Last year Bill Putnam flew back to the World and left the military in Iraq. Back in Portland, while researching a photo story about homeless veterans, he spoke to Shakhawn, the Kurdish Human Rights Watch representative, about photographing the Pesh Merga, the Kurdish militias.
Shakhawn’s friend in Iraq, Sherzad, said it will cost about $3,000 to stay for two weeks, to get around in Kurdish society.
What will cost that much to photograph Kurdistan? Drivers, a fixer, a translator, two body guards, hotel rooms, food, and gas, with the biggest expense being a team of guards, drivers and translators.
The Kurds live in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. They’ve been fighting for an independent Kurdistan to no avail for generations.
There was some talk they would receive their own state in the aftermath of World War I. But they were thrown into the new country called Iraq instead or absorbed into Iran, Turkey or Syria. In the meantime they kept up their drive for independence and formation of a Kurdistan.
This drive hasn’t been easy. All countries with a Kurdish minority have clamped down on Kurdish rights to speak their language and learn their own history. The most famous event of this drive was Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds in 1988 at the village of Halabja where 5,000 were killed.
In 1991 the Kurds and Shias rose up in rebellion after the Gulf War with the first President Bush’s urging. When the support both groups expected didn’t materialize, Saddam’s government came in and slaughtered them; some accounts say up to 100,000 people were killed that spring. His weapon of choice was the helicopter gunship. This weapon set the stage for the UN’s No Fly Zones over northern and southern Iraq.
The Kurds took advantage of the breathing room created by the No Fly Zones to create a thriving society. Banks started and funded development; refugees came home and resettled. Not everyone was able to go home. Kirkuk, a city with potentially vast oil reserves nearby, was resettled with Arabs by Saddam at the Kurds’ expense in the 1980s.
The Kurds saw the benefit of the Mach 2003 invasion and used it to set the stage for what may ultimately be an independent Kurdistan. During that invasion the long underground Pesh Merga helped the Americans fight the Iraqi army.
It wasn’t until after the fall of Saddam in April 2003 that the Kurdish question really was brought to light. Would or should the Kurds have their own country?
In Kirkuk, for example, the resulting tensions of Kurds coming home and the Arabs not wanting to go broke out into open fighting.
This brings us to today. The Kurds have continued building their own country. The Pesh Merga have set up compounds all over Kurdistan. They have their own parliament. While some Kurds want to stay part of Iraq, others (and some say the majority) want to be independent. The ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs still simmer in Kirkuk.
Bill has ben back in Iraq since September 2005, embedded with the US military. His plan in the Kurdish area is do mostly photo stories, with podcasts and dispatches from the field. He will hang out with the Pesh, the Kurdish militia, and a family in a farming village in the mountains. He will talk with people involved with the oil industry in the strategic city of Kirkuk. The ultimate aim is to discover what life is like for one group of Iraqis and send back the photos and stories.
To do this, Bill will be interacting with Kurds on their level, for two full weeks, posting his work from local internet cafes.
Bill says “What I want my work to do is help you understand this crazy place from a different perspective.”
All of this will cost money, so Bill needs help to complete this project.