Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Thursday, 21 January 2010

Hope and despair in northern Iraq

In Kurdish northern Iraq, signs of hope and stability are starting to show through the scars of war. But, despite this, Treeva Fenwick finds that there are reasons why some feel life was better under Saddam Hussein.

Boys playing happily outdoors in northern Iraq
Life in northern Iraq is more tranquil than faraway Baghdad

When we arrived in Irbil, there were no families waiting in the airport.

For security reasons, passengers were transported by bus to the outside gates to meet their relatives.

A frail man shuffled slowly towards us, with a stick. Tears streamed down his face as he saw his little sister, my mother, for the first time in 20 years.

She did not recognise him.

In the car, we passed heavily armed checkpoints.

At the mercy of large potholes, we jolted through what used to be a village of Yazidi Kurds. It had been reduced to rubble by car bomb attacks two years ago.

My cousin pointed to where one of the deadly vehicles had pulled up. "More than 250 people were killed," he said. "Whole families were trapped under crumbling homes."

A thin, stray dog, sniffing hopefully at the dust, and a man selling pomegranates by the side of the road were the only signs of life now.

Positive signs

But as we neared my cousin's home, we saw more positive things - evidence of hope and stability in Kurdish Iraq.

There were bulldozers, not here to clear the after effects of suicide bombs, but to build new villas for a growing housing market. And the screams of children came not from the trauma of war, but from an amusement park with tall, spinning rides, candyfloss and flashing lights.

There were donut shops and bowling alleys, playing Western dance music.

All this in stark contrast to the scenes of bloodletting in the capital, Baghdad, that we have so often watched on our TV screens.

Treeva (left) with her mother and sister
Treeva (left) with her mother and sister while visiting family in Iraq

At dinner, I met up with the rest of my family.

They had prepared a welcome stew of succulent lamb, lemon, garlic and fresh okra in rich tomato juice, spooned over fluffy basmati rice.

As I soon found, they show their love through food here.

There was no point saying you were full, as yet more would be piled on your plate.

This was Middle Eastern hospitality.

As we feasted, they talked about having to flee Baghdad and Basra - it was one distressing story after another.

It became clear that the peace in the Kurdish area is an exception.

My aunt died had from a blood clot. Doctors told me it was treatable but by the time they got permission to take her to hospital during the night-time curfews in Baghdad, it was too late.

My uncle's family home in the capital was regularly hit by ill-directed insurgent rockets.

He could no longer bear hearing his children having nightmares, and lived in fear that they would be kidnapped for money.

map of Kurdish areas of northern Iraq

Covering up

What upset my mother most, though, was the shift to conservatism and sectarianism.

When she grew up in Baghdad in the 50s and 60s, girls were well educated. Religion didn't dictate what sort of clothes they wore and nobody covered their heads.

But since the invasion, our nieces told us how some Iraqi women were being attacked in the streets for daring to go to work, or for not covering their heads.

Since 2003, my Baghdad family has scattered, fleeing to America, Britain, Sweden, Jordan and the north of Iraq.

Those who are abroad are safely out of harm's way. But they long for home.

They don't speak the language or know the culture in their new homelands. And for those aged in their 70s and 80s - too old to start again - nothing is familiar, so they simply don't go out.

They pass the hours instead wondering what has become of their friends and possessions.

Power cuts

Whilst we were in northern Iraq, there was yet another suicide bomb attack in the capital. This time, just outside the green zone. About 150 dead.

My uncle sat glued to the news, watching the streets he knows so well, sipping strong Turkish coffee and distractedly fingering his prayer beads.

Power cables in Duhok, northern Iraq
Chaotic electric cables betray Iraq's crumbling power infrastructure

Half way through the report the electricity failed - there were power cuts every day which lasted a number of hours.

The rich have generators - the poor suffer. Especially in the summer's 45C heat.

Many here were not anti-war, my uncle told me. Now, though, they despair at the mess in their country.

They express anger towards the soldiers they once saw as liberators. For them, the battle of hearts and minds has been lost.

And as I met and talked to people who had fled here from other parts of Iraq, I was saddened to hear some say that life under Saddam Hussein was somehow better.

"You knew how to keep out of trouble," they said. "The killing was not so indiscriminate."

"But now," I said, "you can vote, you have rights, you can talk freely about the government without being killed."

"Ah yes," replied one man. " Freedom of speech is good, but you can't make electricity from it, nor feed your children with it, nor can you stem the violence with it.

"So you see," he said. "We are still not free."

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