Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bayarans Enjoy New Lease of Life

Kurdish villagers savour new-found freedoms following departure of the radical Ansar al-Islam group.
By Kareem Omer

For Kurds in the mountain village of Byara, life has changed a lot since the fall of Saddam Hussein a year ago.


The most significant development was the departure of the much-disliked Ansar al-Islam, the zealous Islamist group that once held sway there.


A village of 3,000, located some 85 kilometres south-east of Sulaimaniyah, Byara was controlled for a year by Ansar, a radical Kurdish group with many Arab fighters, who United States and Kurdish officials say have close connections with the al-Qaeda network.


Nearby villages were controlled by other Muslim radical organisations, namely the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Islamic Group.


Toward the end of March 2003, however, all of the former were forced out of the area in a joint operation involving US special forces and thousands of Kurdish peshmerga fighters.


Tomahawk missiles and US bombs pounded the area before a March 29 ground attack that resulted in the deaths of some 200 Islamists, while another 600 or so reportedly fled to Iran.


That ushered in a new era for the village.


"I have never seen better days in my whole life," said Mustafa Najeeb, the custodian of the town's main mosque.


Under the austere Islamic overlords, television was banned, along with music and dancing, staples of Kurdish life.


Ansar even forced men to stop shaving and smoking cigarettes, and they made women cover their traditional colourful dresses with abayas, long black cloaks.


Both men and women agree that women had it worst under Ansar rule.


They were fined if they so much as played in front of their houses with their children while not fully covered in an abaya.


Many women left Byara and other villages for nearby Halabja and Sulaimaniyah.


"We were forced to wear the cloak and were separated from the boys," said a high school student, who did not want her name mentioned.


"They separated the girls from the boys," said Nawzad Ahmed, a male teacher in Byara's only secondary school, who now teaches mixed classes again. "Male teachers were not allowed to teach in the girls' classes and vice versa."


Hemn Ahmed points out that the only thing that managed to escape Ansar's scrutiny were "the secret love letters exchanged between girls and boys".


Even images of women featured on some soap packaging were banned.


"If you bought soap with pictures of women on the cover, you would erase the picture before bringing it into the village," said shop owner Hawraman Majid.


Since they were forced out, some Ansar members are said to have filtered back into Iraq to regroup or join other Islamic fighters and regime loyalists in attacking coalition forces and the Iraqis who work with them.


But they have not returned to Byara or the nearby villages.


Instead, 110 families who fled Asar's Taleban-like controls and, later, the US bombing, have come back.


Construction materials have also arrived and are piled in the narrow streets to repair roads, rebuild homes and restore steep hillside agricultural terraces and retaining walls, some of which were destroyed in the war with Ansar.


Most of Iraqi Kurdistan was untouched by the war and is now busy focusing on developing new businesses, factories and trade relations.


In addition, foreign NGOs have been able to organise humanitarian efforts that have brought a new road, a health centre, an improved sewage system and new houses to the rugged and long-isolated area.


The relief operations have been supported by the Kurdish regional government and the Coalition Provisional Authority, CPA, which wants to improve local living conditions and discourage people from joining Islamic groups again.


With the rehabilitation projects have come many new construction jobs.


"Now we cannot find enough workers for all the projects," said Najeeb, a local man. "Before, we would have to flatter [Ansar] to get a day of work. And still we would not get it."


Abid, a municipality official, said there are also new jobs in the public sector, "Only today I have got approval to employ 21 persons in the municipal office..."


In addition, there have been big changes in the townspeople's social life.


"During Ansar's rule, dominos and billiards were banned," said Hemn Ahmed, who now owns a small pool hall on a Byara side street.


Posters of Real Madrid and the Brazilian football teams adorn the premises alongside formerly forbidden images of pretty Indian, Arab and Kurdish women singers. Alongside them is a tongue-in-cheek advertisement for Awa olive oil that would also have been unthinkable a year ago.


It features a photo of Muhammed Saeed Sahaf, Saddam Hussein's now infamous spokesman, who claimed as the Coalition marched into Baghdad that the Iraqi army was winning the war and the Americans would never see the capital city.


"Do not buy Awa olive oil," Sahaf says in the ad. "It tastes bad."


Kareem Omer is a journalist based in Sulaimaniyah and IWPR's Kurdistan coordinator.