I have travelled to the region as the guest of the Regional Government of Kurdistan. I was invited to visit as part of a cross-party group of fact-finding parliamentarians. Aware that the conflict in the region is one of the biggest issues facing our world, I was very keen to go, and having spent a number of years volunteering in London with victims of torture—some from the region—I jumped at the chance to find out more.
On arriving in Irbil, I was shocked by the progressive and sophisticated surroundings. I was expecting a war zone, but the city could be mistaken for Dubai in its high-rise ambition and elegance. Sadly, war was not very far away. Half an hour’s ride out of the city, we were in a Syrian refugee camp near the border with the Kurdistan region. Chatting to families, surrounded by playful children, I heard so many stories of pain and suffering: loved ones missing believed dead, people injured by mines, children made orphans by war. Most of those I spoke to had been there for more than three years, with no guarantee of when they would return home. They were weary and exhausted; all they wanted was to be reunited with their families and get back to their homes.
Kurdistan is host to not just refugees from Syria, but 1.5 million people displaced by war from other parts of Iraq. Although refugees have special status in international law and are cared for by the UN, internally displaced people are the responsibility of the host Government. Sadly, Baghdad seems to be doing little to help and leaves the task to Kurdistan, which is already suffering an economic tsunami, thanks to a dramatic fall in oil prices, the hostility of Baghdad, which has cut its budget since 2014, and Kurdistan’s own dysfunctional economy, which needs massive reform.
As the Kurds and Iraqis move to liberate Mosul from the brutality of the self-styled Islamic State, more displaced people are heading into Kurdistan—the population has expanded by a third, which is the equivalent of the population of Birmingham moving to Scotland. Understandably, there are electricity and water shortages, and schools and hospitals are overwhelmed.
Travelling to the frontline in Mosul to talk to peshmerga fighters and Iraqi special forces, we saw clearly the sacrifices made by those men and women. Over the border, in Mosul province, we visited the Christian village of Bartella, which had been seized by the Iraqis after a brief firefight. ISIS did not have time to destroy houses or set booby traps, but many houses were pockmarked by bullets, while some were entirely destroyed by airstrikes. Later, visiting a local hospital, we saw soldiers suffering life-changing injuries. I was humbled to witness a female peshmerga fighter passing away. We and the rest of the world owe them so much.
Another poignant visit was to a camp that is home to Yazidis, who practise a pre-Islamic and pre-Christian religion. Many have been murdered as apostates, sold into sexual slavery between one IS emir and another across Iraq or Syria, or killed because they were deemed too old to sell. Women survivors saw their men slaughtered before their eyes and their babies killed for fun. Of the 5,000 Yazidi women abducted as spoils of war, 2,000 have escaped, but they must still endure daily nightmares and flashbacks, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) alluded to.
At the SEED project, which operates from a schoolhouse building, assiduous professionals were working carefully to help victims overcome such traumas. A couple of therapists had studied clinical psychology at Koya University, but that is the only such course in the whole of Kurdistan: the country is in desperate need of people who understand post-traumatic stress. It must be our priority, and the Government’s, to offer that support, alongside physical reconstruction and the political reform the country so desperately needs.
Another way to heal psychological wounds can be through culture, which can be a force for rebellion and resistance, as well as for rebuilding empathy and tolerance in communities. The Kurds’ love of poetry and music attest to that. The legendary Iranian-Kurdish folk singer Mazhar Khaleghi, who now runs the Kurdish Heritage Institute in Sulaymaniyah, says: “We have lost our lands and we’re probably never going to get them back. But we have to fight to save what is left of our culture. If we lose that, we have lost everything.” As 150,000 peshmerga fighters push back against IS, Khaleghi’s team of a dozen ethnomusicologists, anthropologists and historians are fighting to preserve the Kurdish identity.
Kurdistan is an exceptionally beautiful country and I was privileged to meet a number of film makers and producers, who were anxious to use the beautiful location to create greater creative links with the rest of the world. I was shown around a disused cigarette factory by a local producer who had some of the finance in place to create a film studio to rival Shepperton or Pinewood. Nearby Turkey has a vibrant film industry and I am sure the same could be true of Kurdistan. It is younger film makers such as Syrian-Kurdish director Lauand Omar, making films such as “Curse Of Mesopotamia”—a low budget horror that can be screened anywhere in the world—who are leading the way.
We can help by supporting Kurdistan’s ambition for inward investment, domestic production and private-sector employment within the Kurdistan region and working with the UK film industry to secure an efficient unified film industry organisation, merging the cinema directorates within the KRG. Kurdistan has huge potential to be a film-making centre in the middle east, bringing economic, social and cultural benefits to the region and its people. I hope there are people listening to this debate who could make that happen.
To visit Iraqi-Kurdistan was an absolutely fascinating opportunity. Yes, there are grave challenges in that part of the world—but where terror has done untold damage, a rose is growing through the cracks in the cement. Beauty and creativity is growing. I think we can all agree that that is testament to the Kurdish people. Over the coming years, they will look to us for support, and sometimes guidance. I hope that, in years to come, such support will be more forthcoming from our Government.