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. Thanks to oil and gas money, and a typical Kurdish sense of unfaltering hope, the region has picked itself up from decades of neglect to become both prosperous and secure.
Following a long period of oppression and a devastating genocidal campaign by Saddam’s Baathist regime, Iraq’s Kurdish population can finally draw a sigh of relief, safe with the knowledge that the US walks beside them. To many, Iraqi Kurdistan represents the only positive aspect in the tale of violence and internecine strife that was the American involvement 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 reach 12 percent 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 land 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 US 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 them made in Italy. During the 1980s, the Italian company 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, the term used for Kurdish fighters. Because of strong rural support for Iran, thousands of people were relocated to the region’s cities, which 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, a significant portion of the region’s farmland.
While the oil industry is head of the game, agriculture has always been a steady source of income for Kurdistan, particularly in the days when the region was denied control over its own oil exports. Today, the Kurdish Ministry of Agriculture has created an ambitious plan with the aim of achieving partial agricultural self-sufficiency by 2014. However, the expansion of industrial agriculture and the life-threatening dangers posed by mines are likely to discourage displaced farmers from returning to their land and pursuing local farming.
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Further hindering rural repopulation is the fact that homes cannot be re-build 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 burdening an already-strained medical system.
Ultimately this has led to the permanent settlement of villagers in urban areas, 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 near the Iraqi-Iranian border, Sardekan Hill and Zakho’s surrounding hills of wild grains have learned the true meaning of having ‘no friends but the mountains’. The presence of mines continues to strangle their economic growth and augment the effects of their geographic isolation.
While Erbil and Sulaymaniyah revel in their wealth and newfound sense of freedom, rural Kurdistan struggles to keep up. Deaths as a result of land mines have decreased dramatically since the 1990s thanks to the international organisations working on the land rather than political mobilisation. In 1998, US$16.5 million was earmarked for the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), which is involved in the clearing of mines, and countries such as 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 whose members positions of power 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 would be wrong for Kurdistan’s political powers to continue to disregard the importance of the region’s 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.