Living and dealing with a new phenomenon known as Daash (a.k.a. ISIS)

By Shenah Abdulla:

Daash (ISIS) terrorists

Daash (ISIS) terror

During May in the Kurdistan Region, people were concerned about the lack of salaries, electricity, soon-to-be-expected summer heat,  elections outcomes, disagreements between Baghdad and the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) and widespread disparities and corruption. People had heard of Daash (ISIS) and their so-called ‘barbaric’ acts elsewhere, but it was still too distant to be worrisome. The events of June and July, and what is now unfolding in Sinjar and Zumar, have awakened people and the KRG governing authority from a deep sleep. “Ema la gewy gada nustboyn“We were sleeping in the ear of a bull,” explained a friend.

Not everyone was sleeping in the ear of a bull, though a growing number of nouveau riche from the ruling elite controlling the KRG were busy amassing their fortunes in what some of us refer to a “Neoliberal entity ” and what others have labeled “the other Iraq”.  We who have lived and worked in this small region called by its many names (Semi Autonomous State, Quasi State, Kurdistan Region, Northern Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Southern Kurdistan or the other Iraq) have been trying to make heard a plethora of voices expressing their fears. There were and still are many unresolved issues, conflicts and disparities — within both Iraq and the KRG – that have been swept under the newly-purchased carpets covering up complex truths. For we who live in this region, everyday experiences present us with realities and discourses that are unlike those circulating in the media and proclaimed by the governing body. The KRG has often been described as a safe haven, unlike anywhere else in Iraq or the Middle East. A haven with a democratically working system, a ‘booming economy’ and an OK human rights record—as well as a trained Peshmerga force – and, let’s not forget, the ultimate place for foreign investment and friendly international relations.  This was the narrative before the Daash forays. What happened and how it happened is not the purpose of this piece, which instead considers the effects of this new phenomenon on everyday experiences and the ways in which people come to fear and speak of it.

One has to remember that Daash is not the only problem—although it happens to be the most significant at the moment—that people face today. Peoples’ everyday livelihoods in the KRG have been directly affected by: budget cuts from the Iraqi government (for which the KRG has failed to find an alternative), shortages of gasoline, corruption and widespread disparities, local party disagreements over territories, budget and leadership, and so on. These are just a few drops among the sea of problems people face in their everyday lives. Uncertainty and lack of trust of the governing Kurdish body, the Iraqi government and neighboring countries, and fear of losing what people have come to cherish (the Kurdistan Region) have always been peoples’ ultimate anxieties — since both Kurds and non-Kurds living in this region have faced countless nightmares in the past and have remained doubtful about the future.

The Blame Game

To begin from the beginning I would have to go back to the establishment of Daash (ISIS) and the different local, regional and international groups involved in assisting them, but I will leave this task to the experts. The internal and external factors for the establishment of Daash and the interest(s) of the different actors involved are clear—I have no intention of venturing into that messy subject. Similarly, the national (Iraqi) glitches, which have opened up the door for Daash, happen to be countless and too complex to be tackled in this piece. What I would like to briefly get my nose into is the fishy local situation in the KRG. The KRG government for the past two decades has neglected many existing problems in the local environment and created innumerable other challenges for people.

In the Kurdistan Region, the blame will ultimately fall on the two ruling parties, the KDP and the PUK, and to a lesser degree on the Change (Gorran) party and others in the government. These parties, along with their politically-biased media channels, print sources and social networks have had a direct effect on people’s emotions and actions—both in the past and today. Most people are terrified of the monster that is Daash and have been made to rely on the Peshmerga for everything. “We thank our Peshmerga brothers on the battling ground.” “I would not have any of this happiness if it was not for our sons on the frontlines.”  Many statements like this are broadcast on the different media channels daily. What we do not hear about though, are the problems the Peshmerga have been facing for decades. They are not so well prepared, nor are they able to face a force like Daash—one that the Iraqi army, with its better weapons and training, could not fight against.  Everyone argued that what happened to the Iraqi army in June would not happen to the Peshmerga. Those of us who know members of the Peshmerga forces as ordinary human beings, having faced the same difficulties and living under harsh circumstances in different regions in the Kurdistan Region, argued otherwise.

“We are so scared at all times that we have not been able to sleep for nights. They always tell us Daash will cut our heads off. They will have no mercy on any of us. I dare anyone, I mean anyone anywhere, who would not be sacred to death and who would not want to live instead of fighting and dying,”  – a conversation I had with a Peshmerga who was on a short leave with his family. Spending time with his two young children and his beautiful young wife who live in a hot and poor, distant village in the Garmiyan region, I could easily imagine wanting to run away, despite the hardships, to continue living. Who will remember him if he gets killed in the name of Kurdistan and what will happen to his wife and kids?  These are the harsh realities that most of us would rather not think about but instead criticize these men for abandoning their posts and failing to protect us (sitting in the comforts of our homes here or outside in the diaspora). What people fail to understand are the background stories of these Peshmerga men and their families and the lives they have been living under the KRG— lives of hardship, low salaries and neglect prior to the coming of Daash. Now, they are supposed to become supermen in the harsh summer heat, with little food and water, and forget their loved ones at home and fight and maybe get killed for the rest of us.

Despite all the aforementioned difficulties, these Peshmerga fighters listen to and watch frightening stories about Daash. Why do they scare all of us daily? There has always been some crisis, danger and what the local population come to recognize as “new scenario” to “make us busy”.   Fear of the ‘others’ has been the KRG’s most successful tool. Whenever people complain about corruption and disparities—they will say, “don’t make our enemies happy”. Whenever people protest for lack of basic necessities, such as current demonstrations about the lack of salaries (in the past seven months the Maliki government has stopped sending the 17% of the budget to the KRG and people receive delayed salaries month after month)—they have blamed the Baghdad government for the lack of money and blamed people for complaining. Now, they ask everyone to be united against Daash and ignore everything else.  They criticize people for being unpatriotic and selfish at a time when “their Peshmerga brothers are fighting a war.”  Meanwhile, people have to live their lives with yet heavier burdens. The ruling parties have been pushing people to blindly believe everything they say and, to a certain degree, they have been successful.

Living with ‘fear’ of Daash and its effects

Today, everyone you meet – from the smallest member of the family, to the oldest shop owner in the bazaar, to the mother who has seen everything she could possibly bear in one lifetime – speak of Daash and can’t hide their apprehensions. “Do I have to fight too? How? I don’t want to shoot anyone!” asked a puzzled six-year-old girl. Her mother assured her that she didn’t have to worry about Daash because they were “too far from us,” for now. “What kind of Muslims do these criminals call themselves? Who would kill, rape and destroy holy shrines like this? Wallah these people are not Muslims, I don’t think they are even human,” an older shopkeeper screamed on TV.  The elders claim that we have never faced such a dangerous enemy—one who has no mercy for people, places, faiths nor traditions. Daash here are often compared to Genghis Khan’s invading forces who, people argue, “also wiped out cultures and their histories.”

Today a scary sense of ethnicity and nationalism is also growing stronger in cities and towns across Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. Fears of an enemy at our borders has made people more sensitive and without empathy. “Kick all Arabs out from this region.”,  “We have nothing to eat ourselves why should we accept so many refugees”, “They need to take them far away and put them in a camp”: some reactions to the ever-growing numbers of refugees coming from cities which Daash have taken over.  Although not all Kurds share these sentiments, they happen to be on the rise with the increasing number of displaced people from all backgrounds coming into the Kurdistan Region. If we recall the already difficult situation there, then the root of these attitudes can be unearthed.  Other people, who oppose these extreme views, fear these ideas could develop into a dangerous Kurdish nationalist discourse—one that would be similar to existing ethno-nationalistic discourses in the region of which Kurds and other minorities have been the victims.   “Have we forgotten that we once were refugees, escaping to other peoples’ places for protection? Have we forgotten that we also faced mass murder and ethnic cleansing?” Some would argue and have voiced their concerns in print and on TV.  The popular comic show on NRT Channel (Patriport) made an episode on a Kurd and Arab who were arguing about the current situation.  After a long period of argument and fictional calls from people going for and against the two men (two ethnic groups)—they ended the show with the two men hugging each other and arguing that Kurds and Arabs have always been living as members of one family, as brothers, and asked people to calm down and support one another. A welcome sign during such difficult times.

Dissent in times of uncertainty

As always, one finds dissenting voices within the population, and in the city of Sulaymani and surrounding areas these voices happen to be the loudest. “Why should so many of our sons and daughters be killed and for whom? What did we gain from 23 years of Kurdish rule?” Some argue like this, not denying the impact of the current threat, but also knowing that the two parties only send the children of the poor to the frontlines, while they themselves will later benefit from the ‘peace and prosperity’. Others argue that the KRG has failed in the past two decades to take care of the Peshmerga forces and has neglected any serious threat to the region— as they have also neglected the people, the environment and the local economy.  “They were too busy building malls and selling oil illegally to build more mansions and fill their bank accounts, instead of creating a national defense system.” After the events of this week and the takeover of Sinjar and Zumar and surrounding villages, more people are coming out and voicing their anger. In a recent conversation with a PKK guerrilla, I was told, “For the past two decades the two ruling parties here in the KRG have alienated us, killed and sold our members to the Turkish government for more fruitful business deals. They have not cared about the unity of Kurdish people and have neglected the wellbeing of the Kurdish population in the KRG. They have cared about creating a foreign market.”   In the past two days, we have seen the consequences of this misconduct. The Peshmerga fighters, either poorly trained, too angry and hungry to fight for rich elites in power, to afraid to fight, or for whatever unknown reasons, have abandoned the Kurdish areas of Sinjar and Zumar—leaving thousands of Yezidis to flee to the surrounding mountains, or to be tortured, kidnaped and killed.

And tomorrow?

Now the Yezidi cries for help in the mountains, lacking basic necessities, haunt us all. Their fate, as well as that of the others caught in the towns and villages under Daash control, along with their ancient shrines, shall be yet another reminder of the KRG’s shortcomings. Ordinary people from all over Kurdistan mourn the loss of their Yezidi brothers and sisters as well as others who had to deal with Daash in neighboring Mosul and other cities, towns and villages.  What went wrong? How could they(Peshmerga) abandon one of the most vulnerable groups, the Yezidis? What would happen to the rest of the Kurdistan Region if Daash were to advance further?  These are the questions on peoples’ minds.  Many people have put their hope in the PKK and YPG fighters who have come down to help the Peshmerga forces in an attempt to rescue the towns and their people. “No one can deny the power and vigilance of the PKK fighters and only they can help their Peshmerga brothers,” a journalist who has been working and writing about the fighters in the Qandil mountain explained.  We are all watching and waiting patiently and hoping for the best.

If you come to this region and you happen to look for the locals who have lived and experienced a life of uncertainty, and if you sit down and ask them what they think of the current situation, you will hear many different narratives. Nothing seems to be certain and nothing is crystal clear. The future of this small political entity, which you may call whatever you like, happens to be as uncertain as the daily living of its people. Criticism of the ruling Kurdish government (KRG), along with criticism of the Iraqi government and neighboring countries, has been increasing on a daily basis. This region’s history, both past and present, has made people ever more doubtful about the future. People on the ground have many complex stories to share and are not afraid to voice their anger—even at a time when an invading army is close at their doors.  Yet again, people from all ethnic and religious backgrounds in this region, among them the Kurds, are facing another threat and their livelihoods and existence are in jeopardy. Despite the severity of the situation, people are still hopeful that, by helping one another, Kurds and non-Kurds, Muslims and non-Muslims, rich and poor, can together overcome this threat instead of blaming one another, abandoning the “other” or alienating and “other-ing” others in a region already on the brink of division. We also hope that these current events will awaken the KRG from their sleep in the ear of the neo-bull who has been fattening up on everyone else’s behalf. Now he is in trouble and too fat to run to the mountains again. But is there still hope?

Shenah Abdullah is a lecturer and researcher in social anthropology living and working in Sulaymani, Southern Kurdistan.

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