Whose Country Is It, Anyway?

I was sitting in an Internet cafe in Sulaymaniyah. A Kurd next to me said hello in a South London accent. Where was I from? What was I doing up in Kurdistan? We got talking.

What are you doing back in Kurdistan? I asked him.

“I came back to serve my country.”

I smiled at him, raised an eyebrow. Your country?

“Do you think we’ll get a country?” he asked me.


There was a pause, and I told him it would be nice if there was no more fighting about it either. There was another pause, and then he told me the truest thing I ever heard in Iraq:

“Well, history is about people’s feelings, innit.”

I was in Sulaymaniyah to see a friend of mine who had been shot in the arm.

I found Omar sitting up, swathed in blankets, his arm resting on a pillow. He was in his family home, a meager rented concrete house with an outside toilet and kitchen in the yard. Omar’s father was executed as a secret official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in 1983, and the family fortunes have not fared well. When the wind blows, it bangs metal sheeting on the roof around, and the mosque opposite wails the call to prayer to wake you up every morning at 4 a.m. I remember, because I stayed here during the war, when Omar had sent his family away to a village near the Iranian border for safety, and I didn’t want to sleep alone in a hotel room if the Baathies and their chemical weapons were coming.

Omar’s arm was covered in a white bandage out of which a metal ratchet frame poked, drilled through the skin, keeping his bones straight. He was in a lot of pain, and although I told him he looked fine, I could see his eyes had hollowed with the suffering of it. It was two weeks since he’d been injured, and he still hadn’t managed to sleep more than a couple of hours through. If he woke up and jolted his arm, he told me it was like “electricity turning over behind your eyes.”

Omar is a cameraman/producer for ABC News in the north. In the last eight months, he has been shot at several times, been ambushed while embedded with American patrols, nearly robbed, survived a car crash, and picked up by the resistance. He was once a peshmerga (a Kurdish guerrilla fighter), far too brave to take enough painkillers and sleeping tablets, and he thought he was smart enough to take care of himself.

“I realized I am not as smart as I thought,” he told me. It will take another one or two operations and many months of recovery, but his arm is probably, after all, going to be OK.

He was filming a demonstration in Kirkuk on New Year’s Eve. Demonstrations are pretty common there: Kurds demonstrating for the inclusion of Kirkuk, Iraq’s second-largest oil town, in a greater autonomous Kurdistan; Turkmen protesting Kurdish domination; Shiite Arabs from the south protesting with the Turkmen the Kurdish efforts to retake houses that Arab families moved into over the last 20 years when Saddam ethnically cleansed thousands of Kurdish families. They argue about population numbers, demographics, and who was there first, when the truth is that no one can remember, and all the statistics are ethnic lies.

The demonstration was full of Turkmen; the Iraqi police stood in a line in front of them, preventing them from marching on the PUK office. Omar was in the middle. When the shooting started, he lay on the ground with one arm protecting his stomach and torso, and the other, holding the still-rolling camera, curled around his head.

“I felt really scared. I couldn’t feel the sun. There was nothing but bullets going dungk dungk.”

He doesn’t know whether his right arm, inches from his head as he lay on the ground, was hit with one or two bullets. (A friend took pictures in the emergency room, and the arm was lacerated into bloody meat. The X rays show one bone broken, the other shattered to dust.) His brain went very clear and full of adrenaline; he maneuvered toward the line of police because he knew a couple of them—many of the police are Kurds, another local bone of contention—and it seemed safer. Then he jogged to the nearest hospital down the street.

He was one of the first casualties to arrive and one of the worst wounded. Most of the 25 or so bloodied men who began to be brought into the emergency room by friends and relatives were cut and grazed. Omar said it was 30 minutes before he was seen.

“I thought, I have to get out of here. I was the only Kurd injured.” Someone came and put a drip in his left arm. A medical assistant told him it was only his arm, and he shouldn’t worry about it. He noticed that the doctors and medical assistants were all Turkmen. He saw that protestors were being treated for more minor wounds than his, beds crowded with relatives. Omar was alone until his driver came back with some of Omar’s relatives who lived in Kirkuk. They knew a Kurd who worked in the hospital, found him, and Omar got his arm bandaged. Still, Omar wanted to get to another hospital, a better, private hospital if possible. He had the idea that he wasn’t receiving good treatment and that the future use of his arm depended on it. He saw a Turkmen woman complaining to a TV camera that the doctors were not doing enough. He heard her say, “There is a Kurdish journalist in there, and they are giving all the bandages and medicine to him.”

Soon Omar left and went to the bigger hospital in Kirkuk, the one that used to be called Saddam Hussein Hospital, the one the Kurds renamed Azadi, which means Freedom in Kurdish, the day they liberated the city (there were hardly any Americans in the north). Then he drove home to Sulaymaniyah, where he knew the doctors would be good because they had spent the last decades sewing up casualties from various Kurdish insurgencies and the Iran-Iraq war.

Whatever the reason, real or imagined, Omar had felt uncomfortable and uncomforted as a Kurd in the Turkmen-staffed hospital. Mohammed, a Turkmen surgeon in Kirkuk, said the same thing from the other side. His son, also a doctor, has gone to England to study because he couldn’t stomach the Us and Them politics of Kurds and Turkmen. His daughter-in-law works in the genealogical department of the Azadi Hospital: Increasingly, she says, it feels like it’s only for Kurds.

Mohammed has an English wife, oddly enough, who has spent the last 30 years in Iraq. I remember after the war the city was quiet, “Thanks be to God,” she told me then, “Things are all right in Kirkuk.” Now she pointed out the bullet holes in the curtains, “It was a Turkmen-Shiite demonstration. Thirty bullets, we counted, came into the house.”

The couple have been very welcoming to the Americans, Mohammed has a certificate of appreciation signed by the commander of the 173rd stationed in Kirkuk. But as the tensions creep, his wife admitted, “We even have different opinions in this house now.”

Mohammed has not joined any of the Turkmen parties.

“Every building is taken by the Kurds. By force. The Americans gave too much to the Kurds. You are frightened to say anything to anyone; the next day you will be killed.”

Omar and I talked a lot in the evenings, over lamb-head stew-soup, kufta, and other Kurdish delicacies his sisters brought in for us. We talked about the Kirkuk conundrum: Thousands of Kurds displaced over the last decades camping in an old Iraqi army barracks on the outskirts of Kirkuk; Arabs living in what had once been Kurdish (cleansed) villages, moving, leaving, then being stopped and asked to stay by Kurdish officials; the Shiite connection from the south that sent busloads of protestors into Kirkuk to shore up the Turkmen Shiite faction; Iranian involvement; Turkish involvement. I told him that Maj. Vincent of the 173rd had been optimistic, full of energy and dialogue-building and talk of “little chunks of representative government.” Omar said maybe it looked OK to the Americans, because the weren’t getting shot at so much by the resistance there, but Kirkuk was still the single most contentious flashpoint in Iraq.

Barham Salih, the slick, fluent-English-speaking prime minister of PUK Kurdistan, soon to be merged with its sometime-internecine sister KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) Kurdistan, talked to me of Kurdish ambitions for Kirkuk. He balked when I suggested they were threatening to the Arab and Turkmen communities there. He reiterated the Kurdish litany of suffering, chemical attacks, Anfal (the clearing of Kurdish villages between 1987 and ‘89, often using chemical weapons), forced Arabization, houses seized and given to Arab “settlers. And then, echoing his compatriot in the Internet cafe, he said, tellingly, ruefully, wearily, warily, “We have reluctantly become part of this country called Iraq.”

Later on, when I asked him about why the Kurds really needed a big contiguous autonomous state that included the oil-drenched prize of Kirkuk, he answered: “It’s a question of identity, of culture, a unique national identity … mountains versus plains. … It is more than emotion—it is survival. This is my country.” And then he said again, “This is my country.”

What is it called? I asked him.

He could not bring himself to say Iraq.