By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 27, 2005
QARA-HNJEER, Iraq -- For more than 20 years, the Iraqi army knew this village as Rabie, the Arabic word for spring. Soldiers occupied the simple cinder-block houses that Kurdish residents had built on the rolling brown hills on either side of the highway that connects Kirkuk with Chamchamal in northern Iraq.
Rabie was a no-man's land of guns, mines, tanks and troops on the front line of a territorial battle between Saddam Hussein's army and the ethnic Kurds the soldiers were sent to chase.
Because Qara-Hnjeer was used as a military outpost, its physical structures avoided the wholesale razing that Hussein's forces inflicted on other Kurdish communities. Now, 23 years after the Iraqi troops moved in, residents have returned, reclaiming the village and its original Kurdish name, which means "black fig."
Almost all of the 20,047 registered voters in Qara-Hnjeer and the surrounding area voted on Oct. 15 in the referendum on a draft constitution, according to estimates from the local committee of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the dominant political party in the region. Of those who cast ballots, 99.5 percent voted in favor of the constitution, said Sabah Sharif, a representative of the Qara-Hnjeer PUK committee.
"We never had an opportunity to have a constitution, so the people came to vote for it," Sharif said. "It's a result of our struggle. It's a result of our suffering in this land."
The constitution formally recognizes the existence of the Kurdish region of Iraq and allows for a Kurdish constitution that can override the central government in disputed claims of power. Iraqi officials announced Tuesday that voters had approved the national charter.
People here view the document as a significant milestone for the Kurdish population as a whole, which was persecuted by Hussein and has long sought recognition of its unique ethnic identity.
But that is little solace for the Kurdish villagers of Qara-Hnjeer. Under the constitution, Qara-Hnjeer will remain outside of the Kurdish-controlled region, still answering to a government in Baghdad that many people deeply distrust.
"If the city is in the hands of the Arabs, we'll all be killed," said Abdurahaman Abdulfadah, 85, who lives on a sewage-fouled dirt road in the village center.
Naimal Ibrahim, 41, interrupted his father, explaining that sometimes the elder man speaks his mind too much. "We don't believe in Arabs," Ibrahim said. "We don't trust Arabs. We will only have our rights if we are governed by Kurdish leaders."
Compared to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk seven miles to the north, which also lies outside the zone, Qara-Hnjeer is strategically unimportant these days to either Iraq or the Kurdish region. It is just a small spot on the map, impoverished, with no running water or electricity. Few people expect the government in Baghdad to help.
"We don't have services," Abdulfadah said, as his sons and grandchildren gathered around the small, dirty mattress where he rested while selling sodas and snacks from a small shack next to his house. "We don't have anyone. Nobody looks after us. We don't know if there is a government or not."
The trouble started in 1982, when local people first saw Iraqi soldiers marching over the hills on their way to claim Qara-Hnjeer. Everyone in the town fled or disappeared.
Ramadhan Mohammad was 15 when he left with his family and neighbors in a caravan of mules. They stopped to rest in another village. One of the families turned back. Mohammad and his family stayed put.
"The mules and donkeys came back with their goods, but no people," Mohammad said of his neighbors who returned to Qara-Hnjeer. "Nobody knows where they went. They disappeared."
Over the next six years, the Iraqi government destroyed 70 villages in the area around Qara-Hnjeer. Thousands of people were killed and thousands more simply disappeared, said Sharif, the PUK representative. "Saddam regarded us as infidels," he said. "We were Muslims, but he destroyed us. There was nothing left."
The Kurds of Qara-Hnjeer who survived the assault stayed away for the next two decades, becoming wandering refugees of Hussein's campaign of ethnic cleansing. Many fled to Iran, returning only in 2003 after U.S. forces invaded and the Iraqi army retreated to Kirkuk.
Shokor Ali Kasim, 89, and his wife and children came back to find that Iraqi troops had booby-trapped their house with 18 artillery shells. The U.S. military cleared the residence, which the Iraqis had also stripped down to its shell.
"Only the walls remained," said Amina Abdulqadir, 32, Kasim's daughter-in-law. "There was nothing left. No windows, no doors. Even the ceiling was destroyed. They took the wires, the iron."
Kasim said his family voted for the constitution, in hopes of a better life, but that they were unsure who will make it happen. "Our hope is in the constitution, but we have more hopes in the United States," he said. "If there is no America, this constitution will fail."
Like a lot of Kurds, Kasim and his family see U.S. forces not as occupiers but as liberators who protected Kurdish territory from Hussein starting in 1991, allowing it to develop as a semi-autonomous, democratic region.
"When we were voting," Kasim said, "we believed that we belonged to Kurdistan. Even if we are affiliated to the center, to Baghdad, we will demand to be attached to Kurdistan."
His 20-year-old son, Rebwar Shokor, agreed. "Why not forcefully? Let's go," he said.
"No," his mother said. "We have suffered enough. We don't want that to happen."
Under the constitution, residents of the disputed Kirkuk territory, which includes Qara-Hnjeer, will get to decide by referendum whether to remain under the control of the Iraqi central government or become part of the Kurdish-controlled region. The constitution stipulates that a vote on the issue must take place by Dec. 31, 2007.
On the day after the referendum, Sharif and other party leaders gathered at the PUK headquarters to congratulate one another on the successful turnout. Iraqi security forces had once occupied the building, and the very room where they now sat had been used to torture and hang villagers, the men said.
Asked how they knew this, Luqman Aziz Karim, the head of the Qara-Hnjeer City Council, looked up. He had been staring at his clasped hands. "I was beaten here," he said softly.
"We are satisfied for now," he said. "We have given up some of our rights to vote for this constitution. We want the process to succeed, and the Iraqi government should be very grateful. We support the constitution now because in the future we hope to get our rights. This is a Kurdish region."
Special correspondent Sarok Abdulla Ahmed contributed to this report.