Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November 2014, 11:16 GMT

Shocking News on a Happy Day

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Publication Date 29 March 2010
Citation / Document Symbol SB No. 98
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Shocking News on a Happy Day, 29 March 2010, SB No. 98, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4bb4bdf41e.html [accessed 26 November 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

How a report of shootings cast a shadow over Kurdish New Year celebrations.

By an IWPR-trained reporter (SB No. 98, 29-Mar-10)

I felt the cool breezes of that beautiful, sunny morning brushing gently against my face. From the back of a pickup truck, I joined hordes of Syrian Kurdish families driving towards a small village not far from the northeastern Syrian town of Qamishli.

Women and children wore colourful, traditional dresses. Some waved Kurdish national flags. We were all longing to celebrate the festival that symbolises the coming of spring and the renewal of life.

On March 21 every year, like Iranians, Kurds celebrate Nowruz, which marks the start of the Persian New Year.

Typically, on this occasion, people set up tents in the country and spend the day dancing, singing, barbecuing and drinking tea.

But for Syrian Kurds, who constitute more than ten per cent of the population, the celebration of Nowruz has sometimes been marred by skirmishes between revellers and security forces. Police patrol the streets in Kurdish cities to confiscate flags and posters.

There was no reason for this year to be different. In the clear blue sky of that morning, there was no forewarning of what was to unfold.

I was enjoying the simple pleasure of lying on the grass surrounded by flowers and children running around happily.

Suddenly, a phone call from a friend jolted me back to reality. "They fired at the crowds," he said. I dropped the narghile (hubble bubble pipe) that I was about to smoke and fell into a state of meditation over the sad fate of my people.

I later heard reports that a young Kurdish man and a girl had been shot dead by police in the town of al-Raqqa. Dozens were said to have been injured.

Eyewitnesses said the incident started when local authorities ordered the organisers of Nowruz festivities there to remove Kurdish flags and posters of Kurdish leaders from the stage, according to local human rights groups.

Revellers, who considered the order a provocation, are said to have engaged in an argument and a stone fight with local Baath party officials. Anti-riot forces reportedly reacted quickly, firing live rounds and teargas at the crowd.

Muhammed Omar Haydar, 18, reportedly died from his wounds at a hospital in Aleppo. A girl was also said to have been killed but little is known about her because officials have imposed an information blackout about the incident.

Another young man, Mohammad Khali, is believed to have gone missing following the incident.

There was no official statement about the shooting. IWPR asked the Syrian embassy in London and the official news agency SANA in Damascus for comment but none was forthcoming.

New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian authorities to investigate the allegation that security forces fired into the crowd.

"Syrian officials need to find out why a New Year celebration turned into a tragedy," said Joe Stork, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "Those responsible for ordering forces to fire at the crowd with live ammunition should be brought to justice."

This year, there had been assurances from officials that Nowruz festivities would be tolerated in the Kurdish parts of the country. The alleged violent incident at Raqqa was an isolated one but it still shows a side of the cultural and political repression that Kurds suffer in Syria.

The Kurdish language is not recognised and is banned from being taught in schools. Many Kurds are denied Syrian nationality even if they were born and live in the country.

In recent months, several Kurdish intellectuals and political figures have been detained for pro-democracy activities.

Because of the repression associated with it, we have become wary of the Nowruz season, which is otherwise supposed to symbolise new beginnings and happiness.

In 2008, three young Kurds were shot by the police in Qamishli as they took part in the ancient tradition of dancing through fire at Nowruz.

In March 2004, several Kurds were killed in days of clashes with the police following an incident at a football stadium between Kurdish and Arab supporters.

It was also in March that the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1988 used chemical weapons to attack the Kurdish town of Halabja in Iraq, killing thousands of Kurds.

Later that month in Syria, on the day of Nowruz, a Syrian Kurd, Sulaiman Adi, was shot by the presidential guards after he and other Kurds staged a sit-in in front of the presidential palace.

Adi is regarded today as the "martyr of Nowruz".

Lying on the grass, I was too upset to join with my friends and family as they engaged in folk dancing. Most did not know about the alleged incident in Raqqa. The Kurdish organisers of the party thought it was better not to break the news for fear of provoking mass panic.

As the day of festivities ended in the village, I returned home dejected. It struck me that every time Syrian Kurds mark this renewal with joy and dance, they are faced with a tragedy.
Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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