In early March 1991, those who now proudly call themselves citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan rose up against then-leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein. Within a very short time, the uprising led to the formation of the semi-autonomous northern region they now call home, a comparatively safe haven for members of the Kurdish ethnic minority in Iraq who had been persecuted by Hussein for years. So who would ever have thought that those proud citizens would come to regret what the uprising achieved?
But those were exactly the sentiments being expressed by some Iraqi Kurdish individuals as they celebrated the anniversary of that uprising recently. There was heated debate on social media – some say that conditions now are the same as they were then, when the uprising began - and some locals were even making fun of this commemorative event.
“The gains made by the leaders of the uprising of 1991 include the Grand Millennium, the Rotana Palace and the Divan [names of some of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most expensive hotels],” wrote Hayman Abdul Qadir, who works as a psychologist in Iraqi Kurdistan but who is also an activist on social media. “Whereas we got Otha Kalsir, Zourab Al Mataam, Aha Kolah and Shirat Al Tabel [names of popular and inexpensive restaurants]. They got Lacoste shirts, Diadora shoes and big name brand watches. Water and electricity meters were ours. Job titles like minister, deputy minister, member of parliament and general manager are for them and their children and their relatives. Electoral campaigns, coloured fingers and clapping at their success is all that is left to us,” he continued his lament on Facebook.
Senior PUK member: "Yet all those now complaining about the uprising, can only complain so freely because of it."
Abdul Qadir says he wrote this piece because he wanted to express his discomfort with the widening gap between ordinary Kurdish people and the privileged and politicians. “These feelings I am expressing are not mine alone,” Abdul Qadir added. “They are shared by the people of Iraqi Kurdistan. This,” he argued, “is what we have gained 25 years after the uprising.”
“There are a number of reasons why people are not happy and most of them relate to the fact that those who rebelled against a tyrant and an oppressor have become tyrannical and oppressive themselves,” says local journalist Diari Khaled, who has a Masters degree in history. “Minutes after the uprising succeeded, Kurdish officials began looting the wealth and resources of the region.”
“The uprising didn’t achieve what it set out to do,” says Azad Mohammed, a former member of the Iraqi Kurdish military and now also one of the region’s best known popular musicians, working under the name Azada Rash. Mohammed took part in the uprising in 1991 and some say he was the first to fire his gun in Sulaymaniyah in early March that year. “We rebelled to bring democracy and well being to our people. What we have now is the opposite: No democracy and no well being.”
In Mohammed’s opinion, the issue of the presidency of Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the biggest problems right now. The post is held by Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but his term in power was supposed to have finished in August 2015, at the very latest. However Barzani is not giving up the job.
“If there was real democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan, these kinds of things would not happen,” Mohammed told NIQASH. “On the first day of the uprising, we were so enthusiastic. Unfortunately all that our enthusiasm led to is this situation, where we have crises and problems.”
“The uprising didn’t achieve the goals we were dreaming of,” agrees Latif Fateh Faraj, another former member of the Iraqi Kurdish military who took part in the rebellion in 1991; he now works as a journalist, writer and political analyst. “The uprising has allowed a minority to control the lower and middle-class majority here, like they were a mafia. This mafia is ruining relationships between different people and that is so dangerous.”
“The uprising brought a social change,” says local MP Beeston Faeq, a member of the oppositional Change movement. “It brought about a rift between different classes of people and that’s just about all it’s done. The goals of the uprising – for democracy – have been destroyed in front of our very eyes.”
Local psychiatrist Aram Ahmed believes there could also be some misplaced anger at work here. People are angry at the authorities for various reasons and they’re using the anniversary of the uprising as an excuse to express it.
“It’s a common thing for human beings to do,” Ahmed explains. “They’re upset but they can’t do anything about it, they’re powerless. So they express anger toward other things.”
Of course not everyone in Iraqi Kurdistan feels this way. There are plenty who still believe the 1991 uprising was the most positive turning point for Iraq’s Kurdish ethnicity. It liberated the Kurdish from Saddam Hussein, who had conducted a campaign against them that involved everything from death to discrimination, they say.
“All the media organisations and civil society groups who now operate so freely in Iraqi Kurdistan are a result of this uprising,” argues Latif Sheikh Omar, a senior member of the other of Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. “It may well be true that only some of the original goals of the rebellion have been achieved. But many of those who are now complaining and who underestimate the achievements of the rebellion are those who didn’t see the injustices committed by the Baath party [Saddam Hussein’s political party] for themselves. That’s why they’re talking like this.”