The new Cabinet of the Regional Government of Kurdistan has been sworn in, led by Barham Salih, former Deputy Prime Minister of the Iraqi Government and a member of the PUK, who thus takes over from Nechirvan Barzani. The Irbil Parliament endorsed the appointment of Ministers on the 26th of this month. At the opening of the session, which was presided by the Speaker, Kamal Kirkuki, assisted by the Deputy Speaker Arslan Bair and the Secretary of the Assembly, Farsat Ahmed, the Laws Commission presented a Bill reorganising the Ministries.
Article 1 dissolved three Ministries: Human Rights, Extra-Regional Affairs and the Environment. After a debate, these dissolutions were adopted without any amendment.
The second article announced the creation of a Ministry of Transport and Communications, which was unanimously agreed, while a third clause set up a Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources, which was approved by a majority vote.
The fourth article confirmed the maintenance of the Ministry Culture and that of Sport, approved by a majority vote, while a fifth article amalgamated the Ministries of Local Government and Tourism, adopted unanimously, and a sixth amalgamated those of Trade and Industry.
Article 7 reported the reorganisation and restructuring of the Ministries, with various legal measures, and was agreed unanimously.
The next day, on 28 November, the new Cabinet was sworn in, with Barham Salih as Prime Minister.
Barham Salih was born in Suleimaniah in 1960. He joined the PUK in 1976, at the age of 16. In the next two years he was twice arrested by the Baathist regime, imprisoned and tortured. On being released, he continued his education, winning third place in the national listing of Iraqi Advanced Level graduates. He then left for the United Kingdom to escape further persecution, spending several years in various positions representing the PUK with various international bodies, as well as information activities and campaigning against the dictatorial Iraqi regime. At the same time he continued studying engineering, securing a Cardiff University degree in civil and structural engineering in 1983, followed by a PhD in Statistics and Computer applications from Liverpool university in 1987.
After 1991 and the emergence of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, he was appointed PUK representative in Washington. Between 2001 and 2004 he was Prime Minister of the PUK’s zone of Iraqi Kurdistan. After the reunification of the Kurdistan Region and the overthrow of the Baath he was Minister of Planning in the Provisional Iraqi Government and finally Deputy Prime Minister in Nuri al-Maliki’s Cabinet. In addition to his mother tongue, he speaks fluent Arabic and English.
The Deputy Prime Minister, Azad Barwari, is a veteran member of Massud Barzani’s KDP. Like the latter, he was born in Mahabad in 1946, in a family of Peshmergas who were taking part in that Republic’s and Mustafa Barzani’s epic struggles. Having returned to Iraq with his family, he was arrested in 1963 and imprisoned for 3 months for activity in support of Kurdish rights. On his release, he joined the KDP in 1964. He studied chemistry at Mosul University then at Basra, becoming Secretary of the Kurdish Students Union in 1970.
After the collapse of the 1975 Kurdish revolt he found refuge in Iran, where he worked closely with Idris Barzani, the present President’s older bother. He was elected to the KDP Central Committee in 1979. In 1982 he ran the KDP office in Syria. He played an important role in the 1991uprising and was elected to the KDP Political Committee in 1993, in which he has held and still holds a number of responsible positions. Azad Barwari speaks fluent Arabic and Persian.
The Minister of the Interior is Abdul Karim Sultan Sinjari, who had already held the post of Secretary of State for the Interior in the 7 May 2006 reunited government. In 1973 he was at first a lawyer in Baghdad, then became a Peshmerga and was appointed to the KDP’s provisional leadership between 1976 and 1980. He then went into exile in Sweden until 1988, before returning to Kurdistan as head of the KDP’s security services. Following the 1992 parliamentary elections in the autonomous region. He was appointed Director General of the Kurdistan security forces before being appointed Minister of the Interior in the Irbil Government while still holding posts in the KDP Central Committee until 2001. Karim Sinjari also speaks Swedish, English Arabic and Persian.
The Minister of Finance and the Economy is Bayiz Sayeed Mohammad Talabani, who has already replaced Sargis Aghajian in the previous Cabinet when the Assyrian Minister had felt obliged to resign for reasons of health.
In addition to the above mentioned Ministries, the other Ministries that have been retained are those of Justice, Education, Electricity, Religious Affairs, Health, Higher Education & Research, Housing & Reconstruction, Labour & Social Affairs, the Ministry for Martyrs & Victims of the Anfal, of Natural Resources, at the top of which Ashti Hawrami has been renewed in office, the Ministry of Peshmergas and of Planning, The Government has thus sharply reduced the number of its members, going from 42 to 20 Ministries. Only 4 of the former Ministers were renewed in office: Karim Sanjari, Ashti Hawrami, Bayiz Talabani and Jafar Mustafa Ali, (Minister of Peshmergas.
The new Government thus consists of the following:
This month saw a concrete improvement in the diplomatic relations between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, as shown by the visit to Irbil, on 11 October, of the Turkish Foreign Minister together with the announcement of the opening of a Turkish Consulate in the Kurdish capital in the near future.
Mr. Ahmed Davotoglu is the first Turkish Minister to visit the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, since hitherto Turkey has refused officially to recognise the Kurdish government as a real political partner, even though informal contacts have never ceased since the creation of the autonomous Kurdish zone in 1992.
“It is high time that each of us took some bold measures”, declared the Minister. “Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, we must all together rebuild the Middle East”.
The Foreign Minister came on 31 October, accompanied by the Minister of Trade, Zafer Cahlayan, 20 journalists and an 80-man strong delegation of officials and businessmen. They were met at Irbil airport by the newly elected Prime Minister of Kurdistan, Barham Salih, and the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, who is, himself, a Kurd.
They later met the Region’s President, Massud Barzani, who praised the Turkish decision to open a consulate in his capital. “The decision to open a consulate at Irbil is a very positive step. Turkey’s role is important for the Region’s future and for the development of our economic links. The Kurdistan Region serves as a bridge between Iraq and Turkey”.
Ahmed Davotoglo also stressed the economic and geographic interdependence of Turkey and Iraq. “Iraq, as a multi-ethnic state, is very important to us and we will consider any security threat tot Iraq as a threat to us. We are your gateway to Europe and you are our gateway to the South, to the Region and the Gulf”.
Although Ahmed Davotoglo would have wished for “cooperation against terrorism”, (this is, basically, the obligatory preamble for any politician or journalist when addressing their public opinion or to parry in advance the inevitable criticisms from warmongering circles) before going on to talk about the relations between the Kurds of Iraq and their State. Massud Barzani also supported and congratulated the present Turkish government on its initiatives to try and resolve the Kurdish question in Turkey: “I think that the Turkish leaders can deal with the PKK problem. They have taken a very courageous decision and we totally support the policy of reconciliation with the Kurds of Turkey. May God wish that violence cease as soon as possible and that the Kurdish and Turkish youth no longer have to shed their blood”.
According to the Turkish Minister, the Kurds and Turkey have a common part to play in ensuring the stability not only of their borders but also of the whole of the Middle East, which, in his view, should be a political area of security, of dialogue and of multi-ethnic and multi-religious coexistence, expressing the hope that “people could travel from Basra to Edirne without any security problems”.
As for the delegation of Turkish businessmen who accompanied the Minister of Trade, they took part in an encounter with officials of the Kurdish Government at the Irbil Convention Centre as well as a dinner organised by the Kurdistan Chamber of Trade and Industry and the Kurdistan Region’s Businessmen’s Union.
For his part, the Minister for Trade, Zafar Caglayan, announced that two further border crossing points would be opened with Iraq by the end of 2010, after the two States had signed a memorandum.
However, Turkish0Iraqi relations had been subjected to several sensitive issues at the beginning of the month, while the Turkish Prime Minister was visiting Baghdad. Thus the renewal, by the Turkish Parliament, of authorisation to the Army to again cross the borders in the event of operations against the PKK led the Iraqi government to protest again. Nuri al-Maliki declared that Iraq “sought to protect its sovereignty”.
The two Prime Ministers also discussed the drying up of the Euphrates, from which Iraq is suffering and the controversy over the volume flow of water that Turkey allows to bass by opening the valves of its dams. Thus last month the Turkish Minister of Power and Natural Resources, had ensured, in the case of the Euphrates, a flow rate of 517 m3 per second while the Syrian Minister of Irrigation had, on the contrary, reported that it had fallen to an average flow of 400 m3 per second for the previous eleven months. The Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, for his part, reported a flow rate of 440 m3 per second, before adding that a protocol was under discussion.
However, Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed that Turkey was at the moment ensuring a flow rate of 550 m3, recalling that an earlier agreement, signed in 1987, only stipulated 500 m3.
On 19 October, 26 Kurds from Turkey, in the Makhmur refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, including nine women and four children as well as 8 PKK fighters from Qandil, announced their intention of returning to Turkey as a “peace group”, to meet, according to PKK officials, in the first place delegations of the Kurdish DTP party and “create a dialogue and open the way to negotiations” with Turkey. As soon as this announcement was made, the Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, expressed himself in favour of this initiative, which is, in fact, just a renewal of PKK delegations that had returned to Turkey, shortly after Ocalan’s arrest and his call for a unilateral cease-fire. At that time these delegations were immediately arrested, tried and imprisoned. Since then, an amnesty law allows PKK members, coming and surrender, to be pardoned provided they had not taken part in armed actions against the security forces.
Thus the first “peace group” entered Turkey on the 19th through the village of Basverimli ((Tilqebin in Kurdish) in the border district of Silopi. According to the Firat press agency, the group from Makhmur carried letters addressed to the Turkish President, Prime Minister and parliament. The two joint Presidents of the DTP, Ahmed Turk and Emine Ayra went to welcome the group in the morning, during which they made a joint statement:
“We must not exploit the PKK’s good intentions nor must we approach this process in a spirit of elimination. Peaceful groups have been sent to Turkey before, in 1999, but the State did not take advantage of the opportunity, as it should have done. On the contrary, the delegations were imprisoned. Ten years later, Turkey has another major opportunity, which must not be wasted. Turkey must not repeat past mistakes. Our expectations, our hopes and our wishes depend on this. We call on the State and the government to tackle this stage in a responsible manner and to seize this chance for peace and for finding a solution”.
A senior PKK official, Duran Kalkan, for his part laid out the group’s demands: stopping military operations; a bi-lateral cease fire and ending of the conflict; publicly announcing Ocalan’s road map, which will be given to its addressees; beginning discussions on a reform of the Turkish Constitution; the recognition of Kurdish identity, guaranteed by the Constitution; freedom to use the Kurdish language; freedom to give children Kurdish first names, to educate them in their mother tongue; freedom to study Kurdish culture, history and arts.
Very soon, through leaks to the Turkish press, top-ranking officers in the Turkish Army let it be understood that other surrender groups could be expected “if they were not sabotaged” (Murat Yetkin, in Radikal).
The first group was rapidly taken for brief questioning before four prosecuting attorneys who had come specially to meet them so as evaluate whether or not any charges should be charged for any offences, while dozens of lawyers, close to, or actually members of, the DTP party, “stood by” ready to defend them against any possible charges.
At the same time, demonstrations took place in several Kurdish towns, including Batman, Mardin, Dersim (Tunceli), Van, Mush and, of course, Diyarbekir, where 5,000 people had answered a call by the DTP. Alongside slogans in support of Ocalan, the crowd shouted calls in support of “an honourable peace”.
Apart from the Kurdish towns, 2,500 people marched in Istanbul, along Istiklal (Independence) Avenue carrying a banner “Open the road to peace”.
The first government reactions to the arrival of this group were fairly favourable. Thus the Minister of the Interior, Besir Atalay, declared in Ankara: “We hope that this will continue. Allow me to point out that the fighters in the mountains see that they are in a dead end”. The Minister also indicated, to the Anatolia press agency, that the PKK was also sending 100 to 150 people “in little groups”.
However, this official government version, presenting the delegations as surrender groups, allowing the idea of a complete surrender of the PKK was simultaneously refuted by the PKK leaders. Thus Cemil Bayik affirmed that his troops would not surrender without something in return, namely the recognition of the Kurds in Turkey and their being given political rights. For the PKK officials, therefore, these groups are emissaries who have come to propose negotiations, whereas the AKP discourse, for the moment, is one of refusing to negotiate with this party.
On the government side, satisfaction was very soon replaced by embarrassment in the face of the demonstrations organised by the DTP and the triumphal welcome given to the delegation, giving the impression of a victory parade rather than a surrender. As Nihat Ali Ozcan, an expert of the Ankara Institute for Political and Economic Research, remarks: “The pictures of the celebrations on television, which look like Caesar’s return to Rome after a victory, are liable to provoke lines of division throughout the country”.
Indeed, the political opposition that, from the start had been highly critical of the initiatives announced by the AKP to resolve the Kurdish problem, intensified its attacks on the government and the authority’s leniency towards the groups, all of whose members were left free, under the already existing amnesty laws, or at least pending possible trial. An association of families of soldiers killed in the fighting has accused the government of organising “an official ceremony to welcome terrorists” and its president, Hamit Kose, has not hesitated in talking of treason.
With his back to the wall, Tayyip Erdogan has also ended by criticising the turn of events by describing the demonstrations of support are “irresponsible provocations”, with special reference to the PKK flags being waved in the crowds and the slogans in support of Ocalan. Then it was the turn of the Minister of the Interior, Besir Atalay, to “warn” that the “irresponsible” manner in which a show was being made of the surrender of the 34 PKK envoys would not be tolerated any further. “It is impossible to accept such scenes, which disturb everyone. No one should even think of organising any more such scenes. No one should even think that we are going to show any tolerance of any more such scenes. The Turkish Republic is a State of Laws”.
A few days later, it was the turn of the Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Ilker Basbug, to protest about these convoys: “No one can accept what has recently been going on in Turkey. I share the feelings of our veterans and the families of our martyrs”.
However, the DTP does not seem, for the moment, to wish to give up these demonstrations “for peace” and even announced on28 October, that another “convoy” of PKK members was due to come from Europe. Mustafa Avci, co-president of the Istanbul DTP, who made this announcement added that he intended to celebrate the arrival of these newcomers and that he would be asking the government for official authorisation to do so. “The DTP has become a scapegoat since the last meeting. The PKK members will be arriving at the airport with roses in their hands. The Kurds want peace”.
The PKK members arriving from Europe are supposed to be 15 in number, come from Dusseldorf and due to hold a Press Conference in Brussels on 27 October before flying from there to Istanbul on the 29th.
In the end, however, neither that group nor a 3rd, which was due to leave Qandil, reached Turkey, since Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to call a pause in these surrender operations that were attracting too much media attention. No doubt he hope thus to allow time for public opinion to cool down and also, perhaps, to put pressure on the DTP to change its communication tactics. The PKK, through one of its spokesmen, Zubeyir Aydar, immediately declared, over the Roj TV satellite channel, that Turkey had “closed its gates on peace” by postponing the reception of further groups to an unspecified date.
In reply to critics, the DTP co-president, Ahmet Turk, who had recently met the Prime Minister to discuss a peaceful solution, denied having orchestrated a “show”. “This is not a show, it’s the people’s enthusiasm. Everyone must understand this enthusiasm and take part in it. The groups have come for the peace process. This enthusiasm is one for peace. Thus we are going to continue our action in pursuit of the peace process together with the Turkish people and the political parties. Our sole desire is for peace. All our efforts are being made in consequence of this”.
Dogu Ergil, a political analyst, explained the shock of the Turkish television viewers on seeing PKK members arriving in battle dress and acclaimed as heroes by the Kurds in these terms: “We were expecting the rebels to express their remorse and to go to prison, which would have allowed us to say that we had won. But the PKK refused to play the part we expected of it — and we felt offended. The picture of peace, in our minds, is that of one side bringing the other to its knees”.
Early in October, Danielle Mitterrand visited Iraqi Kurdistan at the official invitation of President Massud Barzani. The widow of President François Mitterrand and founder of the Fondation France-Libertés, was thus officially welcomed by the Irbil Parliament and inaugurated two French schools in Iraqi Kurdistan, one at Irbil, which bears her name, and the other at Suleimaniah. Teaching in these schools will be in French, English, Kurdish and Arabic, and the teaching staff will be of French nationality.
The following is the speech she made to the Kurdish Parliament:
Lady and Gentleman Members of Parliament
I am very happy and moved to speak here before you. It is not often, in fact, that I have the opportunity to address an elected assembly. In Kurdistan, however, I feel at home, with members of my family, so it is in thus spirit that I would like to say a few words.
You have just been elected.
I first want to congratulate you and tell you how proud the friends of Kurdistan are at the way your free and democratic elections have been organised. I am glad to see that there are a number of women in your Parliament — proportionally more than in the French Parliament — and that all the political trends and social, religious and linguistic components of the population are here represented.
This diversity is a boon and its representation here is a tribute to your parliament. Similarly, the presence of a Parliamentary opposition is a sign of democratic good health. Because democracy is not just a matter of periodic elections, however free they may be. It is a culture of plural discussion, a system of power and counter-balancing forces. In order to work properly, it needs solid institutions, an active civil society, an independent judiciary and free but responsible media.
I must say that Kurdistan has made some impressive progress on the road to democracy. I still have vivid memories of my very first visits to this part of Kurdistan.
When, at the end of April 1991, I came to meet you, travelling through Iranian Kurdistan, I saw people on the road, an exodus of people fleeing persecution and Saddam Hussein’s armies. I had to cross the border illegally, according to the Iranian government officials, who accompanied me. I met Massud Barzani and other resistance leaders at Hai Omaran, in a meadow only a few metres from a minefield.
The picture of this exodus deeply distressed me, as did the testimony of the Kurdish refugees who had survived the chemical weapon attacks and who I met in May 1989 in the refugee camps in Mardin, Diyarbekir and Mush, in Turkish Kurdistan.
These pictures also upset French and international public opinion. France then played an active role in getting the Security Council to accept the famous resolution 688 that created the judicial basis for the creation of a protection zone in Kurdistan. They tell me it was the first time in the history of UNO that a resolution even mentioned the Kurdish people.
This shows how much international diplomacy can be cut off from the human realities of peoples. Thus tens of years of persecution and tragedy were needed before UNO could finally notice the existence of your people and, for a short time, take an interest in your fate.
Fruit of a UNO compromise and of the sacrosanct principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign State, this resolution 688 had many weaknesses, as you all know. Nevertheless, it had the merit of allowing you to return to you lands, to your homes, gradually to take your fate into your own hands and not just become a people of refugees.
I remember my journey in 1992 to see the setting up of your first government of national union resulting from elections. I ravelled through a country devastated and in ruins where NGOs like my Foundation, were trying, with a great deal of enthusiasm and very little means, to rebuild, along side yourselves, schools, villages and bridges. To ensure the new scholastic year we had to have printed, at the National Printing Office in France, hundreds of thousands of schoolbooks. Your teachers, who were barely being paid a few dollars a day, showed an extraordinary devotion to teach the children and build the future of Kurdistan with them.
Despite the double embargo, of which you were victims, despite much interference, including military actions, from your neighbours, and also despite a black period f inter-Kurdish conflict, you have found a way to rebuild your country, build roads, airports, schools, hospitals and universities. The economic prosperity, the freedom and security of your region are often cited as an example and are an inspiration to your brother Kurds in neighbouring countries.
However, seem from a distance, we have a feeling that this progress, however remarkable it may be, still remains fragile. Certainly the fearsome Saddam Hussein dictatorship no longer exists but your problems with Baghdad are not yet settled. Your neighbours do not all wish you well and the future of Iraq remains uncertain.
Briefly, Kurdistan is not yet Switzerland. In the face of the many challenges that await you, you need, more than ever, to strengthen your people’s unity and to deploy serious efforts to make your cause known to international public opinion and to multiply the network of friendship and solidarity.
Popular unity is not something you can take for granted as given. It can only be built by constant efforts to ensure that the people have confidence in its political system. To achieve this, the system must be democratic, transparent, fair and based on solidarity. In times of tragedy, you had shown solidarity, brotherhood, you shared the same fate. If, in times of peace, you follow the path of wild, faithless and lawless economic liberalism, you will create a society of great inequality, to the detriment of the greatest number. Corrupt phenomena will gangrene society and weaken the bonds of brotherhood that has been your people’s strength.
I have heard that some people proposed to transform Kurdistan into a Dubai or Qatar. I don’t know if such a perspective is realistic, but in any case it would really be a shame to want to make of this country, of great culture, which was one of the cradles of human civilisation, into a consumerist emirate living of its oil rents. Your people would lose its soul and its identity there.
For my part, I dream, for Kurdistan, a model of sustainable development, based on fairness and solidarity. You have of the good fortune of living on fertile soil, of having abundant water resources. Agriculture and stock rearing, that for millennia have created the wealth of Upper Mesopotamia, seem, today, neglected. That is really a shame — self-sufficiency in food supply is the basis for a people’s survival. Water is a far more important source of wealth than oil. Humanity has been able to live for millennia without oil, but it cannot survive without water.
The question of the management and control of water is going to be the great strategic issue of the 21st Century — this needs to be understood and taken into account in Kurdistan.
The France Libertés Fondation (France Freedom Foundation) is devoting itself, today, to promoting a very simple idea that clashes with all those, be they States or multi-national companies, who despise the most elementary Human Rights: water must not be treated as a marketable commodity — it is the common wealth of humanity, the essential necessity of life, like the sun, the earth and the air. These, together, pre-condition the maintenance of the biosphere. Humanity must respect water and define its status of unalienable public property. This is my struggle, as for all men of good will.
I know that this message will be heard and understood by the Kurdish people and that your government will be capable of joining the international movement of “Water Bearers” that the France Freedom Foundation initiated and which is spreading over all the continents.
You, even better than I, know that the future of the Kurdish nation as a whole is at stake today in Iraqi Kurdistan. If you succeed in building an exemplary democracy, this will inspire the Kurds in neighbouring countries and will convince international public opinion that the Kurds are capable of managing their affairs within existing State borders. This can only work in favour of a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish Question in neighbouring countries.
Your government, which now has access to the Western chancelleries, can act discretely in this direction. It will be in its interest and in the interest of all the Kurds that, in all the main capital cities of the world, there be strong and active Kurdish diplomatic representatives and cultural institutions to popularise your cause and strengthen the ranks of the friends of Kurdistan.
In some of the most difficult moments of your history, you had the advantage of the support of many public figures throughout the world, from Andrei Sakharov to Edward Kennedy and Nelson Mandela. Some heads of State like François Mitterrand and Bruno Kreisky, intellectuals like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, took up you defence, thanks to the efforts of the Kurdish diaspora in Europe to arouse their awareness.
This diaspora is a piece of good fortune and a great source of human wealth for you. Do not neglect it!
Similarly, it seems to me that you owe a debt of active solidarity towards your brother Kurds in neighbouring countries. It has often been Kurdish intellectuals and artists from Turkey who have made known your cause abroad. I can bear witness, having seen the brotherly welcome given by Kurds from Turkey and Iran to Iraqi Kurdish refugees. I have seen how Kurds of all kinds mobilised when we brought the Anfal survivors to France from camps in Turkey.
Now it is up to you to show fraternal solidarity to them, be it only in the areas of culture, education and media. They have been your best allies in difficult days. By in turn helping them, now you are free, to preserve their language and culture, you will strengthen the unity of the Kurdish people — the ultimate guarantee of your own survival.
In brief, to not act towards them like the people of the Emirates do towards their Palestinian or Egyptian brothers. Act like Kurds have always acted, by fraternal sharing, be it only of dry bread.
In the course of nearly 30 years of being in contact with Kurds I have learnt to love your people, which, to some extent, has become my own. I know that your cause is a just one and your traditions friendly and attractive. That is why I am convinced that the day when the Kurds reach mutual understanding the whole world will sympathise with them and act on behalf of their freedom. A mother always wants her children to agree amongst themselves and be united.
By speaking today to the elected representatives of the people, I have wanted to open up my heart and share my concerns with you, as in a family meeting. The future will be what you make of it.
Good luck to you all. Long live Kurdistan!
Long marginal and condemned to a certain back stairs and even clandestine status, Kurdish films are gradually acquiring an international audience, although still held up by a still limited number of film directors who are in any position to shoot films in their mother tongue and come out openly under the Kurdish label.
While a festival of Kurdish films has been in existence in London since 2001, the first Kurdish film festival in New York took place this year from 21 to 25 October with a wide range of short and full length films, fictional and documentary, with the theme of “Films without Borders”.
Nine full-length films were screened, including the latest film by Bahman Ghobadi “Nothing is known about Persian cats” and Hiner Saleem’s “Vodka Lemon. The latter described to American film critics and audiences the peculiar situation of Kurdish filmmaking: “Unfortunately, today, it is very difficult for Kurds of Turkey, of Syria and of Iran to make films. It is very hard to work there because there is a kind of apartheid towards the Kurds there, there is no equality, no human rights, no freedom. However, young Kurds, girls and boys, are making films under very tough conditions”.
Even with regard to the Kurdish public in the diaspora, Hiner Saleem notes a lack of interest in Kurdish films that recount their own tragedy, as compared with the American blockbusters. Similarly, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the television channels prefer to follow the public’s taste for Egyptian or Turkish melodramas and serials rather than socially or politically committed works.
Jano Rosebiani, who is also a Kurd from Iraq who lives in California, presented his film “Jiyan”, which tells the story of a 10 year-old orphan, a survivor of the Halabja chemical bombing raid. According to him, one of the brakes on the development of the cinema in his country is the terrorist threat, which prevents the opening of cinemas for security reasons: “In this region, no one want to go to sit in a dark theatre full of people — at least not now. So much so that cinema going is not well established”.
Another obstacle is equipment difficulties: thus Jano Rosebani tells how, in 2000, while he was filming Jiyan, he had to smuggle his equipment in from Turkey, since there was non usable in Kurdistan. After the shooting, the film was sent to Belgium for editing and postproduction. The overthrow of the Baathist regime and Iraqi Kurdistan’s opening up to the rest of the world, were not enough to develop a film industry or to reach a wide Kurdish public, as the film director explained: “We do not yet have a film industry in Kurdistan because the majority of our potential public lives in Kurdish regions where they do not have the right to see Kurdish films. Thus 60 to 70% of the Kurdish regions are in Turkey, where you can’t watch Kurdish films. It’s much the same in Syria and Iran. The only area where you can see Kurdish films is in Iraqi Kurdistan, but there are only 5 or 6 million people there — half of whom are too young to go to the pictures!”
Yuksel Yavuz, a Kurd from Turkey who lives in Germany, tells how in 2004, he had the surprise to receive a call from a Turkish distributor who wished to screen his film. “A bit of freedom in Turkey”. When, a little later, he went to that country and wanted to see where his film was being screened, he discovered that the sole theatre where it was possible to see it in Istanbul was a tiny one on the premises of a cinema that showed pornographic films.
“Bawke” is a 15-minute short film, the work of a Kurd from Iraq, Hisham Zaman, that tells of the attempt of a father and his son to cross Europe to seek asylum. Living in Norway for the last 17 years, Hisham Zaman considers that the Kurdish cinema, though not yet much developed, already has certain characteristics of its own: “For me, what makes Kurdish films different from others is the way it presents human beings, the way it uses amateur actors, the way it shows their existence, their living conditions and their cultural traditions”.
The festival also had a session devoted to women filmmakers entitled “Women in Kurdish films”, with short films made by and about Kurdish women. Unfortunately the planned discussion was cancelled because the intended moderator, Mujde Arslan, was unable to get a visa for the United States.
A week later, several Kurdish films were shown at the Golden Orange Festival in Antalya, where they were competing alongside Turkish films.
One of them, “Min dit” (I saw) describes the execution of a Kurdish couple by the secret police in front of their children, tackling the subject of the dirty war in Kurdistan through the eyes of two children. Despite the very political subject, the most sensitive issue was the language in which it was filmed, entirely in Kurdish. As its director, Miraz Bezer said: “When we made this film we did not know if Turkey would agree to allow it to be shown. This is all very paradoxical — on the one hand we have a Kurdish channel on the State TV, on the other they forbid Kurdish Members of Parliament to speak in their own tongue. So we took the first step in shooting in Kurdish, and what’s more on a tabooed subject. Then, of course, we needed have steady support to be able to show it. Now we are happy that it has happened and I am really relieved.
The screening of this film at Antalya did not fail to cause a stir. Many spectators left the theatre. During the debate with Miraz Bezar a woman accused him of “dividing the country” by speaking of “shame”. However, the majority of the spectators who chose to see the film to the end applauded it.
A documentary also attacked a lot of attention. It was “On the way to school” by Ozgur Dogan and Orhan Eskikov. It showed the class of a Turkish schoolteacher, Emre Aydin, sent to a little Kurdish township where most of the pupils did not know Turkish.
“What we expected most was to start discussion through this film”, explained Ozgur Dogan, who defends the idea that education in Kurdish is a fundamental human right. The present situation penalises both the pupils and the teachers and the documentary shows the difficulties and disillusionment of a young and enthusiastic teacher coming up against a totally unexpected situation. The documentary’s success has enabled it to be shown on a Turkish television channel.
Somewhat earlier a film that, while not in Kurdish, dealt with Kurdistan, opened the 4th Roman Film Festival, on 15 October. This was “Sorting out” by the Bosnian film director Danis Tanovic, describing the fate of two photographic reporters covering the Anfal genocide campaign of Kurds in 1988. The principal actors were the American Colin Farrell, the almost mythical English actor Christopher Lee, now 84 years of age, and the Spanish Paz Vega.
Adapted from the novel by Scott Anderson, it is the story of a photographer, Mark Walsh, confronted with the violence of the war in Iraqi Kurdistan, who did not come out of it unscathed. “It is not a war film, but a film about human reactions (face with war) and what people on both sides feel”, stated Christopher Lee, who had himself served in the RAF during the Second World War and taken part in secret operations in the famous Long Range Desert Group and the Special Operations Executive.