photo: Eddy van Wessel

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Making space for Jews again in Kurdistan



Baghdad and Tehran don’t like it, and neither do some radical imams. But generally, Kurds are happy with the new Jewish representative in their Ministry of Religion.

Sherzad Omer Mamsani (39) was appointed to lead one of the seven new directorates for minority religions in Kurdistan, set up as a result of a law adopted in the Kurdistan Parliament in May. Next to the Jews, the Yezidis, Sabai, Mandaeans, Baha’i and Zoroaster have their own directorate.

It is not a political post, Mamsani stresses, during an interview in the Kurdistan capital Erbil. In this city he grew up as a so called Benjew – Kurdish for someone with Jewish roots  – and he even still speaks some of the old Aramean language of the Jews of Kurdistan. 

Mamsani will work from his government position for all Jewish Kurds, both in Kurdistan and in Israel. In Kurdistan some hundreds of families still hold on to their Jewish roots, mostly living in anonymity.

Most of the around 150.000 Iraqi Jews left the country after the forming of the State of Israel at the start of the 50s. Those who stayed either converted to Islam, or left in the 70s, when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein targeted the remaining Jewish community.

For many Moslem Kurds their Jewish ancestry is a well-guarded family secret in the mainly Islamic society. That is what Mansani wants to work on: “We will help those Kurds who want to find out about their Jewish roots and work with the government to reunite families.”

Next to these Benjew families, he mentions some 400 families who had gone to Israel but returned to Kurdistan, partly because they did not want their women to serve in the Israeli army.

An important task on his desk is the reconstruction and building of synagogues. Only a few ruins are left. “We want one in every town; a meeting place for the people. But only after the war, as now there is no money.”

Another issue to be solved involves the property Kurdish Jews who left in the fifties had to leave behind. Many houses, grounds and businesses have been taken over since, but in Erbil most of the houses in the former Jewish quarters still are owned by their original Jewish owners.

The new director of Kurdish Jew Affairs is himself a symbol of the anti-Jewish sentiments that have long festered amongst Kurds, fed by their Arab rulers and Islam. When in 1997, during the Kurdish civil war, Mamsani published a book about the relation between the Kurds and Israel, radical Moslems became enraged. That led to an attack in which he lost his right hand.

Still he did not give up his ideals. He has long been active to improve the ties between Kurds and Israelis, for instance by publishing the ‘Israel Kurd’-magazine and by leading a nongovernmental organisation under the same name. His appointment resulted from his own request to the Kurdistan government for an official bureau, to be able to better work for the cause.

“Those behind the attack on me are now probably with daesh,” he says, using the local acronym for the Islamic terror group ISIS. He thinks that the atmosphere in Kurdistan towards Jews has changed because of the war the Kurds now fight against ISIS, distancing many from radical Islam.

He stresses that his position is purely humanitarian. “We Jews have been friends for ages with Moslems and Christians in Kurdistan. We want to explore how we can work together. And since Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, the relation between Kurds and Israel have been stopped.”

Reactions have been mainly positive, he claims. “Not everybody is happy, of course, but last Friday the mullahs in the mosques just preached about us all being one big family.” 

Yet he does mention a negative reaction he received on Facebook, saying: “If anyone thinks he can do this job better, I am happy to leave. But through my work I will show who I am.”

Negative reactions also came from the Iraqi government in Baghdad, that is not happy with the move but cannot do much against it, as the creation of these posts is within the rights of a federal state in Iraq.

The Iranian consul even visited the Ministry of Religion to complain about the new representatives both for Jews and Baha’i, as the latter are seen in Iran as unbelievers.

The appointment of Mamsani appears to be part of a development towards tighter relations between the Kurdistan Region and Israel, beyond the historical ties between the ruling Barzani-family and the Jewish state. Israeli leaders have openly shown support for the Kurdish struggle for an independent state, and according to press reports most of the oil Kurdistan exported this year has gone to Israel.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Expats promote rugby to help Kurdistan refugees

Rugby is a sport that is hardly known in Iraq, nor in the Kurdistan region. There is not even one rugby pitch in the country. Yet now a group of mainly expats playing rugby has set up a campaign to help refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kurdistan.

“Rugby for Refugees” is the title of the campaign set up to collect money for this cause, said Neil Young, who works for a logistics company in the Kurdistan region capital Erbil. “We want to raise the profile of their needs through rugby, and get as much money as we can through sponsors and donations,” he told Rudaw.

The Kurdistan region houses about 2 million refugees and IDPs from Syria, the Yezidi region of Iraq and other areas taken over by ISIS.

Read the whole story here

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Don’t waste money on reaching Europe unless you need refuge

Some 15,000 young men are said to have left the Kurdistan Region of Iraq recently for a better life in Europe. Slipping in with the bigger group of refugees from Syria, often posing as Syrians themselves, they took the dangerous road to the future.


Yet their situation cannot be compared to that of most Syrian refugees. These young men might have suffered from the fact that Baghdad has not paid the Kurdish region out of the national budget for the past three months, meaning that civil servants – over 75 percent of all workers – again did not get paid.


They may be fed up with the political situation in Kurdistan, where the conflict among the parties about an extension to the presidential term is slowing down most decisions. Or they may be fed up with living so near to the war.


Among themselves and within their families, young Kurds talk about the refugees entering Europe, and that they may be able to slip in too. Sometimes, parents even give their sons the money to pay smugglers for the trip.


Read on....

Dark details emerge from ISIS-occupied Mosul

The man shaved his beard and then stood in the street smoking a cigarette in broad daylight - two major offenses in the so-called caliphate of the Islamic terror group ISIS.

Before too long, the group’s religious police, the Hisba, came and put the man in their car and drove away. In the car, the man pulled out a weapon and killed them all. He then escaped in ​the car​ of a friend​ that had escort​ed him on his mission​.

This Hollywood-like plot was recently played out for real in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which has been in the hands of ISIS since June 2014. It was reported by Mosul Eye, a historian who blogs in deep secret from inside the city.

Stories that emerge from Mosul are scarce. Mobile phone lines have been cut, so civilians use the Internet to connect with family and others outside the city. They may complain about lack of electricity and services, but are scared to give information because ISIS has warned them they are monitored.

Read the whole story here:

Keep Kurdistan on the world map: stop the infighting

“I am worried about the unrest,” the friend who picks me up from the airport after a trip abroad confides in me. “These protests, will they get us into another civil war?”


Welcome back to Kurdistan where the war against the Islamic terror group ISIS has changed the scene completely in a year, with an economic growth of 10 percent plunging into negatives. Where over 1,300 Kurdish Peshmerga have died fighting ISIS, and over 6,000 wounded. Brave Peshmerga who are honoured by all Kurds and who like most civil servants in the Kurdistan Region have not been paid for months.


As over 75 percent of all jobs are offered by the government, the result is disastrous for most, especially for those who do not have any income other than from driving a taxi or running a business. So it is a miracle really that protests did not start in earnest before, apart from minor ones in the second Kurdish city of Sulaimani.

Read the whole story here

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Eid under hardship for IDPs in Kurdistan

The annual Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha finds many Iraqis who fled from Sunni areas to the Kurdistan region in a situation of hardship.

Not only have civil servants from Mosul not received any government wages for months, for some, UN food coupons were cut too.

"Just before Eid I finally received two months of my salary from Baghdad. Before that nothing for six months,” said Raed, a former policeman from Mosul. The 30-year-old now works as a barber. His shop in the Harsham refugee camp outside the Kurdistan region capital of Erbil is busy, even though it is Eid, one of the most important Islamic holidays.

His customers are mainly young men he attracted with his skills using the barber’s razor, as they are boasting partly shaved heads. They all originate from Iraq’s second city Mosul and the Shingal Region, both areas now in the hands of the Islamic State.

Read the story here

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Erbil’s celebrated carpet museum struggles to remain open due to war

More than a year after the festive reopening of the Kurdistan Textile and Cultural Museum at the Erbil Citadel in the Kurdistan Region, owner Lolan Sipan is struggling to keep its doors open.

Due to the impact of Kurdistan’s war with the Islamic State group (ISIS) – which has continued since August last year -- he has been forced to send almost all of his staff away and close the museum tea house.


In April 2014 the museum that Sipan had set up 10 years before in a corner of the Citadel reopened its doors after an extensive renovation, paid jointly with German and local funding.


It was part of the revitalization of the Erbil Citadel, which has since been added to the World Heritage list of UNESCO.


The museum suffers from the threat from ISIS and fighting that is raging only miles from the capital. The war has halted the development of the Kurdistan Region into a popular tourist destination and kept most tourists away.

Read the whole story here

Saturday, September 19, 2015

So-called rescuer of Yezidis under fire

The scandal surrounding the claims of a Canadian businessman that he has rescued over a hundred Yezidi and Christian women and children who were kidnapped by the Islamic State has broadened. The families of the victims he claims to have helped had already been repaid by the Kurdistan government for the money spent freeing them.

Last week, 20 prominent Yezidis sent the Canadian businessman Steve Maman a letter requesting proof that he and his organization, Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI), had rescued 128 people from the caliphate ISIS runs by paying a mere $80,000 in total.

In the letter they spoke of their doubts that this amount could serve to free so many people, as the sums paid per individual are much higher, and mentioned they had not found anyone who had actually been helped by Maman or CYCI.

Read the whole story here

Yezidis doubt ‘Jewish Schindler’ bought their women’s freedom

A group of 20 prominent Yezidis have demanded proof from Canadian Jewish businessman Steve Maman of his claims that he has bought the freedom of 128 Yezidi women and children from the Islamist terror group ISIS. Amongst the signatories are the Yezidis’ religious leader, the Baba Sheikh, and Vian Dakhil, a Yezidi member of the Iraqi Parliament.

Maman has recently been branded the “Jewish Schindler” after his organization, The Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children in Iraq (CYCI) claimed on its website to have “singlehandedly helped save over 120 Yezidi and Christian women and children from ISIS-controlled territories in Iraq.”

The businessman says he works with local volunteers to locate the women, then pay their “owners” in territory controlled by ISIS in parts of Iraq and Syria, and get them out. Around 3,000 women and children are believed to still be with ISIS.

Read the whole story here

Syrian refugees lured to Europe by a cheaper route and false stories

Europe is caught in a crisis it cannot contain. After years of discouraging and strict asylum laws, refugees are now traveling there by the thousands.


They want to get away from war, but at the same time they are misinformed. When I spoke to Syrians wanting to leave the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan, I found out they had misconceptions about the rules and regulations awaiting refugees in the EU. They had been told by those who had reached Europe that it will be easy, and that they will be provided with a house and a job.


I spoke to a Syrian mother who had taken her 6-year-old daughter with her on a boat from Bodrum in Turkey to the Greek Island of Kos, before stepping for fear of drowning. I asked her how she could risk splitting the family by leaving her husband and son behind. She was convinced that they would be allowed to join her in a couple of months and that the authorities would even pay for their ticket.


Migrants have for decades been lured by stories of an easy ride to permanent residence. But these stories omit the hardship, the camps, the long wait, the bureaucracy, the animosity, the prohibition to work whilst still in process, the negative decisions on their case to be appealed and often lost.


Yet again refugees take the same bait. Facebook is playing a major role in making this trip attractive and telling people of the possibilities, the routes and costs.


Read the whole story here

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Departing Dutch ambassador: Make Iraq a country where people want to stay

Iraq is responsible for the safety and protection of its civilians, and the outside world should stimulate both Baghdad and the Kurdish government to take that responsibility, says Jeannette Seppen, until very recently ambassador for the Netherlands in Iraq. After two years in Baghdad, she has left for the same position in Pakistan.

After ISIS entered the arena halfway through her term in Iraq, Seppen’s work changed enormously, with more emphasis on humanitarian aid. She spoke in admiration about victims of ISIS for the resilience they have shown.

In this exclusive interview, Rudaw spoke to Seppen about her years in Iraq, where she visited the Kurdistan region often as the Netherlands upgraded its embassy office in Erbil into a consulate.

Read the interview here

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Europe: paradise lost for refugees

“Send us only the Christians, we do not want Moslems,” the Slovak government has told the European Union in reaction to the influx of thousands of refugees from Iraq, Syria, Libya and Africa who want to start a new life in Europe.


This statement speaks to the scene of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea when smugglers sink their dinghies and European coast guards and commercial ships rush to save them.


The Greek island of Kos is struggling to register them, Macedonian riot police are using tear gas to hold them back, and in Calais thousands storm the Channel tunnel to reach Britain and the message from Germany is that by the end of the year the number of asylum seekers there could reach 800,000.


It all makes good stories, and good pictures. Fathers with small children crying from desperation after making it safely to Greek soil, children getting caught up between riot police and refugees, people pulling down fences that keep them from reaching their destination.

Read the whole story here

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Summer in the city


Summer in Iraq is, that when you open the cold tap, warm water comes out. It is like living inside a huge hair dryer, as a friend described it. Power shortage, and lots of sweating, said another. A friend who really suffered spoke of a ‘prep class for hell’

“AC on and it becomes too cold. Turn off AC, wait 30 seconds and turn it back on for 1 minute, then off again. Luxury problems are not unknown in this country,” yet another friend who recently settled in the Kurdistan Region told her Facebook friends. Which reminds me of the fights I witnessed in offices and homes for the remote control, in order to turn the temperature down to 18 degrees Celsius – or back up to something more comfortable.

The heat in Iraq and Kurdistan this year has reached new heights, with 58 degrees in Basra, and even the Kurdistan capital Erbil sweltering at times in 50 degrees. As parts of Iraq suffer from lack of services, the problems were huge; I really wonder how people survive that heat without any cooling, and expect those who own deep, cool cellars under their houses must feel privileged.

No wonder Iraqi people took to the streets, to demand that finally, over 12 years after the damage done by the American invasion the electricity situation is improved.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, even the relatively good government electricity suffers from the heat, and even more from the habit of many people to turn on all the cooling equipment they have at the same time and leave it on when they leave the house. As a result the grid gets overloaded many times a day.

In compounds, generators kick in, but elsewhere the neighborhood generators do not fill the time gap completely, leaving long hours of heat without any electricity. And even if they run, the generators do not offer enough amps to turn on the AC, so people have to resort to ventilators or water-coolers.

Badly hit are the around two million refugees and IDP’s in Iraq, many of whom live in tents. They have been given ventilators, working on batteries, and sometimes even water-coolers. But many cannot use the coolers, as they use at least a 100 liters of water a day.

As in the camps people are mostly dependent on water tankers that drive in daily to fill their individual tanks, many do not have enough water to spare to run a water-cooler. The heat leads to major health problems, partly because there is no cool place to store food safely.

Like most summers, the region is also hit by a lack of water, with some residential areas being served only a couple of times a week to fill the aluminum tanks on the roofs.

Water has become precious, even though the Kurdistan region is sitting on underground lakes and usually enjoys plentiful rainfall in the winter. But bad management, leaks and lack of planning every summer lead to problems, which are worsened by the habits of civilians. The water consumption in Iraq is many times higher than elsewhere.

Even though water is scarce, some habits are hard to beat. Showering with a lot of water, keeping the tap running when brushing your teeth, throwing away half full bottles of drinking water - and I still see people wasting water on cleaning the street with a hose.

This street cleaning has become a national game, played both by men and women, of chasing sand and particles with the water from a hose – at the same time keeping an eye on the neighbors and the movement in the street. I guess for many women it is a relieve from the chores inside the house.

When I make an issue of this water being wasted, people tell me they need to wet the dust that comes down with the summer heat - complaining about the government that neglects to do this.

Indeed, before 1991 the Iraqi government would use cleaning trucks for the streets, spraying them at the same time. Those trucks have disappeared in present day Kurdistan, with only some sweepers to clean away the rubbish.

In some Kurdish cities the local government has prohibited the washing of cars and streets, and anyone who is caught gets fined. I think it’s badly needed that this ruling is introduced nationally, both in Kurdistan and Iraq.

To make the game with the hose obsolete, the government needs to bring back the cleaning trucks and start using them regularly. But that will only solve part of the problems that hit us every year when the summer comes to the city. 

What is needed first and foremost is that both government and people learn the value of water. Then civilians, both grown-ups and children, should be educated to stop wasting it. And let’s we start now, whilst the heat is still on.




Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wars and censorship: we all lose

There is a saying about wars, that the truth is always their first victim. And for the war against the Islamic State, this is certainly true.

Mainly so, because independent journalists are not allowed to report from the ISIS frontlines, nor from inside the self-declared caliphate. They can only report from the side of ISIS enemies and they depend on news about the battle from them. How ISIS fights the battle, we only know through its own propaganda, mainly in social media, and propaganda often is disinformation.

Not being able to visit the areas under occupation means we do not have firsthand eyewitness accounts on what goes on there. We are dependent on what people who escaped from ISIS-land tell us—which almost per definition has to be a negative story.


Read more here

Monday, August 17, 2015

‘Tailor-made’ plan to give minorities political voice in Kurdistan

To give minorities in the Kurdistan region more influence, they should get their own special councils of representatives to function within the Kurdish parliament and governing institutions.

That is the essence of a plan presented to the Constitutional Commission of the Kurdistan Parliament by Middle East Research Institute (MERI) President and former Minister Dlawer Ala’Aldeen.

Inspired by Eastern European bodies for minorities but adjusted to the Kurdish situation, two new councils will ensure the active participation of the different ethnic and religious elements in legislation, decision-making, implementation and monitoring, he predicted.

Read more here

Sunday, August 16, 2015

New book by Yezidi author aims to teach Arabs of ISIS brutality

It is because he owes it to the dozens of Kurdish Yezidi women he has spoken to regularly who were captives of the Islamic State that Kurdish journalist Khidher Domle says he wrote down their stories into a book.

His book, The Black Death, has been published to coincide with the first anniversary of the occupation of the Yezidi region of Shingal by ISIS on August 3, 2014. It paints the “tragedy of Yezidi women in the grip of ISIS,” according to its subtitle.

Among journalists in the Kurdistan Region, Domle is one of the most active on the issue. He is a Yezidi himself, and offered shelter to thousands of his people who fled ISIS from the Sinjar region last year. He set up a team to organize and manage a relief initiative in his village Sharya near Duhok.


Read more here

Friday, August 14, 2015

Read me a story in the park

“Mummy, I want a storybook,” the little girl kept asking. She was walking with her mother in one of the parks of Kurdistan’s capital Erbil. The mother answered that she did not need it, and from the way she was talking it was clear she did not really understand what her daughter wanted or why.

That little scene is so abnormal in the Kurdistan Region that it keeps popping up in my mind. A little girl, asking for a book to read whilst walking in a park. In a country where reading is in no way promoted at school, where most schools hardly even have libraries, and where many mothers, like the little girl’s, have not learned to understand the value of books.

In this case, the girl must have seen the book shop outside the park’s gate, another abnormality in a country where most people buy their books at book fairs—the main place for publishers to sell.

A country also where most publishers ask the author to pay for the publishing of his book, as I found out when I tried to get one of mine published recently. Or where in the best possible case, the translator will be paid, but not the writer.


Read the whole story here