Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 15th May 2015

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In Erbil life goes on

Despite fighting, atrocities and displacement of thousands of people, normal life goes on in Erbil


Erbil child

A displaced Iraqi child, in Erbil

The Virgin Mary gazes compassionately from her statue in a square in the Christian suburb of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and a city hosting many thousands of Christian and Yazidi refugees fleeing persecution by ISIS extremists.

Though the city is an oasis of peace and tolerance in a region torn by war and violence, in April the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for a car bombing outside the US consulate in Erbil, killing three people and wounding 14. Such attacks are relatively rare however in Kurdistan, which has insulated itself from the worst violence engulfing the rest of Iraq.

Hundreds of churches have been destroyed and thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Muslims have been killed by ISIS. Kurdish peshmerga forces are fighting to keep the militants at bay on the frontlines just some 40 kilometres away.

Despite the fighting, the atrocities and the displacement of thousands of people, normal life goes on in Erbil,” said Dr Rang Shawis, director of the city’s ultra-modern Kurdistan Children’s Hospital.

No dogs, no cigarettes and no guns or knives are allowed inside the beautifully landscaped hospital buildings, decorated with fountains and large pictures of animals – squirrels, fish, dolphins and butterflies – meant to put sick children at ease.

“There is a lot of misery… The Ministry of Health is trying hard to look after the [1.5 million] refugees in Kurdistan with no support from the central government in Baghdad,” Shawis said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.

Iraqi Kurdistan is suffering from a slow economy, severely affected by the central government’s failure to transfer the region’s share of the national budget. This has deeply strained the Kurdistan Regional Government’s capacity to provide services to its 5 million people while dealing with a huge refugee crisis and the war with ISIS.

Consequently, most of the celebrations on Newroz, the Kurdish New Year on March 21st, were cancelled. The people felt it was a time for mourning those who lost their lives in recent fighting, rather than a time for festivities.

But the stoic Kurds are confidently looking to a brighter future.

Families enjoy spring in the Qaysari Bazaar, next to Erbil’s Citadel, claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited site in the world, dating back 8,000 years. The citadel, on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, is closed to visitors due to renovation in anticipation of an influx of tourists, which residents hope for, once the dust of war settles.

A large poster of the Statue of Liberty displayed by Izzi Travel Agency is a clear sign that Westerners are welcome in the region.

Modern stylish hotels of high European standards once housed Western oil executives, now aid workers are staying there at reduced rates. Hotel coffee shops are mostly frequented by non-governmental organisation (NGO) personnel who jokingly describe them as “unofficial offices”.

A lot of the city is work in progress with scores of buildings unfinished due to the financial crisis. Palatial traditional houses exist in happy harmony with modern glass-fronted buildings, Western-style shopping malls and elegant coffee shops and sushi restaurants.

Shafiq Harris, chairman of the Kurdish Aid Foundation, describes the Kurds of Iraq as “light Muslims”, in reference to the Kurdish enclave’s liberal lifestyle compared to the rest of the country. Alcohol is largely available in up-market restaurants and hotels, where immaculately dressed women in Western clothes enjoy a night out in the company of men.

Most of the development in Iraq’s Kurdistan has taken place after Saddam Hussein’s ouster in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 1991, when the US-imposed no-fly zone in north Iraq ensured Saddam’s planes would not attack the enclave following an uprising, Erbil was a treeless, neglected, urban backwater.

Today, the city boasts new paved roads, sidewalks and parks. The names of 98 people killed in a suicide bomb attack in 2004 cover the wall of a huge stone monument documenting the atrocities of Saddam’s era. On top, a line that summarises the Kurds long-time struggle for independence reads, “The tree of freedom has been watered with the blood of martyrs.”

The four-star Chwar Chra Hotel in the city centre resembles a cultural museum with traditional glass mosaics, Kurdish musical instruments, stained-glass lamps and crafts. It was named after the square where the Kurdish leaders of the short-lived Republic of Mahabad in Iran were hanged in 1947. Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region, was born in Mahabad where his father, legendary Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, was a commander of the Kurdish republic’s military forces.

The Iraqi Kurdish enclave is ruled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani. Following a civil war between the two parties in the 1990s, the two sides formed a joint administration, the KDP maintains its influence in the governorates of Erbil and Dohuk while the PUK is dominant in Sulaymaniyah.

Internal politics and disagreements put aside, the Kurdish people stand united when it comes to defending their autonomous region. Erbil’s residents are quick to report any suspicious activity to police.

As he comes to the end of his briefing to a visiting humanitarian delegation from the London-based Kurdish Aid Foundation, Shawis describes life in Iraqi Kurdistan as a game of Snakes and Ladders.

“You reach 92 on the ladder and then the snake gets you,” he said in an obvious reference to attempts to destabilise the Kurdish region, which remains a relatively calm spot in a country devastated by sectarian strife and hatred.