Meer Ako Ali tells a very personal story of growing up in the 90s with landmines and a sense of self-insignificance in Iraqi Kurdistan, and how it all began to change when the US dollar came.
I grew up under sanctions in that dreaded “no-fly zone.” US, UK, and French air patrols prevented flights in Northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War to protect us, a persecuted Kurdish minority turned rebellious.
Two weeks ago I met someone in Beirut who told me, “You’re Kurdish?! I’ve been to Erbil, and it is such a beautiful city of dreams.” This was a very different response to the one I would have received only 5 years ago. Five years ago no one outside knew what “Kurdish” was, and I would have had to explain where Erbil is exactly. A torrent of reminiscences followed.
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Growing up in the late 90’s I remember two ghouls ghastly smirking at me from every corner, waiting to snatch me just outside the comforts of family life. The ghouls were of landmines and self-insignificance. The first we knew well, but the last I can only name now that my people have tasted anything different.
Unlike self-insignificance, landmines usually had warning signs. Those damned and inverted triangles – red irons, with white skulls – permeated our childhood, even our comics and picnic spots. All illustrated children magazine stories imprinted on my mind had a recurring plot: that of children going out to play in a field and then landing themselves on a pressure mine; limb amputation and crutches were major themes. The children would then be taken back home were there already were family members missing appendages. The moral of the stories were clear: don’t play with metal you find in open areas. But I could barely understand why choice names for the children were usually Azad and Nazdar, literally “free” and “beloved.”
And then there were the picnic spots. Schools elsewhere prompt students to walk “where there is no path and leave a trail.” We were advised against just that, and understandably so – one wayward could easily end up with amputated limbs after a walk in a pathless field.
Raised up in the urban Sulaimani, my personal experiences with landmine warning signs are limited to rear window encounters. I could spot scores of them huddled up against a curb from the back of our family picnic bus as we drove toward the green mountains in the country.
Self-insignificance had subtler ways. It spoke whenever there were silence, denial, and disconnection. But nowhere was self-insignificance more apparent than when people used to scramble for food. Harsh sanctions restricted trade and the flow of vital items into the Kurdish lands. Economically speaking, there were huge excess demands for short supplies of food, clothing, and other essentials, making them senselessly overpriced. It felt just like a capitalist rat race, except there was barely any capital.
In the early 90’s a sack of flour was priced at 1000 Iraqi Dinars (IQ). To put things in context, the average monthly salary of employees and teachers was a mere 250 IQ. Household goods such as meat and sugar cost 100 IQ and 80 IQ a kilogram, respectively.
After the 1991 Kurdish revolution against Saddam Hussein, my family and many others fled to seek refuge with the Kurds of Iran only to return and find inflation rates of 900%. In the wake of a stagnant economy, everyone had to spend all their accumulated savings and sell whatever items they could dispense from their homes. My father knew a teacher who would sell one of the doors in his house every month to provide for his family.
Services were equally scant. Electricity was available only two hours in every 48. Fuel was very expensive; my family and most others used to cook on charcoal instead.
Some fathers and brothers whose families went to bed hungry on so many nights were tempted to steal; many of them yielded. These semi-Robin Hoods were usually social and economic outcasts desperate for food. Anything had high bidders in the black markets, but favorite items to steal were flour, satellite dish LNBs, and car wheels and stereos. People used to lock their satellite antennas and steering wheels with chains and padlocks. Everyone who could afford a vehicle had to be extremely careful with it. One night, my dad recalls parking his Volkswagen Passat B1 in a dark alley only to find his Brazilian car wheels replaced for cement blocks.
In 1995, the United Nations started noticing that sanctions aimed at demilitarizing Saddam Hussein did much more in starving the people. Ordinary citizens were suffering the consequences of strict UN trade embargos. The Oil-for-Food Programme (OFF) was proposed by the Bill Clinton administration and put into implementation the following year. The main purpose of the OFF was to export crude oil from Iraq and exchange it for food, humanitarian aid, and medicine, because people really need oil to survive, you know.
Families received OFF food baskets every month which helped ration the essentials and decreased inflation rates to only 350%, even though the quality was low and the OFF ultimately destroyed all prospects for local produce. Besides empty saline solution bottles, UNICEF copybooks, and high energy biscuits, a particular warehouse haunts my memories. It was a huge, dusty metal structure with fading “WFP” acronyms on its façade: the World Food Program, an anchor from the outside world.
For us Kurds, everything outside was “unreachable.” Everything inside our free-but-locked-in region felt derogatory. Soon we would register ourselves as inferior; it became automatic and apparent. Satellite dishes gave us a window into the outer world, into everything we could not have. Everyone seemed to prosper in the 90’s; the world was a big oyster, and we were the invisible, no-fly underlings with shellfish allergies. Forgotten and insignificant.
Then prosperity came with the American dollar. It was 2004, just after they got rid of all Iraqi paper money that had Saddam Hussein posing on, looking much younger and more well groomed than the real him could ever vouch for. I remember my mom gave me a dollar, a lone Washington. She said, “Keep it with you. We will need it from now on.”
I mark that moment as a tipping point for all Kurds; as a new stage in the history of the Kurdish identity not just in Iraq, but also in Turkey, Syria, and Iran. Because we were given what we were promised by the Treaty of Sèvres and later denied by that of Lausanne: self-rule. In the years that followed the termination of the sanctions, our autonomous Kurdish Region in Iraq emerged as victor – and became the only thing the US can use to justify its invasion and occupation of Iraq.
We now feel more equal, and on par with the rest of the world. You can spot Azad and Nazdar roaming the fields and mountains of our country, finally “free” and “beloved.”
Finally sanction-free and rid of landmines. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is an investor’s haven today and a future tourist hotspot, attracting billions of dollars in trade and hundreds of thousands of businesspersons. There is corruption and mismanagement, and many Kurds are stuck in a financial limbo between past sanctions and present boom; but we have hope in our youth and civic spheres.
The hero of this story is neither the American Marines nor the Kurdish leadership, and definitely not that one dollar bill my mom gave me. It is federalism. Federations are the cure to our long-term shellfish allergy.
In this new stage, the Kurdish weapon is political reform. And our new fronts will be in Turkey, Syria, and Iran.
The views expressed in this are the author’s and do not necessarily correspond to those of Your Middle East.
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