Inside the Daily Lives of Iraq’s Kurds

America’s most important ally in the battle against ISIS is closer than ever to fulfilling their hope of founding a new nation

A couple of men explore the ancient site of Khenis, which was built around 700 B.C. by the Assyrian king Sanharib. Francesco Lastrucci
“The Kurds have no friends but the mountains,” a Kurdish proverb holds. But the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan offer cooler temperatures and more rainfall than other parts of the region; the Kurds have traditionally raised sheep for meat and milk. Francesco Lastrucci
Akre has been climbing its mountainside since it was first settled near some mineral springs, around 700 B.C. Francesco Lastrucci
Kurdistan is not a state but a state of mind—an ethnic identity of uncertain origins, multiple dialects and diverse religious faiths, though predominantly Muslim. Iraq’s five million Kurds make up 16 percent of the population, the highest percentage of Kurds in any country. Francesco Lastrucci
Francesco Lastrucci
They also cultivate pomegranates, which they consider a symbol of the soil’s fertility and, now, a crop they might be able to grow for export. Francesco Lastrucci

During the first days of spring, Kurds celebrate Newroz, their traditional New Year. In Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, festivals draw crowds into the streets. Women wear beaded head scarves and long, sequined dresses, gold like the sun on the Kurdish flag. Men, some with guns tucked ceremoniously into wide gray belts, join hands and dance in loose circles. The pulse of Kurdish pop music mixes with chants of “Long Live Kurdistan.” At such times the flag-bedecked city seems close to what it dreams of becoming: the capital of a nation-state for the Kurdish people.

In the capital of Erbil, a Kurdish man’s turban signifies which clan he belongs to. Francesco Lastrucci
Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, has prospered in the last decade. The Kurdistan Regional Government had realized the need for rapid infrastructure upgrade and signed contracts with private sector companies. Francesco Lastrucci
The economy of Erbil boomed in the decade after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which made way for the construction of hotels, housing developments and new businesses. Francesco Lastrucci
Erbil’s main square lies in the shadow of the citadel. Francesco Lastrucci
The city’s main bazaar. The citadel rests on ground that bears signs of human activity going back some 8,000 years; it is believed to be the world’s oldest continuously occupied site. Francesco Lastrucci
The Qaysari bazaar closes down for the night in the city of Erbil. The bazaar is one of the largest covered markets in the Kurdish region and one of the oldest in the world. Francesco Lastrucci
Tea, dominoes and cigarettes are found in almost every tea place in Kurdistan. This specific tea café is in Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil with a predominately Assyrian Christian population. Francesco Lastrucci
A Kurdish-Iranian sells toys on the roadside in Iraqi Kurdistan. Today, Kurds inhabit adjacent parts of modern-day Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Francesco Lastrucci
In downtown Erbil, men sit and smoke shisha at one of the outdoor cafés in Shar Garden Square, recently constructed as part of the city’s redevelopment plan. Francesco Lastrucci
Erbil was conquered by Muslims in the seventh century A.D. but retained many of its Christian residents. Now, Christian refugees flock to Ankawa, just outside Erbil, home of the Cathedral of St. Joseph and Iraqi Kurdistan’s largest Christian community. Francesco Lastrucci
Listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, the Erbil Citadel rises about 80 feet above the city. Erbil is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. Francesco Lastrucci

Kurds, an ethnic minority established in the region for thousands of years, have large populations in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They share history and language but have never had a country of their own. That fact has shaped Kurdish identity for generations. Recently, though, Iraqi Kurds, who number about five million, seemed destined for independence. The Kurdistan Regional Government, known as the KRG, administers to a territory roughly the size of Switzerland and has its own military. A robust Kurdish-language media includes newspapers and TV networks. “The Kurds deserve a better future,” KRG foreign minister Falah Mustafa Bakir told me in December.

The Yazidis’ 6,000-year-old faith embraces the Koran, the Bible and beliefs alien to Islam and Christianity; outsiders often mistake the Yazidis’ primary divinity, a fallen angel sometimes called Shaytan, for Satan. That belief helped fuel the Islamic State attack on Iraqi Kurdistan’s Yazidis last August, which stranded 40,000 people and prompted U.S. air strikes. Many, including the young man above, sought refuge in the Yazidi holy place of Lalish. Francesco Lastrucci
A group of Yazidi refugees clean the holy land, Lalish. The Yazidi religion is older than Islam and Christianity, but combines parts of Abrahamic faiths and Zoroastrianism. Francesco Lastrucci
A Yazidi refugee child sits on a swing in Lalish, located in Iraq’s northern Kurdish mountains. Lalish is the Yazidi holy land, where they are expected to make a six-day pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. Francesco Lastrucci
The Yazidi holy place of Lalish. Francesco Lastrucci

Iraqi Kurds have a long history of oppression—by the Ottomans, by the British. When Saddam Hussein was in power, Kurdish fighters, called peshmerga, launched insurgent attacks from the mountains. Saddam’s forces razed villages and imprisoned and tortured tens of thousands of Kurdish rebels and civilians. In 1988, he launched an infamous chemical weapons attack that killed thousands.

By 1991, a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone helped protect northern Iraq, and the Kurds began repairing their shattered society. A regional government took root; refugees returned; villages were rebuilt. The biggest shift came after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, which most Kurds call a “liberation.” Kurdish officials, pointing to vast reserves of untapped oil, courted foreign investors, and Erbil flourished, sprouting five-star hotels, sushi restaurants and new roads congested with white SUVs.

In Iraq, many Syrian refugee families live in the Akre settlement, a former prison built by Saddam Hussein to oppress the Kurds. It is known to locals as “The Castle” because of its shape. Francesco Lastrucci
Nesradin (left) and her family came to the Akre settlement as displaced people from Syria. She volunteers for the Italian NGO Un Ponte Per, which gives support to the refugees in the camp. Francesco Lastrucci
More than 240,000 Syrians have sought refuge in northern Iraq since the onset of the Syrian civil war. In the Akre settlement, there are about 1,400 refugees. Francesco Lastrucci

Then, last year, Iraqi Kurds found themselves at war, defending their homeland against the advancing forces of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Kurdish families sent sons and husbands to the front lines; businesses closed; investors withdrew. In August, U.S. air strikes helped shield Erbil from attack, but months later the city remained shaken. The fighting has underscored the Kurds’ sense of isolation; even the U.S., which supports Kurdish military efforts against ISIS, objects to Kurdish independence on the grounds that it would break up a unified Iraq. Meanwhile, a dispute with Baghdad over oil revenues left the region painfully short of cash, and when Masoud Barzani, the KRG president, stated the region’s intention to hold a referendum on independence from Iraq, relations with Baghdad were further strained. By winter’s end, Iraqi Kurds felt safer, but wary.

On the spring-green hills outside of Erbil this past March, families picnicked and flew kites in a quieter show of holiday spirit. But there was resolve, too. This year’s festival would be “commemorated in a different way,” said Kurdish politician Barham Salih. It would be a “Newroz of defiance.”

Four Years in the Mountains of Kurdistan: An Armenian Boy's Memoir of Survival

Armenian Aram Haigaz was only 15 when he lost his father, brothers, many relatives and neighbors, all killed or dead of starvation when enemy soldiers surrounded their village. Aram spent four long years living as a slave, servant and shepherd among Kurdish tribes, slowly gaining his captors’ trust. He grew from a boy to a man in these years and his narrative offers readers a remarkable coming of age story as well as a valuable eyewitness to history.