Iraqi Kurdish Ex-guerrilla’s Bittersweet
By Nabaz Jalal in Erbil, Kurdistan region of Iraq
Elderly Iraqi Kurdish ex-guerrilla struggles as
street vendor to stave off penury.
Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — From seven in the morning
until seven at night, seven days a week, Abdulla
Mohammed pushes a cart carrying sweets through the
streets of Erbil.
Over the last 20 years, he has seen his youngest
customers grow up and rundown neighbourhoods grow
rich. Now nearly 70 years old and troubled by
chronic illnesses, Mohammed says he cannot afford to
On his daily rounds through the streets of Barayati
district in the east, up to Hay Shurta in the north,
he reflects on the path in life not taken.
A tall man with glittering blue eyes, he wonders
whether he would still be selling sweets if, at the
age of 22, he had not joined the Kurds’ guerrilla
war against Baghdad.
“Those who stayed behind as civilians now own shops
in the market,” he said. “If I had stayed in Erbil
and kept working, I wouldn’t be pushing this cart.”
Mohammed says he left behind a thriving livestock
business and a young family to join the Kurdish
rebels, known as peshmerga.
“My pride didn’t permit me to hide among women while
the peshmerga were fighting in the mountains,” he
said. “Besides, I was tired of the Arabs bullying
In the middle of the last century, tens of thousands
of young Kurds were inspired by a nationalist
commander, Mustafa Barzani, to take up arms against
Iraq’s Arab-dominated government.
The uprisings elicited fierce reprisals, culminating
in Saddam Hussein’s genocidal assaults on the Kurds
in the 1980s.
Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War of 1991 eventually
helped the Kurds secure three provinces in the north
of the country. Rival Kurdish parties then turned
their guns on each other in a contest for the
territory newly liberated from Baghdad.
Since 2003, the Kurdish region has been largely
compared to the rest of Iraq. Stability and the lure
of unexploited oil reserves have brought investment
and grand building projects to the big cities.
Though the Kurds do not have an independent state,
they enjoy considerable autonomy within Iraq. Their
relations with Baghdad remain tense.
Today, rival leaders of the armed struggle and their
descendants control the Kurdistan Regional
Government. Some 50,000 former peshmerga claim a
monthly pension from the government.
Mohammed is not one of them. He says he was denied a
peshmerga pension because he already receives a
smaller sum – roughly 100 dollars a month - from a
cigarette factory he once worked for.
His years on the battlefield taught him a useful
lesson. “It is always the poor man who takes a
bullet and gets no credit for it,” he said.
In an Erbil teahouse where pensioned former
peshmerga pass the time of day, some said they
pitied their elderly ex-comrade who still toiled for
They suggested Mohammed had failed to secure a
pension because he had not taken part in the civil
war between rival Kurdish parties in the 1990s.
“He didn’t realise that being loyal to Kurdistan is
not enough,” said Haji Zakaria, an ex-peshmerga. “It
is the party that rewards you. Kurdistan doesn’t
exist. It never will.”
Kurdish officials confirmed that current laws do not
allow former peshmerga to claim more than one
pension from the regional government.
However, the spokesman for the Kurdish ministry in
charge of peshmerga, Jabbar Yawar, told IWPR the
pensions system did not discriminate against
veterans who had not fought in the civil war.
“There is no difference between peshmerga who took
part in the civil war and those who did not. The
pension awards are based on years of service and
rank,” he said.
Yawar said the current monthly pension ranges
between 60,000 to 1.2 million Iraqi dinars (50 to
1,000 dollars). He added that a new law, currently
under consideration, would raise the minimum monthly
pension to 260,000 Iraqi dinars (240 dollars) and
the maximum to 2,000,000 (1,800 dollars).
According to Yawar, the new law would also allow men
such as Mohammed to pick between pensions. “Someone
with a state pension who is seeking a pension as a
veteran will be able to choose one of them,” he
Mohammed admits he would rather enjoy his retirement
in a teahouse – but with three daughters to support,
he must work. His daily journey through the streets
of Erbil earns him about 170,000 Iraqi dinars (150
dollars) a month,www.ekurd.netand
leaves him exhausted.
“Sometimes, I get so tired my whole body starts
shaking. Then I sit down on the sidewalk and take a
break for 15 minutes,” he said. “Even if I’m hungry,
I can’t eat my sweets - I can’t afford to.”
In a house along his route, a middle-aged woman who
did not want to be identified, says Mohammed refused
offers of financial help when he was ill.
“He is a very proud man,” she said, recalling how he
worked extra hours and saved money for three years
to pay for surgery on this throat.
Mohammed says the city where he first started
selling sweets nearly two decades ago is no more -
wealth has eroded the social fabric.
“Erbil’s old houses used to have gardens where
people would sat with friends, drinking tea. But the
new houses are just like hotels – a way for people
to show how rich they are,” he said.
He recalls a gentler era, when neighbourly values
kept citizens close to their faith.
“In the past, everyone knew everyone. Now two
families living next door do not know each other,
yet they call themselves Muslims. They visit mosques
to flaunt their cars and gold watches, instead of
thinking of the poor,” he said.
In Mohammed’s dealings with his customers, there is
no sign of the grumpiness with which men often greet
the young. He is commonly known as Mam, or uncle,
Passing by with his cart, he pauses to hand a free
lollipop to a young boy mesmerised by the sweets.
Further along, he gratefully receives a glass of
lemonade, and insists on compensating with a chewing
“I don’t take anything for free,” he said.
Though he wishes he did not have to work, Mohammed
believes the time he spent fighting has brought
“I didn’t fight for money.... Seeing the youth of
today enjoying a bit of freedom is good enough for
me,” he said, nudging his cart along.
A teenager driving his father’s SUV impatiently
flashes his lights, urging him out of the way.
Nabaz Jalal is an IWPR-trained journalist in
Erbil. IWPR-trained journalist Najeeba Mohammed
contributed to this report from Erbil.
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