Iraq: 'You broke the square, but you can't break us'

By Michele Naar-Obed
25 Apr 2011

A new song was playing on Iraqi Kurdistan radio just before Easter, which included the lines, "Don't kill this generation" and "don't kill the future." While the song played, guns were blasting and tear gas filled the streets in both Suleimaniya and the KRG capital city, Hawler (Erbil).

Day sixty-one of Suleimaniya's daily demonstrations against corruption in Iraqi Kurdistan started earlyon 18 April 2011. The Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) group arrived at 11:00. Music was playing from the stage and small groups of people were gathering. Two CPTers decided to use the quiet time to grab a cup of coffee and juice in a cafe next to the square. A few of the demonstration organisers were doing the same.

Meanwhile armed soldiers, the anti-terrorism unit, and police were positioning themselves around the square., with guns, tear gas, water cannons, and riot gear.

When the two CPTers and organisers left the cafe, a group of about twenty young men were talking about confronting the soldiers and police. Some were talking about throwing rocks. Others told us them that soldiers would throw the first round of rocks to provoke a fight. Still others told them that the government pays some of these young men to throw the first stones in order to provoke an escalation of violence. The organisers and CPTers gave an impromptu workshop on nonviolence. Some of the young men decided to stay in the square. Others were ready to confront the soldiers. One young man said he needed the money.

The speakers gathered around the stage. After hearing the announcement that a thousand people had taken to the streets in Hawler, where government repression is much worse, the Suleimaniya crowd cheered.

Next, news came to the square that the Suleimaniya University students were sitting in the street. For the second day, a ring of soldiers prevented them form entering the square. A crowd gathered on one of the streets exiting the northeast corner of the square.

Then the mayhem began, with the forces launching tear gas. The people who were closest to it came running back towards the square with swollen eyes and faces. Some could not breath.

Ambulances were nearby and ready to treat them. News came that the soldiers were moving closer to the square. The stench of the tear gas permeated the streets. Demonstrators set up barricades on the street and began burning tyres in order to keep the soldiers from breaking into the square.

The sound of gunfire was prolonged and getting closer to the square. Shops along the street began to close down. Pedestrians ran towards the square to get away from the worst of the tear gas and the shooting. The team made contact with the US Consulate by phone and stayed in contact throughout the day.

The organisers appealed to the people to stay in the square and to remain nonviolent. Most of the people listened. Then the shooting began on the other side of the square and soldiers set up in sniper positions on rooftops. Nobody knew where to go; the shooting was coming from all sides.

People crouched down behind stone walls. Others began breaking up huge blocks of cement to make baseball-sized rocks. The organisers appealed to the people to sit down. Many did and all the while shooting was going on from all sides. The US consulate representative could hear the shooting over the phone and said consulate personnel were in contact with the highest level of KRG authority. Nobody seemed to know who was giving the orders to shoot.

Organisers called for the demonstration to end. Many people, including the CPTers, left although they had difficulty finding a safe exit. At 6:00 pm, the team received a report that approximately 500 to 700 people were still in the square. The soldiers and police came in with guns, batons and tear gas, injuring 81 badly enough that they had to be taken to the hospital . The armed forces set the stage on fire and burned down all the art displays set up on the wall in the back of the square.

At 9:00 pm, 200 young people went back to the square and were immediately surrounded by armed forces . The young people chanted, "You broke the square, but you can't break us." The Suleimaniya University students planned to demonstrate in front of the courthouse on 19 April.

This story of nonviolent resistance facing up to official violence will carry on, virtually ignored by the world's media - in Suleimaniya and many other places.

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© Michele Naar-Obed is working and reporting for Christian Peacemaker Teams (www.cpt.org) in Iraq.

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