March 9th - The Dictator
10 Mar 2004
In a village near Erbil a whole family of women is effectively imprisoned in the home by their father / grandfather, the chief of the village. Also a show in an Iranian refugee camp and on a random hillside.
Thursday is a holiday, a celebration of the anniversary of the creation of the Kurdish zone in northern Iraq shortly after the end of the 1991 war when the Kurds who had risen up for freedom were betrayed by the ceasefire and massacred by Saddam's army. It's a celebration of their freedom.

Four teenage girls sit on rugs by a heater under shimmering chandeliers, minding the children. The oldest granddaughter of the village chief is fourteen. Silver glitter around her eyes sparkled like the tear she wiped away, explaining that she had never been to school. Her mum and dad wanted her to go, at least for a few years, but her grandfather wouldn't allow it. Zainab and Ashti went for three and four years respectively.

These days they get up at 6, with the rest of the women in the household, to bake bread, then to cook breakfast, then to begin cooking lunch and when lunch is ready and served and cleaned up it's time to start preparing dinner and in between and after there's washing to be done, cleaning, looking after the children.

They're not allowed to go out and meet with the other women in the village, about 70 families altogether. They're not allowed to go to the market. They're not allowed to watch the television the grandfather bought last year to watch the war coverage. They're not allowed beyond the edge of the courtyard to the broad patio where the men sit in the sun. They can't read because they weren't allowed to go to school. Liberation never came here. Their dictator didn't flee, wasn't arrested.

They couldn't have stared more incredulously at me for the first half hour if I'd been a space alien. They'd never met a foreigner in their lives, much less a foreign woman. Finally one of them found the courage to whisper to Shenoor, "How is she allowed out of her country?" The house, of course, for other women; even the village, but the country? Everywhere else I've been in Iraq, I've been able to mix with the men but allowed to go into the women's places as well. Not here. Here Shenoor, her sister Jwana and I were segregated from the men at the door of the bus and taken out of sight.

We went there to do a show, the second of the day, but the primary school was over for the day, the building now populated with teenagers. Mr Daoud was wrongly told that the primary school was in the afternoon in that village. We were invited for lunch and agreed we'd do a show for the younger kids on a bit of open space after we'd eaten. Shenoor asked Arjin, the exhausted looking wife of one of the chief's sons whether they'd come out and watch the show.

"No. we would not be allowed." In the event the men started singing religious songs after lunch, beating a drum, and Mr Daoud decided it was time to go.

I'm too shy to be stared at so intently – I expect anyone would be, so I hid behind faces and bubbles, making the kids laugh. The women, weary, just watched. Zainab and Ashti smiled, laughed a bit with the smaller kids. I started chasing the little ones, going "Grrr" and pouncing on them, tickling their bellies and bare feet so they squealed and then the women laughed. They laughed at Kala's face and her yelps as she jumped out of the way, laughed at her pushing her little brothers into my clutches, laughed at the helpless squeaks. I carried on for them not the children. It was the only entertainment they had.

At fourteen, Arjin is already thinking of marriage. It will come within two years, to a close cousin of her grandfather's choosing. It will be no escape. Grandfather controls the whole village and the husband will be under direct family control. Her grandmother, one of the two wives, came in bent ninety degrees at the waist, held up with a stick.

At a message from Mr Daoud, we left them, the young ones following us out as far as they dared, halted at the edge of their world waving with a longing that almost suffocated me too, trying to smile for us, left them to the misery, the drudgery of their lives amid so much wealth, so much opulence, left them in the prison where they're losing their minds, the older ones as bent, inside, as the old wife of the chief.

I'd love to say perhaps they're happy. Perhaps their lives, though not what I'd choose, are fulfilling and satisfying for them but it's not true and the things they said weigh on me, the simple wishes to go to school or even out to the market, along with the pain of knowing there's nothing I can do. There's no one to write to demanding their rights, no one to boycott, picket or hang a banner on, nothing I can do but hope Grandfather dies before he can marry Arjin off and force the smaller girls out of education.

The Iranian refugee camp has been there seven years, though some of the residents fled to Iraq back in 1979. A sign on the wall says "PDK Iran" – the Kurdish Democratic Party, persecuted in Iran. Unicef gave some assistance with the school but mostly they're independent or helped by the Party. The houses are built of stone or breezeblocks, basic but safe and they say there are no problems.

In 1996 an Iranian plane was able to bomb the camp despite the no-fly zone in force and, in the chaos of the struggle between KDP and PUK a few years ago for control in Iraqi Kurdistan, they were attacked by Iranian ground forces as well. The kids are healthy, there's water and electricity, it's just like living in any other village. The only problem is that they can't go home. Still the people were nervous when a group of strangers arrived and a man with a big gun stood guard on top of the school building throughout the show, but perhaps that was just for the view.

After the high of the show and games there, after the low of lunch and the imprisoned women, we went to another school. It, too, was closed in the afternoon. Mr Daoud wanted to keep going, village to village, till we found a primary school with kids in. we saw boys sliding down the hillside on metal trays and knew we were in the right place.

"But there are not enough children," he insisted.

"They will come," we assured him.

By the time we'd got them to help us pull the parachute out of its bag and spread it out the village telegraph had spread and a stream was beginning to flow towards us, a crowd of little girls running, kids carrying smaller brothers and sisters, to see the clowns.

Mohammed stood on the outskirts, clutching a bunch of red flowers, overcome with amazement and too small to join in. A small girl in a dress that looked like it was made of gold tinsel jumped up and down with the shaking of the parachute, spangling in the spring sunshine; another in a long pink velvet frock, another in a shiny green and black ballgown, the three princesses on the hill.

Dara laughed and laughed, his one foot tucked underneath him at a right angle, his missing leg no disability when it came to cat and mouse. Parachute football was harder, trying to grip the fabric when it was being shaken by standing kids around him and he was sitting, or to hold that and his crutches and stand up. He gave up and just sat on the fringe of the game. I sat on the ground beside him, playing at his height, and he made the save of the game with his head.

We taught them Boomchucka before we left, following Peat as he played his whistle, the kids skipping down the hill after us waving. Fisheye was walking backwards videoing them, tripped over a stone he hadn't seen and fell head over heels like a clown. It was magic.