I will concede that it would be incorrect to state that Iraq isn’t a country that has been torn apart by war, sectarianism and violence for decades, but to restrict the coverage to these aspects doesn’t reflect the reality of this country.
From my short but intense recent first-hand experience in Iraq, I can say that there are many untold stories of courage, resilience, solidarity and tolerance, many more than could ever be told.
This is the memory I will cherish from my time as part of a human rights delegation in Iraqi Kurdistan. To meet people that have suffered so much and yet show incredible generosity, kindness and openness, so far from what the Western media likes to report so extensively of people being intolerant, violent and tribal.
There were many occasions during my trip where I smiled, several times a day, thinking to myself how ignorant a lot of people would feel if they met people from Iraq, having to face the prejudices they feel so naturally. However, this article focuses on a truly inspiring experience, visiting the villages of Dupre and Kashkawa.
These two villages are located in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the Nahla valley, about 30 kilometres south of the Turkish border. It’s near the mountains separating Iraq and Turkey, bound by the Khazir river to the west and the Greater Zab River to the east. You can reach the village of Kashkawa from Dupre by a 10-minute drive. The village of Dupre is a Kurdish Muslim village, whereas the village of Kashkawa is a Christian Assyrian village.
Assyrians represent around 5% of the Iraqi population and speak a dialect of Aramaic, also known as Syriac, which was the language of Christ. The Assyrian empire fell in 612 and since, the Assyrians have known many genocides and attacks, whether in ancient or modern times, and are still present in their ancestral land of northern Iraq. Their suffering and oppression from diverse majoritarian groups has been silenced for centuries now.
At our arrival in the village of Dupre, after hours driving through beautiful mountains and plains, we were greeted by the villagers, with warm hugs and hospitality, a rare occurrence in the world today. During our meeting with local families, we were given an overview of the life of the village. One woman stated: ‘we love our village and our lives, we just want peace, we just want the bombings to stop’. She is referring to the cross-borders Turkish bombings while showing us a hole in the roof of her house caused by a bomb.
Villagers expressed to us how grateful they were for the solidarity between Kashkawa and Dupre, how both communities help each other when in need. Dupre is a simple village with many family houses, a mosque, a water supply, and many agricultural fields which the local population depends upon. In how many places in the world do people only request peace and are content with what life has given them? Not many.
As we arrived at the village of Kashkawa, bordering a river, we witnessed the tranquility of this village’s daily life. There were kids swimming in the river, Despacito was blasting from the speakers (we can never escape this song, can we?!) and there was a familial and joyful atmosphere. We enjoyed a meal with the villagers and people coming from neighbouring villages to enjoy a sunny day at the river.
The image given in the media about Kurdistan or Iraq makes it hard to imagine yourself in a river, smoking shisha and going to the restaurant at night to enjoy a beer, or sitting on a terrace with the village’s families. We also had the honour of assisting with the Sunday service at the village’s church and were introduced to the Bishop. After the mass, a local man showed us pictures of his house in Mosul and told us how Daesh destroyed the Christian churches and marked the houses belonging to Christians. All Christian religious signs were banned and they were forced to pay the ‘jyzia’, a tax on religious minorities. Unable or unwilling to pay, they had to choose between exile or death. Before this account, we felt far from the possibility of atrocity.
The local Bishop then told us the story of the church, how the regime of Saddam Hussein attacked the village many times, the last time in 1987 destroying it completely, including the church. The current church was built by an NGO in 1993. Every single time, they came back, they rebuilt their homes, church and schools.
There’s a deep sense of belonging and co-existence in this village, and whether intimidated or not, they don’t want to leave:
We do not want to leave our village or our country, we want to stay here and live in peace.
With several campaigns of ‘Kurdification’ of Assyrian provinces and centuries of oppression, this minority could have many reasons to seclude themselves and express defiance towards neighbouring villages or communities. Instead, the community of Kashkawa is welcoming, their hospitality is endless and they have lived in solidarity and peace with the village of Dupre for centuries. This story is the testimony of humanity, solidarity and giving and I am grateful for witnessing such resilience.
It is a lesson worth learning in Europe.