Book Reviews
THE KURDS: A People in Search of Their Homeland

Sunday BOOKS
March 5, 2006

Expert records Kurdish suffering, courage

News-Press Correspondent

"K-U-R-D? 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 writes.

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 journalism.

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 East.

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.




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