Yassin's Writing

Open Letter to President Barzani


My name is Yassin Muhiddin Aref, and I am from Barzinji’s family. Last year (February 2008) I sent you a letter, along with a copy of my book Son of Mountains. I don’t need to tell you more about myself, and because I did not hear anything back from you I am sending you this open letter from my jail cell in the U.S.A. Hopefully it will find its way to you.

As you know, we Kurds have been struggling for centuries. Our main goal has been independence, and tens of thousands of our youth have sacrificed their lives and millions of others have died or disappeared for the sake of our freedom. Their biggest hope was to see our flag raised and our state built, to have our own president, to wear our own clothing and speak our language, and to live free in our land with our own Bill of Rights, similar to that of any other nation in the world. But we have not been allowed to have these simple rights or to have these basic needs met! Throughout our history, especially in the twentieth century, we paid the highest price to bring our dreams to reality. No one can adequately explain what we have experienced.

You lived it all, saw it and suffered with and for the people. I know you don’t need someone like me to remind you what it was like. Thousands of your family and tribal members died. Your father and grandfather led revolts and wrote a huge chapter of Kurdish history. You are part of that, and you have reached some of what they struggled for. You raised our flag, opened the Kurdish Parliament, and declared to the world the existence of the Kurdish Regional Government, though the world still does not acknowledge us. We feel good and happy when we hear about the Kurdish president. Then we see that you are wearing Kurdish and peshmerga clothing––we see we are not dreaming anymore and that this is real. We understand that the peshmerga clothing also means that we still have a long way to go, and we hope you are ready to lead. You believe leadership means responsibility and service, not big castles and personal pleasures. That is why I am writing to you and opening my heart to you.

For us, the example of a leader is like a shepherd; his job is to protect and take care of his sheep––all of them, not just some of them. No one will accept a shepherd who loses sheep and doesn’t care about them. It’s a big responsibility in front of God, in front of history, and in front of the people. Let no one prevent you from direct contact with people, and do not limit yourself by dealing with or listening only to certain people. Make sure you really understand what the people need and what their concerns are. Remain as a peshmerga, serve people and protect them––never accept being a king, using people and humiliating them.

Our people, the Kurds, need special care; they are survivors of genocide, sickened by the poison gas dropped on them by the dictator. They experienced torture; they lived under the embargo; they lost their loved ones. Due to the constant turmoil, they had no chance to educate themselves. It’s time for them to have some peace, some respite, to feel that they are secure, to understand that they have their own president who cares about them and protects them and affirms their rights by the laws and the Constitution. It is a big opportunity for you as the first Kurdish president to write our history in a new way and to prove that leadership means service and giving, rather then taking. Then the people can finally let go of the image of the dictator who terrorized and tortured them for decades. Having suffered so long, it takes a long time to recover as well.

You saw with your own eyes two examples of this, and it’s clear which of them was successful and won the hearts and the love of the people. The first example was Saddam, who forgot the people, left them in poverty, and built many castles for himself, even naming some of them “Firdaws” for the highest garden in Paradise. He killed millions of his people, torturing, terrorizing, and humiliating them for decades. And what did he gain from it in the end? You saw him when they found him in a well and captured him. After almost thirty years in power, he didn’t even have three people with him to defend him or fight for him! His place in history will forever be with Pharaoh, Abu Jahl (the biggest enemy of the Prophet Mohammad), Milosevic, Stalin, and Hitler.

The second example was your father, Mala Mustafa Barzani, who built no castles. He was in the mountain caves struggling for freedom and Kurdish independence long before Saddam became president, but he did not terrorize the people; he forced no one to obey him or be humiliated by him. Instead he sacrificed his whole life for them. The castles he built for our country won the peoples’ hearts, and millions still love him. His place in history will forever be with Gandhi and Mandela. You are his son and we trust you.

In our culture, the president is a father, and a father in Kurdistan gives his food to his children even if he himself goes hungry; he sends his children to school while he goes to work; he takes off his coat to cover his children while he shivers; he stays awake all night to protect his children while they sleep. He devotes his entire life to them; he only has joy when they laugh; he only rests when he knows they are fine. But many leaders today live in castles while their people have no shelter. They serve their own desires and aren’t bothered with the suffering of the people. They send their own children to Paris and London while the people’s children are in the mountains with bombs falling.

Kurds do not need such leaders. Our revolution, suffering, and sacrifice were to bring about change––not the kind of change we often see in the Middle East, with one dictator replacing another, one army taking the place of another, one group overtaking another, without any real change in the lives of the people and their situation, seeing only more blood and poverty. No, we wanted real change!
- We wanted an end to torture and humiliation
- We wanted civilian law and a Constitution
- We wanted to be first-class citizens with equal rights
- We wanted to be independent and live free
- We wanted our dignity and honor back
- We wanted education and health care
- We wanted peace and security
- We wanted checks and balances on power
- We wanted a government that would protect the land and serve the people, not one that would destroy the country and kill its own citizens
-We want to bring to life the dream for which so many of us were murdered

But thousands like me don’t see these changes. We are still paying for being Kurds, and we are victimized because there is no one to ask why or say no! The FBI easily targeted me because I have no government to stand up for me. There is no ambassador asking why I am in jail. They were able to destroy my family because we have no citizenship. If I were from Europe or Canada, this never would have happened to me. And there are many other victims like me, calling, where is our leader? Where is our shepherd? Where is our father?

I know you are facing a lot of challenges and the situation is still very difficult in Iraq, and that there are millions of other needs to take care of. But a Kurdish father will not forget any of his children, and that is the responsibility I am talking about. The British are still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and facing many other challenges to keep their empire and protect their interests. Despite all of this, they made sure they got all of their citizens back from Guantanamo, including even those who were not citizens but only residents!

If you never heard about me and my case, that is a problem, and if you did hear about it and did nothing, that is even worse. Where are all your counselors and advisors? Don’t they listen to the news? Don’t they read the newspapers? Where is your representative in Washington? What is he doing? Whom does he represent? Did he ever send you a report about me? My name and picture have been in the international news since I was arrested in 2004, and they always said I was a Kurdish immigrant. Did you recognize your son? Or do Kurdish immigrants have no value for the new Kurdish government? Is it not the business of the Kurdish representative in America to ask questions and discover why the American government targeted a Kurdish man, or why they prosecuted him, or what happened to his family and his children?

It doesn’t matter who I am; it doesn’t matter how poor I am or how ignorant I may be. But it should matter that I am a Kurd and that I was accused for being “Kak.” Does this word mean nothing to the Kurdish representative in Washington? Why did he not come to see me and ask me what I did? Even if he came and told me he was happy about what happened to me, at least I could have said he came!

I am glad my case and my suffering let millions hear about the Kurds and allowed for thousands to become our friends and supporters. I am still a peshmerga, from my cell, using my weapon (my pen––which is more powerful than the sword because it is a recording device––still dangerous after all these years…) to defend my people, write about our culture, and educate people about our nation’s problems. There are many good people who love justice and believe in independence and who know that what happened to me is not fair. They have been supporting me and writing to me. They made a website for me to tell my story and to share the Kurdish experience. I am trying my best to teach them about Kurdish culture and history. Please check www.yassinaref.com to see for yourself.

But I believe it should not make any difference who I am––it should be enough for you that I am a Kurd and that you are the Kurdish president. I would still be your son even if I were a criminal. However, I assure you I am not a criminal, and all those who were in the courtroom knew I did nothing wrong. I was targeted unjustly and convicted unfairly, and I am in prison for no reason. But Your Honor, even if I had done something wrong, it would still be your duty and your representative’s duty to find out what I did and why, to inform me why you are not doing anything to help me, and why you are not doing anything for my wife and children, who have been left to suffer by themselves. They have no relatives in this country; there are not even any Kurds in the city where they live. My wife almost lost her mind from the stress and terror of what the government did, and my children are all under thirteen years old!

Look at France: after eight of its citizens were convicted in the African nation of Chad for kidnapping orphans in the name of adopting children of Darfur, the government took them back to France. The French ambassador was involved ever since the day they were arrested, and he followed the case through the whole process because the French respect their citizens. It’s the same with Bulgaria, which fought for eight years and spent millions to repatriate its citizens who were convicted in Libya.

Free nations and independent states always respect their citizens, and an elected president will protect his people and care about them. If we do not worry about our own citizens, who will? This is part of what sovereignty is all about for any nation or country! Our history of struggle is lost and the blood of our people was spilled in vain if:
1) the Kurdish Government does not protect all of its citizens and doesn’t care about them
2) our leaders do not look at the people as their children
3) our Constitution does not protect human dignity and affirm our rights
4) there is any difference in citizens’ status based on who their family or tribe is, what village or province they come from, what political party they belong to, or their social or economic standing
5) there are any secret prisons or torture in the new Kurdistan, or if anyone is imprisoned without a court order
6) people are afraid to speak freely and are not allowed to criticize government leaders, including Your Honor
7) children are not provided opportunities to get an education or to get medical care
8) the government does not find a solution for the tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees who fled from the dictator and poverty to Europe and neighboring countries, but who never received any legal status in any country
9) the government does not do everything it can to repatriate its citizens who are imprisoned in foreign countries
10) the government does not hold free and fair elections, where any citizen can be nominated and can vote

I believe that as the first Kurdish president, you have the opportunity to prove to all the other nations of the world that the Kurds are worthy to be a free nation and to live as a free nation, with the right to choose their own leaders. It’s time for you to end the rule of the gun and militia and the rule of a single party, and for one person to lead and let people enjoy freedom by protecting their rights with a Constitution. I guarantee you that when you do that and hold free elections, people will vote for you and choose you. It is time for us to prove to the world that our revolution was not for power and a new dictator. We were not looking for a “castle” or to build our “company.” We struggled for independence and fought for freedom and wanted to live in peace with security. You are the one who can prove this.

Our government should stand for justice everywhere and oppose genocide anywhere. It should refuse to accept the humiliation of anyone, refuse to accept any ethnic cleansing, should never allow torture, and must make science and education a high priority. This is what our revolution was for, what we sacrificed and suffered for, and this is what the Kurds want from you. May God bless you and protect you and help you bring our dreams to life.

With great respect,
Yassin Aref
October 15, 2008

April 16, 2009

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