Suppressed but not Undone, Iraqi Kurdistan’s Uprising and Current Nonviolent Struggles

By Peggy Faw Gish

As I write this, it is still uncertain what the recent fall of the Ukrainian government will mean for the Ukrainian people and society. Will the new government bring in greater democracy, human rights, and an end of the massive corruption rampant in the former regime? Will it bring in a more repressive right wing government, or even an economy “restructured and privatized by the IMF described by Naomi Klein in her book, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, (2007, Henry Holt & Company).

In the meantime, I’ll share a glimpse into what many have called the “Kurdish Spring,” the 2011, basically nonviolent uprising in Iraqi Kurdistan—the three semi-autonomous provinces in northern Iraq (Duhok, Erbil, and Suleimaniya). While in the city of Suleimaniya that spring, as part of a Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT), I was able to be a witness to it. (More details can be found in chapter 23 of my book, Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation (Cascade Books 2013).

Embolden by the anti-corruption and liberation movements that started in Tunisia and Egypt earlier that winter, Iraqis began gathering in their city squares in mid-February 2011 for massive nonviolent protests. These movements did not manage to dismantle the corruption and undemocratic control of political parties and leaders over most aspects of society, but were, by the end of April, violently suppressed by military forces. Though the protests appeared crushed, however, they set in motion powerful currents that are likely to surface more powerfully when the time is right.

In Suleimaniya, in the Kurdish region, leaders of the two ruling political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) responded to those early protests by sending in security forces, who at times shot into crowds of marchers. A group of masked men with suspected ties to the PUK burned the station of independent NRT TV and Nalia Radio—which had been covering the demonstrations. The subsequent gathering of Four to five thousand citizens in the city center, renamed, “Freedom Square” (in Kurdish, “Maidani Azadi,”) often ended in violent confrontations with security forces.

A federation of local NGOs, however, took a bold action in order to return the daily protest back to its nonviolent roots. They formed what they called, “The White Group,” (white symbolizing, in that culture, peace), or what we called, the “Wall of Peace” (WOP) to keep the police from beating demonstrators and the demonstrators from throwing stones at the police. Our team was there at the invitation of the protestors to document the event and stand with the WOP. Wearing white vests and holding a wide white ribbon, about eighty people formed a semicircle around the square. Behind them stood over a thousand armed security forces. In front, were about 5,000 demonstrators.

The next day, February 22, about 4,000 to 5,000 artists, students, journalists, religious clerics, women, laborers, and the unemployed, crowded in the square. Music and poetry interspersed the speeches. Then the leaders released two doves, saying, “These birds represent peace and hope to us.” At least three times that day, angry demonstrators from the square charged toward the line of security troops, but the WOP stepped between the two groups and calmed things down.

Another day, the crowd began taunting the soldiers. The WOP intervened and someone from the stage began the chant, “These Peshmerga [Kurdish Military] are our brothers.” Then members of the WOP handed out plastic flowers to the troops. Some of the soldiers held the flowers in their hand; others put them in the barrels of their rifles. Many made eye contact with the people, and the tension level dropped.

Throughout the following weeks of relative peace at the square, there were sporad­ic acts of violence by security forces against protesters. Many leaders and participants were arrested, usually after the protests dispersed at the end of the day. They were threatened, beaten or tortured in prison. Local pro-bono lawyers, protest leaders, members of CPT and Amnesty International put pressure on authorities for their release.

On many occasions, individuals at the demonstrations suddenly did things to incite violence, such as ripping up signs or throwing stones. Or­ganizers later found that these were provocateurs sent in by the KDP or PUK parties to discredit the protests. Most of those times, the demonstra­tors understood what was happening and responded quickly to prevent fights. One day, we saw a man run up with a knife and slash the large pictures on the walls. Immediately a group of men sur­rounded him and carried him out of the square.

What were the protestors’ requests?  They wanted to end a corrupt system, in which the two ruling families were above the laws and controlled the security forces, parliament, and courts for their own interests. These leaders used the public resources for their own gain or for upgrading their militias. One could not open a business, buy a house or get a professional job without joining the PUK or KDP or bribing officials. One of the leaders told us, “Our main concern is restructuring the government so that it will be accountable under the rule of law and deal with the corruption and party domination.”

On April 18, the sixty-first day of the demonstrations, protesters gathered apprehensively, as soldiers, police, and anti-terrorism units positioned themselves on streets close to the square. Protest organizers urged everyone to remain nonviolent. After security forces launched tear gas into a crowd along one of the streets, most demonstrators in the square dispersed. A little later, snipers on rooftops began shooting around the square. When groups of protestors tried to return later that day and take over the square, soldiers forced them out with shooting, tear gas, and beatings with batons. They burned the stage and destroyed the banners. We later heard that almost a hundred people were admitted that afternoon in the emergency hospital, sixteen with gunshot wounds.

That night 10,000 additional soldiers were brought into the city, where they lined the streets and guarded the square. Authorities banned all demonstrations with a “shoot to kill” order, later changed to a “shoot the legs” of anyone who disobeyed. The next day sixteen busloads of university students, on their way to the courthouse for a nonviolent vigil, were hijacked by security forces and taken to a place outside the city. For hours, soldiers threatened and beat many of the students.

In the following months, other attempts to restart the protests were met with physical violence. We visited one protest leader in the hospital after he had been shot in the ankle in what appeared to be an assassination attempt after he publicly spoke out publicly against the corruption of the government. Protesters continued, however, to meet and discuss the issues and think about strategies for change in the future. They were discouraged, but did not give up their desire to keep struggling for a democratic and economically and politically just society, and to do that nonviolently.

Nonviolent struggles for social change are not easily won, and often don’t show positive results for years. Even though their stated nonviolent methods are nonviolent, other people may join in the public gatherings bringing in episodes of violent activity. These may even be paid provocateurs. As is the case with the current civil war in Syria, a movement may start out nonviolent, but become co-opted and turned into a violent war. Or, as in Egypt, powerful players can take the victories of a nonviolent struggle and thwart the political outcome. The dynamics are complex and there are no guarantees, yet when one studies nonviolent movements over time, as is done by Gene Sharp in his books, The Methods of Nonviolent Action, (1973) From Dictatorship to Democracy (1993), and other studies of nonviolent movements, it is clear that nonviolence is a very viable and powerful way and that there is more chance of nonviolent movements succeeding their goals with the least amount of deaths and destruction.

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One thought on “Suppressed but not Undone, Iraqi Kurdistan’s Uprising and Current Nonviolent Struggles

  1. I like the way you analyze the Ukranian protest and the nonviolent direct action movement as a whole. You write so clearly, Peggy. Love reading your work!

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