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Brighter future

Hermione Gee, IrbilJuly 28, 2014

With a worldwide population of 40 million, the Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group without a homeland. The current crisis in Iraq has brought the dream of an independent Kurdish state a little closer.

Image: Hermione Gee

Billed as "Irbil's newest jewel that glitters under one of the region's largest glass domes," the Family Mall is a Western-style shopping arcade a few miles from the Kurdistan regional capital's city center. Opened in 2010, it's now home to an amusement park, a vast new cinema complex and over 100 different stores, including international brands such as Carrefour, Mango, and DKNY.

In short, wandering through the neon-lit halls, you could be at any mall anywhere in the world.

And while that might disappoint foreign visitors hoping for a taste of Middle Eastern culture, for many locals the mall symbolizes Kurdistan's rapidly developing economy and the success of its first decade as a fully autonomous region within an increasingly unstable and fragmented Iraq.

Economic boom

Kurdistan's economic boom also provides the ground for the regional government's recent announcement that it plans to seek full independence from Baghdad and set itself up as its own nation state, says Mewan Dolamari, a 21-year-old student at the University of Kurdistan-Hewler.

Sitting in one of the shopping center's eye-wateringly expensive juice bars, Dolamari's fluent English and hip Western clothing are as transnational as the mall itself.

Shopping mall Copyright: Hermione Gee
Sign of the timesImage: Hermione Gee

"In the past, political independence was the important thing, but right now economic independence has overcome political independence," he says.

"If you are economically independent, of course it will be a huge step for political independence."

Fighting for their rights...

Eschewing the modern malls and their sky-high prices, older Kurds tend to frequent the traditional teahouses surrounding the old bazaar in the center of the city.

It wasn't that long ago that Kurds were still fighting for survival, recalls Shamal Hasan, sitting with friends at a teahouse in the covered brick walkway that runs around the outside of the bazaar.

A good 40 years older than Dolamari, Hasan was a Peshmerga - a member of the Kurdish armed forces - in the mid-1970s, and fought against the Iraqi army in the mountains near Choman, a city 160 kilometers northeast of Irbil.

"There was a lot of discrimination and oppression of the Kurds so we were fighting for peace, freedom and democracy. So many people, thousands of people, were killed fighting for a free Kurdistan. The aircraft came to bomb us with chemicals, napalm, everything - they were trying to genocide us; they were trying to kill every one of us. But the regional situation, the international situation, wasn't right to ask for independence. At that time, we just wanted our rights and our safety."

... and independence

Although Kurdistan gained full autonomy after the fall of Saddam in 2003, it is still subject to the Iraqi constitution and federal law and has to pay its oil revenues to Baghdad in return for 17 percent of the federal budget. Recent years have seen several disputes between Irbil and Baghdad, primarily over oil contracts and revenues, which have increased tensions between north and south.

In the last decade, says Mewan Dolamari, Kurdistan has shown itself capable of running its own affairs.

market stall Copyright: Hermione Gee
Let them live their own livesImage: Hermione Gee

"If you look back over the last 10 years, since the liberation of Iraq, if you look at the political, social, economic system in Kurdistan - we can see Kurds have been successful in managing themselves. We've gone through a lot of improvements, we have opposition parties, we're building a consensus government; we are united to a large extent. In terms of liberty, freedom, compared to our past and our difficult history, we've progressed to a large extent."

And it is now time, he says, to take the next step toward full independence.

"Independence, for me, means we will rule our territory, our land, our resources. The decisions will not be made by someone who is not Kurdish, [but by someone] who cares about us and who understands our feeling, who has been with us throughout all the history and what we have suffered."

Kurdish history seems almost defined by the suffering and persecution of Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. In Iraq alone, decades of terror wreaked upon the country's Kurdish minority culminated in Saddam Hussein's genocidal Anfal campaign of the late 1980s, which included the destruction of villages, forcible displacement of residents and the use of chemical weapons against civilians.

Dolamari is young enough to have avoided the worst of it, but his generation still carries the scars of the horrors inflicted upon their parents and grandparents long before they were born.

"I feel what my parents felt, what kind of situation they were in," he says. "Just because we didn't experience it, doesn't mean it isn't important for us."

Generation gap

But there are some significant differences between the generations.

Kurds who grew up after 1991 don't remember what it was like to be connected to and live with the rest of the country. Whereas earlier generations all learned Arabic - the language spoken in the rest of the country - as well as their native Kurdish, and were all too aware of being governed by Baghdad, nowadays many young Kurds prefer to learn English and have only known what it's like to live under the direct rule of the Kurdish authorities.

And that only adds to their desire to separate from Iraq and claim their own Kurdish identity, says 27-year-old Sardar, a tourist guide from Erbil who didn't want to give his full name.

"As Kurdistan, we are not known in the world. I was chatting with people [online] and saying I'm Kurdish and they didn't know what it was; it was the first time they heard it. I had to explain half an hour what's Kurdish. But if we have our national teams, participants in the Olympics, a seat at the UN, of course we get well known. If I have a Kurdistan team in the World Cup, I'm feeling proud, I'm feeling that I also exist. That's what we deserve - to be known by people. It's not nice that in this world 40 million people are hidden. People should know that there's another nation."

Most of all, Sardar says, he just wants a brighter future.

People walking on road Copyright: Hermione Gee
On the road to independence?Image: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

"Iraq is the most corrupt country in the world. Iraq has zero level of safely, zero level of everything. As an Iraqi I'm known as a terrorist, I'm known as a robber - so many bad things are [associated] with Iraqis. Of course, I hate it. When you see that you don't get visa, you're not internationally respected, it's not nice. If we get our own state, then maybe we can have a better reputation, a better passport; and if our economy gets developed, maybe we can travel a bit easier."

Big brother

Strangely, perhaps, given what they were subjected to, the older generations did feel a connection with the rest of the country, says Shamal Hasan, who lived through some of the worst periods in Kurdish history. "We used to look at them, the [Iraqi] Arabs, as our big brothers. If we had our rights, we thought we could stay together."

But experience has shown that the only way the Kurds can be safe, Hasan says, is if they govern themselves.

"There's a guy in power now who was oppressed for decades under Saddam but he came and did the same as Saddam. That's why we're asking for independence. After all this time, we've lost so much; so many people have been killed. And now we've come to believe that we can't live with them, the [Iraqi] Arabs; we have experience with them. I used to say I was a Kurd from Iraq because I thought there was still a chance that we could live together but now I just say I'm a Kurd."