OSA / Highlights

The Kurdish Autonomy of Iraq 2002/03

Photos and text by Eszter Spät

The Autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq, also known as the Kurdish Safe Haven, which existed between 1992 and 2003, was a unique experiment by the international community: the creation of a state within a state, with the intention of protecting the rights, indeed the very lives, of a minority. The Safe Haven was created after the 5 million Kurds of Iraq, a fraction of the 20 million or so Kurds divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, staged an armed uprising against the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein following the first Gulf War. When Western assistance failed to materialize, millions of Kurds fled over the border fearing the retaliation of the Iraqi army This led to a humanitarian catastrophe that prompted the UN to create a Kurdish Safe Haven, protected by the no-fly-zone, that incorporated if not all, at least a part of Iraqi Kurdistan. After the 1992 general elections this Safe Haven functioned as a quasi independent country, under the name of Autonomous Kurdish Region, with its own army, currency and Parliament in Arbil, its capital, until the Second Gulf War toppled Saddam's regime - with the help of Kurdish peshmergas. The majority of the citizens of the Kurdish Region are Muslim Kurds, but there are Neo-Aramaic speaking Christians, Turkomans, Arabs, and Yezidis, a religious minority whose minority rights were enshrined in law for the first time in the history of Iraq.

As a doctoral students of Central European University, Budapest, I spent the academic year 2002-03 in Duhok, the third biggest town in the Autonomous Kurdish Region, near the Turkish border, collecting material for my thesis on the religion of the Yezidis. Yezidis are an enigmatic, Kurdish speaking non-Muslim minority, with a highly syncretistic religion of their own. They can also be found in Turkey, Syria, and the Transcaucasian states, but they originate from Northern Iraq, which remains their spiritual center even today. As research on the oral religious tradition of this group is still in its incipient phase, it was necessary to collect material right in the field. Between 2002 August - 2003 June I stayed in Duhok, where I taught at the University of Duhok and carried out fieldwork with the support of the CEU and the Kurdish Institute of Paris. I worked among Yezidis living in the collective villages of Shariya and Xanke, near Duhok, and also stayed in the holy valley of Lalish, which is visited by Yezidis from all of Iraq and Syria on the occasions of great festivals. I also became acquainted with the other communities of the Kurdish region, such as Nestorian and Assyrian Christians whose presence dates back to the first centuries of the Christian Era, and the Sunni Kurds who constitute the majority. I witnessed Yezidi ceremonies, Christian church feasts, and the strange, ecstatic dance of the Muslim Qadri dervish order. I fled Duhok along with hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants at the beginning of the war, returning a few days later to a city depopulated by the fear of a chemical attack. Following the war and the reunification of the Safe Haven with Iraq I had the opportunity to visit Mosul, the ancient Niniveh, and a number of Yezidi settlements in the Kurdish territories till recently under Saddam's rule, such as the Sinjar mountain near the Syrian border, and Beshiqe - Behzani, the traditional villages of the Yezidi sacred singers.

The photos in this collection aim to give a taste of life in Iraqi Kurdistan as I saw it in 2002-3. They offer a glimpse of the scenic beauty of the countryside, a sense of Kurdish city life, of its different religious and ethnic groups, and most important of all, of the unique lifestyle, appearance and ceremonies of the Yezidis.

34 entries

The wartime Iraq 12 entries

The Yezidis - Assemblies 6 entries

The Yezidis - Autumn Assembly 17 entries

The Yezidis - Faces 7 entries


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