Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Letter: The Silent Countdown
It is around 12.30 a.m. on March 19, and I am writing from Pirmam.
Salaheddine is the name the Iraqi government uses, if you want to find me
on a map. Less then 30 hours are left in President Bush's ultimatum.
Tonight the weather is very windy. The Kurds believe that wind is the best
protection against chemical and biological weapons, especially if it comes
with rain. It is like that tonight. Are the Kurds to be lucky this time? I
hope so, because we don't have masks or vaccines.
Every year on March 21, the Kurds celebrate Newroz, the beginning of the
Kurdish year. The most important thing to do at Newroz is to light a fire.
There is a Kurdish legend that says thousands of years ago, an evil king
named Zohak made a pact with the devil in order to maintain his rule. To
keep his power, the devil told the king to drink the blood of two children
every day. One day, the people decided to stop what has happening to their
children. They rose up behind a local blacksmith named Kawa, who killed
Zohak and liberated his people. We Kurds celebrate this victory of good
over evil on Newroz.
I am not going to judge which part of this story is true and which is
imagination, but I know for sure that today there is a Zohak in Baghdad.
In his speech on Monday night, President Bush mentioned that the day for
Iraqis to be liberated is very close. I am an Iraqi and I hope it will be
Here in Iraqi Kurdistan it is silent. Although Kurds have evacuated cities
near the front lines with Saddam's troops - half of the families in this
town have already left - they are generally optimistic. The expectation,
and the news, is that the war will be short. Fifteen years ago this month,
weapons of mass destruction were used against the Kurds and the world just
watched. Now people here decided to evacuate the big cities as a
precautionary measure since even now we have no prevention against
chemical attack. Hopefully Saddam will not have the chance to use
For now security in the region is completely under control. In Erbil, a
city of around one million, up to 40 per cent of population has left. But
not a single theft was recorded during the last 24 hours, according to the
police chief, who is a friend of mine. Despite the fear and the confusion
about what might happen in the next few days and hours, the evacuation is
not a mess. Iraqi Kurds are experts in this issue. There is no one of my
age and above who has not experienced leaving his home at least once.
I remember the evacuation of 1991, after the Kuwait war. It was at exactly
this time of year - twelve years ago, but it seems like yesterday! I was
single then and two years out of medical school. Kurds were fleeing toward
the borders followed by Saddam's troops and helicopters, which we believe
got a green light from the United States. The Iranian and Turkish borders
were closed and two million people were waiting on the borders. I am not
exaggerating. Those who give a smaller figure are underestimating because
of the embarrassment the true figures mean for those responsible.
My parents, sisters, brother and relatives were all among the two million.
I saw children and old people dying from diarrhoea and malnutrition in
front of my eyes. As a newly graduated, enthusiastic medical doctor I
could do nothing. Instead of treating people, I helped to bury them.
Today the situation is different. Helped by the "safe haven" protection
provided by the United States and Britain over the past 10 years, the
Kurds have reconstructed their region. Nearly half the 4,000 villages
destroyed during the 1980s have been rebuilt and inhabited. The 2,000
villages in the mountainous regions provide good strategic depth for a
withdrawal if and when necessary. Remembering the experience of 1991, the
Kurds have decided to die this time rather than go toward Turkey or Iran.
After a decade of self-rule, the Kurds are more organised and better
prepared. Today US interests match Kurdish interests - a change of rule in
Baghdad, the opposite of what seemed to be the aim in 1991. While all the
surrounding countries including Kuwait, where most US troops are based,
are announcing that their troops won't participate in the war, the Kurds
will participate and are ready to be on the front line.
Stories and rumours about the war are beginning to reach us from the Iraqi
side. One of these stories says that a poor man started cheering a group
of Iraqi soldiers wearing American uniform - a plan, the story says, by
the Iraqi government to confuse the American troops. The man thought
Americans had arrived. He was hurrahing President Bush. But the
"Americans" were Republican Guards. They arrested him.
Ali Sindi, a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, is a
Kurdish surgeon and former deputy minister of health in the Kurdish
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