, is the fact that the gates are closed. It is very hard to get a visa, which makes it even more attractive - like everything that is forbidden. If they would be able to travel to Europe for a holiday, take a good look and come back again, I am pretty sure the human trafickers would soon be out of work here.

But this is a circle: because young people try to sneak in, the European governments make the visa regulations as tight as possible, and because of the closed doors people do sneak in...

Young Kurds also want to travel the world, just like I have done with my Dutch passport and many others in Europe with me. They want to see all those places they know from TV. They want that so much, that they will get themselves smuggled in, go through a horrible procedure and wait for years in a bad situation until they get the passport that makes it possible to travel the world. And then they return to their home country - I see them return, one after the other, and especially now the recession has made the situation even more difficult in Europe. But when they return, they have the passport that opens the doors of the world for them, so they can leave again, if the situation in Iraq changes again.

When you talk to young Kurds about the reasons behind their urge to leave, they often mention the strong social control in Kurdistan. It is partly about sex and the possibility to have it outside marriage, but not only. It is also about the way family members are in charge of each other's lives, preventing people from doing what they want or pressuring them into doing something they do not want - like a marriage to a person they hardly know.

So as far as I can see, there are a few things that can stimulate young Iraqi's to not come to Europe. Information about the hardships and the results for their families left behind, is one. Master studies in Europe, is two. And easier visa regulations that allow them to travel the world, is a very important third one.

Perhaps the angry journalist in that briefing in Duhok was partly right. Our governments do want to keep the Kurds out - as asylum seekers and economical refugees. But if they just want to take a look, and return after that without wanting to make use of the social system in Europe (the main worry of many, not only right wing voters in Europe), they are welcome. Come and see - but don't stay. And if you do want to stay, don't come.