By Aras Ahmed Mhamad:
When Hujam Surchi was beheaded in January 2015 by an Islamic State member and the photos of the atrocity circulated in the media, the entire Kurdish population felt outraged. Kurds all over the world felt disgraced and degraded when it became known that the IS member was speaking Kurdish.
Hujam Surchi’s head embodied the head of the Kurdish nation because firstly he was a peshmerga and secondly he left 11 children behind. What has made Hujam’s martyrdom especially memorable was that his family were living below the poverty line and he hadn’t received his salary for months and yet carried on protecting his land against the IS fanatics.
On September 27th, a wave of demonstrations hit the streets of the Kurdistan region calling on the political parties to end their animosities and provide respectable living conditions for the citizens. What makes this new wave of demonstrations truly remarkable is that people are outraged not only at the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) but also at the Gorran Movement and the three Islamic parties.
Announcements and preparations for these protests and rallies followed the Ministry of Education’s decision to start the school year without paying salaries being paid to teachers and other employees. People from all walks of life participated in the demonstrations.
In Slemani province, thousands of Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) employees staged protests and arranged a mass demonstration in the city’s most famous street, Salim Street / Seholeke. In towns and districts of the province such as Raniye, Koye, Derbendikhan, Halabja and Kelar more demonstrations took place.
Protesters in Slemani province raised slogans that said: “Teacher’s dignity reflects the dignity of the homeland. Stop dishonoring the dignity of Kurdistan”. Another slogan read: “Kurdistan’s wealth must be used for the public and not just for a few elite ruling families and politicians”.
Small acts of rebellion and personal protests in a few accounts and pages on social media by a few employees and people from Hawler, the Kurdistan region’s capital, and Duhok, in the KDP’s zone, were soon tracked by controllers of the partisan pages and shadow media .
The KDP zone is well known for its limited freedom of speech and the KDP’s fierce suppression of any acts of protest that do not serve the interests of KDP politicians. One night before the demonstrations, when Hemin Abdula Khaliq, a peshmerga from Bineslewe/Hawler, and his son, Amanj, criticized the government in a Facebook post and asked for their salaries without even mentioning the KDP, they were allegedly seized by forces loyal to the KDP.
Hemin could have been protesting against the PUK or Gorran Movement, but the KDP did not allow him to clarify his thoughts. Hemin’s hair was cut and his eyebrows shaved. He was forced to leave Hawler and go to Kirkuk. Photos of Hemin soon went viral on social media.
When Hujam’s video circulated, Kurds in the diaspora and Kurdistan changed their profile pictures in an act of solidarity to boost the morale of this peshmerga and to show support for the peshmerga forces. Fundraising campaigns were initiated inside and outside the region to support Hujam’s family members.
Hemin’s head, in a sense comparable to Hujam’s, represents the free voice of a nation and a strong desire for personal freedoms. Ordinary citizens including myself and Hemin would never wish to destroy the government, but officials must allow us to voice our thoughts and opinions. Like Hemin, my grandfather was a peshmerga in the 1970s and late 1980s, and there is scarcely a single family in the Kurdistan region that hasn’t included peshmergas. Consequently, it makes no sense to a Kurd when elite politicians bargains with the name of peshmerga.
Thousands of Kurds changed their profile pictures to support Hemin’s rightful demand. Campaigns have even started asking people to shave their hair and eyebrows and soon people, including a few KRG officials, responded and shaved their hair. The Mayor of Chamjamal was one those who shaved his hair and posted his pictures on social media.
Hujam was beheaded because his head represented a strong demand for liberation. Hemin’s criticized the KRG because it is dysfunctional and people must be free to resist corruption and nepotism. So, similarly, Hujam’s struggle signified resistance in the face of tyranny.
People can no longer tolerate political outbidding, favoritism and confiscation of rights.
The KDP has major responsibility for the crises and should be held accountable because it controls almost all the major government posts — including the Kurdistan region president, KRG prime minister and head of KRG security forces — and most of the region’s natural resources and income. The KDP shut down the Kurdish parliament and fired four ministers, replacing them with its own party members, while resorting to the courts to solve its problems with its opponent party, the Gorran Movement.
Hujam represented the determination of a nation that wants peace, prosperity and independence; likewise Hemin’s resilience and rebellious spirit symbolizes the will of a nation that wants economic reform and an end of corruption.
“I am a peshmerga. The KDP has asked me to become their member three months ago. They have used every possible way (to convince me). They said if I become a KDP member, I will not have financial problems and make life a lot better and promote my position… but I refused to be a KDP member. They then transferred me to Khanaqin and I committed to the decision. But they fired me on August 16th.” Hemin said in an interview after his release. “They beat me, insulted and swore at my family, my wife, my mother and my sisters.”
Shaving Hemin’s head reminds the population of the cruelties of the Baath regime and its brutal clampdown on any dissident act. That regime could not survive although it had one of the most ruthless militaries in the region.
Hemin is not only a peshmerga but also a human being; therefore, his dignity must be respected. Why should anyone be punished and humiliated for asking for their rights? Kurdish politicians’ demeaning maneuvers, crackdown campaigns and inhuman suppression of the people of the region are disgraceful and undermine any hope for reform. Is any opportunity left to build the nation
and consolidate political pluralism?
Aras Ahmed Mhamad is a journalist based in the Kurdistan region. He has contributed to Fair Observer, The World Weekly, Newsweek Middle East, The New Arab, and Your Middle East, among others. He is the author of “School and University: A Fundamental Roadmap For Self Awareness, Democracy and Sovereignty”