Iraqi Kurdistan: Death of an Uprising
By: Joe Dyke
Published Tuesday, May 29, 2012
One year after the quashed protests in Iraqi Kurdistan, Al-Akhbar finds a collective depression amongst those involved in the movement, powerless and without cohesive representation while corruption within the government is still rife.
In February 2011, inspired by uprisings in the Arab world, the Kurds of Iraq rose up against their leaders, demanding an end to the stranglehold of power of the two dominant parties in their semi-autonomous region.
For over two months protesters occupied a key square of the second city Sulaymaniyah calling for reform, real democracy, and an end to corruption in the oil rich region that long been dominated by two politicians – Massoud Barzani of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The two have divided the realm between them, with oil wealth being split between the parties. The current oil minister remains in his post despite a major corruption investigation against him in the UK.
From the beginning of the uprising, security forces of both the KDP and the PUK cracked down hard, with one person killed and dozens more injured on the first day alone. In total at least ten people died, while hundreds of others suffered serious injuries. The sheer force of the crackdown eventually silenced the protesters, leaving behind the remnants of a revolution.
On the wall of a small cafe sit a series of photos of men with bloody hands, carrying their dying friends or staring into the camera half-shocked, half-defiant. The images are reminiscent of those seen in Tunisia, Egypt and even Libya.
Between piles of copies of Western philosophy translated into Kurdish, Nasik Kadir is filling out forms. The Ad Hoc Committee spokesperson of the Sulaymaniyah protests, she has taken it upon herself to lead the fight for those who lost out in the crackdown, holding regular surgeries for those injured and the families of those killed. In the course of an hour a series of men and women pass by, with Kadir taking down their details and recording the injuries inflicted on them or their loved ones. She says that both parties in the region have pretended to investigate the killings of unarmed protesters, but both have an interest in silence as they were equally complicit.
“It was very clear that the shooters were the gunmen of the force compound of KDP firstly. The following days it was done by the authorities in Sulaymaniyah, which is PUK,” she says.
“They have created so many different committees (for investigations), within government, within parliament, within Barzani’s office. But in Kurdistan all is divided among the two main political parties, the result is nothing.”
Kadir bemoans the dearth of independent journalism to hold the government to account. “Civil society is very weak in Kurdistan, the media that exists; almost all of it belongs to one of the political parties...The problem is the absence of the rule of law. The persons or the forces (who killed protesters) have been identified by the court but the political parties are not handing them over.”
Among those involved in the campaign is Zahid Mahmoud Imam, whose 14-year-old son Surkew was killed on the third day of the protests. Heading home from school, he came across and joined a protest. Security forces fired lived ammunition at the crowd, hitting Surkew. He was rushed to hospital, but died later that night.
“Until now, the court hasn’t made a decision concerning the criminals who killed my son,” Imam says. “I want a free trial, not one controlled by political parties.”
Kadir’s campaign, she says, has two aims. “Firstly you cannot find even one place where all the names of the victims are listed, so we said at least we can gather the names to see how many people were injured. Many of them are seeking compensation,” she says. “The second aim is a humanitarian one; we are just trying to make the youth feel better about themselves.”
And positivity appears to be in short supply in the movement. All those involved in the protests that Al-Akhbar met, both in Sulaymaniyah and the capital Erbil, seemed deflated, almost bereft by the failure of the movement. San Saravan, a Kurdish media activist whose film of the attack on the first day of protests proved a key tool in spreading the uprising, says there was a collective feeling of depression after the movement failed.
Describing the prevailing sense of loss, Saravan said “Every day we were making a movement, we were part of a movement and suddenly it stopped. Everything was quiet and they controlled it with guns.”
He claims that many of those who could left the country for fear of further repercussions. “The people who were active, some of them have run away, they have claimed asylum, some of them are in hiding, some of them can't walk safely in the streets. As a movement everything has gone backwards.”
The Post Mortem
All of those involved have different theories as to why the revolution in Kurdistan failed but all stress the importance of carrying out a self-autopsy in order to identify the moment the region became condemned to be ‘nearly revolutionary.’ One key element was the lack of protests outside of Sulaymaniyah, particularly in Erbil. The capital city’s silence was taken by the ruling political parties as a sign of tacit support.
While it is true that Sulaymaniyah has more of a history of independence and protest, there were are other factors at play including the notoriously powerful security forces in the city. One Erbil-based Kurdish journalist tells the story of a prominent protest leader who planned a march in the city last February.
“He said ‘I am going to organise a protest’ and announced it on Facebook. The next day he got a call from a girl he didn’t know being very aggressive. He thought it was probably a trap and then she rang back two days later and said, ‘If you go ahead with the protest then I will say you raped me.’ So he cancelled it.” The journalist says he is convinced the woman was put to it by the security forces.
On a wider level, there were also internal reasons why the movement floundered. In Tunisia and Egypt there was a single figure to unite against, with opposition movements splintering after the fall of the old dictators. In Kurdistan the protests were not against a particular regime, but a corrupt duopoly.
Opposition, therefore, required a more feasible alternative vision to be developed, one that offered genuine proposals. The group that claimed that mantle were the Gorran (Change) Movement, who claimed to offer a fresh start for Kurdistan.
But the Change Movement was made up not of the young Kurds who took to the streets, many of whom who had known little of Saddam Hussein’s rule, but instead of older Kurds including seasoned politicians. Maria Fantappie, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Center specializing in Iraq, says the divide between the groups was never bridged.
"The reason the Sulaymaniyah protests floundered rests in the disconnect between the youth who took to the streets and the opposition parties, Gorran and the Islamic party,” she says.
“In the months that followed the protests, the opposition parties failed to recast themselves as representatives of the youth's demands and as an attractive alternative to the ruling political parties, the KDP and the PUK.”
The Change Movement leaders were, Fantappie says, even treated with suspicion by those on the ground, a claim seemingly borne out by Saravan’s reaction when asked about the group. “As far as I am concerned they couldn't do anything. The Change Movement said it was a big hope for everyone but after a while it was clear they were acting in the same strategy and with the same ideas as the other political parties.”
What is left is a revolutionary movement in hiding and in depression. The only positive point Fantappie can muster is that the protests, the first of their kind in Kurdistan, prove that the youth is able to mobilize and rise up. “That is undoubtedly a very important step in the building up of a politically-aware civil society,” she says.
Yet travelling around Kurdistan there is no feeling that change is coming, of a second round of protests to come. Instead there is more a lamentation of a lost opportunity. “The youth were on the streets, they were getting together, they had something to live for,” Kadir says. “But right now everybody has gone back to their corner. It’s a little bit depressing, yes.”