One Night for Freedom

This is a memory of the beginnings of Freedom Square protests against despotism and corruption in Iraqi Kurdistan region. 

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The miraculous news of Tunisian President Zein Al-Abidin Ben Ali’s escape from Tunisia and the triumph of the Tunisian revolution had earthquake effect on the entire Middle East and North Africa region. We all knew something big was coming. In an article I wrote few days after Ben Ali’s escape, I asked myself and my people, if Muhamme Bouazizi set himself on fire for his dignity and freedom, what can we do? As Egyptian people also took to streets in what became the second episode of Arab Spring season, I became more certain that we as Kurds need to do something as well. Despite all the differences, everything Tunisians and Egyptians protested, were present in our political system. Iraqi Kurdistan region also had (and still have) number of ruling families supported by their tribal allies and media machines who justified their grasp on power through rare elections which were not fair and not free. The corruption at the highest levels, no transparency at all in managing oil revenues and no tolerance for voices of dissent. Thus, “After Tunisia, and Egypt, we are next,’’ I thought to myself.

On February 8, 2011, a group of friends and I formed a Free Youth Movement. Our first activity was releasing a statement in Kurdish, Arabic and English in support of the Egyptian revolution. On February 12, we arranged a demonstration on the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani campus in support of the Egyptian revolution. We chanted Arabic and English slogans against Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Meanwhile, I started in secret preparations for a larger protest outside university campus .




























Amidst these preparations, another group of people, previously unkown, called for a protest to celebrate the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. I had my reservations as I did not know exactly who the organizers were. I decided to continue with my plan of holding a different kind of activity. However, in the evening of February 17, while people were going back from the protest , we got news that there had been a clash between the protesters and Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) Sulaimani branch’s guards. Many were killed and wounded, we were told. A number of friends from university and I rushed to the area. Ambulances were coming and taking wounded people. The guards were still firing into the sky. Hundreds of people had gathered from both sides of the building asking for justice for the martyrs. The situation was extremely tense. Our plans for our own special activity went with the winds. The following day, the city turned into a militarized zone. There were news of a possible military attack from KDP on the city. Sulaimani was silent and angry. However, it was the silence before the storm. On February 18, a small number of people gathered again and wanted to move towards KDP headquarters. They were prevented by the police. Later the group gathered at Sara Square, at the city center. This continued on the following day as well. I did not take part in any of these demonstrations as my friends and I were trying to make sense of what was going on. We wanted to know who had organized the protests, and why they had attacked KDP, one of the Kurdish ruling parties led by Barzani family. 






















On February 20, I decided to go to the city center and see for myself what was going on. The streets were filled with masked armed men. There was an armed man every few meters. They were there to make people fearful, but it had the opposite effect. The memory of the tragic death of a young protester and the militarization of the city had made many people angry and not afraid. As I got closer to the demonstration, I saw Faruq Rafiq, a famous Kurdish intellectual talking to the people. My initial intention was not taking part in the demonstration, but when I saw how disorganized the place and the protest was, I couldn’t stop myself intervening and giving suggestions. It was about 17:00 and Faruq Rafiq wanted to dismiss the protesters. He said, “Go home now and we will come back here tomorrow to demand demilitarization of Sulaimani,”. I shouted from inside the people, let’s continue for another hour and then go home. There was one hour to the Evening Prayer and getting dark, and usually, Kurds go home when it gets dark, the call for Evening Prayer being the symbol for that. However, Faruq Rafiq rejected the suggestion and said he knew better how to do protests because he had written many books. I could not make a connection between authoring books and running protests. My worst fears came true and people did not go home. Some people shouted, “Let’s go to lqi chwar”. Lqi chwar means Branch Four which is the number of KDP’s branch in Sulaimani. I knew if the people moved there, the armed men I had seen would face them and a possible slaughter may take place. I went to the stairs which served as the stage and shouted, “please do not go, please stay here.” Many did not listen, several listened though.


The sincere youth there responded to my calls and we created a committee to supervise our activities at Sara. We collected some money and brought an amplifier. I began to speak to the young people who were trying to pass the security barrier to go to Saholaka where KDP’s branch was. Some of the youth came back to Sara after they saw us having an amplifier. A crowd of 200 people came back and surrounded the stage. At that moment, I had no clue that my sincere attempt to prevent another civilian and police clash was getting me involved in the futile Kurdish Spring.

I emphasized more than one time that we are not against anyone especially the security forces and that they are our brothers. I chanted ‘’Peshmerga bramann” which later became one of the most famous chants by the protesters. A number of other activists, mostly communists, joined us on the stage and supported our call not to leave Sara. The amplifier stopped working, and the continuous sound of firing bullets made the people angry. Those who were listening to us left Sara Square to join the demonstrations at Khanaqa, Saholaka and Mawlawi (three different streets in Sulaimani).

























However, a small number still stayed with us. The night had come so we arranged electricity and the amplifier began to work again. I began to call the demonstrators back. I wanted them to stay peaceful and not to face the security forces. I told them that our problem is not with the security forces, it is with the people who rule this country.

We decided to buy a tent and called it "Freedom Tent". The money for it was collected in moments.
A crowd of 300 people was there. These were people who were attacked and prevented by the security forces. Two people had died. The situation was very tense.

A young man made a nice call for prayer. We dedicated a part of the Sara Squre’s garden for prayer. 20 people attended the prayer, most didn't.

I joined the prayer, and the other friends were arranging some music to be played directly after the prayer for the larger crowd standing near the water pool.

We were in the second Rak'at of the prayer, when a tear gas from an unknown source was thrown in front of us. Some hurried to escape. I decided to stay, but it was a mistake. I couldn't breathe. I began to run away and saw the Imam still standing there. I still wander who that brave young Imam was. Some friends told me that he had fainted.

I couldn't see anything. Everyone was shouting and screaming. It was the first for me time to experience such a thing. Nobody knew that it was not police who had thrown the tear gas, so everyone was running away not to be arrested. Some friends and I went into a shop and began to pour water on our faces. My eyes and face were burning. I began to breathe normally but my lungs were aching. I later knew that water does not help at that situation.

I called some friends. They had run different directions.

We came together again. Peshmarga forces had come to the place. They suffered as we did from the tear gas. Apparently, a different security force had thrown the tear gas. Clelary, there was no harmony between the different security forces. They were not aware of each other’s plans. The Peshmerga asked to leave because the place was not secure. I told them to secure the place if it is not. They said that they don't have any orders to do so. They were respectful, but what they said was a sign that there was going to be another attack on us.

I spoke with my friends about the situation. Some wanted to delay the night stay at Sara Square and some wanted to continue. Finally, after much consultation, we decided to stay no matter what happened to us. We were going to rearrange the electricity and start our activities again. I wrote the names of the people who promised to stay. We had 30 people. I wrote each of their names and their telephone numbers and I gave each one a different task.

A friend went and bought sandwiches for the young people there. We shared some water with Peshmerga forces there who were hungry and had not received food. I asked my friends to give the Peshmarga some sandwiches, but the protesters refused. We were hungry ourselves.

A friend came and told me that more than 50 people from Sulaimani University will join us soon. They never did.

We put Kurdistan's flag at the center of Sara Square alongside the pictures of Rezhwan, Sardasht and Soran. Rezhwan was the young kid who had lost his life three days before. Sardash was a young journalist killed and abducted after writing an aricle critical of Barzani.

Someone from Asaysh  (Security) came and told us to leave the place. We refused again. He said that if we wanted to stay we had to get permission from the governor. We agreed. I spoke to two of the friends and told them to go and get the permission only to make a point. We were not going to leave even if they had not given the permission.

Suddenly, a large number of Peshmarga surrounded us. They were shouting and yelling. They were by hundreds. It was like they had come to fight an army. They brought three buses and wanted us to go there. I saw them coming to us. It was very easy to escape. I didn't run away because several of my friends were already in the bus. I couldn't betray them by leaving. I was the one who had started this so I joined them.

They collected our cell-phones. One of the Peshmergas was continuously cursing us.  Another one said that he hadn't been to his home and seen his wife for 9 days. He said that it was because of us.

They took us to Sulaimani Palace hotel. An ambulance was waiting there. Several masked people were standing there. The hotel is opposite to KDP’s branch. I could see KDP”s special forces all around the building. I thought we were being surrendered to the KDP forces. I preferred being with PUK Peshmerga rather than KDP’s forces. The fact that an ambulance was used as a vehicle for taking protesters to prison baffled me.

They put masks on our heads and throw us into the ambulance. A funny thing happened there. When I came out from the bus, I had the amplifier and one blanket that my brother had brought to me in the evening. One of the Peshmergas laughed and said sarcastically, “This one seems to be enjoying it a lot.” They took them away from me. Then they put a mask on my head and threw me away in athe ambulance which was already filled. I was last person so they closed the door after they forced me into the van. We couldn't see anything and we had fallen over each other. The masked men threatened anyone who touched his black cover or mask with torture.

The ambulance began to move.I thought of all possibilities. First, I thought we were heading to Qala Chwalan, where the headquarters of PUK’s intelligence service was.  Later I felt we were on Erbil's road. I thought were taken to Erbil, the stronghold of KDP. After about 20 minutes of driving, the ambulance went on a muddy road. Then it stopped. They took out from the ambulance. Two people two me by arms. It was a very difficult moment. I didn’t know where I was. The mask was still on our faces. I was waiting for the unknown. For one moment, when they took us out from the ambulance blindfolded, I thought we were going to be executed because it felt like taking someone to the execution stage. Quite surprisingly, despite that thought, I felt very calm, read my prayers and got ready for that possibility as well.

When they removed our masks, we were in a small room. Three people were there sitting silently. We were eleven people. Someone came into the room. He was not masked and he was the head of the people there. He was the only person from the forces who was not masked. He asked any masked person with gun to leave the room. He greeted us and said not to worry about anything.

I didn't expect that. I was relieved by what he said, but most of the friends were not.
They checked our bodies and took our identities and our belts. The problem was I still had the piece of paper where I had all the names and telephone numbers. If they had taken it, everyone including those who had run away would have been identified. I asked to go to the toilet before they searched me and threw the paper there. That was best I could do.

Whoever wanted to go to the restrooms had to wear the mask. The place was very sensitive, as it seemed. They allowed no one to look outside.

The unmasked man told us that we will be taken to another place and he promised us that no one will treat us with disrespect.

They put handcuffs on us and put masks on our face. We were taken to a car. It was not an ambulance, but I didn't know what it was.

After 10 minutes, the car stopped and they asked us to leave the car. Someone caught my right hand and my left hand was handcuffed to another protester. We were taken to a room, they asked us to face towards the wall and put our hands on the wall. We couldn't see anything.

After 10 minutes staying that way, they checked our bodies again and took us to a room. There, they removed the masks.  

 We remained that way for half an hour. Then they let us go to the restrooms. I prayed Evening prayer which I had not finished due to the tear gas. A group of masked men entered the room. They were calling us one by one by our names. They were calling the person and putting a mask on his face. The mask this time was different. I could see in front of me. They put me on a chair and started to ask me questions. They were general questions. They asked me to sign the paper which was supposed to be my answers. They didn't let me to open my face in order to see what was written.
I was in the room with 13 other young men. Oldest one was 33 years old and the youngest one was 15 years old. Three of them were married. Two of them had children. Only one of them was a student. None of them were government officers.

We begin to speak about everything. I asked them to take it easy and be sure that we will be released very soon. I told them that they had no reason to hold us there.

The room was very cold. We were shivering and we couldn't sit on the floor. There was no carpet in the room.

Some of our friends who were smoking asked for cigarettes and I asked for blankets. They brought us the blankets. We put some blankets on the floor and used some other to cover our bodies. It was very cold still, so cold that I could feel my friend near to me shivering.

Most of us didn't sleep that night, few did. It was very cold and I thought of all kinds of things. I felt partially responsible for the existence of that 15 year-old boy in the prison. He told me that he is working as a cleaner at a garage and his boss will expecl him if he didn’t go to work on time. I was very worried for him, and guilty as well.

We had a friend from Chamchamal, a town known for its tribal structure. He was funny as hell. We all joked until 3 in the morning. Then we everyone got silent, but not asleep. It was too cold to sleep. It was also raining outside and the window was open.

In the morning, they brought us tea and 20 boiled eggs. Only few of us wanted to eat it. It was not really boiled. The tea was not enough for everyone. Two friends and I drank from the same cup. I had never shared a glass or cup with anyone else before that. But it was prison and I had to adapt as I did not know when will be the release. My fear was that things had gone out of hand politically and a civil war had taken place because there were such rumors before our arrest.  

 The interrogation began at 10 am. This time the masked officer came to the room with his back facing us. He asked the same boring questions again and again. My funny friend from Chamchamal, Tahsin, was asleep. When he woke up and saw the masked officer, he asked, “Are you here to beat us?”.  The officer answered with a question: “Do you want to?” The crowd in the room said: no. no. Before the masked officer came; we decided that I will speak in the name of the room. I said to the officer with his back towards us: “If you have caught us for throwing stones, I assure you that none has done so! If it is for something else, please tell us what it is or let us go.” He said he was not allowed to share that with us.

They called us one by one to a room. This time they didn't put the notorious mask on our faces. It felt more normal. The person interrogating me was a law graduate. He seemed a decent civil servant different from the other scary guards. He began to ask me the routine questions and for the third or fourth time I gave him the same answers.

Then, another man who introduced himself as the chief police officer of Azmar Quarter in Sulaimani asked me, “Why don't you love your country? Why do you throw stones? These questions made me angry. I answered him with saying that I was there to prevent people from throwing stones and I told him that I was the most innocent person in Kurdistan and loved my country as much as him if not more. He said, "You are not and if I released everyone, I wouldn't be releasing you because you have caused all of this." I asked," caused all of what?" he raised his voice and said, "Don't argue, because I can put you in jail for three years." However, I explained to him that I was a journalist and couldn’t be threatened that way. This time, he chaned the tone and told me he would love to meet me at his office if I was helpful.

There was another young man in the room. He was looking at me angrily during my excahgne with the police chief. He was furious about what I had done. He was accusing me of being responsible for the death of the protesters. I told him that he shoudn’t speak to me as if he was speaking to Ali Hasan Majid. Majid was Saddam’s cousin and most brutal aid. He asked me, "What do you want from us?" I told him, "We don't want anything from you. We only ask for our freedom." He was surprised and asked, "What freedom? What else do you want more than what you have?" I said that I would love to explain to him the meaning of freedom, but he refused to answer. The law graduate weighed in and said that he knew that I was a good Facebook user. At that time, I didn’t know that a huge campaign had started on Facebook asking for my release. He asked me," Do you miss your girlfriends?" Of course I had no girlfriend let alone in girlfriends. I answered, "The only thing I miss right now is my final Fine Arts exam which was due Monday, 4 pm.” He nodded his head and said. "I don't envy your position." I answered, "I don't have anything to be ashamed of. I have shouted for freedom and nothing else, and that is not a shameful position to be in."

My interrogation lasted long. During that , they were bringing other young men and interrogating them as well. Most were trying to prove that they had nothing to do with the protests. I did not have the same luxury as I had confessed with no reservation that I was the one who arranged it.  The interrogation has turned into a political discussion. They asked me "If you want freedom, why don't you go to Kirkuk to ask for our freedom?" Those days, there was a dispue between Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga near Kirkuk, a province disputed between Kurdish and Iraqi governments. I answered, "I am not a member of an armed force, but If that is so, why don't your forces go to Kirkuk instead of Sulaimani?" He didn't say anything. Then he got angry and said, "I don't want to hear about your perception of freedom, because you say that you criticize a corrupt government but you study at a corrupt university?" I asked, "What is that corrupt university?" he answered, "Didn't you hear Faruq Rafiq saying that the American University was among the worst universities in the world?" I answered, "The fact that Faruq Rafiq has said it doesn't make it true. And there is no sign of corruption in my university, if there was, I would have published it in my blog." I am sure he didn't know what blog was. I was running a student blog which was very critical of the university but it was not the right venue to criticize my university.

The interrogation ended. I shook hands with them and left the room. I had stayed too long and that had gotten my friend worried. While I was in the interrogation room, many people came and left.  

I went back to the room.

The place was not for prisoners. They didn't have any plates. For lunch, they put rice in a pan and the soup in another pan. We mixed them and shared the food. I thought the food was delicious, but most of my friends didn’t agree.

My friends got some cigarettes and began to smoke. While I am not ok with smoking, I was not to be hard on them. They had become my friends after all. They had sacrificed their time, families and work for the cause I called for. I didn't tell them not to smoke and tried to calm down the ones who did not agree with seveal people smoking in a small room
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Suddenly, the door was opened and they called my name. My middle name is not very common name in Kurdish, so they pronounced it wrong every time. But I knew that it was me. Two friends had been called before me and they had met their families. I thought that my friends or family had come. But it was no so. A small van was waiting outside and they took me to a room written on it "Director". The director was not masked when he came out so he hurried back to his room and put his mask on. The fact that no one wanted to be seen meant the place was of high security importance.  I saw him. He was an old man with a black moustache and grey hair. A man entered the room, came back and told me, "Come with me." I didn't know where they were taking me but all signs told me that it was a release. I asked the man. "What about the gentlemen?". He asked, "which gentlemen?" I answered, "The ones inside the room with me." he said, "come with me." An old driver in uniform drove  the van towards Sulaimani.  After 5 minutes, the man was called and he ordered the driver to go back to the prison. They put me in jail again. I didn't know what was going on. The director told me that my issue was now dealt with by PUK political leadership. ! "Why?" I asked myself. My friends in the room were worried. They said that there was a plan to harm me. I assured them that they couldn't do anything to me. 

I asked my friends to give me their families' phone numbers. But there was no paper or pen.
I was called again by the little fat man supervising us since last night. Rekawt, a strong tall young man who was married in a very early age, stood up and said we don't have Dana Nawzar. He said to me, "they are going to do something to you." I assured him that they couldn't. One of my friends whispered to me his family's telephone number, of course I couldn’t memorize.

I was taken by the same men but with a different car.

On the way to Sulaimani, the man who was not willing to speak to me before began to speak in a friendly way showing his respect for me and my family. He began to say all nice things about me. He said that I will be given back all my things including my mobile and everything else, but they didn't.

I was taken to PUK's Political Bureau office, something I didn’t expect. Deputy to the Minister of Interior was waiting there. His name was Mamosta Jalal. His son was my student in an English course.

He shook his head and told me why did I protest while I had all those good friends. I didn’t get at that time.  I told him that I was tired telling people that I was there to prevent people from throwing stones. He called my friend Aryan. Aryan is from a well-known PUK family and a good friend of mine. Mr. Jalal told me that if I ever wanted to succeed in politics, I had to refrain from protests. He mentioned the names of each of the opposition leaders and said no one can destroy the rulers.  He also said that it was a shame for me to do something like that while I had all those good friends. He told me that he had gotten tens of phone calls from my friends who were from the ruling families.

He told me that if they caught me one more time, I will never be released. I knew that they had released me not for the sake of me, but because of my friends', families and coworkers' pressure on them.

Mr. Jalal told me that if I could guarantee that no violence will occur he will give me a tent and secure Sara for me, but I said that I have no guarantee.

He also said that Iran is playing a big role in all of these. There were, according to him, many people from Ital'at, Iran'n intelligence service, who had been in the demonstrations.

On our way out, I told Mr. Jalal that I wanted my friends to be released as well. He promised me that they will be released on the same day or the following day. I also told him that the room we stayed in was very cold, he ordered the officer from prison to provide them with what they needed.

I left with Aryan to the dorms.

Many of my students celebrated my release some congratulating me for being in prison for the sake of freedom and some congratulating me for my release.

Only when my friends began to talk that I understood how great they have acted during my absence. I released that I am blessed with having a group of friends that deserve all praise.

Pages on Facebook with more than 1000 fans were created overnight. Phones calls were made to the security offices in Sulaimani. Some of my friends had gone to every security station in Sulaimani searching for me. some university students had arranged a campaign threatening to arrange a demonstration in case I was not released. The university had contacted some people in the government as well. University professors, journalist friends and even people of opposite ideas had tried to bring me out of prison as soon as possible. Some Friends in the States had sent emails to KRG asking for my immediate release. And some students had distributed sweet upon my release.  

On February 24, 2011, I joined the demonstrations again which had gotten even bigger. They had renamed Sara Square to Freedom Square. I went on stage, raised my shoes and said “This is my answer to all rulers who want us silent, to all those so-called intellectuals who are all talk but no action. The only hope for this country is its youth. You are the future.” 





















The following day, we decided to hold the first Friday Prayer at the Sara Square to streghthen the image of the place as the only place for the demonstrations and a place for staying. The strategy proved successful. My only intention from the beginning was keeping protesters stick to a location and prevent random attacks on governmental buildings. The brave enlightened youth managed achieving that. Sara Freedom Square became the stronghold for the Sulaimani Spring for two months and except for minor incidents, we managed to prevent clashes between protesters and security forces saving lives and setting a civic tradition in protesting. 







    
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Pro-Egyptian revolution activity at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. February 12, 2017

A video of the February 17 events, Sulaimani, Kurdistan Region of Iraq

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The moments some activists and I were trying to convince people not to leave the sqaure 

My first speech on stage after being released from prison

Talking to the crowd prior to the Friday prayer which marked first major gathering at Freedom Square