Remembering Halabja

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Monument at the Halabja memorial site

On March 16 1988, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on his own population, the Kurdish population in Northern Iraq. All of these photos are from the cementary and memorial of the genocide in Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan, when I visited it two years ago.

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Graves in the cemetary

Between 4.000 to 5.000 people died when the Iraqi airforce indiscriminately bombed the village of Halabja with chemical weapons. What was the reason? The Kurdish people wanted independence, they want to be free from the brutal suppression of the Saddam regime.

Men, women, children and animals all died, some directly, some after a few minutes of vomiting or laughing hysterically. Between 7.000 to 10.000 more people were injured, blinded or paralyzed by the gas that is believed to have included nervgas and mustardgas, injuries that are still today effecting the people that were lucky to survive the attack. Or should we say unlucky? Because what happiness can you experience in life after surviving a genocide?

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Memorial site

The Halabja genocide took place centuries ago but the act of erasing a rebellion by gassing people to death is a method that is still being used by dictators whom are desperately clinging on to power no matter what suffering it brings their own countrymen. Tomorrow is the international day for remembering the victims of Halabja – but let’s also keep in mind the people in another country, where civilians have been subject to the same crime against humanity as recent as last year. Let’s keep in mind our brothers and sisters in Syria.

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Memorial site

The Americanization of a Middle Eastern City

Iraqi Kurdistan has an amazing nature and beautiful parks. But the capital Erbil was long a city with little infrastructure because of the many wars, and has only started to build up the last decade. Where other cities in Kurdistan had roads, sidewalks and restaurants, Erbil is still in many of it’s neighborhoods a city someone called “The wild west”.

So what happens when a region starts to rise up, especially if it’s full of oil? The international companies enters big-time, most of them American – and the urban planning of tags along. Kuwait saw the same development after the Gulf War.

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So in a city that copies the big cities overseas, before you plant trees you build villas guarded by fence.

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Or high-rise buildings before you finish the roads.

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…and no supermarkets to add some life to the suburban blocks. Internationalization has its benefits, but also its doubts.erbil 4

The Rise of Kurdistan

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

A few years back, what did you associate Kurdistan with? If you had the same idea like me, an isolated war-torn place in the mountains might be what came to your mind.

In the few years after receiving it’s independency, Kurdistan has rised from it’s broken past and is now a developing region with a booming economy. Tourist resorts, 5 star hotels and fancy restaurants has taken the place of the refugee camps that we got so accustomed with on TV. If you’re in Erbil and looking for a night out, you can go to “Salsa Erbil” or any of the other Facebookpages dedicated to entertain young and bored people.

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Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

I love to show Iraqi Kurdistan in photos, because it proves that a country or region can build itself up from a broken past and turn into a beautful place.

To Kurdistan now Iraqis from Baghdad and Basra go for vacation, to get away from the violence and unstability in the South. It used to be the other way around.

Photo credit: WOMEN NEWS NETWORK

My Friendship With a Man From Kurdistan

Nabaz

During a night out in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, I ended up sitting next to a man in the crowded garden of the Deutsche Hof, the kind of pub that pops up wherever American troops make their way into countries: the smoky garden made a healthy person develop asthma and at the other table a group of soldiers pounded their glasses on the table, chanting army songs. I didn’t think the evening would provide the starting point for a friendship, and I might not have thought that I as a European woman could be close friends with a man from Kurdistan – but your own prejudices sometimes prove you wrong.

The man was not as happy in Erbil as I was. I soon realized that a life of sudden escapes and being a refugee didn’t create a positive atmosphere around a place.

“I’m quite a negative person”, Nabaz bravely introduced himself. “I always expect the worst.”

Despite our different perspectives on things we started to talk. His stories from Baghdad where he grew up made me curious – he was obviously not the regular young guy showing off his money in this newly wealthy area. He had finished a degree in security studies, politics and sociology were his passion, and he had received a scholarship to do his master in UK. We talked politics and travels, mocking the quick development of Kurdistan that created a new bar in every corner, but with a lack of printed books that made students develop eye problems from too much staring on their Ipads.

It was fun to hang out with Nabaz and his friends, they mixed easily women and men from different ethnic backgrounds, but it was Nabaz that I came to be close with. He cared about his friends – his girlfriends without car he picked up and drove back home in the evenings, sometimes spending hours touring around the city, not to leave anyone out. We went to the café Tche Tche’s for a sheesha with friends, spent evenings in the garden of the magnificent Lebanese restaurant, or hung out in the car, driving around the city talking.

“I don’t know how we would have survived if civilians didn’t help us”, he once told me about the bombings of Kurdistan in his childhood. “People just poured over the border to Iran and the families on the other side of the Iranian border took us in.”

He remembered seeing women holding up their babies to overcrowded trucks, begging them to take only the babies, but there was no place. Other stories he told me, on love and control in a society that I was just to get to know, amazed me. Few men I know dare to open up so much about their emotions.

How could it be that a woman that had travelled all over and had all sorts of relationships, lent on a younger man for support? A guess is that his experiences provided a depth of knowledge on how life can treat or mistreat you, and therefore how situations might be solved. I found myself texting at different times for advice. He was always ready to talk (except from when he was in trouble himself and went off to get drunk somewhere. Hopefully the roles could be reversed at such times): A man that didn’t call back? He was just insecure next to an independent woman. A meeting with an old friend that ended in disappointment? “Jenny, people change. Usually to the worse”. I couldn’t have paid a counselor to get the life advice Nabaz provided me with.

In this blog I’m writing about women that have made an impression on me, but when it comes to women’s rights it’s important also to mention the men. To me Nabaz is an example of someone who empowers the women around him. To this day I’m also surprised with the fact that a person is willing to invest so much in a friendship with someone who only touches base in their hometown, a person that it will take time to get to know. I hope I’ll be able to provide the same response to someone else one day, on an evening when I don’t expect to meet someone new. At least I’ll be keeping my guards down; not thinking a friendship cannot be possible.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog