Kurds have always followed world news with great passion. In the 1980s, I was a child growing up in Iraqi Kurdistan. My father and his friends were glued to their radios day and night to discover when the bloody eight-year war with Iran might be over. As a teenager in the 1990s, I listened to the radio to find out who would win the U.S. elections and whether the new president would tell the UN to lift economic sanctions on Iraq that were starving millions of us.
We were cheated out of a country of our own following the First World War, when global powers started carving out the Middle East. Having no state or army, we always had to look far away for a saviour. Kurds have been the underdog in Iraq, where our tragedies and the massacres of our people often go unnoticed.
I recount many such bitter moments in my book, Being Kurdish in a Hostile World, which examines Kurdish history from before I was born through the Islamic State (ISIS) invasion of our land, which I reported on from the front line. It doesn’t seem to matter who rules Iraq: the Kurds are always a favourite target for their wrath. Saddam Hussein’s regime attacked my town, Halabja, with chemical weapons in 1988 and killed 5,000 innocent people in one day. In 2014, ISIS militants, many of whom were former Saddam officers and possibly had relatives among the pilots who gassed my town, invaded Kurdistan and killed thousands more Kurds.
Each time we came under attack, we pleaded with the outside world. Pictures of barefoot, exhausted, and famished women and children fleeing to the safety of the mountains woke the world up to our plight.
Kurds are indebted to many countries for saving us at different stages – the combination of the U.S., the U.K., and France, for example, for imposing a no-fly-zone in 1991 to protect us against Saddam’s army, and again in 2014 against ISIS. Now we have a new nation to thank: Canada. Until recently, Canada was to many Kurds as distant as another planet. But in the past three years, the battle against ISIS has built a bond between Canada and Kurdistan.
In the fall of 2014, when ISIS militants were knocking on the doors of Kurdistan, Canadian transport planes carried weapons donated by other nations to the Kurds, soon followed by fighter jets and military advisers from across the provinces to assist the Kurdish army.
This time around, I was no longer the young boy sitting next to my father and his radio. I was a war correspondent, and had been covering conflict for more than a decade. I came across many of our foreign backers on the front line, among them Canadians.
In the summer of 2016, Kurdish Peshmerga forces had launched a predawn offensive to drive ISIS out of a village, and among the thousands of Kurdish fighters were several foreign soldiers whom everyone automatically assumed to be Americans. But when I left the tank I was using as cover against relentless ISIS fire and spoke to them, I found out they were Canadians.
One of them was a spotter, someone who finds targets and calls in warplanes for an air strike. He stood close to his vehicle, radio in hand, his eyes concealed behind dark sunglasses and his head sweating under a helmet. Every few seconds he relayed some codes to an invisible pilot in the sky and moments later an air strike would send rooftops and debris flying upward.
A few metres away, behind a protective berm, there was a Canadian sniper and his spotter with a pair of binoculars. Every time he fired a round the recoil of his rifle sprayed dust and dry grass into the air. I was impressed by their focus. In that mayhem of tank fire, machine-gun crackle, mortar shells whistling overhead, and hundreds of troops running to and fro, the Canadian sniper remained pressed against the trench with his eyes glued on ISIS across the field. They helped eliminate the enemy resistance and cleared the way for the Peshmerga to enter the village, which belonged to a non-Muslim Kurdish minority group called Kakeis that had been slaughtered and displaced by ISIS.
This cycle of violence has tired us and we find it humiliating to beg for help every few years. The outside world doesn’t know much about the Kurds either. We appear in the news when disaster strikes and we disappear as quickly. My story and that of millions of Kurds is the story of statelessness. I hope that by trying to tell the Kurdish story through my personal journey, my book sheds some light on our cause.
Ayub Nuri is a Canadian journalist who has covered the Middle East since 2003. Being Kurdish in a Hostile World is published by University of Regina Press.