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Thursday, February 23, 2017
- After fleeing the war three months ago, Gulnaz is headed back for Syria to bury her brother within the 24 hours Islam stipulates. But it is far from easy to take the coffin across the Syrian-Iraqi border.
Located 460 northwest of Baghdad, the Kurdish town Peshkhabur has witnessed unusual traffic of people over the last months. Most are refugees coming from Syria but there are also those forced to go back to the war-torn land they left behind. Gulnaz is devastated so it’s her companion who provides the details.
“After the Islamists’ offensive in July we moved to Erbil (the administrative capital of Iraqi Kurdistan 390 km north of Baghdad) but in pure bad luck her brother died in a car accident,” he tells IPS as they wait patiently for the Kurdish border officials on the Iraqi side to check their documents.
The cluster of buildings from which cross-border traffic is managed hardly differs from customs offices elsewhere: baggage is thoroughly checked by men in uniforms while officials in plain clothes enter data in their computers behind their windows. About an hour later, it’s actually the absence of any new stamp on the passport which reveals the unique nature of this customs.
This is the border between the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq – the closest thing to a country that the Kurds have ever enjoyed- and the north-eastern region of Syria, which remains today under the control of the Syrian Kurds.
Divided by the borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, around 40 million Kurds comprise the world’s largest stateless nation. Since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, between three and four million Kurds there have opted for a neutral ‘third’ way – not with President Bashir Assad, and not with the Arab opposition.
It was not until July 2012 when they took over the areas where they are compact, in the country’s north and northwest. However, theirs is a fragile position which has led to clashes with both sides. The fiercest have been with groups linked to al-Qaeda reportedly supported by Turkey.
Turkey has openly said it does not look favourably on the creation of a new Kurdish political entity on its borders.
For the time being, neither Baghdad nor Damascus have any record whatsoever of the daily traffic of goods and people across the Habur river, which works as the natural border between both countries.
After paperwork on the Iraqi side, the mourners receive a paper with their name on it. That’s their passage into one of the two boats that cross the river.
The procession step aboard first to lay the coffin on the metal boat. Some of the men dressed in shal-e-sapik – the traditional Kurdish male dress- struggle to contain their tears. Two women channel their grief through a serkeftim, that syncopated Kurdish cry used to express both absolute joy or the deepest pain.
Gulnaz just covers her face with both hands while she’s guided to the boat.
“Things will be much easier when they finish building the bridge over the river,” says Sherwan, the boat pilot, pointing to the two yellow bulldozers already working on the Syrian shore.
A temporary pontoon bridge on the right is reserved for vehicles and oil transferred across the bridge through a set of hanging tubes. Nonetheless, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 30,000 people came across it during a massive refugee flow in August. The humanitarian agency estimates that the number of displaced Syrians on Iraqi soil is around 200,000.
The crossing is only a five-minutes ride over the calm waters of the Habur. On the other side, the baggage of the newcomers is searched by two young girls dressed in the uniform of the Asayish, the newly formed Syrian Kurdish police.
Chief commander of the police force Hasim Mohamed tells IPS that his is a body formed by 4,000 volunteers supplementing the 40,000 members of the YPG – the Kurdish initials for Popular Resistance Committees. This is very much a real army which has so far been able to contain the advance of Islamists in the region.
Much of its funding comes from this border traffic. Each passenger pays a fee of 1000 Syrian pounds (five euros) in the white cabin set up a few metres from the shore. Local officials say that between 150 and 200 people cross the river daily.
Those wishing to rest before jumping on one of the taxis waiting behind the last barrier can find a makeshift restaurant inside the annexed barracks. The local Kurds are getting on with business as usual in the difficult environment.
The mourners head for the funeral immediately. Others who crossed over make their own plans.
Massoud Hamid sits for tea before heading for his native town Qamishli, about 680 km northeast of Damascus. He is the driving force of Nû Dem, the first bilingual newspaper in Arab and Kurdish published in Syria. He’s returning after printing the latest edition in Erbil.
“We still have no real printers in Syrian Kurdistan, so we have to go back and forth every 15 days,” Hamid tells IPS. He recalls that he spent three years in jail after posting some pictures of children demonstrating in front UNICEF headquarters in Damascus.
He was arrested in 2004 while he was taking an exam at Damascus University but his bravery was recognised in 2005 by Reporters Without Borders. After his release, Hamid got asylum in France until conditions allowed him to return to his native Syria.
In Syria, he says, nothing will ever be as before.
“Today we had to go through the whole customs process customs but the truth is that both sides are Kurdish,” he says in the makeshift restaurant. “This is just one among so many forthcoming changes in the Middle East.”