[Note: For security reasons, the team is withholding names of the villages and the oil company for the time being. More details will follow in the coming weeks.]
A couple weeks ago, our team learned of the Kurdish villagers about three hours away from Suleimaniya protesting against a U.S.-based oil company that had confiscated their land.
On 6 August, a hot sunny day, we traveled there. Our host, Kak Miro, expressed joy that we had made the trip. Even though he, his wife, and two children were fasting for Ramadan, they served us water, tea, and a delicious local watermelon.
Several men arrived and began to share their story. A U.S.-based oil company came into the surrounding valley in spring and began to build an oil well in the middle of the orchards and vineyards that hundreds of families in three villages have worked on for generations.
The construction site and adjacent roads destroyed seventy dunums (around seven hectares / eighteen acres) of five-decades-old grave vines that belonged to mukhtar`s (village mayor’s) family. The mukhtar spoke with tears in his eyes about his vines and a company worker who also cried while bulldozing them. “He understood what he was doing, how much damage he was causing. But he was forced to do his job,” said the Mukhtar.
In May, before the destruction took place, the mukhtar and other villagers protested and stopped the company workers but the government forces arrested him and brought in soldiers and security forces to “protect” the construction. They also threatened the villagers with repercussions if they spoke to the media. The company offered to pay them a ridiculously low five-year $100 “rent” for a dunum of land. An emotional cost is, of course, uncounted. The villagers refused the offer and instead have searched for a human rights organization that would support their resistance and expressed much gratitude for CPT`s arrival.
Kak Miro and his friend took us to the well construction site. The company confiscated and blocked off the only road leading to the village orchards and vineyards. The villagers have to ask the company security for a permission to enter their land, which it often denies. When allowed access, they cannot bring vehicles into their massive orchards and vineyards, so the ripe fruit is drying out because the villagers cannot harvest it.
The Irish construction manager called by security seemed a little confused with an international human rights organization demanding access to the orchards. He let us all in. Kak Miro gave us armfuls of beautifully ripe grapes and talked about the history and geography of theland. We took pictures. As we drove back, a truck full of military men with angry faces and fingers on rifle triggers stopped us. They were the Zeravani: Kurdish government Special Forces deployed here to guard the construction. The officer took our camera, searched the pictures, and tried to delete them. A passionate discussion broke out, mostly between Kak Miro and the unit officer. We presented our NGO status documents. One of the company’s senior workers came in as well and gave some explanations. Kak Miro offered soldiers some of the grapes. Eventually, the Zeravanis let us go. We rejoiced with Kak Miro and his friend to be lucky enough to be able to enter the site and have the important photo documentation. We planned the next steps and asked Kak Miro about his safety.
“We are not afraid of them,” he said. “We don`t care what they do to us. We will continue. And we would be happy if CPT could accompany us.”