Hadees Ahmad has lived through almost all those 100 years of waiting. Born at the end of the First World War, Hadees grew up right after the Kurds were sidelined by the 1916 British-French agreement that carved up the flailing Ottoman Empire into today’s borders (give or take some inches). She has witnessed an ongoing struggle on the part of the Kurds to defend against the systemic attempts to weaken them across all four nations.
Hadees struggles just to walk to the ballot box, sliding a slightly deformed right foot behind her metal-frame walker, assisted by her two daughters. Later she emerges, holding out her inked index finger. Unable to hear my question of whether—after everything she’s witnessed—she believes independence can be achieved, her daughters simply repeat the words “God willing” in earnest. “Inshallah, inshallah, inshallah, inshallah, inshallah!” They add, “We will be good neighbors.”
The campaign in Erbil for a “Yes” vote was so ubiquitous that it was hard to imagine anyone voting against it. Even some police cars were emblazoned with large ticks on the Yes box and the slogan: “Live free or Die with Dignity”.
But a quiet minority did say no.
Hadees Ahmad, almost 100 years old, holds up her inked index finger. Despite being barely able to walk without assistance, and unable to hear much, she turned out in the heat with her daughters, Humri Rasool, 53, and Zahra Rasool, 57, to vote “Yes”. (Left to right)
Bryar Saeed, a 26-year-old civil engineer from one of Kurdistan’s major cities, Sulaymaniyah, seems uncomfortable answering how he voted, perhaps knowing he might be considered unpatriotic, or worse. He believes that many who voted Yes are not thinking about the consequences. Bryar says his father vowed to sacrifice his life for Kurdistan, as would most Kurds, but they are not seeing the referendum for the political game that it is.
“In the next parliamentary election, the KDP party [led by Barzani] will get the majority of votes [again]. This referendum is a very good thing to cover up the failures of the past two years. You can see this if you live in the reality of Kurdistan,” he says.
Bryar begins listing examples of government incompetence and corruption, underpinned by a lack of transparency.
“We are so disappointed by this government to be honest. But they have used this referendum to distract people because Kurds have wanted independence for a very long time.”
In Iraq, everything is possible
In Sulaymaniyah, Bryar’s home town, only some fifty percent of voters cast their ballot. He says many simply boycotted, believing their “No” vote wouldn’t matter in the face of the popular opinion.
Less than a week since Iraq’s flight blockade began, he has seen people, including relatives, preparing for the worst. They are stockpiling food, gas, and saving cash, fearing the rhetoric from Baghdad and others will escalate into violence.
“They are afraid of the Shia militia, of the Arab militia attacking us. It makes sense because they have been threatening us, also in unofficial ways,” he says. “In Iraq, everything is possible.”
Besides, the Kurds are familiar with targeted violence against them, only this time, completely surrounded by their hostile neighbors, he says some are more afraid than in the past because they have nowhere to go.
“People are afraid because this time we cannot flee to anywhere. Before we could flee to Iran when there was Saddam Hussein, but now where should we go? We cannot even go to Turkey. We can only go to the mountains and hide ourselves.”
Would Bryar have voted “Yes” if Kurdistan could have independence without punishment?
“Yes. Of course.”
Shunas Sherkody also voted no. He is a member of the Goran movement, a political party that campaigned its opposition to the referendum, arguing it was being used as a ruse to hide the government’s transgressions, and because there was no clear plan for after the vote. Sherkozay responds more bluntly to the question of whether, politics aside, he wanted Kurdistan’s independence or not:
“That’s like asking a prisoner in jail if he would like to be free.”
The main square in the centre of Erbil is crowded with banners against a backdrop of the Erbil citadel, believed to be the oldest continuously human-occupied site in the world. The banners carry massive maps of a Kurdish flag-stamped territory that extend far beyond Kurdistan’s current borders. The banners emblazoned with 9/25 mark the date of the referendum.
Contrary to what Bryar and Shunas believe, the serious repercussions of voting Yes are not lost on those who voted as such. Perhaps those in favor are just more optimistic, or more tired of feeling trapped. To the Yes voters, when asked whether they are afraid of consequences, the resounding response was an acknowledgment of hard days are ahead, but they are voting nonetheless.
“We think that it’s going to be a very hard job because we know that everybody is against us. Just look at our neighbors, even the international community—no one even supports the referendum. But we will do it,” says Laween Mohammad, who grew up in a Kurdish town in Syria. “We will suffer, we know. We will face hard days. We will face very difficult days, but we will do it. For sure. If the international community do not help us, we will fight for years and years, but it will happen.”
Music was pounding through the main square of Erbil on the evening of the referendum, dancing and fireworks continued through the night while cars of young men convoyed throughout the city with whoops and toots, waving flags. With the celebrations and generally everyone making as much noise as possible, you’d be forgiven for thinking Kurdistan had just achieved independence instead of simply ticking a box in favor of it. It’s still early, but it’s hard to believe this momentum will be broken, even by the sanctions being threatened.