The student protests began on 21 November, ostensibly over the suspension of monthly stipend allowance payments and the government’s failure to provide the most basic services, like drinking water in campuses.
As the protests have continued in cities with university campuses, including Sulaymaniyah, Kalar, Erbil, Halabja, Chamchamal, Kifri and Koya, thousands of people marched towards the city governor’s office in Sulaymaniyah, while in Erbil groups of students blocked the Erbil-Kirkuk highway.
Live rounds were fired at students in Sulaymaniyah with police also using tear gas and water cannon. Many students have been detained, although the number of students in custody is yet to be announced.
There are so many reports circulating of physical attacks on students as well as a barrage of provocations, misinformation and psychological warfare against the students that it is frankly overwhelming and difficult to catch up with.
I managed to get into contact with one of the participants in the student demonstrations and discuss matters with her for my podcast. Her name is ‘Shano’ and is studying at the Medical College at Sulaymaniyah University.
She has been involved in the student protests and is an eye witness to several events. Shano has worked in different civil society contexts in South Kurdistan, especially with Kurdish youth.
Her testimony is extraordinary, articulate and a powerful indictment of the deep corruption that is clearly widespread in South Kurdistan.
At times, her testimony makes for difficult listening but this is the situation in South Kurdistan – raw and from the ground and after listening to it, one is not surprised that so many Kurdish people, especially young people, want to leave, as is witnessed by the Belarus-Poland border situation where thousands of Kurds have fled and would rather die on the border than return.
Shano spoke in her own language – Sorani Kurdish – which was translated by Dastan Jasim, also a Kurdish woman from South Kurdistan and an academic based in Germany.
Shano began by explaining that it is the first time in the history of the Kurdish region that this kind of spontaneous decentralised student uprising in Iraqi Kurdistan has arisen, with no central organisation controlling the protests. She stated that all protesters have an equal say in matters and no one party or organisation is in control of the protests.
She then wanted to be fully understood as to the reasons why the protests were taking place. She said that although, as reported, one of the reasons for taking to the streets in the first place was the withholding of the stipend payments, she said that it was also clear that there were so many underlying systemic issues that drove the students and other young people into the protests.
She then explained how that it is not unusual or different from any other country where, if students were treated like this, they would protest. She explained how the ruling parties in Iraqi Kurdistan could easily pay the stipends, just from the taxes they collect at the border from oil tanker lorries alone.
Shano repeatedly targeted the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) with accusations of theft, corruption and incompetence of governance. She articulated, very clearly, that although the protests began over the stipends, there are so many other issues that are causing much anger amongst the students.
She detailed how the whole university system in South Kurdistan, if not privatised as private companies of the dynastic families and parties who control Kurdistan, has been left to run so badly that most of the students have been demoralised as the standard of education is so appalling, the students are treated with such disrespect, that students are hardly motivated to even attend their seminars or classes.
Even those students who are very capable and bright are demoralised and if you are not part of the ruling elites or parties, then you are treated with such disrespect, it is demotivating, she noted. Because of these reasons, she observed that mental health problems amongst students has sky rocketed in recent times.
Shano was at pains to explain how the protests were so peaceful and how the students had been relentlessly provoked and brutally attacked by the police with extraordinary levels of brutality that have left many students not only shocked and traumatised but also angry.
She stated that the students had taken to the streets in a peaceful manner with only their pencils. They were not armed, yet they were being attacked with weapons, physical attacks and brutality.
She detailed the lengths that the police were going to, to try and delegitimise the protests. They were using a whole array of tactics, from sending in provocateurs to act in bizarre ways, to firing gas canisters both for the gas effect but also directly at protestors. They were using ‘live firing’ and brutal physical attacks against students which she herself witnessed.
She stated that all the harsh things that they, as Kurdish students, learnt about what the B’aath party used to do to students, was being now practiced upon them by the KDP & PUK and associated police forces. She called it a continuation of the brutalities of the Saddam Hussain era.
Shano stated that what was happening to the people who were trying to cross the border from Belarus into Poland was nothing compared to what was being perpetrated against the students in South Kurdistan at this moment in time.
Shano went on to detail some of the truly shocking tactics that are being deployed against the peaceful protesting students, such as the stealing of phones from students by police (especially women activists), manipulation, the use of electric shock stun guns on the ‘genitals’ of male students, and many other shocking tactics. Many students are in hospital.
Despite this, Shano stated that the feelings and morale of the students remained very high and they will continue with their dignified and legitimate struggle against such ugly attacks and ugly people in authority. They were getting the support from wider society, she stated.
The students, she asserted, have protected their dignity and continue to fight against these ‘illegitmate parties.’ as she called them.
She referenced the Paris student movement and stated that they will continue to struggle and continue to fight for their rights until victory is secured. She was sure they would win against the disgraceful and undignified behaviour by the Iraqi Kurdistan authorities, who were ‘illegitimate’ in her eyes, considering such widespread boycotting of the last elections.