photo: Eddy van Wessel


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Make roads safer

Speed bumps on a highway? Really? How dangerous! 

My friends in the West are shocked when I tell them about some of the issues of driving in Kurdistan. And speed bumps are one of them. 

I recently drove to Khanaqin, and got very annoyed by the amount of speed bumps on the way. Only every now and again there would actually be some warning: a sign perhaps, or some orange pylons. Sometimes I was lucky enough to be driving behind someone who knows the road.

I know a Dutch producer of the bumps, who is specialized in road safety. He sells in Kurdistan, but I wonder if they follow all his advice. Because what are speed bumps for? To slow down the traffic. Definitely they are not meant to damage cars, to create dangerous situations or to annoy drivers – yet that is what they mostly do in Kurdistan because of the lack of proper warning signs.

In Europe speed breakers are mainly used in those parts of the towns where children play outside. But they are always very well announced. They are not popular with drivers there either, but people accept them for their effect: they make part of the road safer.

Speed bumps in Kurdistan hardly get drivers to slow down. People try to avoid them, swerve out or just brake at the last moment and then speed away again. To get Kurdish drivers to change their habits, the speed breakers have to be part of a system of warnings, and drivers need to be told why they have to slow down. So quite some way before the bump, a sign should be warning for it, and giving a maximum speed. The signs that follow mention an ever lower speed, until the bump is passed.

Highways are not a place for speed bumps. For traffic to slow down there, different measures are needed. Highways are made for the traffic to be able to move on, and any obstacle can be dangerous. Lower the maximum speed allowed – and explain why. And fine those who do not abide by the rules – that is a more accepted way.

Like many problems in Kurdistan, this one has a lot to do with a lack of communication and proper education. Drivers must understand first that a speed bump is coming up, and then where and why.

Politicians and planners should look at the situations and analyze every one of them. Sometimes the bumps will have to go, in other situations they have to be adapted. Then the driver needs to get an explanation why he has to reduce speed. And finally: police has to be involved, to fine those that do not abide by the rules. 

Up to safer roads!

This column was published in Kurdish in the daily Kurdistani Nwe

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The body is no machine

I had a cold. Runny nose, runny eyes, a slight cough. Nothing special. 

“Let’s go to the hospital, you need medicine”, Kurdish friends said. for a cold? We in Holland say: curing a cold takes seven days with, and a week without medicine. A cold is one of those things you cannot cure with pills or antibiotics. Lots of vitamin C and fluids, some paracetamol and lots of sleep. You can ease the runny nose with nose drops from the pharmacy, and the cough with an ordinary cough mixture. 

Yet in Kurdistan, people are convinced that when you do not feel well, a visit to the doctor and a pill will solve that. There is a complete different idea of ailments and cures than in most parts of the West. Here you go to a doctor and expect to leave with an injection, or a bag full of medicine.

In the five years I have lived here, I have not visited a doctor once, and I hope to keep it this way. Because most of the simple ailments do not need a doctors’ advice. An upset stomach? Then I just do a diet of tea and toast. Is my headache not leaving me – perhaps I am working too hard? Did the sun burn my skin? I will look after it with some soothing cream.

I learned this from the doctors at home, who refuse to give medicine unless it is really needed. Not to pester their patients, but to prevent them from getting addicted. And even more importantly, if you are taking antibiotics the whole time, it will not work anymore when it is really needed. As a result of the misuse of medicine, some strains of bacteria are no longer sensitive to antibiotics.

It is not only Kurdish doctors that are to blame. They react to their patients, who demand medicine. But I do blame the doctors, who do not get together to try and find a way to educate their patients.

Now Kurdish patients shop around for their health care. So every doctor starts from the beginning, without the patient’s files and medical history to work with. Doctors should send those patients away: bring me your medical file! Now patients say: this medicine is not working, I am going to another doctor. Yet they should understand that the doctor is not a magician. Medicines work differently with different people, and the doctor needs to see how the patient reacts and can then amend the medication.

What we need in Kurdistan, first of all, is good information. Good education about illnesses and cures. We need doctors working with patient files. And patients realizing that their body is not a machine that just needs a bit of oil to run well again.

This column can be read in Kurdish in Kurdistani Nwe, via this link

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Reconciliation needed

To remember is not the same as to reconcile. This was the title of an article in my Dutch newspaper Trouw, at the time of the yearly remembrance of the end of the Second World War in the Netherlands. The discussion was whether victims who sided with the German aggressor should be allowed to take part in the ceremonies.

The country was split over the issue. Many did not want the former enemy to be present; others said it was a good way of reconciliation. But the National Committee that yearly organizes the remembrance activities said that they are not meant for the perpetrators. 

“Reconciliation and remembrance are two different things. Reconciliation is a one-time thing. When that has been done, there is no reason to repeat it.” And it has been done, years ago.

I was reminded of this, when I heard about a play that had been designed for Kurdish children of around 5 years of age in Erbil. The play should teach them about what happened in Halabja, 25 years ago, when Saddam gassed the city and killed some 5,000 civilians.

The little kids were told to lie down as if they were dead – victims of the gas attack. This confused and frightened them badly. They had no capacity of understanding the tragedy they are acting out. What is dead? Who did it? Why? Why does gas kill people? they asked.

Why scare children at this young age with the violence of the past? And even worse: why instill the hatred against Saddam and the Arabs in general in this young generation? 

The yearly remembrance of Halabja in March is the right moment for looking back. It is good to teach children in school about the violent past – mainly to help prevent this from happening again. But teachers and authorities should be careful, not to make it seem Kurds are the for-ever victims who need to revenge. The message should be that they survived. “What does not kill you makes you stronger” is a saying (and a pop song) that is very fitting for the Kurdish history.

Reconciliation should be part of this process; survivors prove they are strong enough to forgive. Have Kurds and Arabs ever publicly come together about Halabja, about Anfal, about the years of persecution – showed regret and forgiveness and declared it history, something to be deplored and never to be repeated? Or did I miss something?

It’s been done in South Africa and Rwanda. You only need to do it once. Reconciliation means: bury the burden, bury the hatred, bury the victims but do not bury the memory. Remember, to never forget nor repeat. But it needs to be done.

This blog has been published as a column in Kurdish in Kurdistani Nwe newspaper

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Neat lines are faster

“Hello! Can you join the back of the queue?”

The American lady addressing me looks frustrated. The line for transit passengers at Istanbul Airport is long, and I just tried to join it at my nearest entry point. 

Reluctantly – how very American to make such an issue out of nothing and in such an impolite way! – I move to the back of the queue. And there it hits me: how very Iraqi I have become in my five years in Kurdistan!

Before, I would never have thought of jumping a queue. We have lines everywhere, in busy Europe. For the ATM to get cash, for the fresh bread in the bakery, for the cashier in the supermarket, for the machine that sells train tickets, for the bus. For the museum, for the football stadium, a concert, etcetera etcetera.  When you arrive, you join the end of the queue, or come back when the line is smaller. As simple as that.

The only ways to jump the queue is in case of emergency, or when you buy only one product. And always after asking nicely. The queue at the airport would have been jump-able too, if I had little time to catch my connecting flight. Then people would have agreed on letting me go first.

In Kurdistan queues are never neat. Using this disorder, people move to the front. It depends on how you do it – smiling, using charm or female attraction, using seniority or position – but it is very possible to get served before your turn. As everybody does it, so do I. Why wait longer than needed?

In Europe, in some shops we have numbers to regulate the process. Then you could even leave the line to run another errand and come back before your number is called.

The worst mess are Kurdish lines at the traffic lights. That starts on the way there; drivers jump lanes, overtaking on both sides, in a rush to be there first. At the traffic light, suddenly the three lanes have become four or even five, with cars moving into the smallest of spaces. The same happens at the checkpoints.

Kurdish drivers think they will be the first by moving themselves in between cars and lanes. But they create chaos. At the end, the space is too small for all these cars to move at the same time. And then there is a fight who will go first. I have seen queues take hours to dissolve, because nobody could move backwards nor forwards anymore.

Neat lines work the fastest. Perhaps I must quit my Iraqi habit, and join the queue at the end again.
This column was published in Kurdish in the newspaper Kurdistani Nwe