Category Archives: Journalism

The Unity of Kurdish Purpose in Sinjar in May – Now Under Threat


I wrote this back in May, and although I met with no KDP Peshmerga, the Kurds fighting on the frontline were united. With the Peshmerga Ministry yesterday announcing that no fighters from the PKK, YPG etc would be allowed to participate in the Sinjar operation, it seems a good time to revisit what might be lost.

 

As our driver carves down the final descent from Mount Sinjar into the town below, we pass ten or more upturned cars, some with clothing spilled onto the side of the road. The burnt out husks are testament to those that perished at the hands of Islamic State (IS) as they fled their homes in the town below in August of last year.

The Yazidis that sought refuge in the crucible of the mountaintop endured extreme temperatures, fatal thirst and constant insecurity.

A Yazedi Peshmerga A Yazedi girl

IS have advanced up the mountain, only to be forced back, and Kurdish forces now control a frontline on the northern outskirts of the town. Thousands have been killed, and up to 5,000 women and girls kidnapped, to be traded as sex slaves in markets in IS territories.

It has been a terrible 11 months in the history of a people that chart their history in tragedy. Those on the mountain are waiting, with another blistering summer already begun, to go home. They want to trek down the mountain and breathe life back into their community.

Amid accusations of power plays between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, and even political divisions within the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, it is difficult to see how Kurdish forces can take back and then protect Sinjar town.

The PKK have been locked in a guerrilla insurgency against the Ankara government for 30 years and recent attempts at establishing a lasting peace have faltered. Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) enjoy close economic ties. However, since the attacks by IS, and the response in Sinjar of the PKK and closely aligned People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Syrian Kurdistan, broader Kurdish relations have improved. The Turkish government even allowed Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga through its territory to support the PKK and YPG in Kobani at the end of 2014.

BasNews is welcomed to the Kurdish forces base by Commander Muaed Tofiq, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) 70 Division Peshmerga. The PUK are seen as more traditionally in agreement with the left wing sentiments of the PKK.

Tofiq is unconcerned by the perceived allegiances the fighters under his command may have – in the short trip to the base the flags of the MLKP, YPG and PKK were clearly visible. One man at the base is wearing a t-shirt bearing the face of Mam Jalal Talabani, the PUK leader and former President of Iraq.

Kurds from several forces on the Sinjar front

There is no problem between the forces, they are supporting each other. The Minister of Peshmerga is responsible for all of them.”

Of greater concern to Tofiq is the lack of effective weaponry and equipment. It’s apparent that all the fighters here are under-equipped. Less than a quarter are wearing adequate shoes, with many fighters clambering through mortar debris in cheap flat soles, the backs flattened down. The only weapons are ageing AK-47s.

We need weapons and bullets….we want anything that can help us fight IS. Our forces are wearing cheap clothes.


“It’s war time, we need fighting equipment. We bought these weapons ourselves, we were not given them by the government.”

When asked about the G3 and G36 rifles gifted to the Kurdistan Region by the German government, Tofiq’s spirit is unbowed.

We are not getting any weapons. It’s not related to KDP or PUK or anything, we just aren’t getting any weapons. We have had no training [from the coalition]. We buy our own weapons and ammunition. Gratitude from Europe is not enough,” he says without bitterness, but perhaps just a slight crease of confusion on his brow.

In his immaculately ironed uniform and leather belt and holster, Tofiq leads us to the frontline, to meet the Kurdish forces that have been ordered by President Barzani to hold the position, not to launch an offensive.

As a shot rings out, Tofiq explains that there is no Peshmerga sniper at this position to return fire. “There is no sniper here, but we have a fighter with a BKC [a medium-sized machine gun]. We coordinate with the PKK sniper.” It appears that there is a Kurdish coalition fighting IS on the edge of town.

We are taken to the BKC position, on the first floor of a traditional house, climbing to the nest from a courtyard. The operator of the weapon, wearing the unlikely combination of a straw fedora and bayonet strapped to his chest, explains to BasNews how the Kurds are working together.

This morning three Peshmerga and a PKK fighter coordinated, they went to bring back the body of a comrade killed by IS. When they went, IS shot at them. I helped them by covering with my BKC. They came back without the body, but safely.

The PKK wanted to retrieve some IS equipment that had been left in the field. They got a BKC and an RPG, one of the IS fighters was killed by the Peshmerga in the operation. We are not PUK or KDP, we are KRG Peshmerga.”

Outside, fighters are sitting in the shade at the back of the house, safe from the attentions of IS snipers. Some are drinking tea, others are observing the Ramadan fast and won’t slake their thirst until iftar. The music of Rojava singer Mohammed Sherko leaks with tinny imperfection from a mobile phone.

A PKK fighter arrives, dressed in traditional sharwal trousers. He looks old enough to be carrying a weapon, but not by much. BasNews asks how old he was when he joined the PKK. Sheepishly Shevan (not his real name) replies that he hoodwinked the PKK command to join up, two years ago,

I’m 20 years old, but I told the PKK that I’m 22 because there are some rules with the military command; they won’t accept anyone under 20, and I’ve been in the PKK since I was 18.”

He’s been in Sinjar for eight months, and refuses to leave for rest, even missing the chance to vote for the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in his home city of Mardin during the Turkish general election earlier this month.

The HDP is Apo’s project, which wants to collect all Kurdish ideas in one party. We’re really happy about the election, the HDP is very strong. The HDP will fight those who try to suppress Kurds in Turkey.”

Shevan is extremely distrustful of the Turkish government.

If we say IS is our enemy, the real enemy is Turkey and Iran, they have always wanted to fight the Kurds. IS want to fight the Kurds, and of course in this case Turkey want to help IS – we have proof that many times Turkey has helped IS forces,” he says, without elaborating on the evidence.

Black smoke starts to rise from IS houses 80 metres away, and we are ushered away. IS snipers have set fire to tyres, to give them cover from jets overhead as they move positions. This action is almost always accompanied by an increase in activity, and soon gunfire is cracking through the air. Tofiq later explains the tactic.

The problem with the snipers, they don’t fight from a stable position, they are moving every day, every night, every hour. When they burn the tyres they are changing places.

They have dug a lot of tunnels in this area – in the night they are coming, very close to the Peshmerga and then returning by tunnel, not overground. Sometimes the coalition drop heavy bombs when they know that they’re using the tunnels, but not very often,” he says.

We move to a compound shared by the PKK, YPG and the female units of the YPJ. There is a large hole in the garden, from which earth is used to fill sandbags. In the corner a PKK fighter cuddles an albino rabbit, almost completely obscured in his hands.

A PKK fighter with his pet rabbit

Two women from the YPJ tell us that they have been in Sinjar for 45 days. One is from Amedia, the other from eastern Turkey, or Bakur, as it’s known in Kurdish. Like Shivan they remain in Sinjar when they are given leave – they tell BasNews that they are here to free the town, and won’t leave until they have.

We head back to the base for one last chat. Over a glass of tea Tofiq explains how the Kurds are trying to combat IS with limited equipment.

Sometimes there is a conflict between IS and Kurdish cells [radios] and sometimes we hear them speaking in code for movements – ‘The seller is coming! The seller is coming!’ When we hear the voices, some of them are speaking in Turkmen, they are from Tal Afar, but the PKK understand them!” he says gleefully.

Sometimes we hear their voice without radios, because they are so close; at night especially.” A fighter interrupts to lament the lack of night vision equipment – although one PKK fighter has a set.

We leave the base to take the switchbacks up the mountain, once more passing the cars and clothes. As we pass the ridge and drive down into the long valley which is now home to several semi-permanent tent villages, the translator turns and tells me that the Peshmerga are often insulted and harangued when they travel through this area. Many Yazidis blame them for abandoning Sinjar when IS first arrived in August last year.

The view of the city from Mount Sinjar

But for now, on the front at least, there is Kurdish unity of purpose. Fighters from different militias are joining to confront the common enemy, sharing limited resources, good humour and linguistic skills.

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John Cantlie, British Journalist Held by Daesh, Reports From Kobani


Islamic State have released a new video of British hostage John Cantlie, who has become the English speaking mouthpiece of the organization after over two years in captivity.

Cantlie has been the presenter of a series of news-style reports over recent weeks. Filmed wearing an orange tunic, he has delivered propaganda pieces direct to camera, in a series entitled Lend Me Your Ears. Episode 5, released Sunday 26th October, claims that hostages have been waterboarded, and in previous episodes he has spoken of being abandoned by his government.

Until the video from inside Kobani, released 27th October, it was difficult to ascertain if the Lend Me Your Ears series was shot in one sitting – current events in the fight against IS are not mentioned.

Now, however, Cantlie directly references news reports from the BBC on the 17th October, and is wearing a much fuller beard than that seen in the videos, which remains uniform throughout the five episodes of Lend Me Your Ears, suggesting that they were indeed shot at one time.

The Kobani video opens with footage from a remote controlled multi-rotor helicopter, surveying the damage done to the city, before it cuts to Cantlie.

He opens, “We are here inside the so-called PKK safe zone that is now controlled by the Islamic State.

“Despite continual US air strikes which have so far cost nearly half a billion dollars in total, the mujahideen have pushed deep into the heart of the city. They now control the eastern and southern sectors.

“The western media, and I can’t see any of them here, have been saying that the Islamic State are on the retreat. In the last 48 hours, hundreds of Islamic State militants have been reportedly killed in air strikes according to the IB Times on the 16th October. ‘We know we’ve killed several hundred of them,’ said John Kirby the Pentagon official. The Islamic State is retreating from the city of Kobani, said the BBC on October 17th, while Patrick Cockburn said in The Independent that despite suffering serious losses, the Islamic State was continuing its assault on the city.”

He also mentions the arrival of Peshmerga, dating the video to within the last seven days, “Kobani is now being reinforced by Iraqi Kurds who are coming in through Turkey while the mujahideen are being resupplied by the hopeless United States air force, who parachuted two crates of weapons and ammunition straight into the outstretched arms of the mujahideen.”

Cantlie then addresses the lack of on the ground reports leaving Kobani, “Without any safe access, there are no journalists here in the city, so the media are getting their information from Kurdish commanders and White House press secretaries, neither of whom have the slightest intention of telling the truth about what’s happening here on the ground.”

However, this is contradicted by a report on NBC from Iraqi Kurdish journalist Shirwan Qasim. Qasim spent three days in Kobani last week, where he reported that whilst Kurdish fighters are in good spirits, there are no safe areas in the city.

Kobani is, Qasim says, a ‘ghost town’ of just several hundred people.

Cantlie appears to confirm this, but claims the city is in the hands of Islamic State militants.

“The battle for Kobani is coming to an end, the mujahideen are just mopping up now, street to street and building to building; you can occasionally hear sporadic gunfire in the background as a result of those operations.”

He finishes his piece with a flourish of propaganda now expected from the Islamic State media machine, “Urban warfare is about as nasty and tough as it gets, and it’s something of a specialty of the mujahideen.”

For Al Jazeera – “Iraqi Kurds Look To Erbil For Tourism Boost”


Erbil, Iraq – The citadel that looks out over Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdish region is often claimed to be the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in the world. The mound on which it sits has evidence from Assyrian and Sumerian times, and the structure is imagined to contain the Temple of Ishtar, deep below the ground.

The citadel was granted World Heritage status at the recent session of UNESCO in Doha, finally upgraded from the “tentative” list, where it had sat since 2010, a decision welcomed by Dara al-Yaqoobi, head of the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalisation (HCECR).

“The World Heritage Committee recognises that Erbil Citadel has met its conditions and criteria and the site has outstanding international value, it deserves to be inscribed. Being a UNESCO World Heritage site is very important,” Yaqoobi told Al Jazeera.

As increasingly troubled political realities plague the region, World Heritage status has been proclaimed as “a gift … to the people and all communities of Iraq”, by a member of the Iraqi delegation to UNESCO.

The citadel, which is being touted as a major tourist destination in Iraq, joins three other UNESCO sites in the country: Ashur, Hatra, and Samarra.

Dara al-Yaqoobi said $35m has been spent so far on revitalisation projects around the citadel [Luke Coleman/Al Jazeera]

The citadel is not the only structure undergoing preservation work in the area.

A large building near the north gate is being re-purposed as a visitor and information centre, and Yaqoobi said homes and businesses would also be built.

The project to revitalise the visitor centre is in the first five-year phase of a 15-year plan. Yaqoobi said that $35m had been spent by the Kurdistan Regional Government so far over the last three years, and that the HCECR was investigating the feasibility of public-private partnerships to raise more funds.

Another major project near completion is the reconstruction of the main gate. In the 1950s, the Ottoman-era gate was demolished as it was deemed unsafe. “They didn’t know how to conserve it,” Yaqoobi said, “so they did the easy thing and removed it”.

The area remained empty until 1979, when the municipality constructed a new gate. After a year of research by the HCECR – using photographs, first-person testimonies, and archaeological examinations of the original foundation – a decision was made to rebuild it using the previous design.

There is a large amount of construction, maintenance, and preservation taking place in the citadel itself. “It means bringing life back to the citadel. We have to have good conditions for residential and other activities,” Yaqoobi said.

In addition to being at the centre of the capital, the citadel is regarded as central to long-term tourism plans for the region, with discussions taking place about adding restaurants and shops to the textile museum which was recently opened within its walls.

Alongside UNESCO, the HCECR will undertake a study looking at a viable strategy for tourism development. The details of this new plan remain unknown at present.

But will international recognition have a positive effect on tourism?

Mohammed Yaseem Jamal, the proprietor of a shop selling honey, perfumes, and gifts at the base of the citadel, is unsure. He has been doing business in this area for 45 years.

I’m proud to have my shop here and happy about the UNESCO decision… But people don’t come because they are scared of the name Iraq, even though we know the [Kurdish] region is very safe.

“I’m proud to have my shop here and happy about the UNESCO decision. I think it is a bit late, because it’s important for people to know what life was like in the Citadel. But people don’t come because they are scared of the name Iraq, even though we know the [Kurdish] region is very safe,” he told Al Jazeera.

Heja Baban, co-founder of Meydan PR & Marketing which recently completed a project for the KRG Board of Tourism, said that recent violence across Iraq has negatively impacted perceptions among potential visitors.

“It affects how the rest of the world sees Iraq as a whole. The first thing you think as a tourist is ‘Am I going to be safe?’ And if that is not 100 percent clear, you will have second thoughts. Even though it is safe, it’s not considered as safe as it was two months ago, and that’s enough,” Baban told Al Jazeera.

According to figures from the KRG Board of Tourism, approximately 2.2 million people visited the region in the first eight months of 2013. Yaqoobi is unsure of the effect the current conflict will have on tourism, “because it is so recent we don’t have any clear statistics and we won’t know the effect for some time”.

So far, the citadel alone has not been enough to attract large numbers of tourists. “I hope this brings people, perhaps more will come when the museum is built,” said Jamal, referring to the proposed Kurdistan National Museum, which is designed by Daniel Libeskind.

This museum project has come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the World Heritage inscription, as it is planned for an area within the protected buffer zone around the base of the citadel. But UNESCO-imposed restrictions, including building regulations which state that the structure cannot be taller than three-storeys, may make development around the citadel difficult.

The International Committee On Monuments and Sites, which advised UNESCO on the award of World Heritage status, made reference to the contrast of the museum’s very modern design and the citadel. Currently, the local government is considering whether to alter the design or move the proposed site.

Yaqoobi said: “If the museum doesn’t match those regulations or isn’t in harmony with the citadel, it may be modified a little.”

Fiddling While Rome Burns or Let Them Eat Cake


I have two phrases that I use when I find myself slightly confused by something Kurdish.

The first, “Zor Kurdi” (Very Kurdish) I used when a Kurdish friend of mine insisted that we enter the memorial museum in Halabja via the clearly unmanned security kiosk. It wasn’t a big diversion, but it seemed unnecessary and smacked of the kind of indoctrinated behaviour I naturally rail against. A small thing, we can agree, but so are the mosquitoes currently feasting upon me.

Secondly, “Bexerbet Kurdistan” (Welcome to Kurdistan) I use to illustrate something that feels unique to the region. On the roads, for example, when taxis creep to an almost imperceptible speed going over any crack in the road; a regular driver of mine once slowed for a shadow cast by election bunting. Or the honking at the lights, three seconds before they turn green – such patience for speed bumps, and glorious anxiety to get on the move elsewhere.

These oddities don’t annoy me; they almost always cause a wry smile. It’s a part of travelling and living abroad, to appreciate the differences. And as a guest here, I try to steer clear of criticising my hosts. I am sensitive to both the hard work that is being done to improve a young proto-state and to my own privilege of having been bought up in a country with a long-established (admittedly now creaking under successive self-interested governments, but enough of that) social and physical infrastructure.

A street nearby in Ankawa has recently had the start of a sewerage system installed. My mind struggles to conceive of the enormity of this project, of the necessary chaos the groundworks will bring. It’s brilliant that it’s being done, and whilst I have very little knowledge of the intricacies of such an operation, I hope it’s being done with foresight and to the highest standard possible. These literal foundations are going to define the KRG, and a poor job is going to reflect laughably on a city irritatingly labelled the ‘new Dubai’ – Hawler has history Dubai can only dream of, and in the rush for riches must not forget its personality.

So when a headline as unlikely as “French firm to build small Eiffel-style tower in Iraq” pops up in my daily Google alerts, my heart sinks. Why in the world does any city in Kurdistan, let alone Sulaymaniyah with its skyline defining Grand Millennium, need a replica Eiffel tower? Under the headline, something more annoying becomes clear.

“In line with investment laws in Kurdistan, foreign investors are asked to carry out a tourism project in the city where they intend to invest,” according to Yousuf Yassin, director of Sulaymaniyah municipality.

I understand the focus on tourism, I see that it’s a pillar worth building the new Kurdistan on. It’s a beautiful country, with some good quality hiking in the areas safe from mines. And the 300 square kilometres that remain dangerous are being cleared, slowly. Perhaps the French firm should be required to make a substantial donation to MAG or one of the other organisations working in this arena?

The streets of the cities and towns in Kurdistan are regularly and well-maintained and in the capital there are moves to create more green spaces to compliment the parks that are already here – but what of the can and bottle strewn disasters on the mountains of Goizha and Azmaar? Why not have investors plunge their social responsibility funds into public education films and litter-pick initiatives? Perhaps a larger, more comprehensive education programme that addresses water scarcity and the folly of hosing down streets?

As I approach the end of my third year living here, I’m asked how long I intend to stay. My answer is that I will stay as long as I’m welcome. I use an idiom, ‘if it’s not broken, why fix it?’ to describe my situation. That doesn’t apply to the region though, and whilst measures are in place and initiatives have started, I can’t help but think that some of the foreign investment could be put to better use.

And then, something zor Kurdi will be most welcoming.

My First Month’s Pieces for basnews.net


#1

Is a name enough? Probably not, as in the weeks to come I’m here to give my point of view on what’s happening around us in Kurdistan. However, it might help to know a little about me, and what has bought me to Kurdistan – certainly it’ll give you a start that I didn’t have when I arrived here over two and a half years ago.

I’m an English teacher, currently instructing adults in Erbil, although I’ve only been here for a year. Before that I was in Sulaymaniyah, so I have a limited understanding of both cities – although I’d be the first to admit that I’m less integrated with the local community here. The expat life has a stronger gravity in Erbil, especially in Ainkawa, and I felt more assimilated in the east. Whatever I express here, I ultimately express from a certain point of ignorance, so please feel free to educate me in the comments section below – I’ve been subjected to enough people’s opinions about Kurdistan on The Guardian website (based in the UK) to know that feelings run high when discussing this sensitive part of the world. Things are changing, at a pace that can feel giddying at times, and it’s all the serious journalists can do to keep up – most of us don’t catch every last crumb of news, especially when the headlines are of such importance.

I’m not a complete newcomer though. I’ve been here long enough to learn a little of the language. I learnt that chicken livers are referred to as ‘jigga’ when I attempted to beg a cigarette from a stall holder on Saholaka one evening. I have what we could refer to as taxi Kurdish – I can hold a respectful conversation about my home country, job and marital status, assure the driver that Kurdistan is very nice and direct him to my location. It’s now at a more advanced level than my Russian, and I was doing a great job at not learning that very well for the two years I lived in Ukraine (it was in Kyiv that I read the biography of Gertrude Bell, Desert Queen, without a second thought). I’m now confident enough to cross the shasti alone, rather than cloaking an unsuspecting guide on their dasti rast. Speaking of hands, I’m a great fan of Langa, where second hand clothes shopping is a more spacious affair than the covered market of Suli. I’ve read (most of) Qil Lawrence’s Invisible Nation, the ultimate primer for the region. So, you know – I’m trying and sometimes winning, sometimes being left confused and frustrated. Whatever happens, I’m almost daily amazed.

‘Amazed’ of ‘amazing’ are popular descriptions out of the mouths of Westerners I’ve met, who’ve just recently arrived. Be they backpackers heading east or arriving from Iran with Persian Tales, or people, like me, that came to work with little previous knowledge of the place. When I phoned my mother from Russia to tell her that I’d “accepted a job in Iraq, but in the north, Kurdistan, the safe bit”, she was not convinced. In fact, I think her mind played a trick on her, because the next time I spoke to her she asked, “How are the plans for Kazakhstan coming along?” She plays cards with some other octogenarian friends a couple of times a week, and they of course muttered and tutted about danger. I’m the youngest of four, and us babies tend to get away without worrying our folks so much, and as long as I was happy, my mother was too. At the end of my first year here, my mother celebrated her 80th birthday. And what else does a middle class lady from England want on achieving such a milestone? Why of course, a trip to Iraq, but in the north, Kurdistan, the safe bit. Without hesitation I can honestly say that Kurdistan bought my mother and I closer together. She’s an incredibly open person, very interested in people from across the globe (the joke in our 1980s household was that she wouldn’t be happy if I married a white girl), and from the moment she landed and was whisked away to Akre for Newroz, to the day she departed having just spent two nights on the concrete floor of a house in the Kakayee village of Hawa, she laughed and smiled at the generosity shown and loved her chances to show her appreciation in return. It was uniquely special, and she is constantly curious about life here, and a stanch proponent of the Kurds – and like mother, like son, so am I. I find life tricky sometimes, I feel a little like a fish out of water (although not quite as hot as masgoof), but I’m always grateful to be here; I’ve never been made to feel so welcome in my life, and for that, I will love an entire people.

#2

I push the faders on the mixing deck up to 11 and watch with a childish grin on my face as about 20 youngsters snake around the tent, led in a conga by my friend and fellow volunteer Beebo. Others throw some shapes and bust their moves to Hiya Hiya by Cheb Khaled. It’s the second weekend in a row that the end of the film has signalled the start of a brief rave.

Welcome to the RISE Foundation cinema project at Arbat camp, east of Sulaymaniyah, in the child friendly tent that I’ve nicknamed The Arbat Odeon. On Thursday and Friday afternoons, 3 o’clock sees an orderly queue of children gathered in anticipation of whatever modern or classic animated movie we have available that week; the most popular so far was Madagascar 3 with its in-your-face style and frequent chorus of I Like To Move It, It Move (it should be no surprise that this tune was the genesis of the post-picture party tradition).

So, what’s the benefit of showing young people Arabic-dubbed cartoons twice a week? Admittedly, this might appear to be insignificant, inconsequential and even a waste of funds. But the small cost of implementing this project, in unison with other NGOs working at the site, is worth every last dinar when one considers the joy given to the children and the precious few minutes their parents have to themselves. And over the course of the project, which is nearly self-sustaining, the cost will be a great deal less than $1 per child per month. Other, incidental, benefits have been seen; many of the children are learning English and love to take the opportunity to practice with a native-speaker. We are a large roster of volunteers, and it appears that meeting new adults, being able to trust and play with someone who has come there for that reason, and that reason alone, brings as many smiles as an animated bunch of penguins piloting a flying machine (if you haven’t seen the Madagascar films, you really must. Even though I didn’t understand a word of the dialogue, I loved it). On our first visit, we noticed that the majority of movie-goers were sockless, so we resolved that the following week, handing out 200 pairs of socks and many hats and scarves. At the camp, we are able to pay a small amount to four adult refugees who organise the children and help with the ‘crowd control’ once the film is running. The hope is that eventually this will be their project and we will be able to investigate and implement other ways to help. Our lead helper, Jiyan, is a teacher at the camp school. Housed in the only permanent structure on site, the school is a series of tents within a large agricultural building. Jiyan is invaluable in getting the film project to work; he musters the kids and then, once in front of the screen, he is able to marshall them with just a few words. And whilst he doesn’t join in, he clearly loves the dancing at the end. For him, it’s an opportunity to spend time enjoying the company of his charges, having fun with them, not just teaching. In this tent (loaned to us every week by STEP and UNICEF), he is able to reach out to children who have perhaps abandoned the idea of education. For some young people, damaged by loss and having seen far too much for any life, let alone their short ones, this tent is essential. Run by social workers from The Netherlands, STEP assists not only those at risk, but any youngster who wants support; it’s fair to say that to some extent every individual fleeing Syria is vulnerable.

Now that we have The Arbat Odeon running well, and our organisation is known to both the residents of the camp, and the other NGOs working there, we are starting to consider what we can do next. Already on camps around Erbil, the RISE Foundation is knee-deep in winterisation schemes, building drainage channels and gravelling secondary roads – improving conditions and providing work for some of the people living there, engaging with the community. Unfortunately at Arbat, we cannot begin something like this, as the camp is moving across the road to a permanent settlement with concrete standings and better amenities. The move was meant to take place before winter, but as with a lot of building work, there have been delays. In the first month of the new year, UNHCR assures me that the place will be fit for purpose. We will know what is required when the move has taken place. In the meantime, we have identified another group of people that need assistance. Whilst there are over 3,000 settled in the Arbat camp, the UNHCR estimates that there might be as many as 22,000 urban refugees in Sulaymaniyah. Working with a Kurdish friend of mine, who himself was once a refugee and has experience of running programs that integrate newcomers with their host cities and towns, we aim to establish a weekly event that will allow people from the different communities to come together and share their experiences. We have a strong idea of what we want to do, and I hope in the future I will be able to bring you more good news from a different project. In the meantime, I’d like to thank everyone who has helped, either through the RISE Foundation of some other project. And to those of you celebrating, Happy Christmas!

My first three months in The Ocelot


I’ve been writing a monthly dribble for a mate’s listings magazine back in England. Here are the fruits of the first quarter.

February

The first words of what I hope will be a regular column for Ocelot are these, as I typed, deleted and retyped several strings of nonsense before settling on this cowardly introduction. I promise to endeavour to improve, but you’ll be the judges of whether I succeed. I’m Luke, and I have a confession. I’ve known your editor since school, and I’ve been asked to write for his esteemed organ on the basis that he likes the cut of my jib in emails (ok, Facebook updates). We spent many a wistful hour ducking the attentions of teachers whilst puffing on fags in a cafe named Charts, down the road from our public school. Yes, I’m afraid I’m Gideon ‘George’ Osbourne to his David ‘Call me Dave’ Cameron. Heaven help him, and indeed his readership. He’s asked me to steer clear of the controversial, so I shalln’t wear my politics on my sleeve and make any jokes about the failure or success of our Chancellor of the Exchequer. Just before Christmas last year, a couple of dozen of us alumni of our former alma mater (I hope you’re picturing us amongst Gothic spires, the comforting sound of leather striking willow our soundtrack) got together for a twenty year reunion. As you can imagine, everything was different but the same. For sure, most of us were carrying a little extra timber. I seemed to be the only one unencumbered by marriage or children. Those partaking of tobacco were fewer, but I’m happy to report there were no new recruits to the filthy habit. One girl had somehow pulled off the Wildean trick of appearing younger as we scream towards 40 than she did as we confidently exited our teens. But our minds remained refreshingly similar and we sunk into old conversational habits, but with new topics. So, rather than have something to say about being almost 40 in Wiltshire, I will be channelling the sixth former from Gloucestershire….even though I’m a teacher in Iraq. And I’ll take the advice of almost every report card my parents received for next month’s issue; ‘Must try harder.’

March

Ah, March. The month of spring springing and the occasional bothering of the thermometer at 15c or more. I know that will be something of a welcome back in Blighty, should it happen. Here in Iraqi Kurdistan (Kurdle Burdle as I prefer it), it warrants an entire month off for the institute that I work at (sadly, unpaid). The Kurds love the equinox, and celebrate it as New Year, or Newroz. Last year I flew mum over for her 80th birthday present (would’ve loved to see her friends’ reaction to that bit of news) and we got in the crush in the mountain city of Akre, where bonfires and torches were the only thing marginally more important than taking photos of the daft English sod and his mother dressed up in the local garb. This year, on behest of a friend who wants something a bit different for her radio show, I’m off on an adventure. I’m heading into Turkish Kurdistan (Kurdy Wurdy) to record my quest to find some Kangal dogs, a mastiff-type monster that I accidentally came across whilst looking for pictures of a different Kurdish dog. I was bought up with wolfhounds, so it’s natural for me to be attracted to these herd protecting dogs, but I am absolutely not coming home with one. Not this time, anyway. But I need a name for the project, and I can’t get away from puns. So far I’ve got “For The Love Of Dog” and any other God-based bullshit and the even more tortured “Kangal Ruse”. Help me out, please? luke@littleletters.com

April

Here I am, on my little adventure that has been broadened to include a hunt for Van cats as well as Kangal dogs – I’ve found some puppies living semi-wild in a cave, you can see the cute little sods above. Still need to find an adult.
I found them in a village called Hasankeyf, 7 times the capital of Mesoptamia and once home to up to 70,000 living in caves along the banks of the mighty Tigris, an important staging post on the Silk Route. A rich history, no doubt, with cunniform writing on the cave walls, a Byzantine era Roman bridge, a 700 year old mosque – the delights continue and it’s a wonderful relaxed place to throw a couple of days. You should visit.
But you’ll have to be quick. It’s going to disappear unless something is done urgently. The Turkish government is pushing ahead with plans for their latest dam, the Ilisu which will submerge it and one of the most important Mesopotamian sites. Other dams in the region have of course brought prosperity, with the flooded valleys fine for fish, the irrigation perfect for cotton. But malaria has increased tenfold and countries downstream are angry at perceived water theft. It’s a crying shame, and an environmental catastrophe.

Swimming In Iraqi Kurdistan – The Full Version


I’ve always been at home in the water. Diving in is my forte – backwards when depth allows, it’s a huge crowd pleaser. I’m not a strong swimmer (the triathlon became another Bucket List entry), but I’m enthusiastic and competent. At gatherings where there is a pool, I’m in like Flynn. This has happened twice in the last decade, as I live in England. Or rather, I used to live in England. I now reside somewhere altogether hotter, somewhere where a dip is required. Somewhere where the food is a little on the fatty side and I could probably do with putting some of that triathlon training into practice. I’m in Iraq.

The power of those three little words. They’re a contrivance to shock readers of my Facebook status and emails to friends unaware of my sudden and necessary decision to move here. The truth is that I’m teaching in Iraqi Kurdistan, the friendly, safe part of this beautiful country. Merely saying I am living in Iraq serves as a geographical locator and, of course, sounds like I’ve got clockweights of titanium nestling in my boxers.

I arrived at the end of spring, which at a cool 37 degrees was already close to the edge of my frame of reference. Take a look at a map of Iraq. Can you see that bit of coast? The tiny, no doubt polluted to all buggery, bit in the south. I’m a long way away from that. There is a lake where people swim, but that’s an hour or so away. In my early days here I was neither blessed with friends to take me there, nor confident enough to go alone. But I desperately wanted to jump in some water, cold showers weren’t slaking the thirst of my skin. So I asked one of the few people I knew, a student, where I could go for a dip. As luck would have it, there’s a pool in the mall just along Salim Street, and Hazhir agreed to hold my hand. Figuratively speaking of course, although with such a strict division of the sexes (even in this town, regarded as extremely liberal), it isn’t unusual to see young men walking arm in arm or holding hands. We all need human contact. This division extends to swimming pools which are strictly single-sex places.

After a lesson one day, we grabbed our kit and went to the pool. As I’m still a little stuttery at Sorani, the local Kurdish dialect, Hazhir took control of the transaction. I was amazed to see that it cost almost $10 each to use this pool, the changing facilities of which were clearly visible to anyone passing on the street by the open door. This provides one with a problem – how to get changed in such a conservative culture. So, I waddled and wibbled my lower garments down my legs, under the cover of my towel, and jumped and pumped my swimming shorts the other way., all the time praying “Don’t let my towel fall and my dick be left waving about over the band of my shorts.” I got away with it.

We paddled through one of those shallow feet wash pool entrances – and upon seeing the pool I wondered whether washing my feet had been necessary. The water was slightly milky, opaque. Not very inviting, but I took the same attitude as I do with street food. This surely is not going to kill you, so enjoy it. The pool was big, at least 30 metres in length. Understanding this area as I now do, I would bet it is an arbitrary length, something like 34.67 metres. I stepped in the shallow end and set off for the poorly lit internal horizon. I got my head down and freestyled, concentrating on getting my breathing just so. And then I was bombed. In the UK we used to have quaint posters on the walls of local baths that point out, with the help of cartoons, what is not allowed. No Smoking (not a sign one comes across in Iraq too often, it’s almost mandatory), No Heavy Petting (again not a sign likely to be seen here, but for the opposite reason) and No Bombing (the less said the better, I think). But here swimming pools are a new delight, and as we’ve established, there’s no coast to speak of. So the concept of areas of water where one can do more than wash in the cities is alien. And what’s the first thing you do when you learn to swim? You jump in, dive in, spash about and generally act the fool. And that is what was happening in the deep end of this place. Fair enough, you might say, it’s good for the kids to let off a bit of steam. But these were no children – this was a group of about ten fifty-something men, squealing and giggling like young girls. This was not a pool for exercise, despite its appearance, this was a pool for FUN. After 15 minutes, I clambered out and fretted about changing back into my clothes.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I’d made a few friends. One quiet Friday afternoon I was invited to Dukhan lake (a resevoir behind a 1930s dam). This is more like it. There were families, and yes, the western girls I was with did raise a few eyebrows as they took to the water, but it was generally friendly. If you wanted to just have fun, then you could jump in from the sides – this flood area is in mountains, so it deepens very quickly. If you want to have a serious swim, just push out a few metres for miles of uninterupted water. The surface metre or so of the water is quite warm, but if one dives down the refreshing chill of deep water envelopes you. And there hasn’t been any bombing in this area of the country for many years, long may it last.