Few journalists have an insider’s view of Kurdish-controlled Iraq to tell a balanced story; Karzan Sherabayni is one of them. Having fled his homeland of Kirkuk in the 1980s after being arrested and tortured by the secret police, he has made many documentaries recounting the plight of the Kurdish people.
In January 2005, you returned to Iraq for the first time in 25 years. Why?
When I left I was 19, as a Kurd I did not have any chance of surviving in Iraq, especially because of the persecution of Saddam’s regime of the Kurds. I was arrested when I was 14 and by a miracle I came out thanks to my elder brother who is a building contractor and had to pay a huge amount of money. I knew a second chance would not be there. I always wanted to come to Europe and I left in 1980. With a new change in Iraq and the overthrowing of Saddam’s government, we now have the chance to go back and I thought that the best way to return to my city would be to take part in the first-ever democratic elections in January 2005. I covered the first election in January, the referendum in October for the Constitution, and then the election in December all in 2005 for the Iraqi Parliament.
Kirkuk is such an important and symbolic place. With 40% of Iraq’s oil fields located there, there will undoubtedly be a battle for Kirkuk to be part of a Baghdad-led Iraq rather than Iraqi Kurdistan. What do you believe will happen to it?
Kirkuk is a big problem for Iraq but at the same time, it could be a great symbol of peace and prosperity, because it is very rich, perhaps the richest oil city in the world sitting on 10 billion oil barrel reserves. And also the mixed population, the multicultural side of it and multi-ethnic… you’ve got Kurds, Arab Shi’ites, Sunnis, the Turkmans, the Christians. Therefore, it represents the whole of Iraq in a way. There is the saying, that if it blows up in Kirkuk, it will blow up across the whole of Iraq. If it becomes Iraqi, fine – it solves the issue once and for all – we know that the status of this city is now an Iraqi city. If it becomes part of the Kurdistan region, same. But to keep it as it is, is a time bomb.
How do you think Turkey will react to all of this? For example, if it is part of Iraqi Kurdistan?
They know that the majority of the population in Kirkuk is Kurds, and if the referendum happens, they know the city will go to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. And then the city will boost the economy of the Kurdistan region. It gives it the credibility because, you could say, it is a step towards an independent Kurdistan. But my feeling is that Turkey is more of a threat “talk talk” rather than real action. Because if they come in at this very moment they will have to fight the Americans, they will have to fight the British, they will have to fight the coalition forces. The country’s under the control of the coalition forces and the Kurds are the best allies of the Americans and the coalition forces. We shall see by the 31st of December 2007 if this referendum will take place; I hope it does.
As a Kurd in Iraq you described how you suffered under Saddam’s regime. You have been arrested and tortured by Mukhabarat, Saddam’s secret police, at the mere age of 14. Despite those experiences, do you believe that the means of toppling Saddam Hussein were justified?
I think they made a very big mistake by going in for Weapons of Mass Destruction because they provided Saddam Hussein with Weapons of Mass Destruction, so that was absolutely hideous as a claim. But then when they realized their cock up, they then turned to say he is a dictator, he is brutal to his own people, and on a humanitarian basis we should be getting rid of him to save the people. The classic Frankenstein scenario – they create the monster and then they want to destroy the monster. Despite all this, which we can see easily from the outside, the people of Iraq have been saved from a tyranny, a unique tyranny, in this time. The people of Iraq have been given a chance to really break away from the life of terror, because under Saddam Hussein there was absolutely nothing else but thinking any minute at any time, you will end up killed, persecuted, shot, tortured – so there was no life, and especially for the Shi’ites and the Kurds. Even so, they have two different takes on the so-called liberation. The Shi’ites would like to have the country under their control. So, even though they welcome the coalition forces – the Americans – they don’t want them to stay. The Kurds would like them to stay and share the oil and whatever else, because they know that they are their only hope. They are even scared that if the coalition forces leave, the Shi’ites might turn their guns on the Kurds. But of course, the Sunni majority is against the intervention of the coalition forces because they lost the privileges they had under Saddam Hussein.
If we take away the question of whether Iraq has been “saved” or not, do you then support external military intervention?
No, not at all. I don’t actually support any military action or wars whatsoever. I am not very optimistic personally. If I talk from the point of view of my people, the Kurds, they are delighted. On my trip to Kirkuk someone said, “We should build up golden statues of George Bush and Tony Blair and raise them in every city in Kurdistan.” That is how much…We can never understand how much they have truly suffered, what they have undergone, and therefore it is a liberation. To me, I can very clearly see it’s a mess and it carries on. And especially the status of Kurdistan – they are ambiguous, they are not clear, they’re not saying, “Yes, these people, they have their land, their culture, their history, they deserve to have also a chance.” Why not give them a chance to vote? Why force the Kurds to stay part of Iraq? Therefore, I have lots of questions with this intervention in Iraq.
At the start of the Iraq war, the Kurds within Iraq were in favour of the U.S. presence – is that feeling of support still in existence, despite the deteriorating security and humanitarian situations within Kurdistan?
Yes. The feeling of support and the alliance with the Americans is extremely strong, and with the British. Look at it this way, the Kurds are surrounded by enemies and have no chances of survival without the coalition forces. But there is no guarantee that the coalition forces will not sacrifice them for their own greed. And that’s what worries me most.
What are your hopes for the future of Iraq and more specifically, the region of Kurdistan? And can you explain why the Kurds value their independence so much?
The Kurds value their independence so much because it was not our choice to become part of Iraq. Our country was divided in the first place by the British Empire after the First World War, and since then the Kurds have never stopped struggling, resisting and fighting for claiming back their freedom. Iraq was created in 1921, an artificial country. We were forced into it. The Kurds and Arabs have never lived in peace together…. The country never lived in peace. In my film Return to Kirkuk, alongside the actual Iraqi election, I did my own personal poll asking the people, because I felt that this election was not representing entirely the point of view of the Kurds’ desire. So, I gave them a chance to vote on whether they wanted to stay as part of Iraq or become an independent country. And 95% voted they wanted an independent and separate country. That is huge, 95%. And the few that didn’t voted for a federal Iraq. So, my feeling is that it is the wrong policy of the West to try and keep Iraq as one country by force, by sending more soldiers and more weapons, and trying to still force their own imperial ideas – the way they created Iraq, they want to keep it as one country. Personally, for the future of Iraq, I hope it will be separated between the Kurds and the Arabs. There is a natural border along the chains of the Hamrin mountains – you can feel it –you go across and you feel you are in Iraq and on the other side you feel you are in Kurdistan – and that way hopefully we can live peacefully as good neighbours.
The Kurdistan Regional Government recently passed its own oil law which will allow foreign companies to explore for and produce oil on Kurdish territory. What do you think are the national and international motives for this new law?
I made a film for Channel 4 about Iraq’s oil crisis and there I went to the oil fields of the Kurds where they are extracting. One is in Zakho, and that is with a Norwegian company, and the other one, I think, is in Koya, and it is Turkish or another foreign company that is involved. The Kurds are saying that as a federal Iraq, our region, as part of the country, by the Constitution, allows us to use the resources in the region in order to develop the region, which has been neglected badly under Saddam Hussein. The Iraq central government opposes and says no, this can’t happen, especially with regard to oil, it should be part of the central government. And I think they have been discussing this issue for a while. The international implication of this is that I think that foreign companies will be more than happy to extract Iraqi oil or Kurdish oil in a region where they can do it… they can’t do it in Kirkuk because of the messy situation, but if they can do it in Zakho, they will be very happy about it.
Your recent film Wrongful Death is an emotional portrayal of the US practice of compensating deaths and injuries in Iraq. It is quite shocking that so far the US has paid out about $32 million in compensation for “wrongful deaths” and injuries in Iraq, and that each death is valued at around $2,500. How do you feel that they put a price on life and what are your feelings on the issue as a whole?
I really didn’t know about the scale of this problem until I went back. I was obviously shocked about my uncle, 75 years old, shot dead by the Americans on the streets of Kirkuk. And therefore, I wanted to know what happened and how. And only then, I realized that many, many, many more in Kirkuk and the rest of Iraq as well as the Kurdistan region have been shot by the Americans under the term “wrongful death”… very typical. But I think it is very dangerous because the Kurds are meant to be the best allies of the Americans. And Kirkuk is very important. But if they turn the feelings of the Kurds against them in Kirkuk, that is a very big price that they would pay in the long term. But I don’t know how much the Americans do look into a long-term policy. They actually seem to be very much down to the day. And so I tried…I wasn’t making a film so much about the wrong and right, but about the consequences and the danger of this policy – to turn your best allies against yourself, then it will really be a big mess. And of course, at the same time, I was also hoping to see the soldier who killed my uncle to see some justice to be done, to see if it was possible to hold someone accountable. If you are wrongly killing, and there was no mistake because my uncle was killed from behind, it was not in wartime or battle but on a peaceful road checkpoint, and these guys opened fire because they’re under stress or whatever it is, and they killed my uncle and later didn’t do anything else except to pay $2500. What? That is even more humiliation. That is like what one of the guys in the film says, “It’s as if they killed my brother again by offering this money.” It is very unfortunate because perhaps life is considered very cheap in our part of the world, but that’s wrong. That way, you won’t win the hearts ands minds of the people.
The Kurdish people have suffered for generations. Why do you think that now in particular the U.S. and the British are interested in supporting the rights of the Iraqi Kurds? And why there is less attention paid to the Kurds who may be suffering in Turkey?
I don’t think that the Americans or the British are in the slightest bit interested in protecting the life of the Kurds…at all. But they are greatly interested in using the Kurds as they did in the past. And in 1975, we were abandoned by the Americans. In 1991, again, disastrous consequences. And I think our leadership made a big mistake in accepting the alliance with the Americans and the British and to welcome them with roses, because of their common enemy Saddam Hussein. Because they came to take Saddam Hussein away from power, the Kurds welcomed them without any conditions. I would have preferred for our leadership to say, “We welcome you to topple Saddam Hussein, but at the same time and on the same day, we will raise our flag for the independent Kurdistan, and you will accept it, and that’s the condition. And if you don’t take it, I am not going to accept it, because in the past I have experienced your betrayal several times, I will not trust you again just on the basis that we have a common enemy.” And therefore, we do not have a guarantee. Any day, any time, the British and Americans’ interest change to someone else in the region we will be sacrificed again, and that terrifies me, the consequences.
And so you are particularly fearful about the future?
I am, very much so. I really really hope that they won’t do it again to us. Because this time, it would be an absolute disaster.
1st September 2007