Middle East

Iraqi Kurds yearn for state amid militant advance

View of Sulaymaniyah

The advance of the the militant group Islamic State has left Kurds wondering what their future will be in Iraq. Can they defeat IS forces? And can they go it alone as an independent state?

The amusement park in the Iraqi Kurdish City of Sulaymaniyah is called Chavy Land.

Chavy means eye in Kurdish. Maybe it was called the Eye of the Land because it sits on a hill overlooking Iraqi Kurdistan's most vibrant city.

It's no Disneyland, although a big Mickey Mouse poster does greet you at the entrance.

The next thing you meet is a serious-looking team of Kurdish military personnel. Men and women in full fatigues.

I've come here to meet a group of young Kurdish men and women.

I want to talk to them about what's been happening here, the rise of the Isis Sunni militants who now call themselves Islamic State, and to find out generally what it's like to be an Iraqi Kurd.

I was hoping the fairground would provide a friendly atmosphere in which to discuss these sensitive issues - the sort of place a Kurdish family goes to pass the time.

I stand in a queue and watch as families with little children have their bags and plastic baskets of food meticulously searched by the soldiers.

Kurdistan is still, arguably, the safest region in Iraq. But with the Islamic State gaining ground not far away, nowhere can be 100% safe.

After the search I make my way up the hill to the spot overlooking the impressive Ferris wheel and rollercoaster where I'm to meet the young Kurds. It's called The Fantastic Cafe.

Just above the cafe cable cars are taking people from and to the mountains that surround the park. These mountains are one of the region's most beautiful features.

They have also played a key role in its past.

Whenever Kurds needed to flee persecution during the Saddam Hussein regime, they headed to the mountains.

And as I write this, thousands of Yazidi Kurds are taking shelter on Mount Sinjar, not so far from here, fearing attack from the Islamic State (IS) fighters.

Shalah, one of the young men I'm talking to in The Fantastic Cafe, tells me: "We have a saying in Kurdish - mountains are our only friends."

It's easy to see why. Kurdistan has Iran to the east, Syria to the west, Turkey to the north, and the rest of an unfriendly Iraq to the south.

IS is a relatively new neighbour. Since its fighters took over the northern city of Mosul, this group has become Iraq's new reality, one that Kurdistan has to deal with militarily but also on a humanitarian level.

More than half a million Iraqis have fled from the fighting into neighbouring Kurdistan, and that's put a huge strain on resources.

One of the current problems in oil-rich Kurdistan is a fuel shortage made worse by the militants trying to take over strategic oil towns that feed the pipelines into Kurdistan.

The exodus from neighbouring cities also means a scramble for whatever fuel is available.

"Things will come to a head," Hawar Amin tells me as we sit in the garden of the cafe.

"We welcome our Arab friends, but if we continue to fight over fuel there will be tension here. I had to queue overnight to get petrol. Can you believe it? In Kurdistan?"

This oil-rich region seems to be fighting three different battles at the moment.

Firstly, there's a military one, with IS.

Image copyright AFP

Secondly, the political struggle with Baghdad's central government.

This week a new administration is taking shape in the capital. President Obama says the new government must be inclusive, but can it really bring unity to this deeply divided country?

The third and most enduring battle, however, concerns Kurdistan's quest for an identity and an existence separate from Iraq.

The regional government has announced that there will be a referendum for the Kurdish people to decide on independence - to the anger of many of those in power in Baghdad.

"We're desperate for people in the world to know that we're Kurds," a young lawyer, Asus, tells me in a British accent.

Asus has been in the UK for most of his life and has come back out of a sense of duty - to give back to the region, he tells me.

I look at him sceptically: "Give back?"

"Look, I had a comfortable life in the UK, a good education, I'm a qualified lawyer - I didn't need to come back but I did," he insists.

By now, it's sunset in the gardens by The Fantastic Cafe and everyone's gathered around in a semi-circle.

Families are settling in with their evening picnics and the young people here are talking in a variety of languages: Kurdish, American and British English; and occasionally Arabic.

Most have lived abroad and have chosen to come back.

Kurdistan is not the worst place to return to.

This is an up-and-coming region - rich despite its difficult neighbours.

Nuha Serrac is in her mid-20s. She's come from the US to settle with her family in Sulaymaniyah.

"The market here is open," she tells me.

"The chances I have here, I couldn't get in the United States. This for me is the land of opportunity," she adds.

And there's another reason to return, they say: identity.

"Even though we were brought up in the west our identity was drummed into us," says Asus, "in the UK we took Kurdish lessons to be able to speak the language."

He tells me he has several family members in the Peshmerga, the Kurdish army.

"Our people fought long and hard for us to have this so we can enjoy a night like this," Asus tells me, gesturing to the peaceful gathering around us.

People at tables in the gardens are enjoying their food and drink.

I notice the young Kurds using phrases like "our people" when they refer to Kurds and "our friends the Arabs" or "the Iraqis" when they're talking about the rest of the country.

Image copyright AFP

"But aren't you part of Iraq?" I ask. "After all, you're Iraqi-Kurdish. Aren't you?"

There's a resounding "no" from everyone.

"I feel more Dutch than Iraqi," Rasyan, a young woman, exclaims.

"We have a different language, a different flag, different culture. We're not Iraqi. It's time for us to have an independent state," she says.

There's much emphatic nodding. They all pretty much agree that Kurdistan was forced into Iraq when the western powers carved up the Middle East after World War One.

They say it's now time to stop fighting for a unity that was never there to begin with.

The long standing animosity between Kurdistan and Baghdad is very much part of the Kurdish psyche.

They still talk about the Halabja massacre in 1988 when Saddam Hussein's forces gassed and killed thousands of people in the Kurdish city.

Some of the people in this group were young children then. Some weren't even born. But the memory is very much alive with all of them.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A family at the grave of a relative, killed in Halabja in 1988

Many have stories about family members who died there or parents, originally from Halabja, who cry non stop on every anniversary.

"I was born on 16 March," Shalah tells me, "the day Halabja was attacked. Not the same year but on the same date."

"I've never celebrated my birthday - I still don't," he says.

"Imagine being born on the day thousands of people were gassed. That's not something to celebrate. It's something I have to live with," he adds.

Kurdistan has had a painful past. It's living in a tumultuous present and wonders if it can achieve an independent future.

When I ask the young Kurds how they see themselves and their region in the next five years, they remain optimistic, despite the battles they face on various fronts.

They talk about jobs, making a difference and changing the world's view of Kurdistan. And one of them had an even simpler wish. He told me: "I just want a Kurdish passport."

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30

Listen online or download the podcast.

BBC World Service: Short editions Monday-Friday - see World Service programme schedule.

More on this story