photo: Eddy van Wessel


Friday, September 27, 2013

Silence for Syria?

Will we be safe in Iraqi Kurdistan when the Americans decide to bomb Syria? an expat in Erbil recently asked in a local Facebook group. The other members of the closed group told him not to worry. Kurdistan has good security at its borders, was their message.

I have been amazed by the silence in Kurdistan after civilians in the Syrian capital Damascus were hit by a chemical attack. I would have thought that the images reminded many people in Iraqi Kurdistan of 1988, the attack on Halabja, and if not, of attacks on some of the Anfal villages. If so, it has not shown.

In Europe people are following the news about Syria all the time. Political parties and activists have demanded action from their governments. The discussion has raged on what kind of a reaction is needed after chemical weapons were used against civilians.

For us in Europe, the horrors of World War I are our guide. After 1918 the West decided that never again chemical weapons should be used on the battle field, nor against civilians. That is why Westerners reacted so strongly to the attack in Damascus. Never again, we said. That means also: not in Syria in 2013, and certainly not against civilians.

In the eighties, at first the world turned a blind eye on the Iraqi chemical attacks as part of the Iran-Iraq war and of the Anfal operation against the Kurds. Only when the images of Halabja hit the TV screens, did the world protest.

Now images have hit the screens again and the world has been protesting, but the Kurds in Iraq were hardly present. All I am aware of is a demonstration in Halabja, and then everybody returned to the more important issue of the upcoming elections.

 In any election campaign in the West, candidates would make the use of nerve gas against civilians a subject for debate, to show their opinion and to propose action. But even in the election campaign in Kurdistan, Syria hardly played a role. Except for perhaps the refugee crisis, but that is local politics, as it is an internal problem to be solved where to house them.

Is it because the Syrians in Damascus are Arabic? Or because they might have had connections with the Syrian Baath party? Because somehow I know that my Kurdish friends would have been more emotional if the gas had been used against their brothers in Syrian Kurdistan…

I wondered where my Kurdish friends were, as it seemed to be the time to speak out. Exactly because they have been there. “It happened to us. This should not happen to anyone. Stop it, whoever did it. World, make them stop!”

This blog was published in Kurdish in the daily newspaper Kurdistani Nwe

Friday, September 20, 2013

Freedom to vote

What is the fun of waving a flag from a car window? Or dancing in front of the PUK headquarters in Salim Street in Sulaymaniya? Or driving up and down the street with the car stereo as loud as possible?

What is the use of all those thousands of flags waving their colours all through the city? Green next to blue, yellow, orange or brown and sometimes even wrapped up together by the wind?

Kurdistan is electing a new parliament, and that is all people want to think about. Every evening, hooting cars with people waving flags dominate the cities.

Europeans watch and try to understand. Our elections are so different. We have posters too, and flags and balloons. But they convey the message of the party: against more taxes, look after the environment, better healthcare, take care of the elders, hands off our social security.

Campaigns are meant to attract people, to convince them to vote for the party. Most people in the West vote because of the principles and ideas of the party. Every party has a program that has been agreed on by its members in a special session with the party leaders.

To inform potential voters about it, politicians talk to journalists and take part in debates on radio, TV and in halls all over the country. On Saturdays, when people go shopping, those politicians are in the shopping malls, markets and streets, to explain what change their party is going to make.

What a difference to Kurdistan, where campaigns are meant to show off the love for the party, the loyalty and the unity. How can the flags make people change their minds? They won’t and they don’t. In Kurdistan you are with a party because of your family, because of the past, of the job or the income, of the car, of the house, the financial support for the old and the sick…

In my world we call this buying votes, and it is strictly forbidden. Because in a democracy, politicians have to earn their votes, by their good governance, or lose them when they have failed. That is why we can see big changes after elections, as the results force parties to make new coalitions as to form a government. Which means change.

At the same time, in my country, the civil servants stay on. The administration is the factor of continuity. While governments change, they make sure promises are kept and long term policies are continued. Civil servants are neutral, their political colour is not public, again quite different from Kurdistan.

Kurdistan has an electoral system in between democracy and socialism. It needs to consider if this is what fits the country with its tribal heritage. But the main issue is, that it should be the people who decide in the polling booth. And the vote should be free. Free, and no strings attached. Even for those who wave the flags.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Caring is giving

The long rows of Kurds waiting to bring goods for their Syrian brothers were impressive. So were the piles of them at the schools in Kawargosh, where the army was collecting them. And when I saw the trucks in the refugee camps delivering these goods, I hoped the new owners realize what brought them here.

Giving is so different in Kurdistan than in my country. That has nothing to do with religion, or with whom you give to. The intent is the same: to help those that suffer. But in Kurdistan this is far more direct – from donor to receiver – than in the West.

Aid is an industry in the West, where many millions are received and spent every year. I used to donate regularly, to Amnesty International, to Oxfam, to Greenpeace. It was by automatic transfer from my bank account.

When emergency money was called for, the TV stations would organize an evening, and I would donate some too, for instance to the famine in Africa or the victims of the Iraq war. Again, just by transferring the money via internet and my bank account.

Giving is hardly personal in the West anymore. It has been made easy so many people will donate. But that has also taken away the beauty of the act of giving. And that is still very much alive in Kurdistan. Here when you give, you make an effort.

In Kurdistan just about all of what you give will be handed to the refugees. In the West, a part of the donation is used for the organisations administration and wages. That amount might be as high as ten percent.

There are a few private persons in Holland who work the Kurdish way. Trucks full of collected toys went to kids who fled their homes. But that is a very small niche in the aid industry. 

On the other hand, in the Kurdish way, not all donated goods are useful. I saw winter coats lying in the dust at Kawargosh Camp, discarded because of the temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius. Some matrasses were too dirty. 

Moreover, some necessary goods will not be donated. Who will bring a rechargeable fan or a water cooler? That still is left to the aid organizations. 

 In Kurdistan not only civilians come forward to help, the authorities do too. “I have not seen a government so active in helping the refugees as here”, the director of a visiting Dutch aid organization said to me. “Usually authorities just look on while the UN and aid organizations are helping.”

Kurdish troops are setting up tents and even cooking for the refugees. 

I am proud of my new country. Because care shows. That is the real gift.

This blog was published as a column in the Kurdish daily Kurdistani Nwe

Monday, September 9, 2013

My cat died

One of my Siamese cats died recently. Zina was almost eleven years old, and I got her as a kitten.Here is she is, on the right, with her younger friend Banu.
Zina's two final weeks were stressful and sad.

I know it is difficult to understand for many people in Kurdistan what that means. In my life pets are companions. They share my good and bad days, they share my highs and lows. Zina moved with me to Kurdistan, over five years ago.

In the last days of her life I felt guilty for bringing her here. She was born in a country where vets know how to treat sick animals, and the only vet I could find here did not even examine her, listen to her heart or breathing. He decided she had worms and gave her shots of antibiotics.

Sadly enough I only found a more caring and qualified colleague when it was already too late. At least he helped her to die peacefully.

Animals in my part of the world are treated completely different from Kurdistan. In Holland we even have a ‘Party for the Animals’, which cares for instance for the way chickens are housed and cows are transported, but also demands that animals are slaughtered painlessly.

Every time I drive behind a truck with sheep or cows in the back, I can almost hear the damning comments the Animal Party would have. Again, when I see the chickens at the roadside, held together by their legs or crammed in a small pen. Or when I see birds of prey being sold in a shop, and even a baby tiger.

Not only the party would be protesting, also the police would be busy. Because in my country there are laws to make sure animals do not suffer. There are regulations for the space a chicken should have, or a cow or any animal bred for our consumption.

When I visited the little zoo in Erbil where lions have hardly any space to move and the monkey is on a leash, I really wished Kurdistan had regulations too. But the few people who realise the importance of a healthy environment have far too little support.

According to Genesis, animals were created before the humans. They have to same right as we to live and survive. Perhaps the way we Westerners relate to animals is a bit over the top, with millions going on in the pet food industry. There, I could have insured myself to give Zina a burial or a cremation. Here she went in a cardboard box to the trash.

A bit more care for animals cannot be too much to ask for in Kurdistan. They are part of our world. Even if they are not your companions, we humans are expected to take care of them.

This blog was first published in Kurdish in the daily Kurdistani Nwe