A Kurdish Family at War: Three Generations with the Peshmerga
The Tofeq family has been at war almost constantly since the late 1950s, with grandfather Khorshid, his son Dedewan and his grandson Zyran all having become Peshmerga fighters. All three generations are now battling a new enemy: Islamic State.
Grandfather Khorshid Tofeq, 69, is a short, sturdily built man with a neatly trimmed moustache and not-entirely-natural jet-black hair. He prefers wearing the Kurdish national costume, the baggy trousers with a broad sash. Sitting in his favorite armchair in bare feet, he is sucking on candy and telling his favorite stories.
His tales are about ambushes, battles and injuries, about mutilated children and about despairing women and men who soaked the earth with their blood, as Tofeq puts it. They are stories from Kurdistan, the land of warriors who look death in the eye. In Kurdish, they're called Peshmerga.
It is a holiday in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil and the call to Asr, the afternoon prayer, is resonating from the nearby mosque. In the next room, the women are preparing the evening meal of rice with mutton, yoghurt and cucumbers. As Khorshid Tofeq speaks, his son is sitting next to him: Dedewan Tofeq, 45, a three-star general in the Peshmerga army. Dedewan's 23-year-old son Zyran -- who had wanted to become a lawyer before undergoing special forces training -- is there too and is also in uniform. Father and son listen respectfully as the old man talks about his life, marveling and laughing in all the right spots. They have heard these stories many times before.
The grandfather, father and son are Peshmerga, three generations at war, a tough and unyielding conflict, despite being ignored internationally for decades. After all, who cared about the Kurds?
But that has changed. The Kurds in northern Iraq and their Peshmerga fighters have suddenly become important. New weapons shipments are constantly arriving, with Germany having sent 70 million ($87 million) worth of rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles, field kitchens and more in the last six weeks.
Postwar Germany has never before sent weapons to a war zone, but this time, an exception was made. Thetroops of the radical Islamic State (IS) are positioned not far away, and early tomorrow morning General Dedewan Tofeq will drive there -- to spend the next seven days in battle. Both his son and his father will also go into battle in the coming days.
The three men on the couch are fighting a war for their Kurdish people. But they are also defending the interests of the West. The more barbaric the terrorist troops of the Islamic State became -- the more Yezidis they massacred and the more Westerners they decapitated on camera -- the more important the Peshmerga became.
Perfectly Normal Kurdish Family
The living-room door opens and Khorshid's great-granddaughter, a brown-haired two-year-old named Heya, toddles in. The old man smiles, beckons the little girl and lifts her into his lap -- and then proceeds to tell the story of a perfectly normal Kurdish family.
Khorshid Tofeq was born in 1945 in the village of Bibani, not far from Kirkuk, as the last of five children. It was a time when the Kurds had little prospect of getting their own country. When the Ottoman Empire was carved up after World War I, the Kurds had been left empty-handed. Khorshid's mother died when he was two and his father passed away the very next year. So his older siblings raised the boy in a large stone house, where they tended to their sheep, goats, horses and chickens. It was just enough to support the family.
But the nearest school was seven kilometers away. "So I didn't go. I didn't learn to read and write until much later," says Khorshid Tofeq. "But I swore that my children would go to school!" By the time he was seven or eight, Khorshid could milk goats, ride like the devil and hunt rabbits with a slingshot.
"I always wanted to experience something," he says.
When Khorshid was 12, a group of Peshmerga fighters came to the village. He marveled at their appearance and spoke with them -- and knew immediately what his destiny was. They didn't accept him into their ranks until he was 16, and then only as a chai-chi, a boy who made tea and cleaned. "I hated the job," he recalls. "I wanted to fight. But I didn't have a rifle!"
He joined the force when two factors were changing in the Peshmerga's favor. First, the Kurds finally found themselves a charismatic leader, Mustafa Barzani. He is the father of the current Kurdish president, and he would prove to be a talented politician in the subsequent years. Second, Iraq was in turmoil, with a group of officers with pan-Arab sentiments having overthrown the monarchy three years earlier.
Barzani instigated a Kurdish revolt, initially with only 600 men, but soon their numbers swelled to 15,000. They were supported by the young Shah of Persia, which was important because Iran aligned itself with the United States at the time. "It led us to believe that the Americans were on our side," says Khorshid Tofeq. "But that was a mistake."
It is a recurring pattern in the history of Iraqi Kurds: They only seem to get support when it serves the interests of others. For Shah Mohammad Reza, for example, the anti-monarchist regime in Iraq constituted a threat. In the eyes of the United States, meanwhile, the socialist-leaning Iraqi regime represented a potential Soviet ally. It seemed expedient to incite the Kurds to fight.
'I Was a Man'
In 1963, Khorshid Tofeq found himself at the front, running ammunition to machine-gunners fighting against a superior force of Iraqi infantrymen. "The battle lasted from early morning into the night. We killed almost all of them, but we also lost almost all of our own men. I gathered the weapons and picked out the best rifle for myself. I no longer had to make tea after that. I was a man."
The weapons cult and the warrior myth have remained part of Kurdish everyday culture to this day. But without their pride, the Kurds would likely have been destroyed long ago. Another trait also emerges from Khorshid Tofeq's stories: dogged patience and the ability to accept disappointments.
Khorshid and his unit of about two-dozen men fought in northern Iraq, attacking Iraqi army units as they found them. They spent much of their time in the mountains, where villagers concealed and fed them. Still, Khorshid found the time to marry Rana, his great love, during the war and their first child was born in April 1969, a boy they named Dedewan. In 1970, Baghdad seemed to relent, and the Kurds were granted autonomy. But the man who led the negotiations on the Iraqi side would later exact his revenge. His name was Saddam Hussein.
Khorshid's phone rings. On the line is another veteran Peshmerga fighter wanting to know when they will be heading back to the front and whether Khorshid has obtained RPGs.
The section of the front in Khasar, where the Islamic State fighters are positioned, is about an hour's drive away and Dedewan will be heading there tomorrow. His son Zyran has two more days of leave before he has to report to his unit in Erbil. Khorshid plans to leave as soon as he has obtained the weapons. The three men are fighting in shifts: seven days in combat, followed by seven days at home.
The family lives in two low-lying dwellings in the Binaslawa neighborhood on the outskirts of Erbil. There are lemon trees in the front gardens and mint is growing in the herb bed; a swing seat sits on the terrace. Inside, the house is extremely tidy, as though its inhabitants were trying to keep the war, with its chaos and danger, as far away as possible. There are heavy armchairs and sofas in the living room, along with a large, flat-screen TV and an aquarium.
With a Taxi to the Front
They have been living there since the early 1990s. Masoud Barzani's Democratic Party of Kurdistan provided them with the homes, a common practice, particularly given that the three men are supporters of the party. Indeed, the parties have taken the place of the old tribal and clan loyalties and have adopted their caretaker mentality and tendency toward nepotism. Being a Peshmerga is also a form of social insurance, at least in times of peace.
Erbil is a strange city. At first glance, it seems to be booming. Everything is newer and better organized than in cities like Baghdad or Cairo. There are no piles of garbage in front of buildings, even the side streets are paved and construction cranes jut into the sky everywhere. The city has a rising middle class, whose members live in neighborhoods with names like "English Village."
But that is just one side of Erbil. The other is that of a city at war, though it's not always easy to see. Officials work overtime at the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, where troop movements are coordinated. The price of ammunition on the black market has reportedly doubled, and the shops selling uniforms, helmets and bulletproof vests on Kirkuk Street stay open late into the evening. Frequently, groups of young soldiers can be seen getting into group taxis to be driven to the front.
The grandfather, father and son of the Tofeq family all sleep with loaded 9-mm pistols under their floral pillows and they have five rifles and machine guns tucked away in their bedroom closets. They have no trouble killing their enemies, they say. "If it's us or them," says General Dedewan Tofeq, "then let it be them."
But how many of them have there been? The youngest Tofeq smiles and shakes his head.
"More than a hundred," says the general.
"Oh, many more for me," says the grandfather.
Three weeks ago, the patriarch and the unit he commands, about 120 men, were at a section of the front 30 kilometers south of Kirkuk. He says that they attacked two groups of Islamic State scouts, killing most of them. The others were taken prisoner for interrogation before they were then killed too. In their stories, the three men consistently portray the Peshmerga as extremely heroic. But there are also other accounts: for instance, of how they have run away instead of protecting Christians and Yezidis.
'For All Eternity'
The interrogations have mostly been fruitless, says Khorshid Tofeq. "The IS guys are high on drugs. They take small white tablets, and they beg us not to take these pills away from them. I don't know what sort of stuff it is. We let them sober up first, but then they often become stubborn and they look forward to death. One of them was from Malaysia, from Kuala Lumpur. Just imagine! He flies halfway around the world to attack my people! He said: 'Please kill us now. It's noon, so we can eat lunch with the Prophet, for all eternity!' I replied: 'No, my friend, we won't kill you until after lunch, and then you can wash dishes up there, for all eternity!"
Khorshid Tofeq shrugs his shoulders when asked if it is appropriate to kill prisoners. The Peshmerga may be the partners of the West, but they fight according to their own rules. And they are the rules of a militia, not those of a professional army.
It was relatively peaceful between 1970 and 1975, the first years of childhood for Dedewan Tofeq. But then, global politics intervened in his life too, when Iran and Iraq made peace in the Algiers Agreement. They set aside their border disputes and, as a consequence, the Shah withdrew all aid to the Kurds. The family had to flee to Iran, where two of Dedewan Tofeq's sisters were born in tents. They lived in refugee camps and migrated from city to city. The father was usually absent, either because he was fighting or in hiding. Dedewan often dreamed that his father would come and pick him up, and take him along to fight by his side.
"Sometimes I would just mumble the word: father, father. Again and again. Why? Because I missed him, and so I wouldn't forget him."
But the situation for the Kurds changed again in September 1980 when Saddam Hussein attacked what he believed to be a weak Islamic Republic of Iran, as the country was called after Ayatollah Khomeini's victory. Suddenly, the Kurds were useful once again. Once again, Khorshid and his men found themselves on the side of the Iranians, and they received materials, arms and money from Tehran.
Dedewan Tofeq was 16 when his greatest wish came true and he was allowed to join the Peshmerga. In 1987, his unit was deployed near a town called Halabja, thus making the young recruit a witness to one of the greatest crimes ever committed against his people.
The Occasional Rabbit
In August 1988, after eight years of war, Iraq and Iran agreed to a ceasefire. Immediately thereafter, Saddam Hussein ordered an operation against the Kurds because of their alliance with Iran. The operation, called Anfal, Arabic for "the spoils of war," entailed the use of vast quantities of poison gas, killing an estimated 150,000 people. The massacre would later be recognized as genocide.
"We were camping along a river. Suddenly there was a penetrant odor, like the smell of garlic, but sharper and more pungent. We crept from village to village. There were bodies everywhere. We found survivors here and there, and we helped them. Then we hid. I remember that we lived in a cave for several months. We almost starved to death. We occasionally caught a rabbit."
The experience left a strong impression on the 18-year-old soldier, who would remain with the Peshmerga from then on. Dedewan Tofeq knew how high the stakes were and that the Kurds' very existence was under threat.
In the early 1990s, the family lived under the same roof for the first time, in a house in Erbil. Dedewan Tofeq, a young officer at the time, had married and his son, Zyran, had been born. By then Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, but in the end Iraq was forced to accept a humiliating ceasefire. For the Kurds, it was an opportunity to proclaim a quasi-independent state.
No Escaping It
A period of relative normality began for the Tofeq family. Zyran attended the Belessa School in downtown Erbil, where he was a very good student, especially in mathematics. As he grew older, he became interested in computers, soccer, karate and music. But war ultimately intruded on his life as well. There was no escaping it.
In March 2003, 43 countries led by the United States and Great Britain attacked Saddam Hussein, and the Kurds sided with the attackers. When the coalition forces won the war, a boom began in Erbil, with money being invested there because it was considered safe. But when the Americans began their initial troop withdrawals in 2009, Iraq faced yet another period of uncertainty. Zyran, 18 at the time, had to make a decision.
He elected to became a Peshmerga, though it was far from an easy decision. Today, he is on track to become an officer and receives $650 a month in pay, some of which he is able to set aside because he still lives with his parents. And he needs the money because he hopes to marry one day.
As much as the biographies of these three men are similar, they also represent the path of Iraqi Kurds as they strive to leave the battlefield behind and establish a civil society. Grandfather Tofeq became a fighter because he was seeking adventure. His son, the general, was likewise enthusiastic. But Zyran had a completely different plan for his life, before events caught up with him, because he is a Kurd. One day, perhaps, he will have a son who won't be a Peshmerga.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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