photo: Eddy van Wessel


Monday, October 13, 2014

IDP’s beg Dutch Minister for a visa to leave Iraq

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - The plan of the Kurdistan Region and the United Nations to prepare the housing of the thousands of internally displaced (IDP’s) in the region for the winter by November 15 is ‘very ambitious’, said the Dutch Minister for Development Cooperation Lilianne Ploumen during a visit to the region.

 Although her visit coincided with the start of the Eid holiday, the Minister spoke to the Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and a number of high officials, while visiting both Christian and Yezidi IDP’s and Syrian Kurdish refugees. She was accompanied by some members of the Dutch press.

Almost 900.000 Iraqi’s left their homes since early August for fear of the Muslim radicals of ISIS, or daash as they are called locally. They mainly found refuge in unfinished buildings and tents at a number of locations in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Netherlands has donated a total 17 million euros for the support of these IDP’s. Because the money went to a number of Dutch NGO’s and the United Nations, the direct results are difficult to assess, and Ploumen’s trip was mainly meant to take stock of the general situation.

The Dutch Minister showed to be moderately satisfied, taking into account the difficult situation “where aid is needed on many different locations”. 

She called the present housing situation for the IDP’s “an intermediate phase which is not sustainable” and supported the government’s plan to set up 27 camps with containers and winterised tents. Although she pointed out that this is a huge operation to be finalized in just over a month’s time, she also said that the fact that the planning and logistics are in place makes it possible to succeed.

During her visit the Minister insisted on talking to the victims too. Christian IDP’s on the grounds of St Joseph Church in the Kurdistan capital Erbil told her they want to return home as soon as possible. After their towns and villages are liberated from ISIS, or daash as the radical Muslim group is called locally, they want to go back.

Yet at least a quarter of those who found refuge in Ainkawa, the Christian neighbourhood of Erbil have no plans to do so at all, Ploumen was told by the Catholic Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda. They do not trust the Arab villagers around them anymore as some of the worked with ISIS.
That view was echoed by 60 years old Sabia, who took refuge at St Joseph Church after fleeing the Christian town of Qaraqosh two months ago. “We all want to go away. What the Minister can give us, is a visa for Holland.”

Sabia, who is a mother of 5, motioned with her hand over her flat breast, saying she was recuperating for a recent breast operation and is in need of better care.“Look what we have here. We need everything. Even when daash goes, we cannot go back. There is nothing left there.”

That is why the Syrian-Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Yohanna Petros Moshe asked the Dutch Minister to support those returning home after ISIS will have left. Many of his flock have found refuge in Ainkawa, and when he walked the grounds of St Joseph Church he was time and again surrounded by IDP’s requesting his attention.

He expects many houses in the Christian towns and villages will be looted and damaged, as has been the case in most recaptured towns.

“The people need help to be able to live there again. They will need to renovate their houses. We will need economic development to give people work and income,” the Archbishop said.
Minister Ploumen supports the view that those who can eventually go home should do so, but added that for those who cannot, for instance because they are badly traumatised, help should be offered so they can settle in the Kurdistan Region.

The Minister also talked to the Kurdish authorities about the problem that after two months there still has not been any formal registration of the IDP’s. Informally volunteers have kept up lists of those under their care, but this has not been formalised. For lack of exact numbers, aid workers struggle to match needs and demands.

The minister wondered if the authorities could not use the national registration system of food coupons, by moving the coupons of IDP’s from their old to their new location.

Iraqi’s get coupons for basic food stuffs, a regulation dating from the UN food-for-oil program of the nineties that is still the base of civilian registration nationwide. No census had been held for decades.
As some IDP’s have been able to move their salaries from towns now under control of ISIS to elsewhere in order to cash them monthly, the same could be done for the food coupons, Ploumen suggested.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

War in Iraqi Kurdistan

Since my last post in July, a lot has happened in Iraqi Kurdistan. A war has started with thousands of refugees - or more correct IDP's - as a result.

I am too busy reporting on this to write regular posts for the blog.
For the moment I refer my readers to my stories in English on

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Biking for petrol

Long queues in front of the petrol stations. Standing in line for up to 5 hours. My friends in Holland ask: How can a country with an abundance of oil like Iraq have a petrol problem?

I tell them: Look, if this is the most serious effect of the war going on next door, we’re not doing too badly, eh?

With people fleeing from fighting and bombing, with over half a million extra people on a total of 5.5 million inhabitants, these are minor problems.

Part of the problem stems from panic, and people hoarding fuel just in case… Can I myself remember a situation like that, I have asked myself. Only in the seventies, when Holland had a crisis with Kuwait and was victim of an oil boycott by Arab states.

Thinking of it, I wonder if the way the Dutch government tried to manage then could be copied here. We had Sundays without traffic to ease the demand; Sundays when no car was allowed to go out - apart from emergencies of course - and we walked and biked on the empty highways and had special Car-free-Sunday parties. Now these are dear memories.

My home country must be a champion on public transport: you can get almost anywhere with a combination of trams, busses and trains. And the Dutch of course all have their bikes, so even if there is no car to take you, you can still get around on your bike.

And that could be a solution for Kurdistan too; and because of the heat we would need the ‘old people’s’ bikes with the little electro motors that recharge as you ride, so we do not have to paddle too hard and get all sweaty. I wonder who will be so clever as to import them into Kurdistan.

The petrol shortage problem is Kurdistan is so huge, because people are so dependent on their cars. Not only is there no public transport – apart from the taxi’s that drink as much petrol themselves. And nobody walks or shares cars.

And as there is no sense here of caring for the environment, there also never was an awareness that driving big 4 wheel drives leads to big petrol consumption. In my country, this awareness has led to buying smaller cars, and electrical cars. It also has led to solar energy to heat boilers, and to houses being completely self-sufficient on the energy the sun provides.

In Europe, many people share cars driving to work, saving petrol and money, and trying to help decrease the high way jams.

All this came from problems that needed solving. I hope Kurds get creative, and find other ways to solve the mobility problem than waiting for and even quarreling about petrol. Get on the bike, my friends!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Keep it simple

Keep it simple! My colleagues at the desk keep on telling me when I report on what is happening in Iraq at the moment. The audience in my home country Holland has problems understanding what is going on.

As soon as we journalists in Iraq mention Sunnis and Shiites, they seem to panic. A Dutch TV reporter was even asked not to mention them at all. “But this is all about Sunnis and Shiites”, he protested.

Our editors sigh with relief when we cover the situation of Christians who fled Mosul. That is nice and simple; and Christians that is what our readers and viewers in the West can connect to.

I do understand that it is hard to connect to fighters who show only eyes, to radicals who execute soldiers and police who tried to flee from their wrath, to atrocities committed because of religious differences.

This urge to keep it simple probably also led to the whole world blaming ISIS for taking over Mosul and fighting the Iraqi army. I felt like someone shouting in the desert in those first days, as I already knew that label ‘ISIS’ did not cover the content of the fighters involved. Nobody seemed interested.

ISIS is nice and simple: a group of radicals who extended their fight for an Islamic state from Syria to Iraq. The fact that they are only a small minority in the coalition of former Baathists and other radicals is too complicated. Or too difficult to comprehend for our poor readers, listeners and viewers.

Even though by continuing to call the fighters ISIS, we repeat the propaganda that comes from Baghdad. The Iraqi Prime Minister knows he has the world on his side if he paints the force that confronts him as radical as possible. That is what the West connects to: the fear of an Islamic State.

I wonder if this is because people in the West are not too bright, or because Iraq is too far away for them to be able to get it right. I hope for the last option. That’s why I have kept trying to reach them, with the whole story and not just the simplified one.

And after almost two weeks of fighting, Iraq moved off the headlines. People started to get tired of the story. Other subjects moved to the front pages.

At the same time we here in Kurdistan have to deal with the fallout of the war that is only a small drive away and that could threaten us too: petrol shortage, thousands of refugees seeking a roof over their head, food products getting more expensive.

Now I realize how far our worlds are apart. We are here, and they are there, in the West. It really is a world of difference.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Stay safe

Mosul, Kirkuk and even Tikrit are next door from where I live in Iraqi Kurdistan, and people abroad have a hard time understanding that the crisis going on there is not directly effecting me.

I know how it must look to the outside world. Radical Muslims take over the second largest city in Iraq, with the Iraqi army fleeing in disarray. Thousands fleeing their homes for fear of the extremists. How can people that live no more than eighty kilometers away, still feel safe?

Our sense of safety here in Kurdistan is a different one from that of those living in parts of the West that have not seen violence or war for decades. They do not know how to react, when it gets so near. I expect they would have taken a plane out, if they were in our shoes.

Yet foreigners who have lived in Kurdistan for a bit, have adapted to the safety climate here, and do not get out. They occupy themselves with day to day things, new phones and cars, and spending the night out in a nice restaurant. Most have decided to sit it out, somehow convinced by the Kurdish authorities past record of keeping out major threats.

I even have a foreign friend who is outside at the moment, and eager to come back to be
in these difficult moments with the Kurds whom she has come to accept and love.

On the other hand, I am now almost sure that I will no longer be able to attract many tourists to visit Kurdistan for the rest of the year. Whatever we say, however much we vouch that Kurdistan is safe, they look how near Mosul is, and stay away. Saying: better be safe than sorry. Can we blame them?

At the same time, I find it hard to get across what exactly is happening out there. Some of the media I work for, tell me to keep it simple, as many Westerners do not understand the difference between Shiite and Sunni – which is the main part of the story. 

When foreigners look at what is happening in the region, they simply see the radical Islam taking over part of Iraq. They do not care that the story might be quite a lot less simple, that the radicals were already here, that some of them have been functioning inside their societies for quite some time.

If it is too dangerous, I should not do a stand-up for TV on the roof, I am told. I should be careful.

But it is safe, I keep saying. At the same time, every time outsiders warn me, I stop myself and allow the doubt. To conclude, again, yes it is still safe enough. Please let’s keep it that way.

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