“I’m 62 years old, and I have been waiting for this day since I was 7,” said one voter. Khaki tunic, kefiah tied around the head, he comes out of the seat with the right index raised. That finger, stained with ink, is the distinctive trait of those who went to the polls and the icon of a day that many in these parts were expecting for “as a rebirth.”
“I endured everything. Independence is the only thing I was waiting for.”
Some have waited almost a century: A 96-year-old lady came down to Erbil from the mountains to participate in the referendum that asked the Kurdish people how they wanted to live. With knuckled hands clinging to a stick, grasping the arm of the daughter who accompanied her to give her answer.
She was born a year after the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres that included the promise — merely on paper — to create an independent Kurdish state. The Kurdish claims are rooted in the betrayal of that promise. On Monday, 3.5 million voters went to the polls.
“Bale, Bale!” Yes, yes was the answer from 92.7 percent of those who turned out, asking to make the Kurdistan region and the Kurdish areas outside the administration an independent state. On Tuesday evening, President Mas’ud Barzani, in a nationwide television speech, anticipated the results confirmed Wednesday afternoon by the electoral commission.
It was an overwhelming, albeit expected, victory. In Erbil, success was in the air already in the previous days, accomplices of the electrified climate, the excitement of the inhabitants, and a pounding electoral propaganda. The flags and the posters cover the windows at the airport, the windows of the cars, the shop windows and the walls of the Citadel. There was only one narrative. There was nothing else to talk about in the city.
Sunday afternoon, in the tea room overlooking the main square below the Castle, there was still uncertainty about the opening of the seats, fearing how effective the international attempts to postpone the vote would be. It was Barzani himself who, last Friday, greeted by a crowd of people in the city stadium, had declared there would be no postponement.
In the tea room, the men played tawla and drank coffee. Halan is 25 years old and his identity tattooed on his right arm: “Kurdistan,” written in Gothic characters. He had no doubt as to how it would come to an end: “This result will not only mark the destiny of southern Kurdistan but of all the other regions.”
The Kurdish people, between 35 and 40 million, are scattered across Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq (as well as a substantial European diaspora) and they are held together by cultural ties rather than religious ones.
However, divisions within this ethnic group seem to make the scenario of a unitary state at the expense of the four countries appear farther away, although the outcome of the vote was welcomed enthusiastically by the Iranian Kurds who danced the shaiy, the traditional dance, in the thousands, on the streets of Sina, Mahabad, Saqiz and Marivan.
Next to Halan, his friend Daraa, the same age, expressed his intention of taking up weapons, if necessary: ”We do not seek violence, but if someone threatens to stop us, we are ready to fight to defend ourselves.” It does not seem that this possibility will scare a people animated by the redemption of self-determination.
Shopping stalls surround the square. Among the spices and caps, hawkers sell PDK flags and scarves, President Barzani’s Democratic Party of Kurdistan. His photographs are everywhere. He is the man of the hour, the one who has not surrendered to international pressure and has not bent on Baghdad’s threats. He could ultimately secure independence and institutional identity to the largest nation without a state.
“When I go abroad, I want to be able to say that I am Kurdish, not Iraqi. We paid a very high price to be able to do it and now it is happening.” A girl just voted in one of the polls set up in a school in the Christian Quarter of Ainkawa. She puts her fingers in a V, as a sign of victory. She’s dressed up and, like her, so many are wearing holiday attire, the clothes reserved for great occasions.
The perception, among the blackboards and the benches stacked in the schoolyards, is that history is being made. And it does not seem important that, at the moment, maybe very little will change. The polls remained open for an hour longer than expected, but in the afternoon people began to go on the streets. In the streets cars and children were wrapped in flags.
The ballyhoo of horns, dances and fireworks went on until the wee hours, in a celebration that seemed more a liberating rite than a party. “Today I voted yes and it was like I was reborn,” said a father who attended the festivities. His children, 4 and 6 years old, wore traditional clothes. They may want to say one day that they have done their part.
Voting was carried out in an orderly, well-organized and peaceful manner as witnessed by Vesna Pusic, a member of the Croatian Parliament, present in Kurdistan as an international observer.
“I do not understand the position of some Western countries, like the United States, France and Great Britain,” said Bernard Kouchner, former French Foreign Minister, also among the observers.
The co-founder of Doctors Without Borders pinned the Western governments with their responsibilities: “We had promised the creation of a Kurdish state, and we have not maintained this commitment,” he said after expressing gratitude for the central role played by the Peshmerga in the war against ISIS.
“They did it on our behalf, but they died.” And the victory over the Caliphate is among the cards that the Kurds are playing to accredit themselves internationally.
Despite the troops deployed in the territories disputed with Baghdad, the ban on airspace, and the retaliation of Turkey and Iran, a “new phase” in relations with Baghdad has been opened. Barzani, who is in charge of repairing the wrongdoing, has called it “a vote for yes to independence and no to operations such as Al Anfal, chemical attacks like in Halabja and genocide,” recalling the heavy price paid by his people in the battle for the acknowledgement of their sovereignty.
“Independence,” he concluded, “is the only way to prevent such crimes from repeating.” There are still open questions and suspended points: the real scope of an advisory referendum, what independence can be expected and how to sew together the building of a state identity with a process of progressive and necessary democratization.
“Bye Bye, Iraq” was the writing on a car that, on the day of the referendum, wandered through the streets of Ainkawa. Only the next steps will tell us how much this wish is not just a sticker glued on a car door.
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