PHOTO COURTESY OF DR. SAREN AZER

The Other Iraq

Are Alberta oil companies—and their multi-million-dollar investments—helping or hurting a fledgling Kurdistan?

By Alison Azer

She arrives at the clinic before sunrise, securing her place at the head of what will become a serpentine line. At this hour, the heat is tolerable and the dewdrops make it almost humid. Habitual hunger is held at bay by a stranger’s kindness—a sweet roll and a cup of hot tea. She feels content, happy even. The girl looks up at her mother and smiles. The woman, old beyond her years, smiles back. The day holds promise. 

Promise comes in the form of a middle-aged doctor from Canada. He is on a humanitarian vacation of sorts, returning to his homeland—Iraqi Kurdistan—to see his people and to ease his conscience. He comes with medicine and supplies and, so it is said, will cure the sick. Gratis. Barely 10 years old, the girl knows better than to believe all she hears. Born with a weak heart that keeps getting weaker, she comes prepared. She and her mother are called into a makeshift examination room where the doctor stands waiting. Something about the girl reminds him of his daughter back in Canada and he catches himself calling her gulekem, little flower.

Her heart needs fixing, she says. And, not to worry, she can pay him. With tender confidence, she opens her palm, revealing a creased, worn bill. Two hundred and fifty Iraqi dinars. The equivalent of twenty-five Canadian cents.   

The doctor stumbles through a response. In Canada, her case would be manageable with high-tech diagnostics, surgery and expert monitoring. But in one of the poorest pockets of the Kurdish region of Iraq, her case is impossible. There is neither the medicine, nor the equipment, nor the will to heal her heart.  

The doctor feels the twofold sting of sorrow and shame. How unforgiving this world can be, he thinks; how unfair. Back in Calgary, his child’s ear infections and toothaches are treated with more care than the failing heart of this little Kurdish girl.

He knows that under marginally different circumstances he could have been waiting in such a line pleading with a foreign doctor to cure his sick child. And he would have found it incomprehensible—outrageous, even—for that doctor to say only that he was sorry but nothing could be done. Not here. Not now. So this doctor does the only thing he can—he takes a bar of chocolate from his pocket, places it upon the money nestled in the girl’s palm and gently closes her fingers around it. He allows himself a moment before moving on to the next patient. 

I cried when I heard this story. First I cried for the girl. Then I cried for her mother. Finally I cried for the doctor. Which is to say that I cried for my husband. 

Dr. Saren Azer came to Canada in 1994, a political refugee from Iran. A passionate Kurdish nationalist, he was imprisoned in both Iran and Turkey for publishing in Kurdish, a banned language. He sought political refuge and found it in Canada; I sought personal refuge and found it with him. 

What began as a mutual fascination with “the other”—westerner vs. easterner, Christian vs. Muslim, academic vs. activist—matured into a delightful blend of experiences, values, dreams and desires. In the shadow of his passion for social justice, I became a quick study—thirsty for a vision of the world to replace the consumerist metaphors of my youth. Das Kapital meets No Logo.  

Ten years on, we’re struggling to make room for our principles in an otherwise crowded life. Since August 2004, Saren has earned an MD (he’s now a resident in internal medicine at the University of Calgary), we’ve had three children and we’ve moved to Calgary, to Vancouver and recently back to Calgary. I’m attempting to balance motherhood with an “otherhood” of writing, volunteering and consulting. Our margins are narrow but wide enough to keep a watch on the world.   

Kurds’ capital rose with the toppling of Saddam. Then it was “discovered” that they were floating on a sea of oil.

For Saren it feels like selling out: putting everything personal in front of everything political. I feel complicit, but perhaps I’m getting comfortable with my complicity. Sigh. What to do when my days are filled with decision points like “I have five minutes—do I change this diaper or change the world?”

Throughout 2005 and 2006, Saren remained restless. In the spirit of Norman Bethune and Albert Schweitzer, he wanted to practise medicine in the neediest of places, on the neediest of people. In May 2007, with the ink on his MD barely dry, using the only four weeks of vacation he’d had in years, Saren set off for the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.  

At the invitation of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), he saw patients in the hospitals and clinics in the region’s three largest cities—Suleymaniye, Dohuk and Hewler. He also visited the shantytowns and refugee camps encircling the cities, meeting people displaced by war, chemical attacks and invasions. They couldn’t have received him more warmly; the nation’s son had returned! In their midst, in some of the worst conditions imaginable, he felt alive for the first time in years. 

After decades hovering in geopolitical obscurity, the Kurds’ pivotal role in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq garnered international acclaim. Their capital rose with the toppling of Saddam Hussein, jumped when he was captured and soared when he was hanged. The new belle of the Middle East had arrived. Branded by Madison Avenue as “the other Iraq,” Kurdistan became an oasis in a hostile land. International carriers began flying in to Hewler, dousing the region with a mix of adventure tourists, venture capitalists, aid workers and diaspora Kurds.

At first, the attention spurred growth, democracy and good government. Emerging from a past scarred by betrayals, bombings, manipulation and mass graves, Iraqi Kurdistan was coming of age. Then it was “discovered” that Kurdistan was floating on a sea of oil. To Kurds there was no discovery required: they’d long been able to start fires by striking a match across the soil. Saddam, with no interest in a petroleum-inspired Kurdish uprising, had decreed that the oil stay underground. Even during the decade-long era of the “no-fly zone,” there was little domestic capacity to kickstart an industry as capital intensive as oil extraction. Yet the irony of living atop one of the world’s largest oilfields while paying bloated prices for an unreliable supply of petrol was not lost on Iraq’s Kurds. 

By mid-2006, the few starred hotels in the big cities were filling with western oilmen representing a range of oil interests—from Fortune 500 blue chips to wildcat penny stocks—whose presence fuelled a dream of drill-based economic development. The KRG relished the opportunity, courting foreign investors with panache while ignoring confrontational calls from Baghdad. A war of words over jurisdiction was small bother compared to the bounty beneath their feet. 

Canadian energy companies beat a path to the KRG’s door. With lapels festooned with newly minted Kurdish/Canadian friendship pins, they tried to learn regional traditions—like triple cheek kissing among the same sex. Still, without a Kurdish version of the Lonely Planet guides, westerners struggled with some of the more intimate details of cross-cultural adventure. 

Dr. Saren Azer speaks with a patient in a rural clinic in Kurdistan.

Dr. Saren Azer speaks with a patient in a rural clinic in Kurdistan. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Azer)

A consultant hired by a Calgary company with a stake in Kurdish oil asked me if I could introduce him to Iraqi Kurds living in Calgary, people who would put a face to the place and help to answer questions about day-to-day living in the region’s business capital, Suleymaniye. Pressing him for an example, I laughed at his reply. “They want to know whether Kurdish grocery stores stock peanut butter.”

When Saren made his initial trip back to Kurdistan—his first in 13 years—it was under the banner of the organization we founded almost a decade ago, the International Society for Peace & Human Rights. He went with fellow member Lynne Foster—and 100 teddy bears, gently worn children’s clothing and boxes of aloe vera cream for victims of Saddam’s chemical warfare. Arriving at the outskirts of some villages, they would be surrounded by hundreds of people who had just learned that a western doctor was coming to take the sick back to Canada in his personal jet, no less. Many came with treatable conditions, such as infections due to improper water and sewage sanitation, and needed a good dose of antibiotics—which they received. Even more were sick due to hunger, and needed a meal—which they received. But most were ill, really ill, and with nothing to give, there was nothing to receive. 

That fall, cholera broke out in Iraqi Kurdistan. An infectious gastroenteritis transmitted through contaminated food and water, cholera is an unforgiving disease—the afflicted can die within hours. An accurate assessment of the spread of the disease was difficult to pin down. The KRG’s account was markedly more conservative than that of the World Health Organization, which within two weeks labelled the situation an epidemic. In private conversations with health officials on the ground, Saren learned that the situation was nearing a crisis—medications imported via Baghdad weren’t reaching the Kurdish region quickly enough. We approached Health Partners International Canada, an organization that coordinates donations from Canada’s pharmaceutical industry for humanitarian efforts. Their rapid response, in combination with a donation from an international transportation company to ship the medication directly to Hewler, resulted in over $100,000 worth of first-class cholera medicine arriving at the crest of the epidemic. 

Our initial endorphin rush from doing something tangible faded to numbing regret at not being able to do more. The needs are infinite, the resources finite—it’s mathematically impossible that the lines will meet. And so we threw ourselves into plans for a May 2008 trip to Kurdistan. The delegation expanded to include Jason, a settlement worker, and Sheila, a retired nurse. I stayed at home with the children. Our delegation was expanding, too—I was pregnant and due in August. 

A Calgary oil company operating in a desperately poor region of Iraqi Kurdistan wanted to support the community. They donated $10,000 for the mission; Saren and Lynn spent five days seeing patients at a clinic in the community. 

During one of those five days, Saren and Lynn met Parveen. She moved gracefully, laughed easily and breathed deeply. But appearances deceived. Parveen’s condition was not only serious but potentially fatal. A blood disorder had enlarged her liver and spleen almost beyond her petite body’s capacity to contain them. Parveen shared her story with Saren, talked about her family and their poverty. And about the fact that they could see oil wells out their back window. “Who are these foreigners taking our oil?” she asked. The question hung in the air. 

There was nothing Saren could do for Parveen. She needed surgery—a specialized procedure not offered in the region. She needed to go to a neighbouring country such as Iran or Turkey, and for that she needed at least $5,000. Money her family didn’t have, money we didn’t have to give her. 

But Parveen made an impression on Saren and Lynn. She asked them for their phone numbers and called daily while they were in Kurdistan and weekly once they returned home. At the end of every call, she said: “Forgive me, but I will die without your help. Please don’t forget me.”

When Saren returned to Canada he was a shadow of the man I had taken to the airport six weeks earlier. Exhausted, gaunt, emotionally spent. Seven months pregnant and raising two young girls while working and preparing to relocate our family to Vancouver, I endured a roller coaster of emotions during his absence. On the way up I was proud, optimistic, resilient. On the way down I was worried, vulnerable, resentful.

And on it goes. It’s becoming a split-screen existence for us—Canada vs. Kurdistan, abundance vs. scarcity. Albeit in different roles, Saren and I have taken a stake in the struggle. It’s the only way we can live with ourselves and with each other. 

Saren was in Kurdistan when I got news that another Canadian oil company had signed an agreement with the KRG: Talisman Energy. One of Canada’s largest independent oil and gas companies, it has struggled to repair the damage done to its reputation during the company’s tenure in war-torn Sudan. In late 1999, allegations surfaced that Talisman’s role in Sudan was fuelling the civil war. The numbers balanced: $1-million a day in oil royalties, $1-million daily in military spending. Talisman eventually withdrew from Sudan under heavy criticism. 

Five years later, Talisman entered Kurdistan with a US$95-million investment in two exploration blocks. I had a dreadful sense of déjà vu. True, Kurdistan is no Khartoum—but it’s no Shangri-la, either. The KRG is increasingly guilty of institutional megalomania, their hold on power reinforced by corruption, nepotism and tribalism. The stealth armour surrounding the KRG leadership is rattling under the tectonic shifts gripping Kurdish society. The gaps between rich and poor, traditional and modern, loyalty and opportunism are widening and the resulting tension undermines the stability of “the other Iraq.”

How would the Talisman of war-torn Sudan differ from the Talisman of war-torn Iraqi Kurdistan?

The dark underbelly of Iraqi Kurdistan’s accelerated coming of age is stained with human rights abuses, limitations on freedom of the press and miscarriages of justice. It has caught the eye of the international human rights community, most notably Human Rights Watch, which in 2007 published a report entitled “Caught in the Whirlwind: Torture and Denial of Due Process by the Kurdistan Security Forces.” Human Rights Watch claims that security forces, known as Asayish and operating outside the control of the Ministry of the Interior, have held hundreds of detainees without due process. Detainees tell of being beaten with cables, hoses and metal rods.

To what lengths did Talisman go to ensure that the KRG’s human rights record did not contravene the company’s business and ethics policies? How did Talisman ensure that it would not be charged with “complicity in human rights abuses” like it was in Sudan? Did Talisman appropriately consult communities about potential human rights issues affecting its operations? In a press release announcing the company’s entry into Iraqi Kurdistan, Talisman CEO John Manzoni said: “We have done extensive due diligence, including careful review of corporate social responsibility [CSR] issues.” In addition to the US$95-million spent on the properties, “as part of the transactions with the KRG and in keeping with Talisman’s corporate responsibility policies and practices, the company will pay US$220-million plus further conditional contributions to the KRG for the sole purpose of providing financial support to infrastructure and capacity-building projects for the benefit of the people in the region and in particular the local communities in the agreement areas.” 

The official ruling body of Iraqi Kurdistan is a national assembly of 111 seats. After years of fighting—with words and weapons—the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan created a coalition in 2004 called the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan. The names are lofty, the reality less so. In the 2005 election, the coalition received 90 per cent of the vote. Overnight, entire tribes of uncles, brothers and nephews of the leaders rose to bureaucratic stardom. The stench of nepotism hangs in the air still.

The relationship between the KRG and the Iraqi government is complicated by a high-stakes competition for the assets of this fledgling federal state. Bubbling to the top are disputed claims over oil revenues. The KRG argues that it has sole authority over the resources. Baghdad begs to differ. Like other investors in the region, Talisman must nervously watch as this petroleum passion play unfolds. Will KRG leadership resort to Klein-esque decrees to “let the southern bastards freeze in the dark?” Is an Iraqi version of the NEP imminent?

I’m more than a little surprised to learn that Talisman would allow the KRG—warts and all—to oversee the disbursement of its CSR investment. Where are the checks and balances to ensure that the funds are spent accountably? How much of the money will make it out of the gated communities of top officials and into impoverished communities like Parveen’s? And, more troubling, if the disagreement between the KRG and Baghdad over the spoils of oil continues to escalate and civil strife breaks out, how would the Talisman of war-torn Sudan differ from the Talisman of war-torn Iraqi Kurdistan?

It’s Spring 2009. Saren and Lynn are preparing for another trip to Kurdistan. Again they’ll travel with medicines, supplies and a suitcase filled with teddy bears. It’s a shorter trip this time—three weeks is all they could manage—and there’s a lot of ground to cover. They feel a moral imperative to see Parveen. According to her doctor, she’s worse off than she was a year ago. Should they tell her that among the foreigners in her backyard is a new batch of Canadians?

As long as I’ve known him, Saren calculates potential expenditures by comparing them to what the money could do for others. Take our old IKEA coffee table—decorated with stickers and indelible drawings, perfect for his university bachelor pad, impractical for a family of five.  It took more than a year of lobbying to get Saren to part with $100 to buy a modest replacement. Don’t get me wrong—he’s not cheap. He would empty his wallet for anyone in trouble and would never expect to be paid back. But spending impulsively when 30,000 children die every day of hunger? To him, it’s no different than stealing. 

Alison Azer is a Calgary researcher and activist. She is a former Public Policy Fellow with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation.

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