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Life in the Qandil Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan

Life in the Qandil Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan

[A view into the Qandil mountains, Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Linda Dorigo.] [A view into the Qandil mountains, Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Linda Dorigo.]

Photos and text by Linda Dorigo.

The window is open and only the mice racing on the first floor interrupt the whistling of the cicadas. It's hot. Wiria and his daughter Par-Wa nap in the living room, under the air conditioning stream. The family lives in Wasan, a village in the mountains of Qandil, in Iraqi Kurdistan on the border with Iran. It's hard for visitors to get here because Wasan, like other villages in the area, is in a valley surrounded by high mountains. The PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party) has been deployed here for about 15 years while they continue their fight in Turkey for greater rights and self-determination for Kurds. From this vantage point the guerrillas now fight Isis on the Iraqi front in Mosul and Kirkuk, as well as in Kobane, Syria, and defend communities like the Yazidis on Sinjar mountain who are suffering from persecution. Since late July the PKK has been facing new Turkish bombardments that hit the fighters and a few villages in the district, causing hundreds of casualties among guerrillas and civilians.

Up here everyone knows everyone and people stop in the street to chat, before being invited into the house for tea. Among friends and acquaintances favors are asked lightly, even if these involve small sacrifices for the good of the community. Kamaran is a young English teacher from the village of Qassre who once a week commutes to Erbil, the capital city, to hold classes that will earn him some extra money to support his family in the mountains. Kamaran is a smart guy, as is Wiria, the mayor of Wasan, who is about thirty years old. In 2008, together with his wife Swan and three other friends, he built the first library in the area. "We asked ourselves, why not bring books even here,” recalls Wiria, “and so we bought over four hundred titles and seven computers. This is more than a library. It is a real institution." Since then, one hundred children have had the opportunity to study computer science, journalism, photography, English, Arabic, traditional music and even Latin, "which is essential to understand many languages in the world," states the mayor. Life in the villages is based on agriculture but, adds Wiria, "there are as many as forty university degrees and six PhDs scattered among these fifty houses."

While having dinner, we discuss Islam. Wiria has just completed a master's degree in Islamic law at a Turkish university in Van: "I studied history of religions in order to seek answers to recent extremist acts, such as the attack against Charlie Hebdo in Paris, in sacred texts. I have written more than forty scholarly articles about it and I can confidently say that Isis is not the real Islam. I listened to the speeches of fundamentalist mullahs on the radio and on TV, and I read Al-Baghdadi's books." (The caliph of the self-proclaimed Islamic state has written several books on the rules of life in the Islamic state, for the use of its militants and aspiring citizens.

Near Hamad Rasud's house a stream flows alongside the apricot trees and tobacco fields. A year ago he was shot in the leg while fighting against Isis in Rabiaa, on the border between Iraq and Syria. "I am proud of having protected Kurdistan,” he says, sincerely, “and I'm happy I came back to Wasan alive. You know, it's so beautiful here that we all imagine [ourselves] to be travelers." Despite being bedridden since last summer, Hamad exudes a tremendous energy. The young man has lost much of his muscular strength and smiles with difficulty as he leans out of the window while his mother waters the garden.

These mountains have a revolutionary history. "I will have to explain to you why all revolutions were born in these mountains,” says Nabi Mohammed, born in 1966. “We are on the border between Iran and Iraq and this guarantees trade (and smuggling). It's not only because of that, the villages are protected from the valley and people have always been educated."

In 1974, following the failure of negotiations for self-government with Baghdad, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, the father of current president of the autonomous region of Kurdistan Massoud Barzani, led the fight against Saddam Hussein's regime from here. A few years later, former prime minister of Iraq Jalal Talabani, leader of one of the main Kurdish parties in opposition to Barzani, organized armed resistance here, creating the first military camp in the history of Iraqi Kurdistan.

"In the 70s,” recalls teacher Nabi, “more than one hundred and twenty families lived in Wasan alone. There was even a band called ‘Revolution Team.’ But in 1977, during the war, we were deported to Erbil so that we could not help the peshmerga hidden in the mountains. We returned only in 1991." Since 2000 the mountains of Qandil have welcomed the military leadership and the PKK fighters. "Anyone who rebels against dictatorships is welcome here,” says Nabi, “the guerrillas are our peshmerga, and whoever describes them as terrorists should spend some time with them instead."

The red house at the foot of the mountain is the support point for people wishing to visit the guerrillas. After visiting the martyrs' memorial, we climb up to the camps. The bush becomes thicker and hides the troops’ movements from the Turkish planes which often patrol the area. Days go by on a tight schedule: wake up at four, run until five, then breakfast until seven. Lessons on heavy weapons and physical training follow until six in the afternoon. Afrin and Seal are aged sixteen and seventeen respectively. They have not yet reached legal age and therefore cannot fight, but they train. Their families are worried, but "we do it for our people and the freedom of women," they explain. Their ideology leaves no room for a personal vision of the world.

The fighters write a lot, though. Occasionally they pass personal messages from hand to hand, or hide the cards for each other on the thick blanket that covers their tent. Inside, a small altar with pictures of martyrs, some butterfly-shaped hair clips, and a concert of mosquitoes. At ten pm they are all asleep. Only in commander Seyedkhan's tent a television flashes, powered by a small generator, transmitting an American movie from the 80s. We talk about old Persian recipes, authentic foods such as bread, and about who is better at making tea - Turks or Iranians? "We love this natural life,” says the captain vehemently, “we are mountain people and the mountains have always protected us. They are our only weapon."

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