When I was ten years old, my father came home late one day. I remember how pale he was. He said nothing about why he was late, walked straight to his room, locked the door, and stayed there until the next evening. Later, he told us that he had been detained for over seven hours by the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi Ba’ath Party’s notorious security apparatus under the country’s then-dictator Saddam Hussein (this was in the 1970s). Unlike most of the other people who were detained by the Mukhabarat, my father was never tortured—at least, not physically. Instead, he was given a tour of the building and its torture devices that left him terrified.
An officer acted as his guide, introducing each contraption: how it worked and what its effects were on human bodies. The main goals of these infernal machines, he explained, were discipline and obedience. My father was a humble driver, but also a member of a labor union. He worked at the directorate of agriculture in Erbil, the capital city of what is now the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq.
“I’m sure you have one of these in your home,” the officer told my father when they entered a room that had nothing but a fan hanging from the ceiling. “The fan here functions differently: you get a different experience when your body whirls you around after we hang you there by your feet.” To protect his children from the horror, my father refused to elaborate further. Since the moment my father returned from the Mukhabarat’s headquarters, I lived in fear of the Ba’ath regime and its torture system.
Almost forty years later, including some twenty-seven during which Kurdish politicians from the two main ruling families, Barzani and Talabani, bragged about democracy and human rights, my fifteen-year-old son would have an experience similar to mine, and I to my father’s—but this time under a Kurdish oppressor.
A wave of demonstrations against corruption and unpaid salaries swept through the cities of Iraqi Kurdistan last month. At one of that series of protests, on March 27, in Erbil, I was arrested—snatched, kidnap-style—by the Kurdish security apparatus, which is known as Asaysh.
Erbil, ruled with a tight fist by Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has not faced a public political protest for years. Last month’s action was the first major show of political discontent directed at the government since 1996. That was the year when, amid a bloody Kurdish civil war, the KDP seized control of the city with help from Saddam Hussein’s army and ousted its long-time political rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani.
On March 27, I was using my cellphone to film Asaysh forces dragging away and beating peaceful protesters, when a plain-clothes agent grabbed my phone out of my hand. Nothing aggravates authoritarian regimes more than a citizen journalist using a smartphone to document human rights violations—in this case, against its own civil servants who were doing nothing more than demanding payment of their salaries. Images and videos showing members of the KDP-controlled Asaysh kicking and beating teachers and doctors had already gone viral on social media. The security forces had taken to viciously attacking anyone who tried to film them.
As I tried to get my phone back, I was attacked by two armed security agents. They pulled me away from the crowd, and bundled me into a vehicle. I was lucky—unlike many others, I was not beaten. On the way to the Asaysh building, one of them threatened to teach me “some discipline” by breaking my teeth if I kept talking. The other insisted that the protesters were a bunch of “scum trying to sabotage the city.”
I didn’t stay long in Asaysh building, soon I was transferred, around noon, to the Erbil Police Directorate, along with another protester I will call Ameer. (I have changed people’s names here to protect them from possible police reprisals.) The Asaysh officers shouted insults at Ameer, accusing him of belonging to the Gorran Movement, or Movement for Change, the main opposition party, which came in second place behind the KDP in the last elections to the Kurdistan parliament in 2013. In 2015, the KDP expelled from Erbil the Movement for Change’s cabinet ministers, along with the speaker of parliament.
Besides Ameer and myself, eight people, including a local TV reporter, were already detained at the police headquarters. The ten of us were held in a conference hall. It quickly became clear that we were now under the jurisdiction of civilian police force; we were all somewhat relieved no longer to be in the clutches of Asaysh.
A little later, however, Asaysh officers brought in another four people. One, a man in his mid-thirties I will call Hadi, had been badly beaten and kept moaning, asking for medical attention. Later, he told us his story. He had been grabbed by four members of Asaysh who started punching and kicking him in the street. “It was a fantastical spectacle of terror,” he said, recounting his beating. After the Asaysh felt sure they’d intimidated enough bystanders, “they shoved me into a car,” Hadi said. “They held my head down, and while one of them was driving the car the other three were having fun beating me with all their strength.” The car cruised the streets of the capital while Hadi was being tortured inside.
Around 2 PM, three more people were brought in, two of whom had blood on their clothes. Salam, a tall skinny young man in his late twenties, an activist and the leader of a civil society group, was wearing a black shirt that had bloody patches all over. “I was attacked and hit on the head with a brass knuckle,” he said. “I feel shaky and dizzy.” By 5 in the afternoon, our headcount had reached seventeen; almost all of us had been arrested kidnap-style. One detainee in his early twenties related how, squeezed between two security members in Asaysh vehicle, he was threatened with sexual assault. “They told me, ‘We’ll take you out of the city, undress you, and gang rape you,’” he said. “My body was shivering. I believed them: I know some of them are capable of doing this.”
The Asaysh didn’t rape the young man; they just wanted to send a message. He was pale and petrified. It was the same look I’d seen on my father’s face forty years ago, after the hours he’d spent trapped with the Ba’athists, hours of sheer terror and helplessness.
My fellow detainees were mainly teachers who hadn’t received their full salaries for over three years, but there were also a doctor, a lawyer, a journalist, a computer technician, a couple of laborers, and even two fighters on leave from our esteemed peshmerga forces. One of the peshmerga, who belonged to a KDP-controlled force, told me that he had fought against the Islamic State during the liberation of Sinjar, Zumar, Ain Zalah, and other areas around Mosul. “Enough!” he said. “I’m fed-up with these thieves.”
One after another, we were called into a room and questioned by a bald, heavyset officer, who was soon joined by another in a clean, pressed uniform. All of us were asked about our political allegiances. When I responded that I have no affiliation to any Kurdish political party, the officer asked me whom I voted for. I expressed my shock at the question and refused to answer. He didn’t press the point.
Although the regular police officers were clearly subordinate and subject to Asaysh orders, we received somewhat better treatment from the civilian force. At one protest, I learned, the police force actually protected about twenty teachers from attacks by Asaysh agents.
Ten hours passed; still we didn’t know what was going to happen to us. No one gave us any food, and we were not allowed to make calls, so most of our families had no idea where we were. I was worried about my son, anticipating the fear he must be feeling. We have lunch together almost every day after he comes back from school. On that day, I wasn’t home; nor had I called to let him know I wouldn’t be there waiting for him. After repeated requests to make a call, one police officer let me use the toilet and sneaked my phone to me. “Make a quick one-minute call,” he commanded. I called my brother. “I’m detained,” I said. “Don’t worry: I’ll come back tonight or tomorrow. Let my son know that everything will be all right.”
Sadiq, a teacher in his sixties, told me he had not eaten for more than twenty-four hours. He had been teaching for thirty-six years “and all I have now is less than four dollars in my pocket.” Before joining the protest that morning near one of the main parks in Erbil, Sadiq had been thinking about staging a drastic symbolic act of protest. “I thought about hanging myself with my pishten [a Kurdish cummerbund] inside the park, hoping that my public death would influence these corrupt politicians, and change the whole situation,” he said. For several days, I couldn’t get the image of Sadiq’s body dangling from his long colorful pishten out of my mind.
After more than twelve hours in detention, I was released. In the meantime, the police had erased all the images and videos from my cellphone. Just before I stepped out, I asked an officer about the fate of my sixteen fellow detainees. He was not happy about my question, looked at me disdainfully, and said, “They all will be released soon.” But that was not the case. Five others were released around two in the morning, but the remaining eleven were handcuffed and taken to prison for a further two nights.
It was almost one in the morning when I got home. My son was waiting by the front door, pale and anxious. “Did they beat you up?” he asked. Just as my father had refused to tell us what he saw in the torture rooms, I didn’t tell my son everything I had witnessed in detention and at the protest that day. But then I realized that he had seen images of people being beaten up by the Asaysh, so I replied, “No, but they beat and insulted other people.”
Two days after the experience of listening to Sadiq’s horrifying plan, I heard the Kurdistan Regional Government’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, respond to a question about violence committed by the security forces against protesters. “If they [the protesters] use knives and pistols,” he said, “we will do the same.” Sadiq, Hadi, Wiria, Ameer, and the dozen others who were detained with me were armed only with their voices.
The Kurds have always been able to blame others for their oppression. Where Iraqi Kurds were concerned, that oppression will always be associated with Saddam Hussein’s military strongman image. After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Baghdad and other majority-Arab parts of Iraq were engulfed in war and sectarian violence. For a time, Iraq’s northern region, Kurdistan, tried to disassociate itself from the rest of the country and represent itself as a new country, promoting the idea of Kurdistan as “The Other Iraq.” Kurdish politicians spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying in the US and among the international community to project an image of their region as a place of peaceful coexistence and democracy. But the face of Kurdish oppression has changed; it’s closer to home, more familiar.
Today, the Kurds’ oppressors are themselves Kurdish—the two ruling families, Barzani and Talabani. And so that new “Other Iraq” is more and more coming to resemble the old Iraq, a one-party totalitarian state ruled by terror. We are not there yet; we have not yet sunk to the depths of 1980s Ba’athist brutality and the depravities of Saddam’s Mukhabarat. But if the Kurdish ruling parties keep silencing opposition and protest with knives, brass knuckles, and guns, then—to borrow Iraqi-British writer Kanan Makiya’s memorable phrase—Iraqi Kurdistan will soon become another “republic of fear.”