In this interview, Karzan Sherabayani, a Kurdish actor and filmmaker, says why he returned to the Kurdish region of Iraq to make his latest film and what he and other Iraqi Kurds think about the recent forced deportations to Iraq.
Tim: When you made Karzan’s Brothers – Escape from the Safe Haven in the mid-1990s, what were your intentions?
Karzan: I wanted to show the tabloids and the right wing what it was to do the journey to the United Kingdom. Kurds aren’t coming here because they are bogus or because they have economic problems. It is simply because there is no life there and because their lives are in danger. And if they stay they will be killed. In the film, I am saying ‘Never mind how much we integrate, never mind how much we are welcomed, we will still remain and feel refugees. Even if the day comes when we hold a British passport, we will still feel and remain refugees.’ Why? Because we have our own home, the place where the history of our childhood is, the place where the graves of our ancestors are, and the land, our friends and our family. Therefore, if we had a country, I am 100 per cent sure that 95 per cent of the Kurdish refugees wouldn’t stay here. And in the film I was saying to the British government and to the United Nations and everybody else ‘If you are serious about us not coming to this country, arresting and putting people in detention is not the solution. Stop supporting dictators around the world. Stop exploiting the Third World countries. Stop the hypocrisy, the double-faced policies, the double standards, because that might give a chance to the people of a land like Kurdistan to create their own country.’
Tim: I understand that you visited Iraq in 2005. What were your initial reactions?
Karzan: I went back in January 2005 to make my latest film, Return to Kirkuk, which is about me returning after twenty-five years and about the possibility of the city of Kirkuk returning to the Kurds. I obviously immensely enjoyed the overthrowing of Saddam Hussein. I really can’t hide this feeling. And fortunately, I would say probably the Americans and the British willingly or unwillingly got that one right.
With the war itself, whether it was right or wrong to bring down Saddam Hussein, the great difficulty was with George Bush leading this campaign. But I really didn’t like the anti-war campaign taking a stand, almost backing Saddam Hussein, in favour of going against George Bush. I thought that it was wrong for many people I esteem and admire to talk about the war being wrong without ever mentioning the brutality of Saddam Hussein. They were very unbalanced, basically, and I thought that was unfair, especially for us people who suffered so much under Saddam.
Anyway, I couldn’t really make up my mind, so this is why I decided to make a film. I needed to go there and see for myself what was going on. The joy was immense for me to be able to go home to Kirkuk, to feel free. My initial reaction was absolutely fantastic because people have the freedom to vote, to go to the polling station and vote for whoever they want. That was the first ever democratic election in Iraq in January.
Now, at the same time, I found my city Kirkuk – one of the richest oil cities in the world – disastrously changed into a ghost town. The infrastructure was destroyed, it was like a rubbish bin, a dump. We all know that at the time of Saddam Hussein, there was absolutely no safety or guarantee for anyone, even if you were his own son. But we knew who was the enemy, the enemy was there and it was obvious. Now, I’ve found out that this so-called new freedom has brought with it lots of different tragic situations. For example, we didn’t know of kidnapping children for ransom, which has become a fashion. Roadside bombs, suicide bombers, this was something alien to my people, to my society. However, the most unpleasant situation of all was the conflict between different ethnic groups.
In my film, what I really wanted to question was the new united, democratic, federal Iraq. And I started to look into this issue and to analyse ‘united’, and I found that they are absolutely not united, with all the evidence I have in my film. The animosity between the Shiites, the Kurds and the Sunnis is enormous. And ‘democratic’: democracy is a long journey based on a concrete education in a safe environment. Well, the environment is not safe and democracy cannot come from one day to the next, and especially where the Americans are forced to actually give jobs back to people who worked for Saddam Hussein. Therefore, I would say there is a weak democracy which is holding out there at the moment, and it might not survive for too long. ‘Federalism’, where the Shiites want sharia and the law of Islam, where the Sunnis want someone like Saddam Hussein back, and the Kurds want their own independent state? To bring these three peoples together in a federal country, you really need to have an agreement. So if united it is not, democratic it is not, federalist it is not, then what is this?
Tim: In November 2005, fifteen Iraqi Kurds were forcibly deported from the United Kingdom. What do you think about this?
Karzan: I have lived in Europe for about twenty-five years, but for the first fifteen years, if not more, often I would have nightmares about my arrest by Saddam’s secret police. It was such a brutal experience. And that is what I felt when I heard about the arrest and deportation of these fifteen men by the British authorities. I just did not realise that it was not only Saddam’s secret police that would force their way into your house in the middle of the night to take people away. I just could not believe this could happen in England. It was absolutely extraordinary for me when I heard that these men had been deported, especially when I read the statement of one of them alleging that they were forced by six or seven immigration officers to sign a voluntary paper.
When I went back to Kirkuk in December 2005 to film the situation, I also asked people what they thought of the British forced deportations of Kurdish asylum seekers. I remember the reaction of one gentleman: he was absolutely shocked. He said ‘This can’t happen, we are actually allies with the British here, fighting terrorists. They would never do this to our Kurdish refugees.’ He thought it was a joke. Then I actually said ‘No, this is happening. About 5,000 or 7,000 Kurds are on the list of deportations, forced or unforced, voluntarily or involuntary. They have been refused their refugee status and they are living in limbo, and this is not for one month, not for one year, but for six years now’. And this man said ‘Look, could you please tell the British government not to do this because it is completely damaging our belief in you, and this destroys the dignity of our refugees in Britain. The day we have a free country, we will bring them home as dignified people.’
And on another occasion in Kirkuk I came across a childhood friend, Shamal, whom I hadn’t seen for twenty-five years. I asked him how he felt about now being free in free Kurdistan. He said ‘If you can help me, I will get out tomorrow with my family.’ I also found other people who were actually packing up. Despite knowing that the British government and other European countries have this brutal policy against refugees, still people want to come. It has become so dangerous over there that it is absolute rubbish to call it a safe zone or a safe environment.
One of my Kurdish friends, Sherzad, who is an actor and lives in London, is on the list of forced deportations. I think this is so outrageous. Sherzad can benefit this society so much, by bringing some colour to this part of the world from his own culture, which he has been doing until now. Despite being refused as a political refugee and despite being on the list of deportations, he has never stopped working and promoting the arts in Britain. I have a personal campaign for Sherzad, by sending hundreds of emails to family, friends, MPs and organisations, asking them to act on Sherzad’s behalf. This case is so clearly a genuine case. If we can’t win with Sherzad, we can’t win with the rest. Sherzad’s life is greatly in danger under forced deportation.
Tim: Is there anything you would like to say to the people who have implemented this policy of forced deportations?
Karzan: I would like to say to the British government, especially to the Labour party, particularly those who are making laws on immigration and forced deportation, please stop playing for the Right and be with the people. And please stop playing for the right-wing tabloids. That is not where your political party and your policies should be. You should stand by your principles and be the party of the people. Because this way, if they carry on with this disproportionate and inhumane policy against political refugees, they might as well call themselves the BNP.
I think the government is getting it wrong, terribly wrong. I don’t think this is the view of the actual British people. I don’t think the British people want these asylum seekers to be forcibly deported back to dangerous zones. The British government would do a very good job if they actually went and did a survey among the British people. They might be really surprised with the results.