Taking it in Their Stride

War is drawing ever closer, but for the moment the main concern in Iraqi Kurdistan is clouds.

Taking it in Their Stride

War is drawing ever closer, but for the moment the main concern in Iraqi Kurdistan is clouds.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

As I write I can hear the sound of the allies' planes flying overhead. They have been flying continuously for the past 24 hours now, but Kurds are not worried. It is these planes, and the sound of them, that has kept us living in hope for the past 12 years. It is the first time in our history that air forces are protecting us - not attacking us.

Daily life is still very calm in Iraqi Kurdistan even though there was a small, no-injury explosion in Erbil today. The blast created a small cloud in the sky. After Saddam's chemical attacks, Iraqi Kurds are particularly concerned with clouds: once bitten, forever smitten. The interior minister called the explosion the action of traitors, to destabilize our region.

It is now one week since war began. Food, clean water, electricity are still available and affordable, although for the past three days the Dohuk area, which gets its power from Saddam-controlled Mosul, has been without electricity. Dohuk's population of 250,000 is now depending on generators which cover only a quarter of the area's needs - most importantly, hospitals and water projects.

Around Erbil and other cities near the front, Kurdish forces are gathered in groups and camps. The main local radio station, Dangi Kurdistani Iraq, or Voice of Iraq Kurdistan, is broadcasting messages from allied forces asking Iraqi soldiers to surrender and not to defend the regime. It is telling them why this war is being fought and what international obligations the Iraqi regime broke.

The Kurdish parties, led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, are fielding more than 70,000 fighters. Most believe it is preferable for Iraqis to liberate Iraqis - or at least Iraqis working alongside foreigners. Iraqi troops know that the Kurds are not looking for revenge. In 1991, tens of thousands of Arab soldiers who surrendered to the Kurdish area were treated humanely. Now the Kurdish media is educating the public about the Geneva Convention and the rights of surrendering troops. Already a few thousand Iraqis have surrendered and we are sure many more will follow.

I remember exactly when the first Gulf war, against Iran, started - 22 September 1980 - and when the second Gulf war, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, started - 1 August 1990. Each time, I, like many others, thought the conflict would be short - a few days, perhaps a few weeks. The first days of war were greeted with fear and caution, and then things changed: while the threats of the first days still existed, and perhaps were even greater, people felt less worried; they adapted. There is no alternative.

In January 1991 I was in Baghdad. Conditions were very tough and the bombardment much more extensive than it is in Iraqi Kurdistan until now. But people adapted within weeks. Thus it is that people in Iraqi Kurdistan are returning to their homes now - not because the threat is over, but because they are desensitized.

Iraqis in general and Kurds in particular have been repeatedly inoculated with an anti-war vaccine. This vaccine - experience - desensitizes you to the fear of war and makes you apathetic to its consequences. A pity it does not work on children . . . Only last week I noticed how my nephew was shivering while talking about war. He is 13 years old and he had the vaccine when he was one year old. In later years he received smaller doses, but still to no effect.

I told him we, the men, should not be afraid of anything. "Well," he said. "I am not afraid, but my friends in school are saying terrible things about chemical weapons."

I understood then that we were not on the same wavelength - and that he was right to be afraid. I myself began to be afraid. Welcome to the republic of fear!

While writing, for the first time, I feel the windows and the ground shaking. The bombardment less than 30 miles from here is heavy. Iraqi missiles? It's possible. I went out to investigate and found clouds. I used the most advanced technology available to Kurds: the nose. These clouds do not smell, as chemical weapons do, of decaying apple. These are the leftover clouds of yesterday's rain. Good.

Imagine living like this. Imagine your children and loved ones living like this. The people of Iraq have suffered under Saddam for 30 years - three generations. All have suffered psychological trauma as a result. Some people are still defending this regime in the south. True. But those who are against the regime are 20 times more numerous.

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.

Support our journalists