March 8th - The Federal State
09 Mar 2004
Whatever it means for the rest of Iraq, in Kurdistan the interim constitution was celebrated, giving the Kurds a federal state of their own for the first time ever. More circus shows and games in villages, among the minefields.
Drums announced the coming of the parade, men and boys, the red, white and green of the Kurdish flag, with a many-pointed gold star in the middle, the placard featuring Mustafa Barzani, the murdered Kurdish leader. The Kurds have been stateless people in the empires of others more or less forever, ruled by the Ottomans, the British, the puppets of the British and, until 1991, the Baathists. Winston Churchill authorised the crushing of their demand for an independent state in Kurdistan in the 1920s with poison gas.

Today, with the signing of the interim constitution, there is a federal state of Iraqi Kurdistan. At last. At long, long last.

"Maybe they don't understand us," a voice behind me said. "I think perhaps they are Russian."

Sinan and Selim are studying English at Salahudin University in Erbil. It's a strange thing, but a lot of Kurdish people are unaware that the weapons they talk about, the weapons Saddam used against them, were sold to him by the UK, the US, Germany, France and so on, paid for with funding granted by the US in the full knowledge of what he was doing to the Kurds.

I suppose the Baghdad government was exerting control and censorship (in the form of execution) over the Kurdish media and I suppose the Iraqi controlled media didn't care to broadcast that it needed the help of other countries, much less that it was persecuting the Kurds with that assistance.

And Blair? What did I think of him? I told him Blair was the man who introduced tuition fees for universities, so higher education isn't free anymore, that he privatised hospitals, that his government is approving arms sales to countries which are known to be abusing human rights.

We talked about the war, why it happened. Kurdistan wasn't the target of much bombing and there are no troops on the streets, no house raids, no detentions without charge, no random shootings. People here know as little about what's going on in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq as people in Jordan do. It's another country.

Two shots were fired, I think in celebration of the new federal state. A whole street of heads turned: all but ours. In Baghdad, no one looks around at the sound of gunfire. In Baghdad, everyone laughs at you if you do. It's another country.

"You know Kirkuk?" Selim asked. "Kirkuk is Kurdish. It is part of Kurdistan, but it was not included in the area that was given to us. Why do you think they did that? Is it because of the oil?"

Sinan shushed him. "No, Kirkuk is not really Kurdish."

Selim looked shocked. "How can you say that Kirkuk is not Kurdish? Well, we are different there." And although the war ended the sanctions for the Kurdish people, Selim tentatively wondered whether the reason for it might have been oil, more than concern for human welfare. They knew nothing about the vast sums of money going to US companies in reconstruction contracts which could have been fulfilled more cheaply, with more benefit to the Iraqi economy, had they been awarded to local companies.

Peat muttered to Luis, "She's talking politics," and they sneaked around the corner for a cup of tea. I didn't notice. The owner came out of the camera shop whose window we were blocking with the crowd that had gathered to watch two local men talking to a foreign woman. We shuffled round the corner and the crowd spread to block the tea shop as well, whose proprietor came out. We shifted to the edge of the pavement and the crowd went on growing. Eventually the police came and dispersed us as a security risk.

While Luis did magic tricks in the coffee shop, Peat and I smoked a narghila and watched the signing of the constitution on TV. The men made no noticeable response to Masoud Barzani, the big cheese for this bit of Kurdistan, laughed at some joke when Jalal Talabani, the big cheese for some other bits of Kurdistan, walked up to sign.

The signing was followed by patriotic songs and footage, a military rhythm accompanied by shots of dramatic scenery, old film of Peshmerga on the march and images of the persecution of the old Iraqi government. It happens every day, several times a day. Television is government controlled.

In the first school we went to today, Shenoor came out saying there was no place in the school for the show, but not to worry, we could go somewhere else. We were standing in a big open space that stretched a few hundred metres to the farms and mud brick houses one way, to the horizon the other.

"Here would do."

The kids gambolled out of tiny classrooms hardly believing their luck and the rest of the village crept around desperate to see what was happening but reluctant, for the first little while, to be seen childishly enjoying a kids' show. The girls were awesome. One of them stood up facing Luis as the bullying boss.

"Bash nia," he was insisting. No good. Clowns ought not to be dancing with music boxes instead of sweeping the floor.

"Bash," she replied firmly, not about to be intimidated by any dictator.

When, for the third time, I was in trouble for capering instead of cleaning and Luis was about to explode with fury, another girl stood in front of me, spreading her coat to protect me. I wished there was time to play parachute games with them but there wasn't if we were going to make it to the second school in time. we arrived in costume, again doing the show outside the school with the whole community gathered round. The teachers had to leave for their afternoon school but the kids played with us for ages.

The school opened in 1993 after the people came back to the village, Girdesory, in 1991. The people of the area fought Saddam's army but they never took the area. It was the helicopters that defeated them in the end: the village was destroyed and the people chased away. Attacks carried on after 1991 in spite of the no-fly zone because the village was so near the border with the government controlled area that they could bomb from tanks.

The headmaster Mohammed has got two wives and twelve children. Mr Daoud, our guide, has got two wives and thirteen children. At their mother's direction, Rawa, Ahmed and Selim chased the sheep around their pen with much arm waving to position them appropriately for a photo, alternately fussing and persecuting the lamb, yanking his floppy ears in a kind of good shepherd – nasty shepherd routine.

The drive home was bordered both sides with mine fields, marked with red and white tape, red triangle flags, small rock piles and white stones. Peat started telling us about landmines, just in case.

"If you ever find yourself in a mine field, never, never retrace your steps. Some are designed to blow up with you step on them, some when you step off and some when the fourth person steps on or off them."

"So you might have been the third on your way in?"

"Exactly. And some fly up in the air and explode. And then there are the new 'intelligent' mines, which give off a radar signal when they're disturbed, like when the minefield is being cleared, which triggers all the other mines in the area to explode or to fly into the air and explode.

"They're supposed to have a metal ring on them so they can be detected but all the manufacturers make them detachable so they can be taken off before they're planted."

What kind of twisted mind sits in an office or a boardroom or wherever those freaks sit to invent those things, thinking up that kind of murder, while someone else works out ways around the flimsy export controls. Go home, kiss your children, tell them you're going to repair some of the damage you've done. Crawl on your belly through the mountains and let one child or one mine clearance worker live instead of you. You won't be missed.