Riding in cars with boys with AKs

Last week I was taking a share taxi from Erbil to Duhok, a journey of about two and a half hours made more difficult because of the roundabout journey you have to take to avoid Mosul. Halfway there, my driver decided to switch me to a different taxi because he had to make a detour into dangerous territory. My new driver set off at a breakneck speed, as though someone had challenged him to see how fast he could make the journey. At the last checkpoint before Duhok, we were pulled over for a significantly longer delay than usual.

“Where’s your passport?” the checkpoint officer asked me.

“What?” I responded, blankly. With a residency card, I never travel with my passport, as it’s unnecessary and it seems rather a lot safer to keep it at home. “In Suli,” I said vaguely. The officer frowned. Then he turned to the guys in the backseat. They unfortunately, in addition to not having their passports, appeared to be unregistered refugees or in some similar situation. The three of them (including two younger boys) were pulled out of the cab and questioned by police. In all of the taxis I have ever taken in Kurdistan, no one has ever been removed from a cab and sent back to their starting point with a police escort. Until now.

The changes are subtle, but they’re there. It starts with a vague warning from the government (passed on through various NGO friends) that Da’esh (the derogative term the Kurds and Arabs use for the Islamic State or ISIS, and one that I will happily use if they are insulted by it) is now ‘officially’ targeting civilians and public spaces. Right, avoid the bazaar. We can still go to the beer garden though, right? And it moves from there to canceling plans to travel to areas that may be more dangerous than usual: Halabja, Kalar, Chamchamal.

These warnings frustrate me more than scare me, because in order to do the job I want to do properly and well, those are the places I need to go to. But I still won’t risk it.

And then there is the inevitable guy who squishes into your share taxi and throws his AK in the trunk with your groceries, or just props it against the back of your chair so when you glance back, you realize you’re staring into the barrel of semi-automatic weapon that is clearly loaded. Safety, indeed.

Before I came back to Kurdistan, I was worried about how I would feel here. And for my first few days, I was nervous – to tell drivers making banal conversation where I was from, whether I was married, who I worked for, or to venture into the bazaar on my own. Or take a taxi to a different town I hadn’t visited yet to find information from people I’d only had the vague sense that existed.

These feelings eventually wore off, for the most part. I’ve written before about violence and detachment on here, and that’s not exactly what is happening this time, but rather a certain level of, well, acknowledgement that, yeah, it’s not the same as it was before, that there is a tension now, that yes, things are dangerous, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to leave my house.

To do the job that I want to do, I travel across the region and try to sense these differences in the people that I meet and speak to. Sometimes I feel like there are only so many times I can ask what has changed in the time of conflict, and expect a different answer. And sometimes I can’t believe my own impatience when I ask the eighth or twelfth group of refugees how they feel or what they expect will happen: because of course they all feel lost, and worried, and hope they will be able to return home soon.

I have never, really, been in favour of military intervention in foreign countries. And I expect many people will disagree with me when I state my support now of Western air strikes and military support. Because as much as we can bitch and complain and point out how it’s already the West’s fault for what happened here, that doesn’t matter in the face of events happening today. I have met so many people – so many! – in the last three weeks who have come to Kurdistan with nothing, out of complete and utter fear: Yazidis who barely survived the massacres of Mt. Sinjar; Arabs from Fallujah who are terrified of winter in the mountains and worry they’ll have to return to their city, even though it’s still under siege; kids living in the broken glass and rebar of construction sites without shoes; mountain villagers clearing landmines themselves that have been there for decades, while Da’esh lays new ones in the west; Assyrians who look over the Mosul dam reservoir waiting for the day Da’esh strikes again; those frightened displaced boys in the back of my taxi who were sent back to wherever it is they came from.

And in the face of this, I cannot be against intervention. I am tired of seeing the broken, exhausted faces of people who have nowhere else to go, and I’ve been back less than a month. No matter how you read between the lines, the events happening to the west and south of Kurdistan and across into Syria are horrific. There is no reasonable side to Da’esh. And for those who argue that they arose out of a vacuum left by the last ‘intervention,’ yes, that is true, but that doesn’t help us move towards an end to these atrocities. And to stand by and watch the humanitarian crisis unfold and do nothing – well, inaction, in this case, is only perpetuating the crimes.

I don’t think we should compare horrors that occurred in the past to what is happening today – but for a moment, maybe we should pause and think about Rwanda, or Halabja.

I think humanitarian intervention is a difficult theory and a slippery slope and easy to criticize from the comfort of our homes across the West. But I also deeply believe that nothing will change here unless there is external support. The Iraqi government has already fallen apart, the peshmerga are spread thin, and the Syrian Kurdish rebels are brave as hell but getting tired. I’m starting to get used to that guy in the back of the cab with his AK, and somehow, inexplicably, I’m starting to feel safer for it, even though no part of me ever would before.

I don’t want to live in a world where security is defined that way. It’s completely absurd. But winter is coming, Da’esh is out there, and this isn’t going away.

Mosul dam
Mosul dam
Mosul dam outbuilding destroyed in fighting
Mosul dam outbuilding destroyed in fighting
Outpost at the Mosul dam
Outpost at the Mosul dam
Displaced Yazidis in Erbil
Displaced Yazidis in Erbil
Displaced Yazidi boy in Erbil
Displaced Yazidi boy in Erbil

The war back home

About six weeks ago I was on a train between Vienna and Munich and decided to write something about how I felt leaving Kurdistan, and why I still intended to go back in September – despite the comfort of being on my way home after surviving a horrific gas explosion, and the rising danger of militants throughout the region that are now called the Islamic State.

I wrote about 400 words and then stopped. I couldn’t figure out what was going to come next. I didn’t know what was going to come next. I still don’t know what’s coming or what’s going to happen, and this time I’m writing from an airport, and this time I’m not leaving – I’m on my way back.

The rise of the Islamic State and the violence that first struck Mosul, then Kirkuk, then moved south towards Tikrit and Samarra, and then exploded again with the devastating humanitarian catastrophe that is Mount Sinjar was not something I expected to happen. The week before ISIS struck Mosul I remember being at home in Suli, mildly annoyed by the lack of articles in the Iraq beat of Al-Monitor, an excellent online news source that focuses on the Middle East. One day, there wasn’t anything deemed newsworthy, the next, everything fell apart.

And because so much of it fell apart after my departure on June 20, it was hard to reconcile or understand what was happening in a place I had come to regard as ‘home’.

The representation and accuracy of the conflict in media has been difficult to navigate. Iraq is cited as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, and the recent deaths of James Foley and Steven Sotleff should be taken seriously. But at the end of June, everything still seemed pretty normal, despite the fact that Kirkuk is only about an hour away from Sulaymaniyah by taxi. I followed the news as I wandered through Europe, but regular updates from friends on the ground in Kurdistan appeared that the conflict was isolated to specific regions, and the interior of Kurdistan was safe and comfortable (or at least, as much as it ever was).

It was the massacre of Yazidi populations west of Mosul in early and mid-August that began to change how I felt about the idea of return, and gave me serious pause – for the first time second-guessing myself and my decision to return. Suddenly, the place that has become my home over the course of the last year might no longer be able to be home.

I skyped with a good friend from Toronto earlier this year – before the explosion, before I was totally disillusioned by teaching. “What will you do next?” she asked me. “I’ll stay here,” I told her, at the time completely believing it. Suli was home, is home, the friends I have there have changed my life in a profound way in the last year.

Finding a home in a place so far removed from where you are from is unique, and the reality of expatriatism is difficult to explain to people who haven’t experienced it. So when I stood in my mother’s living room one afternoon in August, sobbing as I listened to the events happening on Mt. Sinjar, and reports of US airstrikes across the plains west of Erbil, it was difficult for me to reconcile what I would possibly do if I couldn’t go back, while being overwhelmed by the understanding of what the conflict would mean for the country, for people who have suffered through conflict too many times in their lives.

The most frustrating thing, beyond the reality of the horrors taking place across Iraq and Syria, was that suddenly everyone was an expert. We had to rely on foreign media outlets in the West to tell us what was happening in a place I still regarded as home, and syphoning between the realities of the situation with media sensationalizing was exasperating*. When another friend asked me, in the context of an interview, who we should be looking to for quality journalism in the region, I named my friends who have been reporting on Kurdistan, from within Kurdistan, for significantly longer than the last few months. They are the quality storytellers whose work will last.

 

I’ve been away from Kurdistan now for almost three months. Much has changed for me, and for the country, but in many ways, much will be the same. It’s not a choice I’ve made lightly, and the number of times I’ve reassured friends and family that I’ll be okay, that I’m not going looking for trouble – well, I’ve lost count. Each time I assure someone, some small part of me wonders whether I’m making the right choice.

That being said, as I’ve slowly made my way back from Winnipeg to Toronto to London, I’m reminded by why I love Suli, why I love Kurdistan, why I want to be there, and why I think it’s important to share those stories. At the same time, I’ve finally been able to realize that home isn’t a single location, and you don’t have to tie yourself to any specific place. And that I’ll know when it’s time to go.

 

 

*I should note here that I don’t mean that media sensationalized the threat or overwhelming violence of ISIS. I mean, rather, this rather maddening habit to say an entire region is exploding when it’s isolated to very specific areas. Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan, both cover a lot of space, and it’s not all covered in extremists.

Girl(s) on fire

I was really organized last week. It was Tuesday, what is usually the longest and most frustrating day of my week, but I managed to win over all my classes and came home satisfied with a day well spent. I came home and made a list of things I needed to finish that week. Return materials to school in anticipation of the end of term. Find flights for the summer. Book vacation in Turkey with my mother. Prepare gardening project for the refugee camp on Saturday. Finish marking exams. Prepare a game for reading club on Wednesday.

Cranking tunes, I chopped veggies in my tiny, narrow kitchen, mentally preparing to apply for a few jobs that were closing at the end of the week. On my gas stove, I already had onions started, and filled up a pot to boil water. I turned the gas on the middle burner for the water, and lit the hob.

Gas fire always has that nice, hot look to it, doesn’t it? Orange and blue. I love how fast the heat comes. So much more efficient than an electric stove. I watched the burner circle catch flame. Then there was a whooshing noise. Fire rippled down the stove towards the front. Then there was a bigger whoosh and … that was it. Just orange and blue flame all around me. In front of me, beside me, on me. I could see, I couldn’t see. It was hot, it wasn’t. It was an abrupt, massive flash, and I was in it.

You never expect the kind of horrific accidents you hear about or read about all the time to happen to you. Hell, with all of my ridiculous stories, my ventures into mine fields, my narrow escapes from drug smugglers and gun-wielding hotel room invaders, from suicidal taxi drivers in multiple countries, from motorbike rides on Asian highways, I was pretty sure that when it was my turn to go, I would at least get a good story out of it for my obituary. I didn’t think it would be a freak gas explosion and a kitchen fire. Because I was pretty sure, in that moment, that that was it. I was done, I’d been this far, I’d be gone at 27 in the most common, and the most unlikely of ways.

My kitchen is too narrow to jump back. I turned, horrified, on fire, or something, I couldn’t tell, couldn’t sense, didn’t know. Ran the 10 feet to the end of the kitchen and into the larger living room. Fell to my knees yelling something, a pile of ash fell from my face.

Get up. Shower. Water. Stumbled to my feet, wondering if my face had melted, caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror before I got in the shower, I was still there, hair hanging in limp, charred chunks around my face, everything smelling of burning. Jumped in the shower, shaking, ripped off my shirt and a necklace, with the odd clarity of knowledge that happens to you in moments of extreme danger, knowing that I could not let my clothes stick to my burns. Everything seemed fine on my torso, but skin was hanging off my hands and wrists and forearms in alarming, pale lumps. My feet were burning burning burning at the bottom of my jeans, but nothing else seemed hurt. I put my face under the water, crying, knowing I needed more help. My phone was in my back pocket. I pulled it out with shaking hands, trying to call my friend because I don’t know what Kurdish 911 is. But I couldn’t do it, I was about to go into shock, I knew this, I was hysterical. I left my bathroom, stumbling to open my apartment door, pulling myself through, falling onto my knees because of the pain in my feet, sure that now that I was somehow, magically, still alive, I was absolutely going to be disfigured, possibly about to faint, screaming for someone to help me.

My neighbours, a family of doctors who speak perfect English, were serendipitously coming up the stairs. They rose magnificently to the occasion, taking me in, calming me down in the bathroom as I wept and screamed and shook, called 911, got in touch with the friends I had tried uselessly to call, and got me safely on a stretcher, carried down 3 flights of stairs because it wouldn’t fit in the elevator, and in an ambulance in about 15 minutes.

 

In moments like this, you kind of assume your body will let you check out. I desperately willed myself to lose consciousness, so it didn’t hurt anymore. I didn’t want to know or to remember any of this. But everything remained clear, focused, indescribably painful, even when I closed my eyes in the ambulance and was rolled into emergency.

 

The burns I sustained are superficial, which is basically a nice way of saying I didn’t need skin grafts. They are deep second-degree burns, and 11-days on, there is still painful, raw skin on my feet, though the rest have scabbed over and are now itchy as fuck. I am walking again, as of two days ago I don’t need to use a straw to drink anymore. I know exactly how lucky I am to be alive, to get through this with minimal scarring – I hardly lost any hair (though regrowing my bangs will look weird and take months), I recognize myself again, my face and neck somehow, impossibly, the least serious of my injuries, making me just look like I currently have a wicked sunburn and small, fresh new eyebrows.

The first question people have asked me, after how it happened, is why I’m staying in Kurdistan to recover. To me, the idea of leaving right now is sort of preposterous. Traveling home is too massive an undertaking to consider, I’ll return for my intended visit as I always planned in August. The other option was flying to Jordan or Turkey for treatment.

But here’s the thing – aside from having truly wonderful friends who cared for me my first week better than any hospital I could have paid for – Kurdistan is actually really good at treating burn survivors.

It is common knowledge here, and a quick Google search will turn up articles as recent as the past week on the BBC and Al-Monitor and an Economist report from March that an alarming number of women self-immolate in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Every day when I visit the burn unit for treatment, the majority of the other people recovering are women. And the majority have vastly worse injuries than I do. Today I walked into physio and saw one woman whose entire face, torso and arms were fully bandaged. The women have burned faces, burns that run up their arms to their shoulders, cover their thighs and bellies down to their feet. But while I rock up to the burn unit in wholly inappropriate tank tops and skirts because the idea of wearing more clothing when I feel this way is unbearable, they are always carefully and beautifully clothed in long dresses with hijab.

It is this clothing that creates such a great danger to these women. Often made out of cheaper fabrics and polyesters, a woman leaning over a lit burner on a stove has barely a chance before her dress catches and she is engulfed in flames. For the women for whom this is an accident, it is terrifying. For the women for whom this is on purpose, one assumes they hope it will be quick.

Self-immolation is, tragically, a popular way to commit suicide among Kurdish women. It indicates the deeply problematic home situations faced by many wives and mothers, for whom this is the only way out. Women are often confined to the home, and a death by fire can be easily excused as a cooking accident, ensuring she will not be stigmatized after she is gone. Those who survive will rarely admit their actions were taken on purpose – when I explained the stove explosion to my doctors, they acknowledged this with minimal surprise, so common is it an answer.

The Economist writes that self-immolation accounts for over half of all female suicide attempts in Kurdistan, and quotes Kurdish NGO WADI that the majority of families have experienced someone attempting it. Al Monitor notes that more than 1000 women in Kurdistan have died from self-immolation since the fall of Saddam Hussein. I have never visited a burn unit before I started going to the one here, but every day it is full, and far too many patients are women. Maybe I am naïve in thinking that this is not the case in other countries, but it just seems impossible. Every day with the regular ones who were burned in a similar time period to me, there are new faces, new desperate cries from the bathroom, from the bandaging room, whose injuries I catch glimpses of in a clinic that seems far too small for the number of people requiring its services. There are children, for sure, and men here and there. But for the first time since I have arrived in Kurdistan, I have found a place that is not a private home where the majority of people are women. And it’s the burn unit. It just seems so monstrously fucked up.

 

My own efforts towards rehabilitation have been long and slow and painful, but they are paying off. The dread and pain I faced in the first few days of being unwrapped and washed and re-bandaged have given way to a sort of eager examination, to see what new changes have happened to my burned skin overnight, how much I’ve been able to heal since yesterday. Every day everything gets a little bit easier; my physiotherapists are thrilled by my progress, and, I think, my commitment. So I cannot imagine going through the sort of accident I went through on purpose: self-immolating, dealing with that initial pain, then not dying, and then having to face the agonizing journey to a recovery you never wanted to have.

Reducing gender-based violence in Kurdish Iraq is something that requires further effort and commitment. And, despite my own experience being terrifying and awful and totally accidental, I feel, in some way, as though it has granted me insight to a part of the society I live in that I would never have had access to before.

As I heal, and see some of the same women every day in physio, we smile through burned faces and acknowledge each other, no matter how much or how little effort we’re putting into our recovery. Because whether or not our trials by fire were accidental or planned, at this stage, we’re all in it together to get through, to get out, and to face another day.

A cynic’s view of elections, or, gunfire and fireworks: An expat guide to living through a foreign vote

In the weeks leading up to the Iraqi elections – the first since the withdrawal of American forces in 2011 – downtown Suli was a riotous celebration of democracy. Or something. That’s what it looked like to me, anyway. Any evening of the week, you could sit on a patio or rooftop on Salim Street – the main drag – and watch every car and truck in the city drive by: horns blaring, music blasting, flags fluttering in the warm night air, people hanging out of every window, setting off fireworks from inside their vehicles.

As Election Day neared, things started to get a little out of hand. We were given a day off school, and a video of Mam Jalal casting an absentee ballot in Germany went viral, causing such intense celebrations in town that 11 people including a female university student and a child were hit by accidental celebratory bullets flying wildly through the air. Sixty meters from my compound on the edge of the city, the friend of a coworker stepped out to buy a watermelon and was shot in the neck, someone said. That afternoon, as gunfire went off all over the city, all of the children at school who take the bus home were put under temporary lockdown. Ten minutes later when it seemed to subside however, everyone shrugged and went cheerfully home as usual. A violent thunderstorm broke later that night, which seemed an ominous beginning.

Weekend plans to travel to northern Iraq were cancelled as rumours spread that Iraqi airspace and borders were closing in the 24 hours before the election, and we wondered how on earth we would spend our four day weekend, trapped in Suli, in 30 degree weather.

The morning of dawned clear, and despite dreaming of air raid sirens in the early hours, all seemed quiet. I spent the first part of the day reading up on the predictions and various Al-Jazeera, Rudaw, and New Yorker analyses of Maliki, of Kurdistan, of the unrest that seemed imminent.

And then… well, nothing really seemed to happen.

election afternoon
election afternoon

 

It was hot, it’s always hot, and we drifted to the brand new Shari Zwuan, the multi-million dollar Grand Millennium Hotel that recently opened because we heard their new bar was swell. In the taxi on the way, my friend suddenly asked whether the biggest, brightest hotel in Suli was really the best idea; who knew how many politicians and targets would be hanging out there as well? Ah, too late, onwards into the stifling city.

While we lingered in the lobby, a concierge who had just moved here asked where people go to hang out and have fun in the city. We shrugged, hotel bars? Such is the obnoxious life of an expat, where we seem suddenly allowed to lie around these luxury establishments where I would never think to wander in to at home, simply because we’re foreign, we’re here, we sort of have the money (or we can pretend to). The afternoon drifted into evening and the first pop-pop-pop sounds in the city began. Ah, we nodded, knowingly, gunshots. It was expected, after all. But wait, no, just some boring fireworks, set off around the headquarters of the ruling party. We watched, distracted by conversation, mostly disinterested.

We convinced the concierge to give us the wifi password, but the news still seemed quiet. We got drunk on expensive patio beers and I wound up at a friends house, much later, on the edge of the city, dancing on a balcony in the early hours of the morning while the rest of Suli contentedly and quietly slept off their day at the polls. The fireworks subsided, and maybe we were playing the music too loud, but the gunshots seemed to be gone.

I was planning to write something academic on the elections. Talk to some Kurdish friends about how they voted, and why they voted, and what they expected. What does it mean. But that really isn’t my story, is it? I’m just here, lingering, not allowed to be political, because everyone I teach is the child of someone important or rich (the same thing, let’s be real), so why not tell it like it was. We got day drunk, watched some crappy fireworks, and all the wonder and curiosity and hope that leads up to every election seems to dissipate the next day.

Because that hope always disappears doesn’t it? How many elections have I experienced, where the political nerd and human rights side of me obsesses and reads and writes and expects something. In 2007 I went to Obama primaries in North Carolina, completely in awe of the change that I thought he would bring. In 2010 I had my passport, money, and a change of underwear in a bag at my front door, just in case the Canadian consulate called to airlift us out of the Sri Lankan elections. In 2011 I was actively involved in the Vote Mob fervor that swept Canada. In 2013 I was an international observer in Cambodia, on the tense Vietnamese border. Hell, I was devastated when Judy Wasylycia-Leis lost to Sam Katz (still, whyyyy) in Winnipeg’s 2010 municipal elections.

Each time, I hope for and expect some great change, each time the weeks or months leading up are fraught with tension, with worries, with gossipy rumours, often with violence (as the decapitated soldiers in eastern Sri Lanka, or the cars on fire in Cambodia have showed me). But the next day, everyone just goes to work as usual, and continues on their way (okay, unless you’re in Ukraine).

Election flags hang above the Suli bazaar weeks ago
Election flags hang above the Suli bazaar weeks ago

 

At school yesterday I wondered aloud who had won here in Kurdistan, because I simply just lost track. I remember when we did our Vote Mob in Winnipeg for the federal election, and everyone was so confident that the youth vote numbers would be so impressive, that we would finally show our government that we matter. Did Statistics Canada ever actually release them? Did we ever talk about them? As we wait for the numbers and the change, we sort of just lose interest again, forgetting, until the next time we are expected to practice our civic duty to cast our ballot, when our sense of righteous indignation emerges (“how dare our leaders get away with the things they get away with,” right, Rob Ford?).

But I guess, our civic duty only matters when it matters. The rest of the time we just float away and get on with the parts of our life that we think matter more.

Democracy is broken, and not just because more people die in an election year in some countries because of celebrations than of anything else (someone told me that recently). Democracy is broken because we only care when we care. And the rest of the time we let corruption and apathy get the best of us.

The New Yorker’s article last week on the Iraq-US relationship got a lot of things, unfortunately, right: that the whole process is flawed because a puppet administration here is supported by another broken administration across the world. You can’t just wander into a country and have a war and then wander away and in your wake say BAM! DEMOCRACY – YER GO. And you can’t give that hand in hand with capitalism either, because those two theories are simply incompatible.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to get at here. But maybe that my residual guilt of spending election day drinking at a hotel and then partying on a balcony (for reasons totally unrelated to the election) are misplaced. Because why not? Why hope for change and difference and a future with a real promise when tomorrow everything will be the same anyway. We may as well make the most of it while we can.

Hasankeyf matters, or how Iraq is running out of water

The way we came to Hasankeyf was from the southwest, winding up the long Tigris River valley from Mardin in southern Turkey. We were stopping for lunch in the small, picturesque town on the ancient river – heart of an ancient civilization – after spending a couple of days perched in Mardin, drinking afternoon beers on the edge of Mesopotamia (it felt), or on the edge of the world – the Syrian war a distant but tangible thing on the long, hazy plains beneath us.

Arriving in Hasankeyf and wandering its main little lane, lined with shops and a few cafes that dangle precipitously over the river, it’s easy to get lost in its charm. Enthusiastic carpet sellers and rug makers, blanket weavers and others selling a hundred unnecessary souvenirs linger in front of their stalls, while behind them, a cliff dotted with the remains of an ancient city reminds you that despite its village charm, Hasankeyf was once the heart of something much, much bigger.

Which is why it’s a serious bummer that in less than six months, the whole place will be gone, flooded by the dammed Tigris to create a large reservoir in the heart of southern Anatolia.

The worst part about this is that the loss of a gem like Hasankeyf is only the tip of the iceberg.

The systematic damming of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers across southern Turkey has been happening for a century, leading to the disappearance of, I’m sure, a number of lovely and archeologically interesting towns and river valleys. But of equal concern (though perhaps an archaeologist would argue with me here), it has been subsequently decreasing the annual inflow of fresh water to Iraq.

A few weeks ago I attended the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani’s second Sulaimani Forum. The Forum is designed to address a wide range of topics facing Iraq and particularly Kurdistan. Panelists were members of government, local and foreign academics, NGO representatives, and journalists. I attended panels on Iraq oil policy and its ramifications on regional stability, on the future of ethno-sectarian conflicts in the Middle East, and, especially, on water as an instrument for cooperation across the region.

The conference was well organized and moderated, and the panel on water was particularly illuminating because it shed light on two specific facts that I had never heard, and was subsequently horrified by, care of Andrea Cattarossi of MED Ingegneria.

The first was that in seven to ten years, Iraq is going to run out of fresh water.

The second was that Iraq is losing two per cent of agricultural land to desertification every year.

Think about both of these for a moment.

Seven to ten years of water and then… what? It’s seems incredible that in a country where oil, gas, and water all cost about the same, the one we take most for granted is the one that is going to go first. It also makes me feel incredibly guilty about the fact that my toilet’s been running for days and I have yet to fix it.

The water crisis doesn’t just mean an end to drinkable, useable water. It means a steep decline in agriculture, in food security, in village health. There is already a water scarcity at the village level, and this is only going to get sharply worse in the next few years. This is clear when I visit the bazaar – the majority of the produce I buy there has been imported from Turkey or Iran. In fact, Kurdistan already imports most of the things it needs. Oil is obviously the one glaring exception in this – and the most profitable export to the region – but oil production also requires water for the refinement process.

It just seems incredible that the place where agriculture arguably was born is, with the loss of its water, about to lose all ability to produce much of anything.

Obviously Turkey’s stance on water isn’t the only thing contributing to this; decades of war and violent conflict and precarious governments and shady corporations and the Oil for Food program have all contributed to the decline of agriculture throughout the region. But all of those issues can, through time, be navigated. As a natural resource, the loss of water will be as devastating as any of these, and the impact will have equally great, or larger consequences.

All of the panelists discussing this issue at the Suli Forum called for immediate attention to the loss of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers across Iraq, but no one seemed to have a plan for where to begin. Turkey, clearly, is completing the Ilisu Dam without much discussion about how this will impact Kurdistan – or at least not in anything I’ve read. It doesn’t appear to be an alarming or pressing issue to anyone except those running the #hasankeyfmatters campaign.

But it’s clear that something has to be done: because the loss of this little town on the edge of the Tigris in southern Turkey is actually about the loss of something much greater. Its ancient history will have something in common with our current history – both disappearing because of the arrogance of humans who have put their present before a longer, richer future, and who will then wonder when we fail nature how we’ve lost.

 

What we don’t talk about when we talk about landmines in Iraq

Last Wednesday was “Fancy Hat Day” at school. Kids came in wearing homemade hats of every size and shape, some covered in plastic fruit and candy bars, others with giant butterflies and balloons and glitter, some with dinosaurs and army figurines pasted to them, one even had her mother, a baker, bake her a hat out of bread, finished with a pastry braid around the edge and tiny bread butterflies off the top. It was rather impressive. And one of the kids, whose dad works in mine action, wore a paper top hat covered with pictures of landmines, cluster munitions, and danger signs. “It’s about awareness,” his father stressed to the child’s teacher.

Thrilled, I took a picture, and promised to post it the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

 

Landmine Hat at Fancy Hat Day

 

Because here’s the thing: I never, ever hear anyone talking about landmines in Iraq unless a) I bring it up, or else b) they’re one of my friends working in commercial mine action (who I actively seek and out and probably drive crazy with my questions and curiosities).

For the last few weekends, in an effort to take advantage of the warm February Iraqi weather, I’ve been going on hikes with some friends. One Sunday for an unexpected school holiday we went to the Iranian border town of Tawela. Another time we visited the site of the ancient stone carving of Naram-Sin in the mountains about an hour south of Sulaymaniyah – an adventure which took us up a dirt road off the empty highway and deep into a craggy mountain, still slippery with fading snow. On both occasions, between the jokes and snacks and photos, there was a nagging worry in the back of my mind. I winced when our driver, who was scrambling over rocks with us, lost his footing and skidded across loose, gritty limestone to grab a tree and stop from falling into the gully; and again later when we wandered off the path to find a place on the side of the hill to take a pee. At any moment I have a bad habit of expecting the worst to happen. Because I can never really stop thinking about the reality of unexploded ordnance wherever I go. And in Iraq, it’s particularly bad.

It’s difficult to find an updated estimate of how much land remains to be cleared in Iraq and how many landmines are supposedly still in the ground. The Landmine Monitor, though excellently run by the ICBL (I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure to speak with a number of their researchers in Cambodia, Thailand, and Iraq, and all of them are wonderfully thorough in their work) is brief in its discussion of the issues, and its last update was apparently a year and a half ago. But, in conversation with people working in the industry, the number is appalling – thousands for sure, possibly millions.

My frustration by the incomplete nature of the data is further aggravated by the lack of reporting in regards of to ERW. And this is because the UXO issue in Iraq is incredibly complicated. The long history of laying mines across a number of wars, as well as the separated government administrations of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, and finally the fact that commercial companies have a much larger presence in clearance than humanitarian agencies all contribute to a confusing and tangled nature of mine action here.

In addition to the Iraq Mine Clearance Organization (the national organization for clearance in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan), there are a few other humanitarian mine action agencies conducting clearance including Mines Advisory Group and Norwegian People’s Aid. These organizations report their clearance statistics to the Monitor every year. But there are an even greater number of commercial clearance companies, and they are not required to report their activities. This leads to incomplete clearance maps across Iraq, and leaves a possibility that the same ground will be cleared again, wasting time and resources. This is because humanitarian clearance must adhere to a set of international regulations and standards – and as commercial companies are not required to do so (because they haven’t signed any international treaties), humanitarian agencies cannot, with any authority, report an area that was cleared by a commercial company as safe because of the differing clearance standards.

This is more frustrating for the accuracy of reporting, rather than for actual clearance – because the commercial companies mainly work for oil companies. This means they literally bid on minefields to clear as quickly as possible so the land can be immediately drilled. Humanitarian agencies clear land with a different priority in mind – mainly that it will be safe for civilians. But this isn’t necessarily black and white either. Because in addition to this, the US State Department provides much of the funding for humanitarian Iraqi mine clearance, and their priority is to clear ERW leftover by American troops, which means whole areas of, for example, Iranian ERW may be left in the ground and put much further down the list of priority clearance, even if they are contaminating an area of greater danger to civilians. The whole process is incredibly politicized. Though I’ve been told as well that Kurdistan is considerably more organized in its mine action than southern Iraq, which sounds like a bit of a mess. When commercial interests cross with humanitarian ones, things get confusing. And all of these factors contribute to a hugely complicated issue right across the country.

The last – and I think most glaring – difficulty in determining the size of Iraq’s ERW problem is a complete lack of accident reports. Whenever a landmine incident happens in, say, Cambodia, the Cambodia Campaign to Ban Landmines knew about it immediately, either through the HALO Trust or through the Cambodia Mine Action Centre. The newspapers (including two English language papers) always reported accidents, and they were immediately circulated on international listservs. I am still on those listservs, as well as subscribing to a number of local news sources and news alerts. I have never heard of a landmine accident in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“Are they not happening?” I asked a friend in the industry.

“They are definitely happening,” he replied.

Civilian interactions with ERW and UXO resulting in casualties and death happen on a regular basis – especially in the border regions and especially to shepherds. Where were these mystery landmines, then? I wondered. They are literally all around us. Sulaymaniyah down to Halabja is heavily mined, as well the entire Iran-Iraq border all the way south to Basra. In addition to the thousands and thousands of mines laid along trench lines during the Iran-Iraq war (yeah, trench lines, I didn’t know that’s how that war was mostly fought either), Saddam Hussein’s troops laid mines haphazardly throughout the region, sometimes apparently throwing them out of helicopters – meaning they may not be properly set, but that there’s still a shitload of live munitions scattered across the countryside. Lately, marine clearance in the south in gaining popularity as well.

Anyway, all this means that maybe my paranoia when we go hiking is somewhat merited. Whenever we consider heading off the path, I text a friend in commercial mine action (who is also ex-military) to ask him about the landmine situation where we are, and he always immediately orders me to get the fuck back on the path. And he would know.

So it worries me that we don’t talk about ERW here, that it’s so easy to forget about this global catastrophe as soon as I leave mine action and work in something else, for even a little while. I suppose in Iraq we are distracted by the car bombs in town and the pipeline sabotage in Kirkuk, and the explosions that rocked Baghdad’s Green Zone a few weeks ago; the landmines, no matter how ubiquitous, aren’t really our most pressing issue. But if Cambodia and my friends at the CCBL taught me anything, it’s that they should be. Because even the smallest, flimsiest, little plastic bombs that look like toys have a life-changing impact. And until we start talking about them here, they’re not going to be an issue. So I’m going to print out the picture of the kid wearing the landmine hat and put it in my classroom. Because that’s the best place I can start.

 

On violence and detachment

After five years of undergrad and then another year of graduate studies, I have a tendency to think about and understand concepts and places theoretically. When I think about power, it’s in a Foucauldian sense. When I think about feminism I think about systemic oppression. And when I think about violence, I usually have a tendency to think about it structurally. Which is why it can feel a little surreal when you are faced with the reality of violent conflict directly in the place you live.

It’s easy to pretend we live in a bubble here on the outskirts of Suli in Kurdistan. I live in an apartment complex about a three-minute walk down a hill from the school where I work, in a sort of incredibly-poor-security compound (there aren’t really gates, and most of the fences are broken). Many of my friends live up here as well. Life is pretty quiet – during the week I may nip down to the bazaar or go for a walk down the road, or we’ll catch a cab to favourite watering holes. I don’t really leave the confines of the city during the week, as school simply takes up too much time.

But in the two months since I’ve lived in Kurdistan, two car bombs have gone off within the city limits of Suli – widely perceived to be the safest and most liberal city in the region. The first one was barely reported, and mostly made its rounds through rumours. I believed it when I saw the old men at the front of our compound using a mirror to check under approaching cars. The second bomb was barely reported. No one mentioned it; I think I read it on a newsfeed.

The fact that no one spoke about them surprised me – especially in my workplace. In fact, we only brought the incidents up when darkly joking that maybe school would be cancelled the next day because of the risk (it wasn’t). They happened, I read about them in passing, and moved on.

Every once in a while, a truckload of heavily armed military police will pop up and make a checkpoint on the main ring road around the city – though they usually just wave you through. Last week a group of them were outside of my apartment building, and I wondered idly who was visiting that merited that kind of security.

A few weekends ago we drove out to the lake at Dukan to rent cabins. It is beautiful, desolate country, all bare mountains and rocky highway. On the way, we were searched at a checkpoint (“Don’t worry about it, we’ll be fine, they just do this sometimes,” my friend assured me as we were ordered to clamber out of the van. And we were.), and later we passed the prison where Saddam Hussein was kept before his execution. A fortress on the edge of his world, really – I told a friend in Winnipeg about the way it is perched at the foot of the empty mountains and he remarked how almost cartoonish that description was. Exactly the place you’d expect such a man to end up – but a place that seemed so otherworldly to me I could hardly believe we passed it so casually.

I just saw a headline by a local news source describing three separate explosions in Kirkuk today that killed four and wounded 10 others. I skimmed it briefly, without much feeling, actually, despite the fact that we drove through the unsettling haze of Kirkuk’s desolate, rocky fields full of fires from the oil wells twice this weekend on the way to and from Erbil for a weekend to relax and visit friends. Kirkuk is about an hour away.

Even when I visit Arbat refugee camp outside the city and chat with the people there about their lives in Syria, how they got out, and how they found their families, what they feel about their possibility of return – the violence of their reality is separate from who I am and what I’m doing here, in many ways. I asked a Syrian social worker in the refugee camp yesterday how aware he thinks the children there are of their situation; of what they’ve left behind and where they are. “Of course they are aware,” he told me, and I felt like an idiot, because of course he was right, and it’s ignorant of me to assume they do not. Children may be able to lose themselves in the games we play with them, but they have all been direct witnesses to the violent conflict in their country. Despite the fact that the kids in my class here in Suli are more likely to steal stickers and tell on and one-up each other in their stories of vacations or how many iPads they have.

But maybe that is why my bubble seems so impenetrable. It’s crazy to me that it can be so easy to avoid the reality of violence, of living in a heavily militarized state, that I could easily just walk up and down the hill to school every day and rarely encounter it. It almost seems like you have to go looking for it to understand it, and yet, it’s still around us all the time. Like last week when visiting a favourite place for beers in town, my friend and I started chatting to one of the bartenders – a man with a quick grin and a ready hand to crack you another Heineken the moment you require. It turns out he fled Syria’s war last year, and is now only one of the many, many displaced Syrian Kurds who struggle to reconcile their new life in Iraqi Kurdistan with their inability to return home.

To be here and yet not here is maybe the reality of life as an expat. You witness the events around you, and yet you can sort of float through, untouched by them. Or as touched by them as you allow yourself to be. There is a strange space between being interested and aware and involved and letting that completely envelop you (and emotionally destroy you), and being interested and aware and involved and believing you are immune to the events around you. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out your place in that space. Because despite the fact that I can live here and border Syria and meet its people and drive through Kirkuk and ignore the trucks full of soldiers everywhere and pass Saddam Hussein’s prison and stay off the landmine-infested hills and makes obnoxious bets in Erbil about whether or not the explosion we just heard at 2am was, in fact, a bomb – I will always have an out as long as I live here. And though I roll my eyes with everyone else whenever my residency card is requested at a military checkpoint, because I’m annoyed that he’s slowing us down on our way back to make pizza at home or something, I know how infinitely easier my life is because I have it and a foreign passport.

And when we ran into a young British couchsurfer who casually intended to travel through Syria, I could confidently tell him he was an idiot.

When I left Sri Lanka, I left devastated by the stories I heard and the work I did – unable to detach myself from what was happening around me. Since then I have learned how to separate my own feelings from the realities of other people around me (local or foreign). But in theorizing violence, isn’t there a danger too of pushing yourself too far away from the events you witness? I don’t know. Maybe I’m overthinking it. I have a tendency to do that, too. I guess for starters, I just need to break out of the bubble more often, to worry less about how many pages of math and comprehension I have to get through with my class tomorrow, and remember that I came here because I want to learn about a place, and to understand it as best as I can.

Lake Dukan
Lake Dukan

Afternoon tea at Arbat refugee camp
Afternoon tea at Arbat refugee camp

notes on a life abroad, and post-its on my windows.