Nahid Hoseini and Golaleh Kamangar, two exiled Kurdish women fighting for their homeland. Photo: Ava Homa

The Peshmarga (those who face death) is a large group of Kurdish guerrillas who live in the mountains of Kurdistan, fighting the occupiers. Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland, are mainly divided between four countries of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria and have faced genocide. In an ethnic cleansing attempt, Halabja was gassed in 1988 when 5,000 Kurds were killed and 2,000 more a few days later. Kurds in Turkey are denied their very identity, including the right to speak their mother tongue in their own homes. In Iran, thousands of Kurds have been assassinated and executed for their beliefs.

A Peshmarga is a nationalist who has sunburned skin and has travelled on mules, starved, fought and lost loved ones. The Peshmarga in Iraq are referred to as “freedom fighters” while those in Turkey are labelled “terrorists.” Since August 2011, Iran and Turkey have been attacking the Kurds in Qandil, located in northern Kurdistan. Seven civilians have died in these attacks and the mainstream media has turned a blind eye to this violation of human rights.

Kurdish-Canadian writer Ava Homa travelled to the region earlier this year to conduct interviews with those impacted by these conditions:

Nahid Hoseini, 43, is a mother from Kurdistan, Iran, and a chair of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI). In an interview, she described how her life changed forever.

“Listen, I either have to escape right now or I’ll be detained in the morning.” Nahid broke the news to her sleepy husband one night. He panicked; he has been unaware of his wife’s political activities and was not sure how to take care of the children on his own. Nonetheless, he knew well enough what prison in Iran meant for a female political activist: torture, execution and rape. Thus, he supported his wife, and at the dawn Nahid kissed her five-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son goodbye and ran away to Kurdistan, Iraq, to join her friends in a camp. 

Hoseini is a poet and daughter of a highly respected judge. She was brought up by an educated, open-minded father who encouraged and admired his daughter’s strong sense of curiosity. Every time she asked her father a question, rather than giving her a direct answer, he referred her to a certain book or chapter in his library. Hoseini has read a lot of literature, history and politics. She was allowed to choose her husband, unlike many women of her generation, and was happily married. The husband was a kind and caring father and a successful businessman. He, nonetheless, preferred stability and had no passion for politics

Hoseini became interested in her Kurdish cultural heritage at a young age, an interest the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is determined to suppress. In order to protect the culture from Fars chauvinism, she voluntarily taught herself first and then other Kurds how to read and write in their mother tongue. At the same time, she became familiar with the principles of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan Iran (KDPI), which fights for a democracy for Iran, autonomy for Kurdistan, the equality of men and women in society and within family, as well as the separation of religion and state. The main leader of this party, Dr. Abdulrahman Ghassemlou, was a charismatic leader who spoke nine languages, had a PhD in economics, and was assassinated in 1989 by IRI agents while negotiating for Kurdistan.

In fighting the Kurds, Iran has been much slyer than Turkey and Iraq. IRI gassed Sardasht, killed many civilians and executed social and political activists. They have also devoiced Kurds. Irani Kurds are not allowed to learn their language and literature in school. Drugs are a lot cheaper in Kurdistan than other provinces. No Kurd is allowed to be the head of a governmental organization. Rather, highly educated Kurds are rendered unqualified by the government, while state-appointed non-Kurds with high school education are brought to Kurdistan to receive an honorary degree in management and run Kurdistan organizations.

Hoseini joined KDPI and met people with whom she had a lot in common. “We all ached for Kurds and Kurdistan.” Nahid never talked openly about politics to anyone, even her children or her husband, but she would raise awareness about Kurdish history and literature and freedom fighting by telling tales, reciting poetry, passing on books and talking about identity. Her cultural activities, however, were enough to put her life at risk.

“The first time I was called by the Iranian secret police was to be warned that the poem I had written the week before should be immediately destroyed, never to be published or read publically.” This left Hoseini in a state of shock since she had only written one draft of the ideological poem and had not read it to anyone yet. That was the first of many interrogations and threats to come. She had to flee.

“A wealthy woman leaving her children to be a Peshmarga?” people she had devoted her life to said behind her back. “She is either a psycho or a cheater!”

“You selfishly sacrificed our lives because of your naive dreams,” her son blamed her. “Kurdistan will never be free. We should be glad they have not killed us yet. They hate us. They just hate every Kurd.”

But Hoseini stoically did not say anything to these accusations. Her daughter lived with her in the camp but her son stayed with his father in Iran. In two years, however, the IRI arrested Hoseini’s son and husband and tortured them before each other’s eyes, forcing each of them to watch the other’s pain. That was when her family finally became sympathetic towards the Kurdish cause. “I’ll never forget that torturer’s face. Never! The way he hit father before my eyes!” Hoseini’s son said to his mother, she recounted. They joined her. By then, Hoseini was appointed the chairwoman of the party and wanted to stay in the camp. Her husband and son live and work in the city of Suleimaniyah, in northern Kurdistan.

“My son and husband are geographically and mentally closer to me but I only get to see them once every three or four months.” Trying to stop her tears, Hoseini tells me, “I wrote my son a happy birthday on his Facebook wall this morning. I wrote ‘Rola gian, Dearest son, this year like the last two years, I wasn’t able to be with you on your birthday. Have a wonderful one and please, please forgive me.'”

KDPI provides a shelter for the members and pays them a minimum amount monthly that covers their basic expenses. They have a doctor, a clinic and a school in the camp, Koya, which is more than an hour away from Hewler. I ask how many Peshmarga are living in the camp and what the percentage are female members but that information, I am told, is classified.

In addition to Hoseini, I interview the best-educated woman of the camp. Golaleh Kamangar, 30, holds a Master’s degree in Farsi Language and Literature. Her MA thesis was on mythology and currently she writes and translates articles for the party’s website. She says she also writes stream of consciousness, philosophical short stories that she has not published. She joined the party in October 2010 and she was offered one of the best accommodations of the camp. She shares a two-bedroom house with another girl and seems happy with her choice. We chat for a while and she seems open to any question except she has been asked not to share. I ask if she could have become a teacher and/or a journalist in Hewler. This way, she would have a much more luxurious life and would be an independent activist. Instead, she was living in difficult conditions, with tons of flies nesting in the house, a broken shower, an out-of-order fridge, and a bathroom without lighting in the front yard that she had to use in cold and hot weather. “Compared to the previous generation of the fighters who lived in the mountains without hydro and water, I live in a palace.” She replies. “Also, it’s true that I do not need KDPI but I believe they need more female voices to represent the party.”

In respond to my question, Kamangar says she hated guns. She would never shoot one unless she seriously needed to save a friend’s life, or hers. “In a less brutal world, I would have never touched a gun. I would be a producer of ideas, rather than a distributor, rather than a fighter. But, with these much oppression, when my people’s very existence is denied, when my people are striving for their most basic human rights, I have no option but to fight and my enemy is not civilized, they are armed to teeth cannibals.”A distributor of knowledge, in her opinion, is a second-hand thinker, a person who does not have the chance to come up with new ideas. “What I and people like me do is to read Western thinkers’ ideas and tailor them to fit our people.”

Children are playing in the dirt ally. “Were they born in the camp?” I ask.

“I think their parents have betrayed them. People should have the right to pick their favourite party and that’s only if they are willing to become a Peshmarga, if they have what it takes to become one.” I ask if every Peshmarga in this very camp has it in them to face death in order to save an ethnic group. “I have to say there are adults in this camp who are not real Peshmarga, especially between women. We have runaways who think camp is a better option that sleeping on the street.”

In the middle of our conversation, Kamangar’s roommate, Sharmin bursts into the house with red eyes, sobbing. She says her mother has been detained by the Iranian secret police and was under a lot of pressure to make Sharmin return to Iran. Sharmin is only 20 and she has been in the camp since she was 18. “I am here to fight for Kurdish rights.” Sharmin seems simplistic in her political opinions. She says, however, she does not want to return home.

“We don’t fight only for Kurdish people, for all the ethnicities in Iran,” Kamangar tells me. “We should live in a federal state where every ethnic group would have its rights.” I ask her if she thinks Iran is ready for such a fundamental change. “The worst democracy is better than the best dictatorship,” she replies, quoting Dr. Ghassemlou.

Ava Homa is author of Echoes from the Other Land which was nominated for 2011 Frank O’Conner International Short Story Award. She is also a professor, a scholar and translator. For more information visit her website here.