Postcard From Northern Iraq

Tuesday 1 April 2003, by Susan HARVIE

On any normal day, the city of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan has a population of about 300,000 people. Yesterday, Erbil was eerily silent and empty. South of the city, a solid line of vehicles of every description, from shiny new BMWs to rickety farm wagons pulled by ancient tractors, headed out of the urban areas to the perceived safety of the countryside.

On both sides of the road, wherever small streams flow down from the hills, temporary settlements of tents, buses, cars, wagons and makeshift plastic shelters were growing beside rural villages. The remarkable feature of this dramatic exodus was the aura of calm which pervaded everything. There were no blaring horns, shouting drivers or motor vehicle accidents. The Kurdish people have been threatened or attacked so many times in the past that most families have developed a, by now, fairly familiar routine for evacuation. The official exit of the UN personnel was the signal for everyone to calmly begin their preparations.

In spite of the apparent emptiness of Erbil, only people with a certain amount of money are able to leave. Poor people with no means to pay for transportation have to stay behind. Since most international emergency efforts are concentrated in camps for internally displaced people and refugees, the left in Kurdistan decided to stay in the cities to provide whatever assistance they can to poor people who are not able to flee. Teams of volunteers have been organized around Kurdistan and given basic emergency training but they have few financial resources and no equipment. There are no chemical suits, gas masks or satelite phones for these teams. They do possess a remarkable courage and determination to remain calm in spite of their own fears and while so many around them flee to greater safety.

There is a great deal of ambiguity among the Kurdish people about this war. Apart from the formal political leadership, very few people want war. Many do not want war but, have lost hope that there is any other way to defeat the current Bagdad regime and are resigned to the inevitability of war. The hopes of even these people were further shaken by the American announcement that, instead of the long awaited democracy, the current regime would be replaced by an American military governor. However, there is a significant minority absolutely opposed to this war. They believe, as do most Canadians, that the war will result in death and suffering for thousands of innocent civilians and the transfer of Iraqi oil resources out of Iraqi control to private corporations. They do not believe that this war will result in either real democracy or in an economy which functions in the interests of the Iraqi people.

The first strike of the war came this morning. Nobody here thinks that it was anything other than a prelude to the massive "shock and awe" bombing to come. So, everybody continues to hold their collective breath and hope that their families and friends in Bagdad, Basra and elsewhere in Iraq will be able to survive.

Susan Harvie is now in Iraqui Kurdistan working for Alternatives.

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