This weekend, I was a guest on a Dutch radio show to talk about the Kurds from Kurdistan in Iraq at the Belarusian-Polish border. As I was asked why people leave this region that is not known for a raging war, deep poverty or a cruel dictatorship, I remembered a young father I talked to a few years ago in Sulaymaniyah who had no expectations any more for his own life. I shared his story because it was so exemplary, and it hasn’t left my thoughts the whole day. These images and the deep sense of hopelessness that is connected to them will be etched in the collective Kurdish memory for decades to come.
Or is hopelessness not the right word? The young father whose story I shared with the listeners of the radio show, had not lost hope entirely. He had lost hope for himself. He ran a small business in the city as a transporter with an old minivan and asked me if I could help him and his family get to Europe. I said I couldn’t. He said he didn’t know what Europe was like but wanted to go, and I told him Europe was no paradise and he probably wouldn’t be able to find a job easily either in a country where he would encounter coldness in many different ways.
He looked at me in surprise. I had misunderstood him: his wish to go to the Netherlands or another West European country, had nothing to do with his own aspirations in life. He said: “I have no dreams or expectations for my own life anymore, I consider my life pretty much over. It’s my children’s future I am worried about. I am not important, they are.” He was in his early thirties.
Can you imagine being so young and having absolutely no expectations any more for your own life? Whatever he would try in his own land would come to nothing, he was absolutely sure of that. And he was not the only one I have talked to who saw no future whatsoever in the Kurdistan Region. In one of the small villages along the Turkish border, I talked to a young man of 19 or 20 years old. There was no work either in the village, or in agriculture because Turkish bombings made the land too unsafe. He had tried to become a peshmerga, but hadn’t been accepted because his family was not known to be close to the KDP. He was out of options.
A ticket to Minsk is an option. A dangerous one, with little chance of success, but still, an option. Europe can force airlines to halt their flights to Minsk, but that doesn’t change the fact that people in the Kurdistan Region have no options, and will continue to grab any option they see. The exodus isn’t over yet.
Thinking about this today, suddenly a piece writing I had seen on a wall in Rojava in January 2020 came to mind. I had seen it before during earlier visits. It said: ‘Em naçin’. ‘We are not going.’ It is a defying statement. ‘We are not going’ reveals options.
I don’t mean to say that nobody is leaving Rojava because that would be nonsense. Northeast Syria may be autonomous, but it’s also part of a country that is still at war. There is an increasing threat from the regime in Damascus of course, combined with the brutal occupation by Turkey of Afrin and a strip of land east of the Euphrates. People leave. But there are options. An alternative democracy is being built, giving some hope for the future. There is something anybody can contribute to.
No such thing exists in the Kurdistan Region any more. There used to be a promise, starting in the 1990s when the region became de-facto autonomous, and the excitement grew, especially after the autonomy was rooted in the Iraqi constitution in 2005. The economy grew. There was (relative) peace and stability. People could live freer than ever as Kurds, learn their own mother tongue in schools, live their culture, take their destiny into their own hands. And the leadership promised more than autonomy: Kurdistan would be independent.
Kurds believed it. And as the economy faced dark weather, as ISIS came closer to Erbil than anybody could ever have imagined, as Turkey increased its presence and violence along the border, as the political games, corruption and nepotism of the ruling elites became more shameful, they held on to that vision for the future. It’s not easy to quickly see it for what it was, namely a mere strategy of those in power to distract from all the problems they had created or which it turned out they were unable or unwilling to solve. The anti-climax became complete after the people were incited to vote for independence and voted YES, only to soon see their leaders fighting over positions in Baghdad again.
Again, wrong word. It was not an anti-climax, it was total disillusion. The Kurdistan Region is not at war. There is no brutal dictatorship. There is no famine. But there is total disillusion. The illusion of Europe apparently shines bright compared to that. Em diçin. We are going.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan