Saturday, 3 September 2011

Tales of Kurdish refuge in the Lucky Country

IN JUNE last year, in the southern Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas, Saman Zaheri was in hiding. 

He was being hunted by the basij, an elite religious paramilitary unit directly answerable to Iran’s Supreme Leader. He and two friends had been asked to distribute pamphlets a month previously in the city of Kermanshah, calling for a demonstration to protest the execution of five Kurdish activists who had been charged with guerilla activities.

One of the trio was arrested by the basij. Probably under torture, he supplied the names of his two fellow conspirators.

Mr Zaheri was tipped off by his father that the basij were aware of his identity and he quickly went underground.

The second friend was later arrested. He has not been seen or heard from since.

Mr Zaheri arrived in Bandar Abbas and managed to track down some people smugglers who were selling unmolested passage out of the country. A payment was organised and after some time he was put on a boat with a few others and, via a small island in the Persian Gulf, shipped quietly across the water to the United Arab Emirates.

Back then he imagined establishing a new life in the United Kingdom. But the people smugglers didn’t take destination requests.

Mr Zaheri now lives in Launceston, where he works at the PizzaKom takeaway on Charles Street, under the benevolent ownership of Mevlut Kilinc, who is originally from Turkey. Mr Zaheri and Mr Kilinc, 41, share the same language and ethnicity — they are Kurds.

The Kurdish people, infamously stateless, are spread across a region encompassing parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They have faced many years of discrimination, cultural repression and forced assimilation as minorities in those four countries.

Mr Kilinc arrived in Sydney in 1992, after refusing to serve in the Turkish armed forces, which is compulsory. The Turkish government was at the time engaged in a bloody and protracted struggle with
armed Kurdish insurgents and had just violently put down a peaceful celebration of the Kurdish New Year, killing at least 91 demonstrators.

‘‘I didn’t want to go because . . . the state, imposing on you, to go to military service, to try to kill your own people — that didn’t make sense to me,’’ Mr Kilinc explains. In 2000, the Turkish government cancelled his citizenship in light of his objection. He now holds only an Australian passport.

Mr Zaheri didn’t see that he had a choice in leaving Iran, fearing that his arrest could mean torture, forced confessions with a fudged trial, public humiliation, beatings, rape and even death. All of which are well documented phenomena inside Iran’s labyrinthine security infrastructure.

After receiving a new, falsified passport from the smugglers in Dubai (his own had expired), he was put on a plane to Indonesia. He spent only one day there, for which he considers himself supremely lucky. Some asylum hopefuls spend months, even years, in that country attempting to arrange passage Down Under.

In the pouring rain he and the others were taken off a beach on dinghies and onto a larger boat anchored offshore. They set sail in the continuing downpour, with no shelter, while the smugglers kept dry under their own, refusing to share with their human cargo.

On the second night, in tempestuous seas, the ship’s helm disconnected from the rudder and the captain lost all control of steering. The ship simply drifted from side to side on the enormous waves, Mr Zaheri and the others feared it would capsize at any moment.

They eventually fashioned a system of controlling the rudder manually, before the pump which flushed water out of the boat failed. The refugees had to try and bail the water using buckets.

The next day, the weather calmed. Then the drinking water ran out.

On the third day both engines failed and the tide was carrying the boat into the Indian Ocean.

Mr Zaheri recalls with fondness a fellow traveller, a Pakistani mechanic, who fixed both engines without any proper tools or assistance.

On the same day Mr Zaheri thought he could distinguish a hazy shape on the horizon and checked with other passengers that he was not just delirious. He wasn’t, and some time later an Australian Customs vessel pulled up a few hundred metres away, and observed their leaky vessel without making communication.

Women and children cried with visceral relief and the men stopped bailing water from the boat and celebrated. The passengers were wild with joy — an Australian vessel had come to scoop them from the merciless sea.

The ship then promptly turned its rear to them and motored off.

That night, they made it to Christmas Island. Two Navy ships boxed the boat in and the passengers were fed and watered. 

Mr Zaheri spent the next nine months on Christmas Island while his application was processed.

After he was found to be a legitimate refugee, he was handed a piece of paper. His Kurdish interpreter told him it was a ticket to Tasmania, a beautiful place with clean air.

So far, he likes it.

Kurds are still a long way off the levels of self- determination they would like to see for themselves, except in Iraq, where an autonomous and democratic Kurdistan was established after the American invasion in 2003.

Statehood is an issue which the Middle Eastern autocracies will not humour, yet Mr Kilinc describes it as a ‘‘utopia’’ in the collective Kurdish imagination. He says that, however ‘‘from the pragmatic perspective, that probably won’t be achievable’’.

In Turkey’s June elections, the Kurds rallied behind the Peace and Democracy Party, who gained an extra 16 seats in the Turkish parliament — ‘‘a victory for the Kurdish people’’ reckons Mr Kilinc.

Mr Zaheri describes the Kurdish people in Iran as ‘‘a herd surrounded by tigers’’. He wants full autonomy for the Kurdish region while remaining a part of Iran.

Mr Kilinc thinks that achieving equal cultural rights ‘‘would probably be the best form, in a way, of autonomy’’ for the Kurds of Turkey.

He continues to run his successful business and has just completed a course in international relations and history at the University of Tasmania and occasionally travels to Turkey to visit his relatives. Mr Zaheri regularly speaks on the phone to his family back in Iran, but only a tectonic shift in the political situation there could lead to a reunion, at least on home soil.

This article was originally published in the Sunday Examiner on July 24 2011

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