March 12th - Maxmur
14 Mar 2004
Making music for a deaf boy in the Maxmur camp of Kurdish refugees from Turkey; the women's centre at the camp and the rest of our tour around Erbil.
His eyes sparkled with joy and tears. For the first time in the eleven years of his life, a refugee for all of them, Nuredi was hearing music, holding Luis’s didge to his ear. Bright brown eyes, amid the freckles, sunburnt nose and a huge smile of disbelief and delight which didn’t leave him the rest of the day. Rindo kissed the top of his head as he gazed at us like we were some sort of magicians.

Almost ten thousand people live in the refugee camp at Maxmur, Kurds fleeing repression in Turkey. The camp has existed, in different places, since 1979, more and more people joining, moved on, from time to time, by Turkish troops, the Iraqi government or the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Medya, a German woman who has lived and moved with the camp since 1994, explained that the UNHCR forced them to move saying the camp had grown too big for the organisation to provide for them. “But really the UNHCR is just controlled by the US military, the same as everything else.”

The last move, to land outside the village of Maxmur, was in 1998 because of attacks by Turkish troops, destroying the camp despite the ‘protection’ of the US and UK imposed No-Fly Zone, set up to prevent the Iraqi army attacking the Kurds. There were countless reports of incursions by Turkish troops into the areas along the border with the Kurdish semi-autonomous zone, under the conspicuous absence of the usual allied air patrols.

Speaking Kurdish, like the use of Kurdish names, was not allowed in Turkey, Britain and the US’s ally and favoured client for arms and torture equipment. More recently, after the enactment of dozens of reform laws aimed at securing European Union membership, the language has been legalised but still, Medya says, for public speeches or approaching elections, anything important, the police are likely to interrupt and prevent it.

Many thousands of people are still missing, still being imprisoned for political opinions or party membership. They say they won’t go back because they’re scared of the Turkish government. The reforms exist on paper only. There’s no practical improvement. Lots of them have nowhere to go back to anyway because their homes and villages have been destroyed or the grazing land that used to be their livelihood is a minefield.

Around the camp, too, there are walls with “MAG” painted on them: the Mine Action Group. They’ve cleared lots of places but still the residents say they hear some explosions. Inge, the German doctor who’s lived at the camp for the last three months, says four children were killed recently by unexploded cluster bombs blowing up at the Al-Tash camp of Iranian Kurdish refugees in Ramadi, in central Iraq.

Inge plans to stay long term, having spent two weeks at the camp in the summer, working out what the main health problems were. Malnutrition is a big one, the food ration being devoid of vitamins and fresh food. The kids don’t eat enough because they hate eating the same things every day, the same rice, beans and flour. Although it rains, the land isn’t fertile. There were no trees at all when they arrived there and there aren’t many now. “Look,” Arjin pointed at the bare slopes of the mountains behind the camp. “It is desert.”

There’s a water supply for one hour a day and erratic, infrequent electricity. The nearby village has a bit more electricity but still only one hour a day when water comes out of the taps. That’s not so bad in winter when it rains as well, but in summer it’s a nightmare. It’s hot and there’s no other source of water. A tank on the hillside supplies water from the river, heavily chlorinated and cloudy.

Infectious diseases, especially typhoid and brucellosis, are rife and malformation of broken bones is common. As well, Inge says, there are huge psychological problems because of the living conditions, depression and women, many, many women, suffering from trauma after being raped with impunity by Turkish troops.

The women’s centre was founded about a year and a half ago as a venue for education and empowerment of the women. Men are allowed to use the facilities and visit but it belongs to the women. There haven’t been any real problems from the men objecting to the centre and its work but Medya says the women there are very strong. They don’t take any problems. “It took a long time though. They used to ask why would you bother sending girls to school, when they are only going to get married and have babies.”

A young woman walked through in tight jeans, another one in the balloon-like trousers worn by Kurdish men and a slim fitting long sleeved top. I haven’t seen women in those clothes anywhere else and Medya says you don’t see it anywhere else in the camp. “Here is a sanctuary.”

The centre holds classes in music, English, writing, women’s health and so on. A group called Mothers For Peace meets there, a row of women with deeply lined faces, who have lost sons or brothers, sick of war and repression, shaking hands with the lads, kissing me on both cheeks, four, five, six kisses: the circus was welcome. Within the camp they visit the lonely ones, take part in the general organisation of the place, but they’re part of a wider network of Mothers For Peace as well.

Just after we arrived, unexpected, a loudspeaker announced that at 2pm there would be a show for the kids on the stage. We went out to look at the theatre about an hour before we started and already the steps were full of children, waiting to see what was going to happen. We couldn’t resist playing, Peat letting the kids stroke Woodbine the raccoon, who wriggles his tail when his chin is tickled and jumps up Peat’s arm now and then, making them squeal and laugh.

We started out on a huge stage at the front of an amphitheatre, a thousand or so children yelling “Boomchucka” back at us, hardly believing there was a red and yellow man juggling in front of them, an eight or nine foot tall woman, a wooden tube that roared and trumpeted, a big man who made multi coloured pictures appear in a book. Bit by bit the stage got smaller till we were performing in a broom cupboard sized gap, one of the doorways onto the stage completely closed off by the crowd.

There was no translator to do the usual pie in the face act so we improvised, Fisheye and I plotting conspicuously, getting Luis, the bullying clown, to hold Peat as he juggled, believing that Peat was the target of the pie. Just as the pie began its arc, Peat dropped a ball and the pie got Luis. The kids howled with laughter, Luis howled with rage, we all ran away, the pie foam went everywhere and we had to sit in the Cultural Centre behind the stage for ten minutes while they persuaded the kids that it was the end.

The centre’s walls were hung with banners quoting Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Turkish Kurds. “Without victory, there is no life for the Kurdish people.” His words are on the walls of the women’s centre as well and the youth centre. They speak the Kurmanji dialect of Turkish Kurds rather than the Sorani spoken in the surrounding area. They also run on Turkish time, an hour behind the next village.

It looks permanent enough, like any other village. The houses are made of bricks and stones. A couple have even got satellite dishes on poles, for when the electricity is on. There are a couple of shops, one selling clothes, one with fruit and vegetables, a cigarette stall. Women gather between the houses, one standing knitting beside a younger one baking bread in the fire barrel. About 3000 pupils are enrolled in the schools, one primary, one secondary. Some families moved to Mosul, but even if they can afford to move out, a lot of families prefer to stay, to be in a place which is like home.

There aren’t many jobs on the camp. A few people have found jobs in Mosul lately, about an hour and a half away, depending on checkpoints. There are dozens of checkpoints so it can take longer, can be impossible, but it’s easier than it used to be when the PKK and PUK were fighting each other.

A small and beautiful eight year old girl stood watching us in the women’s centre after the show, too shy to come to us but too spellbound to leave. Woodbine the raccoon charmed her and she wanted to learn how to make him wriggle and jump, shyness forgotten as she posed in Peat’s sunglasses and baseball cap, on sideways. Her name is Tekoshin. It means Resistance. Over the last few days we’ve met several little girls called Kurdistan as well.

For the holiday on Thursday we went to Shenoor’s house for lunch with her dozens of sisters. Dilana graduated in geology last year and now works in the Directorate of Education in the geography department. Jwana is studying in the college of law and Dilhosh in the college of economics. Senar is in high school and will go to college next year.

She doesn’t know what she’ll study. You submit an application stating your preferences but the government makes the decision, based on your grades and the numbers applying for a course. You can turn down that offer but it means going to a lesser college. The brothers, Ari and Ala, at 16 and 13, are the youngest of the family but there were Jwan and Jila, daughters of one of the married sisters, and baby Rosh, 14 months old, wide eyed and fussed and petted and cuddled constantly. Their dad runs a shop, so he was working and their mum was having a day off.

After dolmas – stuffed vegetables – and rice and gorgeous cucumber soup and salad the boys showed off. Luis wants to marry all the sisters, if only he could decide which one to propose to first. He thought perhaps he could marry four at once. Lots of men up here have two wives and they’re allowed up to four, but they don’t seem like the kind of women who would accept that.

Baba, the father of the family, has a piece missing from the top of one ear, indicating that he was tortured at some point. Luis had brought photos for Shenoor to give to Mr Daoud to pass on to some of the teachers and kids we met in the villages. The photo envelope made out of re-used paper and when someone looked inside it turned out to have a picture of Saddam. The envelope was passed round and everyone looked in. Mama started crying. Just the thought of Saddam, just his picture, were enough.

On Wednesday we went to a village called Perpidan. As ever, Mr Daoud sat at the headmaster’s desk. Again we were invited for lunch with the chief’s family, segregated like the day before in Jejnikan. The women teachers, Senur, Banas and Ishtima, came with us. They live in Erbil and travel in by bus each day, those with children bringing them to the village school. One of them asked what I thought about the situation of the women here, in this village. I talked about the women imprisoned in their home in Jejnikan.

“We are related to them. Our aunt is one of the wives of the chief, but it is not so bad here as it is with them,” Kamar said. “we are allowed to go out and the girls can go to school.” Thirteen year old Chanas was in school and chose to leave. “It is because she is lazy,” her mum and the teachers agree. She was wearing a long skirt and a blazer, untraditional clothes the Jejnikan women were not allowed to own.

There’s a television in the room and they asked whether we were going to do the show again, so they could come and see it. Kamar’s eighteen year old daughter is not yet married. It’s visibly different from the situation the women are trapped in in Jejnikan. Even the air in the room is less oppressive. They laugh. Still there are two wives, restrictions on their freedom, but about a century away from Jejnikan.

The river sparkled as the boys waded across with their school books and bags. Birds were building nests in the pits in the side of a building. Mela drove the bus into the mountains. He knew a place where you could stand on the crest of the hill, wildflowers tumbling down purple and red and white between the white painted stones marking the graves, down to the rectangular plot of land the farmer was ploughing with the tractor while the cows chewed idly.

The kids and women came out to see us, Khadij in a long purple dress and black headscarf playing Luis’s didgeridoo, a woman with hair grey before its time from raising too many children and losing her husband, her face alight as she remembered what it felt like to play. And here and there, in the soil, empty shells lay half buried like a reminder of the battles between the rival parties, 1994 to 1996. “It was shameful,” Shenoor said.

In this part of Kurdistan, at least, it’s spring. In Maxmur you can’t see it yet. In Maxmur it won’t be spring until our governments stop supporting the Turkish government which is persecuting them. In Maxmur it won’t be spring until they can go home.


Check out Amnesty International – for campaigns on specific victims of the Turkish government, Campaign Against Arms Trade – for action on arms sales to Turkey and the Kurdish Human Rights Project – for more information about human rights violations against the Kurds.