Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
An elderly former guerilla in Iraqi Kurdistan has received financial assistance from a top official in the region’s government as a result of an IWPR story that described his struggle to earn a living.
The story, Kurdish Fighter’s Bittersweet Retirement, followed Abdulla Mohammed on his daily rounds selling sweets on the streets of the regional capital, Erbil.
Mohammed said he was forced to work for money, despite being nearly 70 years old and stricken with painful illnesses. The veteran of the Kurds’ armed struggle against Baghdad also said he was disqualified from the pension enjoyed by former comrades because he had already chosen a less valuable government pension.
Following the publication of the story, the office of Masrour Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Region Security Protection Agency, contacted IWPR asking for a meeting with Mohammed.
“We owe what we have today to the sacrifice made by people like him,” a representative from the office told IWPR, referring to the extensive autonomy secured by the Kurds of northern Iraq after decades of resistance against Arab-dominated governments in Baghdad.
During a meeting with Mohammed arranged by IWPR, the official, who asked not to be named, took note of his pension arrangements, health problems and his record as a guerilla, or peshmerga, who had fought Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime.
The representative later said Masrour Barzani’s office had given Mohammed enough financial help to “cover his needs for the next five years”. He added that the office expected Mohammed to seek medical attention for his ailments and would consider assisting with further treatment, should it be required.
Mohammed said he was delighted with the assistance.
“I’m very thankful, I feel very happy that they remembered me at last,” he said. “I will spend some of the money on my family and use the rest to get medical treatment.”
“I defended our rights in Kurdistan and I expected it to be different from Iraq, in the sense that all Kurds would benefit from it. I don’t regret anything, I would do it again.”
Mohammed also thanked IWPR for its story.
“You said everything I wanted to say very truthfully... IWPR is a good organisation. They deserve thanks for remembering people who have been forgotten,” he said.
The official from Masrour Barzani’s office also praised IWPR’s report as “well-edited” and “very balanced”. The story, he said, showed how the media should “take a middle path and avoid political positions”.
He commended the report for having followed up Mohammed’s statements with the ministry in charge of Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga.
“We welcome this responsible journalism,” he said. “Journalists can act as positive mediators between the public ... and the authorities .... They can convey the suffering and grievances of the people.
“Without your story, we would not have been able to find this gentleman within four or five million people.”
The official confirmed the Kurdish Regional Government, KRG, was hoping to improve pension arrangements for former peshmerga, as reported in IWPR’s story.
However, he said, the budget for pensions and for the compensation of Kurdish victims of the conflict with Saddam Hussein’s military was allocated by the federal government in Baghdad.
The size of this budget, he said, was among several points of contention between the KRG and Baghdad. Tensions between the two authorities are also running high over the management of oil contracts and revenues and the delineation of territory under Kurdish control.
Under current legislation, Mohammed remains ineligible to claim more than one government pension or to change his pension plan.
Having once worked in a state-owned cigarette factory, he chose that pension over the payout given to peshmerga, which at the time was of lesser value. While the payout for ex-fighters has since increased, Mohammed has spent much of the last two decades working as a sweet-seller to supplement his original pension.
Speaking two weeks after his meeting with Masrour Barzani’s representative, Mohammed told IWPR he had used the money to pay off debts and start treatment for several chronic ailments.
He added that he had continued working as a sweet-seller, as the money would not “last forever” and he felt he needed to remain active. But where he once worked a 12-hour day, he said he now spent no more than four or five hours touring Erbil’s streets selling sweets.
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