Kurdish Fighter's Bittersweet Retirement

Elderly ex-guerrilla struggles as street vendor to stave off penury.

Kurdish Fighter's Bittersweet Retirement

Elderly ex-guerrilla struggles as street vendor to stave off penury.

Thursday, 12 November, 2009
From seven in the morning until seven at night, seven days a week, Abdulla Mohammed pushes a cart carrying sweets through the streets of Erbil.

Over the last 20 years, he has seen his youngest customers grow up and rundown neighbourhoods grow rich. Now nearly 70 years old and troubled by chronic illnesses, Mohammed says he cannot afford to retire.

On his daily rounds through the streets of Barayati district in the east, up to Hay Shurta in the north, he reflects on the path in life not taken.

A tall man with glittering blue eyes, he wonders whether he would still be selling sweets if, at the age of 22, he had not joined the Kurds’ guerrilla war against Baghdad.

“Those who stayed behind as civilians now own shops in the market,” he said. “If I had stayed in Erbil and kept working, I wouldn’t be pushing this cart.”

Mohammed says he left behind a thriving livestock business and a young family to join the Kurdish rebels, known as peshmerga.

“My pride didn’t permit me to hide among women while the peshmerga were fighting in the mountains,” he said. “Besides, I was tired of the Arabs bullying us.”

In the middle of the last century, tens of thousands of young Kurds were inspired by a nationalist commander, Mustafa Barzani, to take up arms against Iraq’s Arab-dominated government.

The uprisings elicited fierce reprisals, culminating in Saddam Hussein’s genocidal assaults on the Kurds in the 1980s.

Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War of 1991 eventually helped the Kurds secure three provinces in the north of the country. Rival Kurdish parties then turned their guns on each other in a contest for the territory newly liberated from Baghdad.

Since 2003, the Kurdish region has been largely peaceful, particularly compared to the rest of Iraq. Stability and the lure of unexploited oil reserves have brought investment and grand building projects to the big cities.

Though the Kurds do not have an independent state, they enjoy considerable autonomy within Iraq. Their relations with Baghdad remain tense.

Today, rival leaders of the armed struggle and their descendants control the Kurdistan Regional Government. Some 50,000 former peshmerga claim a monthly pension from the government.

Mohammed is not one of them. He says he was denied a peshmerga pension because he already receives a pension of roughly 100 US dollars a month from a state-owned cigarette factory he once worked for.

His years on the battlefield taught him a useful lesson. “It is always the poor man who takes a bullet and gets no credit for it,” he said.

In an Erbil teahouse where pensioned former peshmerga pass the time of day, some said they pitied their elderly ex-comrade who still toiled for a living.

They suggested Mohammed had failed to secure a pension because he had not taken part in the civil war between rival Kurdish parties in the 1990s.

“He didn’t realise that being loyal to Kurdistan is not enough,” said Haji Zakaria, an ex-peshmerga. “It is the party that rewards you. Kurdistan doesn’t exist. It never will.”

Kurdish officials confirmed that current laws do not allow former peshmerga to claim more than one pension from the regional government.

However, the spokesman for the Kurdish ministry in charge of peshmerga, Jabbar Yawar, told IWPR the pensions system did not discriminate against veterans who had not fought in the civil war.

“There is no difference between peshmerga who took part in the civil war and those who did not. The pension awards are based on years of service and rank,” he said.

Yawar said the current monthly pension ranges between 60,000 to 1.2 million Iraqi dinars (50 to 1,000 dollars). He added that a new law, currently under consideration, would raise the minimum monthly pension to 260,000 Iraqi dinars (240 dollars) and the maximum to 2,000,000 (1,800 dollars).

According to Yawar, the new law would also allow men such as Mohammed to pick between pensions. “Someone with a state pension who is seeking a pension as a veteran will be able to choose one of them,” he said.

Mohammed admits he would rather enjoy his retirement in a teahouse – but with three daughters to support, he must work. His daily journey through the streets of Erbil earns him about 170,000 Iraqi dinars (150 dollars) a month, and leaves him exhausted.

“Sometimes, I get so tired my whole body starts shaking. Then I sit down on the sidewalk and take a break for 15 minutes,” he said. “Even if I’m hungry, I can’t eat my sweets - I can’t afford to.”

In a house along his route, a middle-aged woman who did not want to be identified, says Mohammed refused offers of financial help when he was ill.

“He is a very proud man,” she said, recalling how he worked extra hours and saved money for three years to pay for surgery on his throat.

Mohammed says the city where he first started selling sweets nearly two decades ago is no more - wealth has eroded the social fabric.

“Erbil’s old houses used to have gardens where people would sit with friends, drinking tea. But the new houses are just like hotels – a way for people to show how rich they are,” he said.

He recalls a gentler era, when neighbourly values kept citizens close to their faith.

“In the past, everyone knew everyone. Now two families living next door do not know each other, yet they call themselves Muslims. They visit mosques to flaunt their cars and gold watches, instead of thinking of the poor,” he said.

In Mohammed’s dealings with his customers, there is no sign of the grumpiness with which men often greet the young. He is commonly known as Mam, or uncle, Abdulla.

Passing by with his cart, he pauses to hand a free lollipop to a young boy mesmerised by the sweets.

Further along, he gratefully receives a glass of lemonade, and insists on compensating with a chewing gum.

“I don’t take anything for free,” he said.

Though he wishes he did not have to work, Mohammed believes the time he spent fighting has brought other rewards.

“I didn’t fight for money.... Seeing the youth of today enjoying a bit of freedom is good enough for me,” he said, nudging his cart along.

A teenager driving his father’s SUV impatiently flashes his lights, urging him out of the way.

Nabaz Jalal is an IWPR-trained journalist in Erbil. IWPR-trained journalist Najeeba Mohammed contributed to this report from Erbil.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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