I was strolling in a pomegranate orchard in Byara, a small town in Iraqi Kurdistan, when I met Muhammad. After a small talk, he invited me to his home and told me the story of his life.
Muhammad and his wife are refugees from Hawraman-Takht, a Kurdish village in Iranian Kurdistan. They fled by crossing the mountains to Iraq in 1979 after Muhammad joined a Kurdish rebellion, which was defeated by the Iranian government. Later, they were forced to live in a detention camp when the Ba’athist government conducted ethnic cleansing against the Kurds in Iraq under the Al-Anfal campaign. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Muhammad decided to return to Byara, as it is the closest place to his home village, just a few kilometers away on the other side of the mountains. Byara and Hawraman-Takht are part of Hawraman Valley, an ancient Kurdish-inhabited region, which was split into two parts when the Iraq-Iran borders were established.
Muhammad is one of millions of the Kurds in Kurdistan, a geo-cultural historical region that encompasses Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, that share a similar fate. During my first trip to Iranian Kurdistan in 2018, the region seems like a faraway land with beautiful nature, unique architecture, hospitable people and ancient culture. But behind the serene landscape and smiley faces that I met on several trips afterwards, I found untold stories of loss, grief, sufferings, violent oppression and suppression by local governments, which prompt the Kurds to fight back and struggle for their rights and autonomy. Despite repeated losses and sufferings, the Kurds still show resilience and carry on their lives with hopes. They form the Kurdish solidarity and stand up for each other, feeling proud of their Kurdish identity.
“I wish I could go back home one day”, Muhammad said to me before I left. “But I can’t because I will get arrested. Every morning, I still look to the other side of the mountains. That’s where my home is.”