fwd: Nyier Abdou on arabization and kurdistan
paul_illich at hotmail.com
Tue Jul 8 17:05:19 MDT 2003
Playing For Keeps
by Nyier Abdou
from this week's BlueGreenEarth.com
The fallout of the triumphant liberation of traditionally Kurdish regions in
the north of Iraq has shifted a heavy burden onto local authorities, reports
It isn't hard to identify which areas of the city of Kirkuk are Kurdish and
which belong to Arabs brought in under Saddam Hussein's "Arabisation"
programme. Arab neighbourhoods are strikingly set apart, with good services
and well-kept homes, while Kurdish neighbourhoods are undeniably poor, with
crumbling structures and raw sewage running in the streets.
In this oil-rich and ethnically divided city, a perilous legal tangle awaits
authorities tasked with detangling the manifold legal quandaries wrought by
the Ba'ath Party's ruthlessly efficient programme to shift the demographics
of northern Iraq from predominantly Kurdish to Arab.
Because of the well-documented ethnic violence that erupted in Kirkuk once
the city fell to Kurdish forces, it has become the most prominent example of
the difficult issues raised by efforts to "undo" Arabisation. Arabs lured to
the city by the handsome benefits promised by the Ba'ath have fled in
droves, fearing revenge killings by impassioned Kurdish returnees. But the
trend extends to towns and villages throughout the north, sowing fears of a
wave of reverse expulsion that could end up mirroring the original campaign.
Figures from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose pesh merga forces
easily took the crucial northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul during the war,
maintain that some 600,000 residents in the north - mostly Kurdish, but also
Turkmen and Assyrian Christians - were expelled from their homes or lands as
a result of the Arabisation programme. Many still have deeds to their homes
or land, but Arabs who took over those properties did so through a legal
process under the Ba'ath, meaning they too have legal claims to the
This is not the only problem. In many cases, villages were razed and their
inhabitants expelled without being re-populated by Arab settlers. Kurds who
have been waiting some 15 years to return to these villages will need
extensive support to start from scratch, but until now, no sign of
assistance has materialised. Authorities, both in the autonomous Kurdish
territories jointly governed by the PUK and the Kurdish Democratic Party
(KDP) and within the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), have counselled
patience, but after decades of brutal oppression by Hussein's regime,
patience is the one thing that few people in Iraq have.
COME ONE, COME ALL
The Arabisation programme, by any account, was an extremely well planned
one. The process began as early as 1963, with the coming of the Ba'ath
regime, and accelerated in 1975, with the felling of the Kurdish revolution.
According to Salah Rashid, the minister for human rights, internally
displaced persons (IDPs) and Anfal victims in the Kurdistan Regional
Government (KRG), the programme was executed under the aegis of a body of
law issued early on by the Ba'ath for explicit purpose of depopulation. "The
result," says Rashid, "is that it was all done 'legally'."
The hundreds of thousands of Kurds who were internally displaced were either
ousted from their homes or left homeless when their villages were destroyed.
Arabs, meanwhile, were encouraged to go north. Announcements in the papers
promised that anyone willing to go would be given land for free and money to
get started. Given a handsome sum of 10,000 dinars (then worth over
$30,000), as well as generous loans and a hassle-free resettlement, Arab
tribes from central and southern Iraq took the opportunity to make a
substantial leap in their standard of living, even though they knew it was
at the expense of the Kurdish population.
At the same time, Ba'athist officials were shifted to the region to swell
the ranks of the security infrastructure. Over time, Arabs bought up Kurdish
lands, while local Kurds either escaped to Kurdish controlled cities like
Erbil and Suleiminiya or were banished to large "collective towns" -
concentration camps built by the government.
While the process, combined with the merciless extermination tactics of the
1988 Anfal campaign, was a blatant case of long-term ethnic cleansing,
unravelling decades of institutionalised resettlement is not as
straightforward as returning a house or property to its original owner. As
Rashid points out, generations of Arabs have been brought up in the region
and "We cannot ask them to pay for the mistakes of their forefathers." In
other cases, a house may have been confiscated and an Arab settled there,
but then the house may have been sold, or even sold several times over. The
result is that the person who lives there paid for it.
"These issues are very problematic," says Rashid. "We have to approach this
through legal means." Rashid stressed that the support of the CPA and UN
organisations is vital, and while these groups obviously carry the weight of
impartial authority, they are also seen as the only source of the most vital
component of "de-Arabisation": money.
"We need money for settling these cases," explains Rashid. "Maybe an Arab
bought his house fourth-hand. We have the right to evict him, but we also
have to be fair. We have to pay him."
INTO THE HILLS
Low, rolling hills make up the rich agricultural lands of Kirkuk province.
But the picturesque scenery belies the desperate misfortune that spread
through this region in the 1980s. The New York-based watchdog Human Rights
Watch estimates that between 4,000 and 5,000 villages were erased here
between 1977 and 1987.
Nazem Abdul-Farez, 53, stands on a dusty hilltop in what used to be his
village of Gorgay Serkasa, about 40 kilometres outside Kirkuk. The area once
sat on the border of the Kurdish controlled region and had been converted
into a military outpost.
"When Iraqi forces left this place, we came right away," says Abdul-Farez,
stroking his prayer beads and drawing nods of affirmation from the handful
of farmers who have returned since the war. A few members from some 25
families have come back to Gorgay Serkasa to start settling in and a few
crude houses have been pulled together, mostly built with blocks taken from
nearby military structures. A rooster and a couple of hens are scattered in
the yard. It's not much, but it's a start - something these villagers have
been waiting for over 15 years.
In 1987, the Gorgay Serkasa, along with most of the nearby villages, was
visited by the head of the district. "He came with military forces and
collected all the villagers on this hill," remembers Abdul-Farez. "He said,
'We are going to destroy this village'." Accused of rising up against the
regime as part of the Kurdish resistance, the villagers were told that they
were now paying the price. "We'll be back in a few days," the man declared.
"If we find anyone here, we'll kill them."
The authorities were true to their word. They returned with helicopters and
bombed the area. The residents escaped but all their possessions were
destroyed, leaving them with nothing. "I only managed to take one blanket
with me," recalls Abdul-Farez. "Others didn't even have that."
For three or four months, the villagers, joined by other refugees, remained
on the run, a few steps ahead of army attacks. They sought out territory
held by pesh merga fighters, who provided them with guns. Counter-attacks on
the army were sometimes effective, but only served to raise the ire of the
military - anger that would be revisited on the Kurdish population during
the Anfal. Eventually, most of the villagers ended up in the nearby
collective town of Chorish, in Cham Chamal district. There the government
provided residents with some land, but villagers say it was dry and
infertile. "We ourselves built our houses with what we could find," says
Abdul-Farez. "The government just gave us a plot of useless land."
Without resources, residents were at the mercy of the government. Some
worked as labourers, others resorted to begging. Many were obliged, for want
of an income, to join the Josh - the loathed militia formed by the Ba'ath
that enlisted local Kurds to fight the pesh merga. Young men enraged by the
state of desperation joined the pesh merga.
In the nearby village of Chiman Saru, villagers are also beginning to
return. Unlike Gorgay Serkasa, the village was never close to pesh merga
activity and some residents were even soldiers in the Iraqi army. But this
did not spare residents the wrath of the military, which destroyed the
village three times between 1986 and 1987.
The attacks came without warning, recalls Samad Saleh Nuri, 48. The first
time, the soldiers appeared early in the morning and surrounded the village.
Villagers were told to get out of the houses and the military moved in with
tractors, destroying all the houses. When the job was complete, the soldiers
departed - the villagers stayed. Mohamed Majid Aref, 30, notes that no one
told them to leave the village, so a few days later, when nothing had
happened, they simply began to rebuild the village as best they could.
But the same exercise was repeated in March of the next year. The military
returned, razed the houses, and left. Again, all the residents' belongings
were destroyed, but no one was arrested or physically harmed. Left with
nothing but to start again, the villagers tried to piece together their
lives once more. Few considered leaving, even after the devastating military
visits. Stories of violent expulsions were well known, but until then, all
had taken place within the so-called security zone surrounding Kirkuk.
Gorgay Sarkasa had the misfortune of lying within that security line, but
Chiman Saru did not.
The security line proved to be a false limit, however. In November of the
same year, the forces returned once more, this time to destroy more than
"I dreamt it before they came," remembers Said Mahuddin, 73. "I said to
people, 'We can't stay here'." But neither Said's dream, nor the bombing
nearby that preceded the final attack on Chiman Saru, was enough to move
people who had nowhere to go.
At 5am, the shelling began. The military surrounded the village, sealing it
off. In the confusion, many escaped, but the rest were arrested. Women and
children were separated and sent to prison. The men were summarily shot -
although no one was sure of this at the time since there were no survivors
to tell the story. "I heard their shouts," says Mohamed Abdul-Rahman, 40. "I
heard them when they were shot."
His worst suspicions were proved true when one of the soldiers who had
buried the victims told people where they were buried. The villagers
returned to the site and dug up the grave, which remains untouched in the
The women, imprisoned with their children in Amara prison, had no idea what
had happened to the men. They assumed that they had been arrested as well,
and it wasn't until almost a year later, when the government offered an
amnesty for those hiding in the area and the women were released, that they
knew of the fate of their husbands, brothers and sons.
Nergis Ali Saleh, 64, lost her son and her husband that day. "When we got
out and my daughter found out they had been killed, she went mad," she says.
The conditions of the prison were traumatising for many. Khadija Nuri
Khader, 83, whose son was also killed, says her daughter was so affected by
the incarceration that she didn't speak for 14 years. "It was hot. Our
children were sick, they needed medical treatment. They stole everything
from us - our jewellery, our money. We had nothing," she says.
I asked Samad Saleh Nuri how it felt to return to Chiman Saru after the fall
of Saddam. "It's difficult to describe," he says. "From my childhood until
now, I never tasted happiness like this."
WHOSE LAND IS IT ANYWAY?
As we drive north-west of Kirkuk, past Mosul and up towards Dohuk, we see
large swathes of agricultural lands engulfed in uncontrollable fire. It's a
palpable reminder that people here are taking the law into their own hands.
In the town of Domiz, some 30 kilometres south of Dohuk, the US military has
intervened in an experiment of act first, resolve later.
A large compound of about 800 expensive villas, Domiz was originally built
for high-ranking military officers stationed at a nearby military base. In
1986, as part of the Arabisation programme, the government issued an order
that allowed all public holdings to be sold to civilians - Arab civilians -
at a low cost. Kurds who "changed" their nationality still needed a string
of powerful connections and additional bribes if they wanted to purchase a
"They told us it was better if Arabs came here," says Nashwar Ramadan
Khader, of the Al-Abadi tribe, who moved to Domiz in 1996. "They said it was
better than if Kurds lived here." In the spare living room of his roomy
home, Khader stressed that he had bought the house from the government.
Reaching behind a framed calendar on the wall - the only wall-hanging in the
room - he pulls out the permission from the government and a copy of his
Today American soldiers guard the entry to Domiz behind a barricade of
sandbags and barbed wire. Because of its proximity to military positions,
Domiz was hard hit by the war, and the residents fled early during the
bombing. Still, most of the immaculate gardens and eerily quiet wide streets
remain largely untouched.
Khader recalls that in the early days of the bombing, some six houses were
destroyed. Accounts put the number killed between eight and 14, with one
entire family buried in the rubble. "People panicked," he said. "They were
terrified. All the families fled. We came back a few days later to take our
things and went to Mosul."
The residents in Domiz remained in Mosul for a month, mostly with relatives.
Rents skyrocketed, but people were too frightened to return to their houses,
fearing violence from Kurdish squatters who claimed that the houses were on
Saad Abdul-Aziz Husayn, 57, of the Al-Luazi tribe, sent his family to Mosul
during the bombing, but remained at his house, along with eight other
residents determined to save their homes from the wave of looters streaming
north. On the seventh day of the war, pesh merga forces belonging to the KDP
arrived in Domiz. The residents held on for another week, but the forces
continued to threaten them, warning that the area was no longer a
residential area, but a military zone. "They said, 'This is our property. It
belongs to our government, and we are going to distribute it to the families
of martyrs'." Husayn added that this threat was still being propagated in
But the residents of Domiz did not take their eviction sitting down. They
assembled at the governor's office in Mosul and demonstrated daily. The
demonstrations lasted for 40 days, forcing the US to broker a controversial
solution. US forces cleared the Kurdish squatters from the houses and
escorted the residents back to Domiz.
Despite this tense situation, Husayn insists that "Everything here is very
normal." But he admits that the uneasy calm is dependent on the presence of
US forces in the town. "Some people are scared, they've heard rumours that
people are being threatened. Some are selling their houses, others are
The situation is certainly not normal. There is a latent sense of impending
doom and Kurds regularly demonstrate outside the gate. Anyone who wants to
buy a house in Domiz can do so, but it is only Arabs who are selling and it
is only Kurds who are buying. Asked what he thinks will happen when the
Americans leave the town, Husayn gives up any pretence of optimism. "I think
they [the Kurds] will come and kick us out - by force. They'll take our
houses. No one knows what will happen in the future if the Americans leave."
"There are so many families desperate to sell their homes," agrees Saad
Abdul-Khaleq Mustafa, a Kurdish resident who changed his nationality and now
serves on the local civil council. "They're afraid of what will happen. They
figure they should take the money now, while they can still sell the house,
in case they are forced to give it up for free later on, when the Americans
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE
The events in Domiz stand alone. The Americans are rigorously enforcing a
freeze on any movement until legal means for resolving resettlement issues
are set in place. First Lieutenant Keith Jennings admits that Domiz is
something of an experiment in trying to integrate Kurds and Arabs in one
town, but his upbeat assessment of the situation is unconvincing. "We could
leave right now," he says.
"Every resident here has legal deeds issued by the government," says
Jennings. In the outlying villages, there are countless cases where an Arab
farmer and a Kurdish refugee both hold legal documents entitling them to the
same house or plot of land. "Everyone is advancing claims, demanding what
they believe is their right. This has to be judged by a court."
Currently, the most urgent issue is the harvest. In many cases, Kurdish
farmers have deeds to lands that were confiscated by the government and then
rented out to Arabs. They want to return to their lands immediately, but the
land is being farmed by Arab settlers. Because it is time for the harvest, a
solution needs to be arranged immediately. In most cases, the disputes have
been resolved with both the Arab and the Kurdish sides agreeing to a 50-50
split - a temporary solution backed by the KDP and PUK.
"For now we are saying both deeds are legal," says Jennings. "The Kurds have
agreed to sharing the land because the KDP told them to." But the Arab
farmers are the "most current" inhabitants of the lands and they are the
ones who planted the last season. "They're obviously getting the short end
of the stick," says Jennings.
As we leave the American base, we see a number of Arabs heading for the base
to take up a further complaint. They are from the Al-Hadidi tribe and have
lived in Domiz since 1996. They bought up their agricultural lands from the
landlords in Mosul and rent them to farmers, splitting the proceeds. The
land-share agreement is even worse for them, since if the Kurds take 50 per
cent and the farmer the other 50 per cent, they will receive nothing.
"The Kurds want half the harvest," says Sabbah Khalil Ahmed. "It's not fair.
They want to take the proceeds by force - they're just taking advantage of
geography." He added: "When the regime fell, we thought we'd actually get a
larger profit this year from the harvest, but the opposite has happened."
Ahmed Abu Khais Hanesh, 47, is the sheikh at the local mosque. He concedes
that Kurds should be given a share of the harvest, but says the landlords
cannot be left out. He suggests that the farmers, who planted the harvest,
should take 50 per cent and the landlords and Kurds should split the rest,
each taking 25 per cent.
Ahmed notes that some Arab villagers haven't even been given that choice. In
numerous disputed villages which came to be inhabited by Arab settlers, like
the villages of Kre Faham and Tel Mishref, Arab residents were run out of
town, their houses looted, and have not been able to return.
HARVESTING THE CLAIMS
Dana Hassan, who heads the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Programme at the
Suleiminiya-based REACH humanitarian group, warns that waiting for local
authorities or the CPA to address the needs of local returnees and
de-Arabisation is an exercise in futility. A small NGO established in 1995,
REACH began its work in the region following the freedom provided by
Operation "Provide Comfort". Part of the Iraqi Kurdish NGO Network (IKNN), a
group of more than 35 Iraqi organisations, REACH was one of the first groups
to help locals and the US military to get basic services like water
treatment up and running after the fall of Kirkuk.
"We went and met with some of the leaders in the tribal areas where the Arab
settlers came from, many of them from the Al-Ubaydi tribe. There's a lot of
tension there about resettlement," says Hassan. Meanwhile, Kurds who want to
return are waiting for a solution to come from above. "They think the US
government is superman and will provide everything. This is just not going
Hassan says his group has been facilitating dialogue to help people return
through an arrangement of sharing the land, or at least this year's harvest.
"We started doing this on our own," he says. His discussions with local
authorities were supportive, but all he was hearing was that it would take
time to make assessments and set up offices to handle the requests. But
Hassan was unwilling to wade through the bureaucracy. "I said, 'Let's make a
The situation is even more complicated in cases of two claims to the same
house. KRG Interior Minister Faraydoun Abdul-Khader insists that Arab
residents will have to be compensated and removed. He maintains that in
Kirkuk, most of the Arab settlers were wealthy and have their own family
lands elsewhere in Iraq. "Most people returned to these lands. Yes, they
were scared after Saddam was removed - they were scared of revenge. They
knew they were occupying Kurdish properties."
Asked if the expelling Arabs from the north would not replay the sins of the
past, Abdul- Khader is adamant. "Look, this is very important. These were
people brought by the Ba'ath, and they weren't brought here for humanitarian
purposes. It was for a very shameful purpose: to change the demographics of
Abdul-Khader was equally sceptical of schemes that would allow the sharing
of properties between Arabs and Kurds in an effort to ease reconciliation.
"Give me your address," he scoffs. "I will come and share your house."
When I spoke to the IDP Minister Salah Rashid, he seemed to echo the mantra
of wait and assess, stressing that a delicate situation needed to be handled
carefully. He was not aware of REACH's work, signalling that the PUK's
obsession with caution will ultimately bear no fruit, since humanitarian
groups will inevitably move faster and on their own. The efforts on both
sides are admirable, but they bode ill for engendering a problem of mixed
signals among IDPs - something that may end up introducing more confusion in
an already tense situation teetering on the brink of internecine violence.
Nyier H Abdou
Nyier H Abdou
New Al-Ahram Building, Ninth Floor
Al-Galaa Street, Cairo
Phone (office): +20-2-770-5168
Web site: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg
E-mail: Nyier H Abdou
This article was first run on Al-Ahram Weekly
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