”We have a Ministry of Martyrs for a good reason”
“Since the seventies the Iraqi Kurds have been constantly exposed to violence and threats”, says Hanife Masoomifar, a Canadian master’s student from the School of Governance who did his fieldwork in the capital of Erbil in July. “There was the war between Iraq and Iran, the aggression of Saddam Hussein, including chemical weapons, the Gulf War and now IS. There’s an old Kurdish proverb that says, ‘The Kurds have no friends but the mountains’.”
Masoomifar (24) wanted to know how the young, democratic, quasi-autonomous state of Kurdistan manages when it comes to building institutions and developing its human capacity. Islamic State (IS) is only 30 kilometres away from Erbil, in Mosul.
No, his parents weren’t too keen on him doing fieldwork in Kurdistan. Isn’t that where IS are wreaking such death and destruction? His parents’ concerns decreased somewhat after they made inquiries about the hazards. Erbil, where Masoomifar planned to stay, appeared to be quite safe, other than a car bombing in April that killed two civilians.
Masoomifar was most concerned about Turkey. Four days before he left (7 July), the Turks started to get involved in the conflict by calling for a buffer zone in Syria. But the master’s student was resolute and headed for Erbil regardless, where he couch-surfed in people’s homes.
“In Kurdistan I never felt afraid. The Peshmerga have so far been able to keep IS at a distance. The Kurds have a deep trust in these soldiers, who have a bold reputation. Peshmerga means ‘he who faces death’. In restaurants you see them eating with their guns slung around their shoulders. There are signs everywhere in the streets urging people to report anything strange they notice. Shop owners in smaller villages got suspicious when I entered. I don’t look like a Kurd, I don’t speak the language, I dress differently. Then security came and checked my passport. No problem.”
For his thesis Masoomifar conducted nine interviews with employees of three ministries: Higher Education and Scientific Research; Natural Resources; and Planning. Human capacity is a key word in the government’s policy. “That’s why the government has been sending students abroad – to gain the necessary skills, experience and expertise. Most of these 4000 students went to the UK, but some came to Holland as well.”
Expatriates are also encouraged to return to Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly as the region is in need of well-educated employees for the petroleum and other sectors. According to the civil servants Masoomifar interviewed the government places great value on self-reliance, largely as a consequence of the persecution and mass executions by Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Masoomifar also interviewed a professor and adviser to the government, who explained why Kurdistan has a Ministry of Martyrs. “Other countries don’t need such a ministry; they don’t have martyrs on the scale that we have as a result of Hussein’s atrocities. They didn’t have mass executions. They didn’t have over 4500 villages flattened. We did. We need such a ministry. We need to look after the families who lost men fighting for this land. We have lost lives. This affects how we govern ourselves.”
Closer to Turkey than the PKK
Iraqi Kurdistan, population eight million, is part of the federalist system of Iraq and operates with a substantial degree of autonomy. As a parliamentary democracy led by President Masoud Barzani, it is the safest region in Iraq, despite the fact that Islamic State (IS) is encamped only 30 kilometres from the capital of Erbil. Economic progress is hampered by this constant threat and military expenses are on the rise. At the same time, friction between Kurdistan and the Iraqi Central Government on the issue of oil has resulted in a financial crisis. Kurdistan has a huge reserve of 45 billion barrels.
Iraqi Kurdistan gained official sovereignty in 2004. The roots of the present situation can be traced to 1988, when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja. The subsequent Kurdish uprising in 1991 resulted in Resolution 688 of the United Nations Security Council, which established a no-fly zone over the region. In the following year the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) was installed. The region was recently bombed by Turkey, when several air strikes aimed at the PKK – a militant organisation seeking independence for Turkey’s Kurds – killed civilians as well, according to Amnesty International. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has a close trading relationship with Turkey and regards the PKK as its rival.