Sam Edelman sees signs of reconstruction
and friendship on trip to Northern Iraq
When I tell people that I went to Iraq for two weeks this summer,
I get looks that say, “You have to be crazy.” Possibly
I am a little crazed; I often have used my vacation time to travel
to war zones. Carol and I were in Yugoslavia just before the country
began to fall apart; Lebanon in 1982 during the Israeli war against
the PLO; and on the West Bank during both the first and second intifadas.
Yet, nothing prepared me for what I saw in northern Iraq at the end
My trip to Sulaimaniya was both fascinating and a little frightening.
I witnessed the greatest threats at the border crossing between Iraq
and Turkey. Turkish customs officials, border guards, and military
personnel harassed and verbally abused Kurds trying to enter Iraq.
It was clear that the Turkish military is fighting hard against Kurdish
fighters who live in Turkey.
No one has told them, apparently, that the official position of Turkey,
as it attempts to join the European Union, is to lessen the cultural
destruction of its 13 million Kurdish citizens. That destruction has
ranged from prohibition of speaking the Kurdish language and having
Kurdish newspapers to punishment for any connection to Kurdish political
As we drove up to the border crossing at Cisre, there were thousands
of Turkish-owned trucks carrying everything imaginable for sale in
Iraq, including building supplies (photo above). Turks are benefiting
from the millions of dollars in reconstruction efforts in Northern
Iraq. The border harassment was even harder to understand given this
positive flow of money from Kurdish Iraq to Turkey.
I found significant relief when I arrived in Iraq and was greeted
pleasantly by the Kurdish security and border guards who offered me
sweet tea and smiles.
The media had prepared me for an Iraq where Americans were distrusted
and even hated—an Iraq filled with bombings, assassinations,
and kidnappings. As I traveled for almost nine hours across northern
Iraq from Dohuk to Sulaimaniya, I saw a countryside with ripe wheat
ready for harvest, cities being rebuilt, and exceptionally friendly
and caring people.
The Kurds in the north are passionately pro-American, in spite of
our government’s actions in 1988, in the first Gulf War, and
in the current situation, all of which placed the Kurds in harm’s
way. There are somewhere between 4.5–6 million Kurds in Iraq.
Most live in the north, but a significant population lives in Baghdad.
In 1988, after a long period of violent conflict, Saddam Hussein and
the Baath Party began the Anfal campaign to eradicate the Kurdish
minority from Iraq. They forced hundreds of thousands of Kurds into
concentration camps, killed men, raped women, and gassed thousands.
In the end, hundreds of thousands of Kurds were murdered.
I traveled to Hallabje, a moderately-sized city, not far from the
Iranian border, and one of the largest Kurdish cities to be bombarded
with nerve gasses in the ‘80s. Around 7,000 Kurdish men, women,
children, farm animals, and pets died horrible deaths. Those who survived
continue to suffer the consequences of birth defects, high cancer
rates, and skin and lung diseases. I was sobered as I talked to survivors
and walked through the sites of destruction. The city still has hot
spots where the chemical gas readings are off the charts and the water
table is contaminated.
My visit to the University of Sulaimaniya was also eye-opening. The
faculty and students were forced into exile after the first Gulf War
and, like many others, the university was turned into army officer
barracks. During the autonomy period under the semi-protection of
the U.S. no-fly zone, the Kurds began to rebuild. They were handicapped
by a lack of funds and equipment; nevertheless, education happened.
On the day I arrived at the university, the medical school was proudly
putting the finishing touches on an x-ray lab that had been kept in
a UN warehouse for almost 10 years under the corrupt “Food for
Fuel Plan.” The lab had been liberated by medical students and
doctors, with the help of the U.S. military.
The president and provost of the university are very proud of what
they have been able to do, much of it with the help of the U.S. Army.
The university now has an important state-of-the-art computer lab—students
eager to use the computers were lined up. I was asked to cut the ribbon
at the opening of a new physical education facility’s graduate
conference room and library, built by the students themselves.
The University of Sulaimaniya has been made remarkable by the faculty
and students who have done so much with so little. My hope is that,
within the year, we will have an agreement between CSU, Chico and
The University of Sulaimaniya for a faculty exchange and joint programs.
As we watch the fighting in Baghdad and Najaf on TV, we must remember
that, in northern Iraq among the Kurds, a parallel world exists where
there is relative peace and security. That Kurdish world has high
regard for Americans and is looking to us to help protect their autonomy
and guide them to democracy.
–Sam Edelman, Professor of Communication Studies; Director,
Modern Jewish Studies; Co-Director, State of California Center for
Excellence in the Study of Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance