Sunday, January 29, 2012

A New Year

Al Khayat mosque in Erbil is the largest mosque in Iraq and
the main gathering place for the Muslim community in Iraqi Kurdistan.
I'm sitting in my hotel room in Erbil.  After the young bellman brought me my luggage and I tried to tip him, he refused to take my tip.  He said "you are my people."  He told me that he was an interpreter for the US military but now that they have gone he's applied for and expects to get his US visa soon and will be going to Nashville, Tennessee, where there is a large Kurdish population. Many people  have asked me how things are now that the US troops have withdrawn from Iraq.  The answer is, of course, that Iraq is experiencing almost daily incidents of sectarian violence, killing many innocent people.   It is tragic. Kurdistan, however, has not changed.  It is no less safe than it was before the withdrawal.  The young bellman reflects what I have consistently heard in Kurdistan--admiration and support of America.  This is primarily because America brought about the fall of Saddam Hussein, who practiced genocide against Kurds. 
Holiday time in Sulaimaniya
I know it has been a long time since my last post.  Christmas and time at home with family intervened, then returning to Sulaimaniya, I've been really busy as we move into the final three months of the Access to Justice Project.  I just finished the December quarterly report and since the Project's inception, the Heartland Alliance A2J teams in Suly and Duhok have provided free legal assistance to more than 3600 people -- people who have attended outreach sessions, received answers to inquiries, had one-on-one legal consultations and been represented by A2J lawyers in their cases.  The outreach sessions are particularly effective in reaching large numbers of people, not only in the cities of Duhok and Sulaimaniya but also in districts throughout the Sulaimaniya and Duhok Governorates.
Monument to those killed in Halabja
Last week I went to an outreach session in Halabja. Halabja is the city near the Iranian border where "Chemical Ali", Saddam Hussein's cousin, used chemical weapons on March 16, 1988 in an act of genocide against the Kurds, killing more than 5000 people and injuring thousands more in one day. We met with about 50 women who met in groups and talked about their problems, including poverty, depression, and being forced to wear a hijab or be labeled a "bad woman." We discussed with them the new Kurdish Law Against Domestic Violence, which includes a provision against female genital mutilation, a practice which is particularly common in areas of Kurdistan (such as Halabja) where tribal influences are especially strong. And we urged them to continue to meet together, to support each other, because there is strength in numbers. As with almost everyone I've met here, the women were warm and friendly and it was a privilege being with them and listening to them share about the challenges faced by women in this country and in others.
With some of the women of Halabja (I'm the only blonde!)
It continues to be cold here and snow is on the mountains outside of Sulaimaniya.  The electricity still goes off and on and therefore so does the heat.  Each day this weekend it was off about five hours (or on low generator so the heaters don't work).  By the time the heat comes back on it's about 13 degrees centigrade in my bedroom (about 56 degrees).  But there are signs of spring.  When it's sunny during the day it gets quite warm.  March will bring the holiday Nawroz, which means "new day" in Kurdish.  It is the first day of  spring  and the first day of the new year.  In Kurdish legend, the holiday celebrates the deliverance of the Kurds from a tyrant, and it is seen as another way of demonstrating support for the Kurdish cause.  Let us hope that there is never another event like the gassing of Halabja and that all of Iraq may find peace.
Statue outside of Halabja memorial depicting
a father trying to shield his child from the lethal gas
(he was unsuccessful and they both died).

A photograph of the same event.