A republic of the mind: my visit to Iranian Kurdistan

Let’s go to this place up in the north-west that’s trying to make itself independent of Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime.

The self-declared Republic of Iranian Kurdistan was a place that did not exist in the eyes of the country’s central government, of the United Nations, or in the consciousness of most of the world.

But it was a place that had been fighting for its life since the spring of the previous year. A place whose capital had been besieged and sacked by the Iranian army, with its American equipment inherited from the Shah, but then retaken by ill-equipped Kurdish Peshmergan.

Alex’s friend and interpreter, Bahram Dehqani Tafti, an Anglo-Iranian poet and teacher not long out of Oxford university, said he’d come with us and translate.

We took a plane to Tabriz, and drove towards Kurdistan with absolutely no idea what was going to happen next.

Eventually we reached a ramshackle sort of border post, an oddity given that officially there was no border: how could there be, to a place that didn’t exist?

The sergeant told us to go and see his major, and detailed a young recruit to sit in the car as we drove there. He sat between me and Bahram, with his rifle between his knees, idly picking his teeth with the sight at the end of the barrel.

Don’t look, said Bahram, but he’s got the safety catch off.

The next five minutes on a bumpy track were spent praying he wouldn’t blow his head off, in which case we’d undoubtedly get the blame.

It was the first time, but not the last, in my career that I was to reflect how closely foreign correspondent work still resembled Evelyn Waugh’s great comic novel Scoop.

When we reached the major, Bahram somehow persuaded him to let us continue.

Before dusk we were in Mahabad, the capital, a neatly laid out town that bore few traces of the mighty battle to recapture it only a few months before.

What I remember, after the near anarchy of Tehran, was an aura of peace and military discipline: well-organised, neatly dressed soldiers who knew how to handle their weapons.

“A Kurd kills with one shot,” one of them told me. “We have always been short of ammunition.”

In Mahabad, we met the Kurds’ spiritual leader, Sheikh Ezzedine Husseini, a man who had always argued for a secular republic and insisted that clergy like himself had no business running a country, and their political leader, Dr Qassemlou, a Sorbonne-educated democrat who spoke eight languages and espoused Kurdish nationalism all his life.

Then we drove south, because that’s where the Iranian Army counter-attack was coming from.

We thought they were a long way off, south of Sanandaj, but before we got to Saqqez, halfway there, a helicopter gunship rose over a bluff about 100 metres away, its heavy machine gun pointed straight at us. It hovered for what seemed like an hour but was probably a minute, then peeled away.

I was congratulating myself on my own coolness not long after when we stopped. Then I got out off the car and my knees literally gave way. I was on the ground in a heap. Your body tells the truth about fear, even when you try to lie.

We got to Saqqez and debated whether to go on. There was a convoy leaving for Sanandaj straight away, and maybe not another till the next day.

We erred on the side of caution and sat talking to local Kurdish leaders, drinking small cups of this sweet coffee and smoking. We wondered if we should have just gone on in the convoy. Then a man, white-faced and shaking, came in and started talking to the chief. The remnants of the convoy we would have taken were on their way back.

We filmed the damaged trucks that had survived, the survivors and the charred bodies of the dead. An air-to ground rocket attack is an ugly thing.

I’ve seldom felt so remote from the world. We got lost on the way back to Mahabad, in the dead of night. We pulled into a hamlet and asked the way. It was the provincial capital, after all. “I’ve heard of it,” came the unhelpful reply.

We found it the next morning.

Eventually we got back to Tabriz, then to Tehran. Two days later, on his way to my hotel to translate and transcribe the interviews, Bahram Dehqani Tafti was pulled over, driven to Evin prison, and murdered.

Sanandaj soon fell, then Saqqez. Mahabad held on a long time, but it fell, too. Sheikh Ezzedine spent his last 20 years in Swedish exile. Dr Qassemlou went into exile too, and Iranian government agents assassinated him in Vienna in 1989. No-one was ever charged.

Iranian Kurdistan never existed for the world. Neither Iran nor the big powers have ever wanted a Kurdish state: not in Iran, Iraq, Syria or Turkey, regardless of who’s in power.

But it has lived on for me, always there, when I saw how Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds just over the border in Halabja, and now when I see ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa and driven at huge cost out of Kobane.

It wasn’t a Utopia, just a reasonable attempt at a decent autonomous state, and although it was crushed, it lives on for me in a parallel reality, a republic of the mind of the sort that you can never completely crush.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the Melbourne Town Hall at a night of storytelling to mark the 5th anniversary of the Wheeler Centre, on the theme “Five”.

Mark Colvin is the presenter of ABC Radio’s current affairs program PM.


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