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 Kirkuk, the world's saddest city 

 Opinion — Analysis    
  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


Kirkuk, the world's saddest city  29.6.2011
Inside the Other Iraq: Exclusive Columns by Mariwan Salihi -

June 29, 2011

Today, I was reminded of a scene I went through in late 2005. I was in the car with my father, driving from Erbil to Kirkuk. I was very excited, as it was going to become my first trip to the city of my birth; when we left Kirkuk back in 1991, due to the Gulf War and the failed uprising against the previous regime in that year, I was just a baby.

I did have 'some' vague memories of the city and life then, and the old photo's of the 1980s and early 1990s really helped me in creating a romantic image of the city. Kirkuk, back in the old days, was a wealthy, clean, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic urban center. As Iraq's fourth largest city (after Baghdad, Basra and Mosul), It was dubbed 'the city of brotherhood,' because of the peaceful coexistence of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians and Armenians in one area. Even when it came to religion, no one seemed to care if you were a Sunni or Shiite Muslim, a Christian or even a Jew (although, most left after the creation of Israel in 1948); Kirkuk was a 'mini Iraq,' a mosaic of all of Iraq's main ethnic and religious groups. 

Mariwan Salihi
After 30 minutes or so from leaving Erbil, we arrived in the 'real Iraq' – the border between self-ruled Kurdistan Region and the rest of Iraq. The checkpoints were serious, although the Iraqi soldiers were very friendly and polite: they were from Kirkuk, after all!

I could see the barren landscape around Kirkuk, the flames from the rich oil fields, and signboards leading to Tikrit, Baghdad, Sulaimaniyah, or back to Erbil. Being extremely curios, my eyes were observing each inch of the area…but I was overwhelmed and shocked. Suddenly, I lost control of my emotions, and started to cry like a baby, like the baby that left Kirkuk during the war. I couldn't do anything, really anything, to stop crying. My father was surprised, as he never saw that much tear falling from my eyes. And I was begging myself from inside to stop crying, but I couldn't help it, while my father was trying to comfort me. My emotions wanted to be freed, so I just give them that luxury for that moment.

I was hurt, in fact I still am. The beautiful, and upscale, Kirkuk that I once knew, didn't appear in front of my tearing eyes. It was more or less a 'grey city' taken back to the Middle Ages. Well, it didn't actually seem to be a city anymore, it was an ugly village, I thought. There was so much destruction,
www.ekurd.netthat I wished I never asked to be brought there. Garbage was everywhere, the infrastructure was in a bad condition…there were few trees, and I could count the people on the streets on one hand. The houses were in such a dire need of help: they were screaming, I thought, to be bulldozed and not renovated! During that visit, Kirkuk seemed to be the saddest city in the world. So sad, that some people will tell you that they haven't smiled for at least two decades.

Who could I blame? Saddam? The Americans? The Turks, and their continuous interference in this city's affairs? The Kurdish government? The United Nations? Maybe North Korea or Cuba…but that didn't make much sense! My mind stopped thinking for a while.

Could this be the Kirkuk which my mom used to describe as Iraq's cleanest city? Yes, back days it used to get awards from the government for that, but not anymore! Could this be the city of one of the world's largest oil-fields? Could this be the ancient city, so famous for its beautiful thousands of years old citadel, and the birthplace of Prophet Daniel? Was Kirkuk, I wondered, still Iraq's fourth largest city (one million-plus inhabitants in its 'good days')? Of course not, Erbil has taken that title by now!

Due to the city's situation, most of its original inhabitants were forcibly, or voluntarily, displaced to Kurdistan, Europe, US or elsewhere around the world. The city's current population is somehow not the original – many Kurdish villagers and Arab settlers from southern Iraq have become 'Kirkukis today.

I refused to accept this reality, in fact, I asked my father why he brought me there. "This is not Kirkuk! Why did you bring me to this ugly place," the young Mariwan protested. But it was me who was disillusioned. All the signboards on the road were leading us to this city – to Kirkuk. At least, I thought, there's a 'Welcome to Kirkuk' sign. But perhaps, of all its visitors, I was the least who felt welcome there.

Ever since that trip, I have avoided to visit Kirkuk again. Yes, I have passed through it on the way from Erbil to Sulaimaniyah. But that's it. Even the outskirts of the city still haunt me while going to Sulaimaniyah: my grandmother and my two martyred uncles are buried in the main cemetery of Rahim Awa – visible from the main Kirkuk to Sulaimaniyah highway. The only thing I do then is remembering my childhood, and the good old times this martyred city has seen. I then make a quick wish, while the car is speeding at 180 km an hour: May God never take away those beautiful memories from me. And then, I dream, that a day will come that I can take my own yet-to-be-born children, and perhaps grandchildren, to see a changed Kirkuk. One of prosperity, brotherhood, harmony and everlasting peace.

Mariwan F. Salihi, is a Netherlands national, a freelance journalist covering Iraqi and other Middle Eastern issues, and regular columnist for You may reach the author via email at: [email protected]  

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  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


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