Return to Kurdistan: Part One

Return to Kurdistan: Part One

A protestor holds foulards in the colors of the Kurdish flag in her hand and forms the victory sign

Michael Goldfarb is a journalist who has reported extensively from the Middle East.

He is the author of Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq.

Here he writes about his impressions of going back to Kurdistan after five years.

For details about part one, scroll down.

Erbil, Kurdistan, northern Iraq - every foreign correspondent has one place that gets under the skin more than others, for me that place is Kurdistan.

Actually, Kurdistan doesn't exist but regardless of what country the Kurdish lands are in, whether Turkey or Iran or Iraq it just gets to me.

There are good reasons for this: the compelling injustice at the heart of the Kurdish story: as the world's largest ethnic group without a nation of their own they have suffered everything from cultural and economic oppression to genocide; the Kurds are exceptionally friendly; finally, there is the raw physical beauty of Kurdistan.

Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, gets to me as well but this is more difficult to explain, because the city itself is dusty and ugly.

Maybe it's because I only ever go there when news is being made and the heat from covering conflict cools into vivid memories.

Maybe it's just because I have made dear friends covering those conflicts and I miss them all the time.

Anyway, I was desperate to go back and see the city and the region five years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Changing with time

While the rest of Iraq has torn itself apart, I had heard these were the best of times in Erbil and the rest of the Kurdish region but I wanted to see for myself.

But nothing I heard could have prepared me for what I saw as soon as I came out of the marble halls of Erbil's brand-spanking new airport...

A 30 storey high luxury hotel under construction, new, western-style suburban communities with four-bedroom houses starting at $200,000 and blocks of luxury flats.

The first time I visited Erbil, there was no airport, just a landing strip and small control tower and the tallest building was probably a five-storey high crumbling concrete piece of ugliness built in the 1960s.

That was a mere 12 years ago.

The rest of the city bore the signs of heavy fighting.

The two main Kurdish factions, the KDP and the PUK, had just fought a vicious two-week civil war.

The KDP had even asked Saddam Hussein to send his army to help them fight the PUK and the Iraqi dictator had been happy to oblige.

Today the PUK's leader, Jalal Talabani is president of post-Saddam Iraq and the KDP's leader, Massoud Barzani is President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, which enjoys remarkable autonomy under the new federal constitution.

But even four years ago the last time I was in town none of this building existed.

There is one big reason for this explosion of surface glitz in an area that a dozen years ago was one of the poorest parts of the Middle East.

The reason is oil.

The Kurds claim that there are 50 billion barrels of the black stuff just under their land.

The problem is that most of it is around Kirkuk and for the moment the Kurdistan Regional Government doesn't control that historically Kurdish city.

The politics of Kirkuk are too complex to go into this introduction, listen to the programme for more details (see link above) but what is clear is that all the building in and around Erbil is based on the optimistic view that sometime in the next couple of years the town will be the oil capitol of the region.

But while waiting for that magic moment, a wide range of problems is simmering just under the surface.

The surge of money and the collapse of the dollar (the currency in which many people are paid) has created extraordinary inflation.

Uncovering corruption

It's one thing to build houses costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, quite another to find locals who can afford them.

Food seems to have quadrupled in price, along with petrol.

The brand new shopping malls seem to have goods that appeal only to young men with gelled hair, denim clothes and fancy electronic goods.

People ask why these malls and suburbs are being built now, when there are other, better uses for money.

Many answer the question with a single word: corruption.

At the University of Suleymaniyeh up in the mountains a two hour drive from Erbil, I was told by a student, "There is a cancer of corruption" at the heart of government.

The hopes of this new era had been dashed by the pursuit of politicians for "money and power."

The students complained that good jobs go to the children of the elite. If you haven't got a family connection or can't pay a bribe your future is blighted.

The young people I spoke to all had a real patriotic fervor and they also had fear of reprisal for speaking out.

I agreed to quote them but not use their names.

It seemed a shame. Kurdistan's future will be difficult enough, with or without the oil from Kirkuk, and these passionate students are the key to the region's growth.

It would be a shame for them to be excluded because they don't come from the right family.

My time in Kurdistan didn't shake my love for the place, but it did make me realise that the best of times are built on very shaky foundations.

I worry that my future visits may once again involve conflicts.

Part One

In the hours before the war began in March 2003, reporter Michael Goldfarb met Ahmad Shawkat, an Iraqi Kurd.

He was born in Mosul but had been living in internal exile, in Erbil.

Shawkat was an English-speaking academic by trade and a journalist and poet by avocation.

He had been a frequent visitor to Saddam's torture chambers for his political opinions.

He was hired by Michael to be his translator and they soon both became good friends.

In the first part of this series, Michael follows Saddam Hussein's upheaval through Shawkat's eyes.

Fired with a sense of mission and renewal, Shawkat returned with his family to Mosul and started a weekly political and cultural journal.

He was consequently murdered for writing brave editorials against the Jihadi's who were creating chaos in his city.

Michael visits Shawkat's extended family to find out how their lives have changed, five years on from the invasion.

He reflects on the historic events which re-shaped their country and ultimately took their father's life.

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