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

Letter: The Silent Countdown

In the final moments, Kurds are moving back from the front line, remembering past fiascos and hoping this time will be different.
By Ali Sindi

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


soon.


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


anything.


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


government.