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16 October 2014

A voice for Kurdistan: an encounter with Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman

As high representative of the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) to the UK, Abdul Rahman has been lobbying for greater intervention against Islamic State/Isis militants in Iraq for months.

By Sophie McBain

“It’s a very difficult thing, to ask a country to go to war,” Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman said wearily when we met in her London office in September. As high representative of the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) to the UK, she had been lobbying for greater intervention against Islamic State/Isis militants in Iraq for months.

Ten days after we spoke, parliament voted to join the US in launching air strikes on Isis in Iraq. But Abdul Rahman’s mood was far from triumphant. “Eventually, Britain may have to join air strikes against Isis in Syria, too,” she told me. “Containing Isis isn’t enough. It has to be defeated. And to do that, it needs to be hit at its nerve centre, which is Syria.”

The jihadists’ rise has renewed the international attention on Iraqi Kurdistan. This semi-autonomous region enjoyed greater stability and prosperity than the rest of the country following the US-led invasion in 2003 but now it forms the front line of the battle against the militants. The crisis has exposed long-standing tensions between the Iraqi national government and the KRG. Abdul Rahman complained that although Kurdistan’s peshmerga fighters are dying in battle, they “aren’t receiving their salaries from Baghdad, aren’t getting the weapons that they should, that America has supplied”. The Iraqi government has launched a series of lawsuits to block Kurdistan’s attempts to sell oil.

In July, KRG leaders promised to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence, although no date has been set. How would Abdul Rahman vote? “There’s the head and the heart,” she replied. “The heart always says independence, because of the historic injustice against Kurdistan.”

She cannot remember a time when she wasn’t involved in Kurdish politics. Her father, Sami Abdul Rahman, was the deputy prime minister of the KRG before his death in 2004. As a child, she lived briefly in Baghdad when her father was invited to join the national government as a minister. Then he fell out of favour. “There were other periods when we were living in the mountains. We were refugees; we lived in a deserted school for a while because we were on the run,” she recalled. “My parents never showed fear, never exposed to us that we were going through hardship. It might sound like a traumatic childhood but honestly I didn’t feel it.”

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When she was 11, Abdul Rahman’s family moved to Kent and her father returned to the Middle East alone. She now speaks with a perfect Home Counties accent but Kurdistan never felt far away to her, even when she started work as a journalist. In 1993, she won the Observer’s Farzad Bazoft Memorial Prize for a piece she had written on Kurdistan for the Hendon Times. This felt fitting: “Saddam, Iraq, Kurdistan . . . It was always there, whatever I did.”

Years later, working for the Financial Times in Japan, she began discussing plans with her father to return to Kurdistan. On New Year’s Day in 2004, he told her that there was a job in the KRG for her. A month later, he was killed alongside her brother, Salah, in a terrorist attack in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. “When you lose someone through a terrorist attack, there’s another dimension – the horror of it,” she told me. “That’s why I genuinely feel so sorry for the families of those who’ve been beheaded,” she added, pausing to gather her emotions.

Abdul Rahman returned to the UK to support her brother’s widow and took an editing job at the FT. Around a year later, the KRG prime minister offered her the post of high representative. “I’m pleased that’s what I’m doing,” she said, “because my last conversation with my father was about doing something for Kurdistan in public service.”