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Fire Brigades Union (FBU) reports on recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan


Brian Joyce, a member of the National Executive Committee of the Fire Brigades Union provides an account of a recent trade union visit to Iraqi Kurdistan by his union to oversee delivery of 1250 sets of fire kit sent by the FBU. The FBU has been at the forefront of practical solidarity with the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU).

"My journey through Turkey was coming to an end, signified by mile after mile of empty petrol tankers, hundreds of the hungry beasts queuing for hours on the Turkish Kurdistan border; our reliance and need for petroleum became extremely visual after passing nearly 400 petrol tankers.

"Abdullah Muhsin, the IFTUs international representative was once again acting as my interpreter as we travelled to Duhok with Jalal Kayef President of the Kurdistan General Syndicate Workers Union (KSWU) for the province of Duhok. We had been joined by him and several other officials including my old friend Subdi Al-Mashadani, the General Secretary of the IFTU at the border.

"Having been to Baghdad and Basra, I now found myself having the opportunity of extending our relationship to the trade union movement in Kurdistan. The Kurdistan General Workers Syndicate Union is the equivalent to the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions and has unions within Kurdistan affiliated to it. These unions range from the building industry, mechanics, public services, to transport, textiles and agricultural workers.

"Meetings had been arranged in Duhok, Arbil and Sulaimania, each of these provinces having its own KWSU President. The unions affiliated also having their own President in each of the three provinces. The structure of the KWSU is currently under discussion, the debate being that of unification, many believing this to be the way forward and future for the KWSU

"I was warmly welcomed at each meeting; officials were eager to explain the issues, problems and needs of their unions. Training and education being a priority, recognised by all as imperative for the future of not only their officials and members but for the unions themselves. Computers, printers and faxes were high on the list of requirements as well as financial funding. These requests and needs are vitally important, but so is the necessity of a trade union delegation going to Iraqi Kurdistan this year, in fact it is essential.

"My visit was also to assist in facilitating the first meeting of KWSU and IFTU; this has led to successful discussions between the two unions.

"I felt safe and secure as I travelled through Kurdistan, armed security being apparent and check points frequent. But with the history and relationship with Saddam’s Iraq, it is not only understandable but desirable.

"Kurdistan lies across the top of Iraq in a blanket of beautiful mountains and forms northern Iraq. The Kurdish people have suffered imprisonment, torture and death at the hands of Saddam’s Baath’ist party and military power. In the provinces of Duhok and Arbil over 5000 villages were destroyed, thousands of people made homeless, countless numbers missing and killed, bombed, machined gunned, gassed, and poisoned by chemicals.

"Since 1991 due to the intervention of the United Nations and the courage of the Kurdish people, the country has had the opportunity to build, improve and modernise. The difference those years have made is remarkable, and can only pay tribute to the people of Iraqi Kurdistan and give hope to the people of Iraq for the future.

"During my days and time in Kurdistan I visited fire stations in all the provinces. Personal protective clothing was limited. On one station, there were six sets of ppc shared amongst the whole station of thirty fire-fighters.

"There were requests from each brigade visited for technical information, fire kit, equipment and the need for all types of training was identified as a priority.

"None of the stations I visited had breathing apparatus, although I was proudly shown some new appliances recently delivered. As in Iraq these fire-fighters are not allowed to join a trade union due to existing legislation, and little appears to be going to change in the near future.

"We have, as a union, arranged for approximately 1250 sets of fire kit to be sent to Kurdistan, and should be distributed over the following weeks.

"But there is still a desperate need for further support and assistance, above all we must maintain and continue our relationship with those to whom we have held out the hand of trust and friendship. However, there were no expectations from those I met, for these were not people who simply talk about freedom and democracy, most have physically fought to achieve it and all have suffered under the regime of Saddam’s Iraq for it.

"The KWSU also arranged for me to meet with the Governor of Duhok Nejerfan Ahmed and the political leader of the PDK Khader Abdel-Aziz Rashied; I also met Abdul Razag, minister for humanitarian aid and a member of the PUK.

"This series of meetings gave me the opportunity to question and explore the views of these officials over a variety of issues, one of which being the future of a federal Iraq with specific reference to the role of and political relationship with the trade union movement. The war and occupation created debate with views being expressed freely and openly by all. Further discussions included the unjust and totally unnecessary legislation in relation to fire-fighters and their right to join a trade union, as well as the function and responsibilities of the fire service.

"Interviews were arranged with two national television networks and several national newspapers. Television coverage of my trip appeared on the news for two nights, and was transmitted by satellite over all the Arab states.

"As I travelled back from Suliamania, I couldn’t help but notice the regeneration of the countryside, burnt beyond recognition by Saddam’s air force ten years past but now young saplings stood four foot high, and the blackened scorched earth replaced by fresh green. Yet my mind was still at the Red House in Suleimaniya.

"Simply called the Red House due to its colour, quite unassuming in appearance, you could easily be forgiven for thinking it was an office block. But for thousands of those who walked across its courtyard, the Red House meant imprisonment, torture and execution. Now it is a museum, its walls displaying a pictorial history to those who had to flee their homes and escape to the mountains of Kurdistan. Many died in the freezing snow, both young and old. There were also pictures of families, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons who were murdered simply because they were born Kurdish.

"Two days before Kurdish partisans attacked this building; all those held within its walls were executed.

"Life for many in Iraq is still unsafe; this is certainly the case for trade union official Nuzad Ismail President of the IFTU in Kirkuk. Nuzad, has survived two assassination attempts on his life over recent months.

"Each day he and his family receive death threats, as Nuzad said “If they can’t get to me they will get to my family, that’s the way they work”. He was referring to Saddam loyalists.

"Sadly whilst writing this article I was made aware of the death of my friend Hadi Saleh, International Secretary for the IFTU, assassinated on Tuesday night the 4th of January in Baghdad. Masked assassins broke into his home bound his feet and hands blindfolded him, and then tortured, burnt and finally strangled Hadi with electric cord.

"Not surprisingly there is the belief that Hadi’s murder was carried out by Saddam’s Mukhabarat, the Baathist KGB. Sadly there are those in this country who, not only give credibility to these murderers and cowards, but support them. Called or being named the “new resistance” by those who seem blinkered to the irony of that statement. The political amnesia of these individuals and organisations is quite breathtaking.

"Hadi Saleh was a trade unionist, a man with a wish for a free and democratic federal Iraq. He worked through the trade union movement to achieve his beliefs for the people of Iraq.

"Seized at the age of 21 by Saddam’s secret police and sentenced to summary execution for forming a trade union at his work place. Hadi spent five years of his life in the filth of one of Saddam’s prisons, tortured and beaten but still alive, he had his sentence by some miracle commuted to permanent exile.

"He opposed the war, and continued his work to unite the people of his country. But he never gave up his fight against Baathism, and for that he was murdered.

"Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who assisted in making my trip possible, especially those brigades who made the vital contributions of fire kit to the fire-fighters of Kurdistan. Equally my thanks goes to all those who I met during my travels but have not named, and my special thanks to Jalal Kayif and his family for the particular friendship and kindness they showed me during my short time in their country."


March 2005


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