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Rizgari: A Bubble of Unsafe safety within a 'Peaceful' Post-Saddam landscape

In contexts where conflict and armed violence have abated, but structural violence endures, where do we draw the finish line? Rizgari, an isolated village near the city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, is a village built especially for Gypsies of Dohuk and the surrounding area. It is also a case study for the pernicious effects of structural violence in a region considered to be at peace. Tucked away out of sight and mind of the population of Dohuk, it is both a visual and experiential representation of a hierarchy of citizenship in which tensions between Kurdish and Gypsy identity are imposed by those outside of the community rather than organically grown within it.

Ethnic cleansing and displacement

When Saddam Hussein launched his campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kurds in northern Iraq during the late 1980s, Gypsies residing in and around Dohuk fled to Turkey. During this period of displacement, they lost children and other family members to exposure, sickness, and drowning during river crossings. Women formed shelters from sticks, leaves, and items of clothing as they desperately sought to protect their children from rain, wind, and snow. Inexplicable, unrelenting, unimaginable hardship is the theme that defines conversations I had with Gypsies in Rizgari about their experiences during those times.

In 1991 Operation Provide Comfort was initiated to protect Iraqi Kurds, provide humanitarian aid, and push Saddam’s forces out of what would soon become the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI). Dohuk’s Gypsies returned to the KRI – first to Zakho, then to Dohuk, where they slept in make-shift shelters. Unexploded ordinance remained in areas that were being inhabited, and some of Rizgari’s Gypsies remember relatives who suffered life-changing injuries as a result of triggering mines. They subsequently moved to Aluka, an area on the outskirts of Dohuk, where they either continued to live in tents, or built homes from mud and other materials. Life was hard. From 2006 - 2007, the Governor of Dohuk along with relevant ministries planned the construction of a village for Dohuk’s Gypsy population. In 2008, Gypsies moved into their new homes. Rizgari (meaning “Freedom”) consists of 264 houses and is a twenty-to-thirty minute drive from Dohuk.

Kurdish yet always Gypsy

Without fail, every resident of Rizgari with whom I have spoken has expressed gratitude to the government for providing them with a home. Gypsies here identify strongly as Kurds; they identify as Kurdish before Gypsy and are fully invested in the ideal of Kurdish nationalism. As the community leader told me one day, ‘We are not from Iraq and we never want to be a part of Iraq. If I had to choose between prison and being from Iraq, I would choose prison. I would rather be a cleaner in Kurdistan than a Minister in Iraq… We have been through too much violence and too many difficult situations in [Iraqi] Kurdistan. Not only the Gypsy community, but all Kurds… if there were nothing to eat – even if it were the worst place in the world – I would stay here because it is my land, and my land is really special to me.’ After the unfathomable violence enacted against Kurds by Saddam and his forces, Gypsies I spoke to unanimously confirmed that there is now peace in the KRI – Iraqi Kurds are no longer in danger.

For Gypsies residing in Rizgari, Kurdishness is shared trauma, shared ideals, unity, brother- and sisterhood, and equality. Though ‘Kurd’ is what they overwhelmingly identify as, they are also very proud of their concurrent Gypsy culture and identity, perceiving it as something special which should be protected. For majority society in Dohuk and nearby towns however, underneath the Kurdish nationalist rhetoric, a very clear distinction is made between Gypsies and other Kurds. Negative stereotypes abound and are frequently espoused as fact. According to such stereotypes, all Gypsies in Iraqi Kurdistan beg because they choose to, not because financial desperation offers them little choice. Stereotypes have fused with mythologies and have produced discriminatory folklore which posits that Gypsies are biologically predisposed towards begging – they cannot, and ‘will never change’ despite the fact that (as the mytho-stereotypes say) they are all actually very wealthy. As one young Gypsy woman explained to me ‘no matter how good you are, or how bad you are, when you go outside [of Rizgari] they will just think you are bad because you are a Gypsy.’

In the fact, the very word ‘Gypsy’ has become so laden with negative connotation, that many residents of Rizgari prefer to be identified as ‘Hosta’ – a name which directly relates to the craftmanship they are renowned for, rather than the begging which ‘Gharraj’, the Kurdish word for Gypsy refers to. In contemporary Dohuk, being a Gypsy is equated to being morally defective in some way; to be uninterested in education, or “proper” work, to be comfortable inhabiting a certain ‘dirtyness’.

Rizgari as a hostile site of protection

Through interviews and everyday interactions in Dohuk I heard again and again that ‘Gypsies will never change’ – that they are incapable of encouraging their children to attend school; they do not take education seriously; they ‘choose’ menial jobs rather than well-paying respectable work; they are dirty; they are devious. It is ironic then, that the one thing which seemingly will never change, and which is a consistent and defining feature of life in Rizgari, is disproportionate structural violence.

The Gypsy population of Dohuk and the surrounding areas was moved into Rizgari fifteen years ago, in 2008. In all this time, the roads around the village have not been paved, meaning that when it rains they are muddy, and on dry windy days it is impossible to walk around without being entirely coated in a film of dust. There is no health clinic and transport into Dohuk (where the nearest quality public healthcare is located) is often prohibitively expensive. Likewise, only those children from Rizgari whose parents can afford transportation to the nearby towns of Faida or Domiz, are able to attend high school. The basic school in Rizgari finishes at 6th grade, while the teachers are unashamed of describing their contempt towards the children when I talk to them. They are “dirty”, the teachers tell me, referencing what they perceive as a cultural stain rather than physically dirty clothes – the students clothing always looks spotless when I see them walking to and from school in dry weather. When enquiring about why Rizgari has no purpose-built primary or secondary school, I am frequently told by people outside of the Gypsy community, including members of the local government, that not all neighbourhoods of Dohuk have their own high school. This might be true, but transport is much easier and much cheaper within the boundaries of the city, and other communities rarely experience such entrenched poverty as the Gypsy community.

The Gypsies of Rizgari have several priorities: paved streets so that it is easier to keep children and households clean; a purpose-built primary and secondary school (the primary school is a collection of small houses in which the storage room has been converted into a classroom, and there is no high school); a health clinic; more frequent garbage-collection; access to clean drinking water; and access to improved, sustainable employment opportunities. During election cycles, political candidates visit Rizgari, making promises before immediately breaking them. There are approximately 1,700 voting-age adults in Rizgari, with nearly as many children.

The government on the other hand, prioritises only the cessation of begging for Gypsies in Dohuk municipality. Several community members, particularly women, have explained to me that women only beg when they absolutely have to – when they have a young child for example, and no financial means of buying formula or diapers. They beg to supplement the incomes of their husbands, and only when necessary. One woman told me that Gypsies feel such a sense of shame when begging that they do it entirely out of necessity. It is when they are begging that they are confronted with the degree to which people stigmatise and ‘other’ them. As one Gypsy woman told me, ‘it breaks our hearts to hear people say these things about us… We are Kurdish just like them’.

And so Rizgari sits, thirty minutes from Dohuk - a bastion of isolation and limited opportunities. People in Dohuk often paint Gypsies in negative colours without ever acknowledging or analysing the peculiar degree of structural violence to which they are subjected. It permeates every aspect of their lives. But Rizgari does at least provide protection from the judgemental, ‘othering’ gaze of outsiders. Nobody else lives there aside from Hosta and Mukri (both Gypsy sub-clans). It is a bubble of unsafe safety within a “peaceful” post-Saddam landscape.

Written by Sarah Edgcumbe

Image by Sarah Edgcumbe


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