Dan’s Journey to Iraq: A Student Press Adventure, Part 4, “The Halabja Hike”

Early last year, I began writing about The AUIS Voice, the first independent student newspaper in post-Saddam Iraq.  Started by a scrappy band of Iraqi students and an impassioned ex-Washington Post reporter, the Voice’s spirit of innovation is ironically its adherence to the oldest principles of the craft: objectivity, editorial freedom, and the search for truth (rarities among Iraqi media).  In mid-May, via a university grant, I traveled to the northern Kurdish region of Iraq to interview and observe the student staffers in action– along with gaining a glimpse of the university and region where their unfolding story is set.  This series is centered on my trip.

Dan’s Journey to Iraq: A Student Press Adventure

A quick shot taken during a mid-May hike outside Halabja, Iraq. Read on to find out why I'm wearing dress pants for a hike. :)

Part 4: The Halabja Hike

At the close of my last post, I was awash in angry Kurdish students.  They were singing and chanting– and earlier Facebooking and later petition-signing– in protest of an apparent plan by administrators at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) to remove Sulaimani from the school’s name.

As I mentioned before, my reaction was a mix of hmm and huh?, washed down with wide eyes and repeated interruptions of people I was just meeting with some variation of “Hi, so what just happened here?”

One of the individuals who understood the answer to that question more than most was Arez Hussen Ahmed.  As an AUIS student and editor-in-chief of the university’s three-semester-old student newspaper, The Voice, Ahmed knew the protest was an explosive story worthy of the next issue’s front page.  He also knew he couldn’t cover it.

Arez Hussen Ahmed, 20, an international studies major at AUIS, is also Voice editor-in-chief. He is posing here at the door of the Voice newsroom, which is located in the university's cafeteria.

Ahmed started at AUIS as an employee, at age 17.  During informal conversations carried out while he worked, the young Kurd impressed faculty and administrators with his English speaking ability and knowledge of international affairs.  He applied to the school at the suggestion of the previous chancellor, quickly becoming a leader among his peers.  He currently smiles in a photo on the About page of the university website, as one of the model “Faces of AUIS.”

He traveled last summer to the United States as a participant in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program.  Rosalind Warfield-Brown, director of the AUIS English language program, recalled telling Ahmed at the time, “‘Arez, a year ago, you were sweeping my floors and now you’re going to America.’  I mean, he’s a Kurdish Horatio Alger.  He really is a rags-to-riches story.”

Yet, Ahmed considers his story unfinished– not just because of his young age and bountiful aspirations.  He will not feel complete until he has helped secure a homeland for his people.

Kurds have a significant presence in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, but are unrecognized on the world’s stage.  The closest they come to an autonomous identity is in the spot I was visiting.  I naively assumed I had flown into northern Iraq.  But to the Kurdish majority, I had set foot in Kurdistan.  The region is known as “the other Iraq” for its disparate politics, culture, history, and dominant language.  Saddam Hussein once described Sulimaniyah specifically as “the head of the snake” undermining his efforts to rule.

In this vein, many Kurdish students at AUIS saw Suli’s rumored removal from the university’s name as a blow to the region’s ethnic identity.  “We are a nation of 40 million people and we have no country of our own,” said Kurdistan Fatih, an AUIS student and Voice reporter.  “We are cut into pieces.  Our neighbors are the owners of our parts.  From the deepest part of my heart, I want to have an independent country.  I want people to know there is such a thing as Kurdistan. . . . When it seemed like they were cutting the S from AUIS, it looked like they were dividing my country into pieces again.”

Kurdistan Fatih, AUIS student and Voice staff writer. More on Fatih in a future post. :)

Iraqi Kurds are quick to strike back against any real or perceived attacks, in part, because they have been at the brunt of many enormous ones.  During my visit, Kurdish students repeatedly asked me if I knew about Halabja– both the village and the genocide.  Halabja is Iraq’s Columbine, an area synonymous with a singular tragedy.  In March 1988, a poison gas attack there orchestrated by Saddam Hussein killed more than 5,000 Kurds.

In 2003, a monument was opened to visitors.  Architecturally striking, it can be seen for miles, if there was anyone looking at it.  It is in the middle of nowhere, without any people or paved roads nearby.  A day after the protest, on a Friday (the start of the weekend in Iraq) I traveled there with Ahmed.

We were the only visitors.  Upon entering, we walked through a room filled with wax recreations of numerous victims, positioned in the lifeless poses in which they were originally found, photographed, and shared with a disbelieving world.  I am ashamed to admit I had never seen the pictures nor knew of the genocide from which they emanated.  I know about it now.

During our trip, Ahmed, 20, an international studies major, told me his Horatio Alger tale (he is very humble about it– the guy learned English in little more than two months!).  He also spoke about the internal battle he has waged since becoming Voice EIC.  As a Suli native born during the March 1991 uprisings that led to Iraqi Kurdistan, he said, “I’m always stuck between being a Kurdish nationalist and a good journalist.”

After words failed him at first when I asked him to express his Kurdish pride, he asked me, “How did you feel on 9/11 [about being American]?  It is like that, times 20, all the time.”  He had previously described his newspaper work to me similarly.  “I feel like the Voice is a part of me,” he said.  “I always think about [it].  Sometimes I dream about it.  I never thought that I would feel that much passion for anything.”

While planning the newspaper’s protest coverage, these dual, dueling passions left him most reliant on journalism’s bottom line: objectivity.

Our trip to Halabja centered on the visit to the monument and the nearby cemetery in which those killed in the gas attack were laid to rest. Afterward, as my dress pants reveal, I found myself somewhat by surprise on a rather prolonged, entirely-vertical hike. :) The running joke: Arez asking people we passed how much longer until we reached the waterfall area at the top and the reply being "Just about 10 minutes more." This answer was given repeatedly for roughly two hours. :)

Near the very end of our journey, we climbed some carved stairs to get a better view of the waterfall area (if memory serves). At the time, they reminded me of a similarly steep set located at an historical site in Kuala Lumpur, visited during my time living in Singapore.

Arez is feigning strength and calmness here, but we were both exhausted. The trip down was similarly taxing, involving an extremely cramped, BUMPY ride in a van that actually made me wish we'd once again walked. Of course, all told, I would take part in the hike again in a heartbeat. :)

To Be Continued ||| Part 5“All Saddam All the Time”

Read about the Voice’s founding in my exclusive six-part CMM series, originally posted in April-May 2010.

Part One || Part Two || Part Three || Part Four || Part Five || Part Six

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  1. […] When we last left Arez Hussen Ahmed, the Voice editor-in-chief, he was determining how to cover the largest student protest in the brief history of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS).  At lunchtime on a mid-May weekday, roughly 100 Kurdish students had taken to the steps of AUIS’s main administrative building to oppose a rumor that officials planned to drop Sulaimani from the university’s name. […]