Mountains of the mind

Observations on Northern Iraq

Erbil, in northern Iraq, is a city in such a hurry to modernise, it has built shopping malls even before the power stations are running properly. The locals call their relatively peaceful autonomous region "Iraqi Kurdistan", often forgetting to add the "Iraqi".

My friend Mohammed is a young journalist living the dream of a Kurdish nation. He believes in the right to self-determination for all Kurds, and in democracy. While he sympathises with some of the aims of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) resistance guerrillas, he doesn't approve of the killing. He likes their recruitment, though. One in three PKK fighters is a woman.

But his bellicose northern neighbour Turkey raises his ire. Since April, it has been threatening to invade northern Iraq to deal with a resurgent PKK. So far, the generals have ordered not more than a couple of "hot pursuits", but the rhetoric is heating up, too, and with it, the hyperbole in the Turkish press insinuating that Iraqi Kurds live under a feudal regime.

Mohammed emails me full of indignation. He looks northwards and feels compassion for his Turkish kith and kin, who must dream of a homeland like his own.

However, in Diyarbakir, south-eastern Turkey - the city at the heart of Kurdish resistance for more than 30 years - another friend of mine, Siyar, shakes his head. He is an urbane Kurdish anthropologist, back in his home town after years in the United States to write a paper on shifts in PKK politics.

"I decided I must go and see what Iraqi Kurdistan is like. I drove down to Habur. And the Turkish border guards were so rude. I expected that . . . but then I got to the other side, and the Kurdish border guards were even ruder! I said: 'Look - I'm a Kurd like you . . .' But of course I speak Kurdish with an accent, and I think they thought I was Turkish.

"So I went to Erbil, and I stayed at the Sheraton and it was $300 a night! And I saw the lobby full of businessmen and gangsters and journalists and UN people, and I thought: this is independence?

"I realised my attachment to Iraqi Kurdistan was romanticism."

Close relatives and friends of Siyar's died fighting for the PKK. But after five years of only token progress on cultural and political rights, Turkey's Kurds have run out of patience. Meanwhile, Turkey's generals have found home-grown insurgency a great platform for accusing the government of being soft on terror.

Both sides say the other started it. Both sides are back to killing. And the military has placed three provinces under martial law.

In Sirnak, one of the Kurdish towns at the centre of the crackdown, Mehmet Gungor, pistol strapped to his belt, tells how 13 members of his family - despite being Kurds - were massacred by the PKK back in the early 1980s because his uncle would not hand over the boy children to be trained as fighters.

Now he is in charge of the town's Village Guards: local Kurdish militias loyal to Turkey's military, paid by the government to hunt down the PKK. I ask him if he has ever crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan - barely two hours' drive away - to see what life is like for Kurds there. He looks at me, aghast. "The place is not safe," he shudders. "There are bombs all the time. Why would I want to go there?" Later that day, one of his village guards is killed in a fight with PKK guerrillas.

These days, even the PKK has given up its demands for a Greater Kurdistan, made up of liberated provinces in Syria, Turkey and Iran joining the one in Iraq. Perhaps, after a few trips back and forth over the impossibly beautiful and impenetrable mountain ranges they dream of uniting under one flag, they have realised that the mountains inside their brothers' heads are the real obstacles.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Chavez: from hero to tyrant