CPT delegation to Suleimaniyah
Harmeet Sooden, a member of Peace Movement Aotearoa, is part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) sponsored delegation to Suleimaniyah in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) controlled area in northern Iraq. This page has information about, and reports from, the delegation.
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Media release:NZ ex-hostage returns to Iraq
About the delegation
The Kurds of northern Iraq faced discrimination, terror and death under the regime of Saddam Hussein. As the security situation deteriorated in southern and central Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003, thousands of displaced persons have fled to the KRG controlled area in the north. Recently, northern border villages have been the site of military attacks by Turkey and Iran.
The CPT delegation spent a day in Amman, Jordan, before traveling to Suleimaniyah where they are based until their return to Amman. Delegates will meet with representatives of non-governmental organizations and human rights groups, displaced persons, and government officials. They will gain a perspective on the challenges facing people in northern Iraq and the impact there of violence in other areas of Iraq and along the border. The delegation will participate in the work of CPT's longer-term project of building bridges and human rights reporting.
CPT is an ecumenical violence-reduction initiative with support and membership from a range of Catholic and Protestant churches. CPT has had a presence in Iraq since October 2002, first in Baghdad and since November 2006 in the Kurdish north.
Reports from the delegation: includes reports from Harmeet Sooden (text) and links to related CPT reports
We visited Halabja, a town that was attacked by Saddam's regime using chemical weapons in 1988. Thousands of people were killed instantly. We heard the testimonies of several survivors. The stories and pictures were utterly horrific. Irani soldiers (Iran was at war with Iraq) saved the lives of many Halabja residents.
They all mentioned that without US support the Saddam regime would not have been able to attack Halabja or produce chemical weapons. A further insult to them was the US government's attempt to use this tragedy to justify its illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nevertheless, they were grateful that the US had ousted the Ba'athist regime. Their future is precarious and they are under no illusions.
We travelled to the Iran border region to investigate how Irani military activity is affecting villagers in the area. We visited an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp set up by UNHCR. The villagers have fled their villages as a result of shelling (rocket fire) from Iran. Their living conditions are very difficult. We then went to one such village attacked as recently as August of this year. Some say that Turkey (a US ally) provides aerial surveillance intelligence to Iran. Iran's attacks are sometimes immediately preceded by over-flights by Turkish planes.
We visited Nature Iraq in SilÍmanÓ. Their mandate is to improve the capacity of Iraq's institutions to protect the environment by providing scientific expertise and raising environmental awareness in general. Nature Iraq claims that Iraq is facing an environmental crisis of proportions that are far greater than that of the security situation. The reasons are twofold: natural and political. Firstly, Iraq is currently affected by drought. Secondly, Turkey, Syria, Iran and even different regions of Iraq are engaged in a "war on water", all vying for control over water resources.
We met with members of a legal party in Iraqi Kurdistan that speaks on behalf of the Kurds of Turkey. They explained that the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) continues to be outlawed in Turkey even though it now advocates a peaceful resolution to the problems between the Turkish Government and the Kurds of Turkey. It demands that the Kurdish identity be recognised in the Turkish constitution: the right to speak their language in public institutions and full civil rights as Turkish citizens. It is listed as a terrorist organisation by a number of states and organisations, including the US, UN, NATO and EU. When asked what the US could do for the Kurdish people of Turkey, they answered with a proverb: "Don't make trouble for us, and we won't need any help."
We visited two Kurdish villages close to the Turkish border that have been affected by Turkish artillery barrages and aerial bombardment, and the activities of the Turkish military operating from bases inside Iraqi Kurdistan. The villagers are all saying that they want all Turkish bases removed from their lands and all foreign countries to stop interfering in their affairs. Turkey is a key US ally.
This trip was part of CPTís ongoing project of documenting the human rights situation in Kurdistan.
We visited the Barzan Cemetery. The remains of several hundred of the Barzani clan who were executed by the Saddam regime were exhumed and reburied here. Bodies are still being relocated from other parts of Iraq to their homeland. The cemetery is not only a memorial to the suffering of the Kurdish people but also a commemoration of the resilience of this Kurdish clan that came under especially harsh treatment at the hands of the Saddam regime. Mistefa Barzani was the legendary leader of the Peshmerga. For me the cemetery has a wider significance: it symbolises the futility and horror of war.
We visited the Prison Museum in SilÍmanÓ, originally a prison where the Saddam regime imprisoned and tortured the Kurds. I am becoming more appreciative of the suffering of the Kurds under Saddam's regime, a regime whose worst crimes were supported by the US. I could not help but think of similar crimes being committed at prisons like Abu Ghraib and GuantŠnamo. We were also joined by a woman whose son was tortured and killed here. All she received in the end were her son's torn clothes. At the end of the tour I discovered that the husband of our translator, Ms P, was interned in this very prison.
We met with Ms V of Kurdistan Human Rights Watch. This organisation provides an astounding range of services: women's prison vocational training, legal aid centres, a protection assistance centre in Kirkuk, health clinics, rebuilding homes, water projects, raising awareness about women's rights, etc. Ms V is an inspiring person; we in the West could learn much from women's groups in Iraq.
We met with Ms F of the Women's Federation of World Peace. She introduced us to five Iraqi families who have fled to Jordan. They represent Iraqis from central and southern Iraq, all from diverse backgrounds: both well-to-do and poor; some highly educated, some artisans; and of various religious affiliations. But all agreed that the UN could do more for them. We have arranged to meet with a representative of the UNHCR on 20 November to bring this concern to their attention with the intention of influencing their policy.
The families tales are harrowing. We were told of a family that was forced to watch the father being murdered, not by a gunshot to the head but with hammers and an electric drill. Three of the sons were taken away and have not been heard from since. This is still happening in Iraq (though conditions have improved since 2007). We met a young man, Mr A, who is married with two small children. He survived a bomb blast in a market in 2007. His wounds requiring nearly 20 operations are hideous: chunks of muscle and tissue missing, so is his right eye. His 'past' and health problems, however, are not his main concern; he is more worried about food and security for his family. They are struggling in Jordan where, like many Iraqis, they do not have refugee status.
We then visited the home of CPT's former Baghdadi landlord, a well- off Christian businessman. He told us of his near-abduction in 2004. The following year, his wife and daughter were victims of an armed robbery. Now his wife says, "I have no home." They relocated to Jordan soon afterwards. They both believe that the US military has exacerbated already existing sectarian divisions and that living conditions in Baghdad are worse now than under the despised Saddam regime. When we first met in 2005, he told me that "Iraqi common sense will prevail in the end"; he continues to believe this.
He introduced to us a friend who was abducted by insurgents and held for 18 hours as she fled Fallujah in November 2004 just before US bombing destroyed much of the city. She was working for a foreign embassy. While her face showed no emotion, her clenched hands told of her untreated trauma.