The following article by American journalist and author Jonathan Randal is part of Global Geneva’s commitment to highlight and report on “international Geneva” themes ranging from war and refugees to human rights, humanitarian response and environment. It is scheduled to be published as our lead story in the 2019-2020 Winter print and e-edition of Global Geneva. The front cover of the magazine features a photograph by British photojournalist Sir Donald McCullin, who also covered the Kurdish crisis with Randal. Global Geneva is indebted to both Randal and McCullin for their contributions.
As perhaps is fitting in my sunset years, I am updating a book I published in 1997 on the Kurds when virtually no one in the United States had any idea who they were or what role the United States had played – and would play in their lives and theirs in ours.
At the time, I was taken to task for using a quote from a T.S. Eliot poem, After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? as an overly pretentious literary title. But it accurately reflected – and still reflects – the Kurds’ dilemma. The book chronicled Western, and especially U.S., use and abuse in the 20th century of the Kurds, a mainly mountainous people, whose misfortune it has been to yearn for a country of their own in contiguous territory inside authoritarian and highly centralized Middle Eastern states, principally Iran, Iraq, Syria and especially Turkey. This abuse continues in the 21st century.
The Kurds: Miraculously resilient despite recurring defeat and treachery
I say fitting because my involvement with the Kurds began as a reporter’s late career indulgence after decades of covering “little” wars, disturbances, and crises that often came close to setting off World War Three, yet luckily never quite did so. Call my attachment to the Kurds a last fling with adventure as a foreign correspondent and author, which jolted into high gear with the first President George Bush’s war to remove Saddam Hussein’s army from Iraq’s conquest of Kuwait in August, 1990. In any event, my involvement with the Kurds proved long-lasting, more so than with other Third World upheavals I have covered as a reporter over a half century.
I often wonder why I keep risking my neck with the Kurds (and I should make clear, not for them). The best answer I’ve come up with is that the Kurds, whatever their manifold failings, have a healthy sense of humour. They are also miraculously resilient despite a seemingly genetic disposition for recurring defeat and treachery.
But I also owe my life to them. So do the dozen other Western journalists, including Don McCullin whose powerful photographs feature in this piece, I had brought into Kurdistan at the time. Iraq helicopter gunships oddly tolerated by Washington after Saddam’s surrender and withdrawal from Kuwait in 1991, four months after his invasion, quickly crumbled Kurdish resistance. Hundreds of thousands of refugees clogged the roads heading for safety in the wintery Zagros mountains. In the midst of chaos, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani personally commandeered pickups, which brought us to a rare unmined path across the Zagros enabling us to walk six hours to safety in Turkey.
No guerrilla commander has ever taken the time to save journalists’ skins
Sure, our stories alerted public opinion to the plight of Kurds and eventually forced an initially indifferent U.S. president to send troops to persuade refugees to go home under the protection of the Western air umbrella. Still, never before – or since – in my experience has a rebel leader in such dire circumstances taken the time to save journalists’ skins. And I must confess only the Kurds still treat me as minor royalty during infrequent visits as a reward for sticking with them in very bad times.
So, with Turkey’s recent military incursion (6 October, 2019) into northern Syria in an effort to thwart the Kurdish militias there coupled with Washington’s renewed abandonment, I feel duty-bound to chronicle what I fear is turning out to be a new nadir in their long struggle for nationhood. I should have wished the Kurds a happier fate, and at times I did. But the American imperial recessional from the Middle East now is in full, if disorderly swing as President Trump’s chaotic removal of military support for Syria’s Kurds has demonstrated. That particular unedifying episode should not have come as a surprise for ominous signs were visible to the naked eye for almost a year.
What now will happen to the far more numerous Iraqi Kurds next door? Since 1991 they have sheltered under U.S. military protection which now must be open to question. How would such an eventuality – indeed the nearly 30 years of U.S. presence – be remembered? As yet more American perfidy or as evidence of the Kurds’ inability to take advantage of that protection to establish durable institutions essential to guarantee the independent Kurdistan of their dreams?
I won’t claim that updating my book is uplifting. But also let’s not forget that the Kurds were largely responsible for defeating the rapid Islamic State regimes in Syria, despite being completely different culturally from the people they liberated. So this needs to be remembered. I owe the Kurds at least that.
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Extracts from Jonathan Randal’s book: After such knowledge, what foregiveness – My encounters with Kurdistan – now being updated.
Ever since various Middle Eastern governments have invoked Western notions of the modern centralized nation-state to crush repeated Kurdish revolts, leaguing together when necessary lest the restive Kurdish subjects succeed in organizing themselves across artificial political frontiers. For the Kurds were – and still are – the fourth largest group in the Middle East and, arguably, the prize losers. No one disputes that they are the world’s largest ethnic group without a state of their own. Such has been their various foreign rulers’ abiding fear of them that no reliable census has been conducted in decades…Outside inquiry has been discouraged. (Today, an estimated 30 million Kurds live in the Middle East, including Turkey, with a further seven million elsewhere).
Eternal outsiders, who in this century can only have marvelled at the wasted fortunes that the Arab world lavished on Palestinian nationalism, the Kurds are the Middle East’s essential poor boys. Deprived even of their own oil and kept on short rations in one state, their national dress banned in another, their language in still a third, their most basic human and civil rights denied to differing, but often extreme degrees at various times in various places, the Kurds have resisted assimilation with a constancy confounding their would-be masters. They have survived the first aerial bombing in the Third World, poison gas, the deliberate levelling of their rural society in Iraq, mass destruction of villages and forced deportation to the western cities of Turkey, and the assassination of their leaders in Iran.
The Royal Air Force bombed Iraqi Kurds in January 1919 in what is believed to be the first use of air power to put down revolts, bombing was cheaper than garrisoning troops. Later that year, in Britain’s Third Afghan War, the RAF based in India bombed Afghan cities, forcing the emir, Amanullah Khan, to sue for peace. Winston Churchill, as Colonial Secretary in 1921, formally gave the RAF responsibility for maintaining law and order in the British-mandated parts of the Middle East. Among the officers who served in Iraq was Arthur Harris, known in World War II as ‘Bomber Harris’ for his ruthless championing of saturation bombing of German civilian and military targets.
Kurdistan is blessed – or cursed – by water and oil
Kurds living in Baghdad, Damascus, Istanbul or Tehran keep alive a secret Kurdish garden, nurturing it despite the homogenous erosion of life in these cosmopolitan capitals. A generation ago, a French journalistic colleague of mine was amazed at the determined Kurdishness of a young interpreter he met in wartime Iraqi Kurdistan who had been brought up in Baghdad and spoke little Kurdish. Despite the outward evidence, he insisted he felt Kurd, explaining: “There’s nothing I can do about it.” I myself have marvelled at the bedrock nationalism of young Turkish Kurds who speak, read, and write Turkish effortlessly but are prepared to die for a Kurdistan whose language they barely know. So, too, are Kurds as far away as Australia.
History is said to be written by the victors, and that has meant the Kurds’ enemies. But thanks to their mountains and remoteness from the centres of imperial power in Constantinople and Tehran, Kurds have from time to time enjoyed a sense of freedom which has waxed and waned with the strength of their overloads. Before World War I, with the decline of the Ottoman Empire, where the overwhelming majority of Kurds then lived, notions of modern nationalism awakened both Kurds and Arabs, but the Kurds unquestionable craving for independence from alien rule was never matched by political gifts capable of overcoming the determination to keep them divided.
In the Middle East their travail in this (20th) century alone remains unmatched even in a region given to terror, treachery, and repression on a grand scale. The ‘modernizing’ handiwork that did such harm to the Kurds as often as not was carried out with the tolerant complicity of foreign powers, ranging from their immediate neighbours to Israel, Britain, and the United States. This international meddling has not been gratuitous. Kurdistan is blessed – or, as some Kurds maintain, cursed – the parched Middle East’s major sources of water, and it has abundant oil as well.
The Kurds’ almost unbroken record of revolt and punishment has also been unrivalled over the past century. Alas for the Kurds, so, too, is their lack of organization and effective leadership. In the age of the helicopter and modern counter-insurgency weapons, their favourite adage – “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains” – has lost much if not all of its age-old validity. For even the mountains no longer provide the protection that once earned Kurdistan its reputation as “the land of insolence.”
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Drinking tea – and whisky – with Turkish tribal leaders
Over the years, I’ve walked in and out of Kurdistan’s Zagros Mountains, crossing borders without benefit of visa, passport, or armed guard in countryside so wild that three British journalists were murdered nearby for their money only days before one of my passages. I’ve trudged along highways with exhausted Kurdish refugees reduced to burying their children and grandparents by the roadside for fear of setting off landmines if they ventured further afield to provide a proper sepulcher. I’ve also flown in helicopters through the jagged teeth of the snowcapped 12,000-foot mountains that form the Iraqi-Turkish border, effortlessly surveying some of the late 20th century’s most isolated real estate, discovering high plateaus, valleys of sheer-faced rock, and rushing white water, then following the meandering Tigris River through endless plains to Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistann. In Iraqi Kurdistan I’ve watched hawks, bustards and eagles ride the thermals high over scrub oak and bald hills and mountains, waiting to zero in on their prey.
For my own good I’ve been forced by friendly Kurds to hire guards when travelling on Iraqi Kurdistan’s main roads – and I do that only during daylight. I’ve coughed dust and baked in 120 degree F (48.8 C) summers, and I’ve frozen alongside Kurds so destitute they were reduced to burning scavenged asphalt for heating only a few miles from some of the world’s richest oil fields. I’ve drunk tea as well as whiskey with Kurdish tribal leaders in Iraq and Iran, listened to Kurdish human rights activists under constant threat of death in Turkey, and talked politics with Kurds of every station elsewhere. In Iraq I’ve run into peasants harvesting thistles with odd implements designed in some dateless antiquity, talked wheat prices with tractor-owning farmers, commiserated with the urban middle class reduced to selling land, jewellery, silver, cars, radios, television sets, doors, beds, windows, homes to stay alive.
I’ve cried listening to the stories of the wrecks of Kurdish lives, stories even more depressing than the intended lessons imparted by those who cause the endless ruins of thousands of small Kurdish villages, once the very essence of Kurdistan. I’ve been awakened at dawn in a cheap city hotel in Turkish Kurdistan by sustained shooting only a few hundred yards away, then watched Turkish security forces go through neighbourhood after neighbourhood with all the violent efficiency of colonial troops answerable to no one. I’ve trudged through winter snows along smugglers’ mountain paths to listen to the nationalist fervour beneath the relentlessly inculcated, half-baked Marxism of young, jejune Turkish Kurds who would have died by the thousands for an independent Kurdish state. I have also come to understand the more limited goals of autonomy or federalism within existing borders, which Iranian and Iraqi Kurds have accepted after many shattered dreams and much destruction over many decades.
I’ve argued with Kurds in Western hotels, in tents, in rudimentary shelters made of leafy branches, and on long drives in broken-down vehicles. Perhaps because of my age, I personally have never been treated with anything but respect, generosity and friendship, no matter how heated the arguments. I’ve often wondered at a peculiarly Kurdish mixture of forbearance and bloody-mindedness, especially when I recall a scene high up in the mountains during the very heavy snows of 1992.
Two busloads of Kurds coming from opposite directions met on the narrow road cleared by the region’s only snow plow. I was in a Land Rover. Neither bus would give way or back up. There was not enough room for a vehicle to get by. Minutes passed. Suddenly the passengers poured out into the snow and started pummelling one another, remembering, or feigning to remember, ancient slights. The fisticuffs showed no sign of abating and, like all self-respecting Kurds, the men were armed with Kalashnikovs. To control my fears of impending general slaughter, I finally took a shovel out of the car and dug out enough snow alongside the road to allow my vehicle and one bus to pass. I yelled at the Kurds in English that I was in a hurry. They understood not a word.
I doubtless seemed quite mad to them, so much so, indeed, that they stopped abruptly and somewhat sheepishly, it seemed to me, climbed back into their buses. I directed traffic, guiding one bus into the sport I’d cleared while other went on its way.
The incident pleases me because for once a foreigner helped solve – rather than complicate – a Kurdish problem, albeit a minor one. It also illustrates why I suspect a rogue chromosome in Kurdish genetics causes what Indians, with their love for fancy words, would call: “fissiparous tendencies.”
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William Eagleton, a former U.S. ambassador and then special advisor to the State Department for Northern Iraq, warned that any period of repression by neighbouring states would only sustain a deep-seated hatred of Kurds and Kurdish nationalism. Eagleton’s importance is because he was an early American to get to know the Kurds and wrote the book on the Mahabad Republic. He also noted that the Kurds fighting with General Barzani during the 1960s in some cases were sustained by “little more than by the old Kurdish tradition of sher chaktira lo bakariya (fighting is better than idleness).” For their part, the Kurds, perhaps too pessimistically, would take Western abandonment for granted, if not now then down the road.”…Iraq and the Kurds, Eagleton said, represented “the Lebanon of the nineties” with all the weariness that long, violent, and messy conflict in the Levant can elicit…”
Journalist and author Jonathan C. Randal was for many years a foreign correspondent for numerous publications, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. His work as a reporter primarily focused on war zones, including reporting from Vietnam, Eritrea, Iran, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, North Africa and Lebanon. Randal is also the author of four books, including ‘Osama: The Making of a Terrorist’ and ‘The Tragedy of Lebanon’, all of which variously chronicle his work as a journalist in these areas. His update of ‘After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness’ is expected to come out in 2020.
Sir Don McCullin is a world-renowned British photojournalist, who has covered conflicts, humanitarian crises and other related themes since 1959. He is particularly known for his exceptional war photography but has also focused on reporting the unemployed, downtrodden and improverished. More recently, he has cover the plight of children.