March 5, 2006
Expert records Kurdish suffering,
Is that a radio station?" Such was the response
of a Santa Barbara woman in a 1998 interview by Kevin
McKiernan. Mr. McKiernan was introduced to the Kurds
in 1991 when he went to report on brutal repression
from both Turkey and Iraq. With over a dozen visits
in the decade, "Kurdistan was my beat," he
Mr. McKiernan's Irish heritage may have something to
do with his affinity for the underdog and for making
sure that voices other than the official are heard.
He reported at Wounded Knee in the 1970s, and his 30
years as a war correspondent have taken him around the
world. He's a longtime Santa Barbara resident, and we
have been privileged to read his work locally. In addition
to reporting the Iraq war for ABC and producing both
images and articles for many of the country's major
publications, he wrote and directed the award-winning
PBS documentary "Good Kurds, Bad Kurds."
Mr. McKiernan's ongoing commitment to the Kurdish story,
his savvy, sympathy and patience, his willingness to
connect dots and place responsibility where it may not
be comfortable and his careful skills as a journalist
make "The Kurds: A People in Search of Their Homeland"
(to be released Tuesday) an important piece of international
Mr. McKiernan gained trust and met comfortably with
leaders of the several Kurdish factions, he ate in the
homes of the important and the humble and made friends
at all levels. His understanding of the larger issues
combined with his ongoing connection to the people who
both suffer and continue the fight for independence
make his first-person account not only an intimate look
at the people and their remarkable trials but also a
call to examine our own actions and motives.
When Mr. McKiernan first reached Kurdistan, 1.5 million
Kurds had been driven into the mountains of Turkey and
Iran, another 180,000 were dead or missing and almost
4,000 villages had been destroyed. Turkey had forbidden
the use of Kurdish language, the wearing of Kurdish
clothing was prohibited and even the word "kurd"
was highly proscribed as the Arab community fought to
subjugate and assimilate as "Mountain Turks"
the fierce ethnic and cultural people who preceded them
in the area.
Saddam Hussein had other surprises for the Iraqi Kurds:
After dropping conventional cluster bombs that sent
residents of Halabja into their underground fallout
shelters, he dropped deadly gas (according to local
doctors, a deadly cocktail of poisons) that was heavier
than air. The immediate effect was 5,000 dead, and long-term
medical problems still cripple and kill survivors. Hospitals
in much of the area not only lacked supplies, they lacked
electricity and water. But the Kurdish plight was kept
effectively below the media radar much of the time because
they inconvenienced our larger international goals.
Kurdish issues richly detailed
A brutal and essentially ongoing guerrilla war further
decimated their numbers and often it was Kurdish factions
fighting among themselves. As Mr. McKiernan writes of
the largest ethnic group (more than 25,000,000 people)
without a state of their own, "Much of the history
of the Kurds had been marked by loss; the loss of land
and power, the loss of self-rule, and the loss of life,
especially of family and friends."
At the fall of the Ottoman Empire, land inhabited by
ethnic Kurds was parceled out to Turkey, Iraq and Syria;
other Kurdish occupied lands had been subsumed into
Iran and the Soviet Union. Effectually promised a homeland
after World War I, this people's determination has been
remarkable. Much of Kurdistan is oil-rich, and this
centers the problem. As one official noted, "If
it weren't for oil, we might have had our own country
50 years ago."
Unafraid to look at international responsibility, Mr.
McKiernan notes arms deals brokered by Henry Kissinger
and Donald Rumsfeld that all but ensured Kurdish repression
as our government looked the other way. In one particularly
astonishing event, rather than disposing of helicopters,
plans, tanks and more, the U.S. government offered Turkey,
as an important ally in the region, a massive supermarket
sweep giveaway of whatever they wanted. During the Clinton
administration, human rights organizations pleaded to
stop arms sales to Turkey, but, as the Kurdish rebellion
hit an apex, Sikorsky, which manufactures such tools
as Black Hawk helicopters, built a factory in Ankara
to meet the Turkish military demand.
Mr. McKiernan brings the problem home, too: In our own
community-where the Kurds might as well have been a
radio station-he writes that Delco, Santa Barbara Research,
Lockheed, Raytheon, General Research and others made
weapons and parts that went to both Saddam Hussein and
the Turkish army bent on putting down Kurdish "terrorists."
Self-embedded with the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party,
Mr. McKiernan traveled with soldiers hunted by F-16s
where the first rule was to keep moving and the average
life span after joining was 30 months. Many of the most
telling pieces of his story are the accounts of families
and individuals who have persevered under the most discouraging
and brutal circumstances.
Sent by ABC to cover what was clearly going to be war
in Iraq, Mr. McKiernan spent seven months in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Many more journalists have died in this war than in
the entire Vietnam War, and when his daughter heard
an ABC journalist had ben killed in the area he covered,
she called to discover that the dead man was a representative
of the Australian Broadcasting Company. What Mr. McKiernan
saw was considerably different than what we heard in
this country, and he takes a hard look at journalists
and their sources in the run up to the war.
The good news is that things are looking up for Kurdistan,
which has looked stable and welcoming compared with
the rest of Iraq, which elected Kurd Jalal Talabani
as its president. Money and support now flow into Kurdish
territory; there are Kurdish television stations and
flights to Europe; Mr. Talabani addressed the U.N. in
his native Kurdish; and perhaps our government now sees
these people-at the physical hinge of Iraq, Turkey,
Syria and Iran-as critical to stability in the Middle
Mr. McKiernan's remarkable work and his exceptional
memoir/history are important as a careful and intimate
record of Kurdish suffering and courage and as a call
to all of us to take responsibility for our actions
both at home and abroad.