“There were existential threats on my life in the Kurdistan [Region of Iraq]. The mafia family rule has starved our nation for the last 30 years, and whenever we take to the streets to call for our rights, we are arrested, intimidated and beaten,” Umed Ahmed, a Kurdish poet and activist stranded on the Polish-Belarus border, explained when I asked him why he left Erbil.
The Kurds have been dispersed across four Middle Eastern countries (Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey) ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and they were deprived from establishing their own nation-state. Reports of Kurds fleeing oppression and intimidation from the authorities in these countries are common. However, since the establishment of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 1991, following the Kurdish uprising in March that year, and the imposition of the no-fly zone over northern Iraq, the Kurds also have faced repression and corruption from within, from the Kurdish authorities in Erbil.
War, ethnic and sectarian conflicts, and corrupt and autocratic governments in the Middle East as well as climate change fueled a migration crisis in which, in 2015, the influx of refugees to Europe peaked because of the Syrian war. The autocratic regimes that have been sanctioned or heavily criticized for their abysmal human rights record have cynically used refugees as pawns to agitate the European Union. It started with Turkey, and now Belarus’ dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, is taking advantage of vulnerable refugees who face life-threatening conditions on the border between Poland and Belarus.
Lukashenko uses refugees to achieve one of two goals. His primary objective is to pressure the EU to lift its sanctions on the country and come to a deal on managing the refugees, like that agreed with Turkey. Failing that, the dictator is relying on the presence of migrants on the border of Europe to destabilize the union. Lukashenko knows that the far-right parties in EU countries will fervently pursue their nationalist interests when they see refugees from mainly Muslim countries wanting to take up residence in their countries.
Yet, the mass exodus of Kurds like Umed Ahmed is not a simple story of migration or even about fleeing injustice, corruption, intimidation and authoritarian rule in the Kurdish region. It is the story of a broader failure. The failure of what was once touted as a regional success story is a loss for the whole Middle East. Just as in the rest of Iraq and the wider region, the Kurdish model has failed to resolve deep social, political and economic issues by mere nationalistic thinking and slogans.
Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States and its allies needed a narrative to justify their continued presence there. They came up with the idea of “the other Iraq,” that being the more stable and less sectarian Kurdish part of Iraq that would become a model for the Middle East. The Kurdish leadership embraced it and used international support to consolidate power and build their economic empires through oil revenue. This brought a stability of sorts and an economic boom, thanks to the rising price of oil at the time. However, a kleptocratic, authoritarian and patriarchal system was taking hold, which the West ignored and the people could not fight.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) became an economic benchmark against which the rest of Iraq would be measured. The Kurdish leadership, in particular the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani, promoted the idea of a “Dubaization” of Erbil, after Dubai. But behind this propaganda, Kurdish society was falling apart. Society was divided into two socioeconomic classes: one of the political elite, its patrons and their brokers, and the other consisting of the masses.
The minority that holds power built villages near the cities, taking advantage of public goods and public money. The wealthy and politically connected families, including senior Kurdish leaders, live in these areas, insulated from the city. The Barzani family, for example, lives in a former tourist area where former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had a palace, Sari Rash. That area is now isolated, and no one is allowed to reside or visit there. The Talabani family lives in a hilltop village called Dabashan in Sulaymani, again isolated from the city. Foreign diplomats and expatriates live in gated communities in the center of the cities that separate their neighborhoods from the downtrodden ones, where in winter you cannot walk because of the mud and in summer the children cannot sleep because of the heat and the lack of access to air-conditioned facilities. These Kurdish villages, once a source of pride as the site of prehistoric agriculture, are now in decline. Without access to the facilities in the wealthy neighborhoods, the poor seek a better future where they will be treated as equals and have the opportunity to lead a dignified life.
The children of the elite do not go to the public schools and universities. The Kurdish elite have built universities with public money, mainly through the oil industry, which later became private. Politicians run some of the most prominent institutions. The University of Kurdistan-Hewler is owned by the president of Kurdistan region, Nechirvan Barzani; the American Kurdistan University in Duhok is owned by Masrour Barzani; and the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani was established by Iraqi President Barham Salih.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), despite claims that it is a socialist democratic party, serves the interests of the elite. Kosrat Rasul Ali, the leader of the PUK’s Supreme Political Council, built the biggest private hospital in Kurdistan. Initially the hospital was to treat the rich and poor alike, but once it opened, it was privatized under a scheme that benefited the two ruling parties and their families.
Today, the political and economic systems are conflated and each serves the interests of the other. The economic system is subjected to political interests, and the political system is dominated by the party and the family system. Under these circumstances, no reforms or growth are possible. The boom in the KRG was not due to economic strategy or visionary leadership. Instead, it was predicated on the flow of money from Baghdad, the U.S. and the international community.
This happened because of one simple reason: The so-called Kurdish revolutionaries returned to the Kurdistan region after 1991, consolidated power and became billionaires. They even destroyed the few institutions established under the previous dictatorship that served Kurdistan. The aspirations of Kurdish nationalists were nothing more than a desire for liberation from the former dictatorship, and the Kurdish nationalists who rose to power had little to offer the nation in terms of democracy, civil rights and rule of law. The KDP and the PUK established a bureaucracy that remains primitive, feudal in structure and authoritarian in practice. Democracies will not be established by autocratic feudalists who enforce patriarchal structures. Democracy needs democrats who implement the principles of rule of law, justice, freedom of expression and free and fair elections.
The failures of the nationalist governments in the region are plain to see, and the Arab Spring showed us how, after years of repressive and undemocratic rule, the youth in the Middle East had enough. Yet the KRG leadership, in particular the KDP, resorted to nationalistic sentiments instead of trying to address significant and urgent economic and political crises. In 2017, it sought a referendum to establish an independent Kurdish state. The referendum, neither legal nor free, failed to achieve any of KDP’s objectives, and Kurdish youth were left further disenchanted after seeing a Kurdish leader gamble away the achievements of the past 100 years for his own political interests.
Two families — the Barzani and Talabani — have monopolized the region’s resources and cracked down on dissent to maintain their power. In 2019, a group of public employees in Duhok province protested in the streets to demand their monthly salary be paid on time and in full — a demand that has not been met since 2014. The KDP security forces used violence to disperse the protesters, and 80 activists and journalists were arrested and jailed, charged with espionage for “meeting with the U.S. and German diplomats in Erbil,” where they had discussed the lack of political, economic and civil rights. The trials continue, and some have been convicted.
In a situation like this, no wonder people decide to flee the country. This is why people like Umed Ahmed chose to “drink dirty water for a day, endure torture by guards, starvation, and cold in the forests of Belarus”; he wants to “reach a destination where human rights are respected, and hope can exist.”
In recent days on social media, Kurds have been citing the late Sherko Bekas, perhaps one of the greatest contemporary Kurdish poets. His work has captured Kurds’ national consciousness and speaks to the power of resistance. Bekas’ book-length poem “Now a Girl Is My Homeland,” in sync with the current political moment, takes on new meaning:
I want nothing from the homeland to give me
more than a piece of bread and
a little safe haven and
a decent pocket and
a handful of gentle sun and
a rain of love and
an open window into freedom and love.
What I wanted from her
she deprived me of it.
So, at midnight
I broke her gate and exited.
I left her forever!