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Banished Kurds try to reclaim lost homeland

Shukor Rashid Shari is living in a former munitions storeroom a few kilometres from his ancestral village. ‘If there is justice, we will get our land back,’ he says. ‘And if there is no justice, then this is just the same as Saddam’s era.’
 Photo: Stephanie Nolen/The Globe and Mail
Shukor Rashid Shari is living in a former munitions storeroom a few kilometres from his ancestral village. ‘If there is justice, we will get our land back,’ he says. ‘And if there is no justice, then this is just the same as Saddam’s era.’

From Saturday's Globe and Mail


Qarahanjir, Iraq — Shukor Rashid Shari kneels to pray on a small carpet. His face is etched with lines below his traditional Kurdish turban. On the wall above him is a fading slogan left by Saddam Hussein's army: "A good soldier is a good Baathi."

Mr. Shari's home is a room just big enough for a lantern, a little kerosene heater and his bed — a sheet of roofing zinc propped on cinder blocks.

He has filled in the windows with mud bricks, leaving just a small chink to let in the weak winter light, and he keeps a battered tin teapot atop the heater all day for small cups of sweet tea to fight the biting cold.

Mr. Shari, 69, is living in a former munitions storeroom. One year after the end of the war in Iraq, he has set up house just a few kilometres from his ancestral village, but he is far from home. His struggle to get there is one of so many across Iraq: As the politicking and profiteering play out in Baghdad, people like this Kurdish farmer find themselves pinned down by the conflict of other people's interests.

Thirty years ago, the valleys surrounding Qarahanjir were dotted with small, grey stone villages. About 500 families lived here, growing wheat and barley, and grazing sheep and cows. In the 1980s, the Iraqi government forced them off their land and into a "collective town" here. Ostensibly meant to ease the provision of piped water and electricity, the move was in fact intended to break their ties to the land as part of Mr. Hussein's goal of "Arabizing" the mostly Kurdish north.

In 1988, the Kurds of Qarahanjir were ordered to move again, this time off their land altogether and into a wretched, muddy town about 20 kilometres north. Their farmland was declared a military zone.

In 1991, after a Kurdish uprising resulted in the establishment of an autonomous region in northern Iraq protected by a UN-patrolled no-fly zone, the farmers and shepherds found that a border suddenly stood between them and their land. They were in Kurd territory, and the enemy army now stared down from bunkers on their hills. It would be more than a decade before they saw their fields again.

Last March, two weeks into the war, the Iraqi army abandoned its post here, its northern front. Kurdish troops moved in and found the shell of what a large sign proclaimed to be "Chemical Unit No. 8." It was impossible to tell, from the stripped and looted installation, whether the Iraqi army had in fact operated a chemical weapons site but rooms were labelled for the storage of different weaponized chemicals and protective equipment.

Today, the large mural of a beaming Mr. Hussein is gone, and Mr. Shari and a handful of other families have moved back, setting up house in the village-turned-base-turned-village again, as close as they can get to their bulldozed former homes.

"Even though we don't have anything, we're happier now, because we have returned to our home," he said. "I always had faith in God, I always believed that we would return to our land. Your homeland is very precious."

Nothing remains of Qalodeh, his village. Once Mr. Shari was a rich man, with 15 hectares of land and huge flocks, but the deportation made him "a beggar," he said. He has no money to rebuild, and no one, not the Kurdish government or the new Iraqi authority, has offered any help.

"Our local government is putting their hand on our land and saying it belongs to the government and they don't even let us go there," Mr. Shari said. "We need access to our land to survive."

He said local Kurdish officials have told him and his fellow villagers that because this was "government land" under Mr. Hussein, it now belongs to the new authority — and they plan to develop it into a tourist area. The old bar where Iraqi officers drank has already been converted to a wedding hall. Three small restaurants have opened on the site of the old army checkpoint.

No one in the local Kurdish government was willing to comment on his specific complaints, saying only that the broader issue of land claims is complex and still to be resolved.

All this has left Mr. Shari bitter. He fought for 14 years with the Kurdish peshmerga militia, for which he was jailed and lashed by Mr. Hussein's authorities; he said he was even dragged by an ankle behind a tank when he refused to sign a card changing his nationality to Arab from Kurd. In 1993, his two wives and three of his eight sons were killed in Iraqi shelling of the collective town.

He pointed to the hill on the horizon where once Qalodeh stood. "It's levelled to the ground now, but it has good springs, good water." Come summer, he hopes that he and two of his sons will start the work of rebuilding.

"If there is justice, we will get our land back. And if there is no justice, then this is just the same as Saddam's era."


How can we manifest peace on earth if we do not include everyone (all races, all nations, all religions, both sexes) in our vision of Peace?

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