MUST READ ! – The Other side of Kurdistan’s success story: The impact of mines in the region’s rural areas

By Sofia Barbarani: KURDISTAN TRIBUNE – 17.11.2012 – Ask an Iraqi Kurd why the Kurdistan Region is different from the rest of Iraq, and the answer will most certainly include the word ‘safe haven’. Although the region became autonomous in 1991, it was not until the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 that the Kurdish region began to blossom, socially and politically. Through the succession of oil and gas money, and a typically Kurdish sense of unfaltering hope, the region has picked itself up from decades of neglect to become both prosperous and secure.

Following decades of oppression, and a devastating genocidal campaign at the hands of Saddam’s Baathist regime, Iraq’s Kurdish population can finally draw in a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that the U.S. walks beside them. For many, Iraqi Kurdistan represents the only positive aspect in the tale of violence and internecine strife that was the American adventure in Iraq. The benefits of America’s invasion are apparent in Kurdistan’s fast-growing economy, which has resulted in the opening of foreign consulates, international airports and universities; the region registered an eight percent growth last year, and local authorities expect to hit a 12 percent growth by the end of 2012.

In a region riven with turmoil, and a world characterized by sluggish economic growth, the Kurdish tale is certainly impressive. However, whilst the international community and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) rightly praise the progress in the region, they fail to mention that Northern Iraq is still one of the most densely mined areas in the world, hindering rural reconstruction and destroying countless lives. Thousands of people have died in the past thirty years because of land mines, whilst those who survive live at the mercy of these deadly weapons. The idyllic image of a forward-moving democratic hub in the heart of the Middle East is often shattered by recounts of a poverty-stricken rural Kurdistan still baring the scars of years of conflict.

In 1998, the U.S. Department estimated that as many as ten million mines littered Kurdish ground, with another survey in 2011 estimating that Iraqi Kurdistan numbered one land mine for every citizen within its jurisdiction. Around seven million of these mines were laid by the Saddam regime; most of which were of Italian origin. During the 1980s, Valsella Meccanotecnica illegally sold an estimated nine million land mines to Iraq, aiding Saddam in his battle against the Kurds. They were primarily employed during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, and placed across the border with Iran to prevent the influx of enemy soldiers. They were also used to evacuate entire Kurdish villages suspected of housing Iranians and members of the Peshmerga. Because of strong rural support for Iran, thousands of people were relocated to the region’s cities; this weakened Kurdish unity and further facilitated Saddam in his quest for Arabization.

The dissemination of land mines has also been attributed to fighting between Kurdish factions. The KDP and the PUK, as well as Turkey’s PKK are partly to blame for the damaging effects of land mines in Northern Iraq. Kurdish disunity and the warfare which ensued, have resulted in the slowdown of rural development and the perpetuating of abject poverty. According to the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), one of the three agencies involved in clearing land mines in Northern Iraq, 800 villages have been affected by mines; this makes up almost 20% of the rural area in the region.

Farmland in these affected areas provides Kurdistan with one of its leading and oldest forms of economic income, agriculture. Whilst the oil industry is head of the game, agriculture has always been a steady source of income for the region; particularly at a time when Kurdistan was denied control over its own oil exports. Today, the Kurdish Ministry of Agriculture has turned an ambitious eye towards farmland, aiming to achieve partial agricultural self-sufficiency by 2014. However, the expansion of industrial agriculture, and the life-threatening dangers posed by mines is likely to discourage displaced farmers from returning to their land and pursuing local farming.

Further hindering rural repopulation is the fact that homes cannot be re-built until all of the surrounding mines have been removed. The villagers who do return, are often injured or killed. Hospitals around the region are equipped to deal with land mine casualties, however, the demand for long-term rehabilitation is further burdening an already-strained medical system.Ultimately this has led to the permanent settlement of villagers in cities, where suitable jobs are largely unavailable; threatening the cities with overcrowding and widespread disillusion. This long-term outcome is currently being disregarded by Kurdistan’s leading parties, as they fight to bring to life a very different form of commerce, rooted in the region’s vast oil reserves.

The presence of land mines on roads poses another source of danger, restricting safe transport of goods and people between cities, and further alienating mountain-locked villages. Places like Shirawash, a refugee settlement lodged between the Iraqi and the Iranian border, Sardekan Hill and Zakho’s surrounding hills of wild grains, have known the true meaning of having ‘no friends but the mountains’. The presence of mines continues to strangle their economic growth, whilst their geographic isolation is made worse by the presence of these weapons on the connecting roads all but cutting them off from the outside world.

 Whilst Erbil and Sulaymaniyah revel in their wealth and new-found sense of freedom, rural Kurdistan struggles to keep up. Deaths as a result of land mines have decreased dramatically since the 1990s, yet this has been as a consequence of the international organisations working on the land more than political mobilisation. In 1998, US$16.5 million was earmarked for United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), which is involved in the clearing of mines, whilst countries like Denmark, Sweden and the UK have donated mine action support funds. Today, critics of the KRG claim that these funds have been lost in an on-going cycle of corruption, particularly present in the Talabani and Barzani tribes; Kurdistan’s most influential families, the members of which hold places in all sectors of society, including presidents of the Kurdistan Region and Iraq.

Until recently, Iraqi Kurdistan was considered a big village; dependent on its land and proud of its rural geography. Today, members of the mountain-based peshmerga such as Talabani and Barzani turn their heads away from their rural population, ignoring the long-term social and economic scars caused by mines and investing primarily in the region’s cities. Iraqi Kurdistan should consider addressing such issues if they are to differentiate themselves from the rest of war-torn Iraq. It is important to celebrate the revival of a people who have been continuously denied a homeland and basic human rights, yet it would be wrong for Kurdistan’s political powers and the international community to continue to disregard the importance of the rural areas, and the need to once and for all clear Kurdistan of the scourge of mines which have so scarred its people and its land.

Sofia Barbarani is a London-based freelance writer, with an MA in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies, King’s College London. Her main focus is Jewish-Israeli identity and the Kurdistan Region.