UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: Teaching conflict management in a northern war-torn town
SULAYMANIYAH, 9 July 2004 (IRIN) - It all began with a story of two minibus drivers, Ismail and Adil. There was bad blood between them: Ismail suspected Adil of trying to poach his customers.
Had he lived in a western country, he might have tried to find a solution by talking face to face. In Biyara, the mountain town on the Iran-Iraq border in the northern Iraqi governorate of Sulaymaniyah where both men live, things are not as simple as that. In the past according to deep-rooted culture, Ismail would have turned to his tribe to bolster his position and find a compromise. Instead, he sought political allies.
Helped by two cousins, he set about persuading local members of the party that controls the area, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to intervene. Adil, meanwhile, started courting the opposition. The situation looked grim.
"A year ago, this whole silly story could have ended in something very like tribal warfare," local Mayor Simko Salah Mushik told IRIN in his office in Biyara. "The tribes may have lost their power, but in this region the parties have taken their place - you only join to boost your personal interests."
But a lot has changed in Biyara in the last year, thanks to the work of the local NGO Civilisation Development Organisation (CDO). With a US $15,000 grant from the Norwegian People's Aid NGO, also in Sulaymaniyah, they have just completed a six-month peace promotion project in Biyara and four surrounding villages.
"We began by selecting 25 local people, four of them women, and gave them two months of training in issues such as the rule of law, civil society and civic responsibility," CDO's general director, Atta Mohamed Ahmad told IRIN at their headquarters in Sulaymaniyah. "We continued to supervise their work within the community for a further four months."
Selected to represent all parties active in the area, it was CDO's 25 proteges who stepped in to mediate the bus drivers' dispute.
"It was a painstaking process," said one of them, tradesman Mehdi Mustafa Arif. "We contacted dozens of both men's friends until we found two willing to talk to each other. They reasoned with Adil and Ismail, and eventually we managed to persuade them to meet each other at the local school. They hugged, apologised, and the problem was solved."
Hawraman, where Biyara is situated, has suffered pretty much everything that Iraqi Kurdistan's bloody recent history could throw at it. Its support for Massud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) did not go down well with the PUK militias who controlled the surrounding areas.
Immediately after 1991, while the rest of Kurdish northern Iraq was contemplating its new autonomy from Baghdad, Hawraman fell into the hands of the Islamic extremists of Ansar al-Islam, possibly linked to al-Qaeda, according to Western authorities.
"Even more than anywhere else in the Kurdish areas, war has destroyed the fabric of life in and around Biyara," Aram Mohamed, the Norwegian People's Aid programme manager who supervised the Hawraman project, told IRIN. "Before local political disputes had time to be solved, another one was piled on top, complicating things further."
Biyara Mayor Mushik puts it in another way. "Every society, whether traditional or modern, has systems to resolve internal disputes," he said. "But in Hawraman, society is changing very fast, and political antipathies went so deep that resolutions were never more than temporary cease-fires."
Now, he is optimistic that the town and its satellite villages have turned the corner. He describes how, a year ago, militiamen from the rival PUK and KDP would avoid each other in the street. Now, they sit in the same tea-houses and talk like old friends.
"Let me tell you a story," Mushik. "This Newroz [traditional Kurdish New Year in March], a KDP militiaman insulted the leader of the PUK. Instead of beating him up, the PUK men came to me and complained about what he had said. I spoke to him, and he agreed to go in person to the local headquarters to apologise in person. That is progress."
CDO plans to expand its concept to other towns in the region. Norwegian People's Aid, meanwhile, is planning a scheme to get women elected to positions of local authority. A step too far? CDO's Atta Mohamed Ahmad doesn't think so.
"At first, there was a lot of resistance to our attempts to have women among the 25 locals attending our courses," he said. "But participants soon saw the benefits and changed their minds."
Themes: (IRIN) Economy, (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Human Rights
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