My first encounter with Kurdistan actually took place in Northern Ireland, where in early 1990 I met a British artist and his Kurdish wife. Several times over the next year I stayed in their east London flat, spending many late nights discussing the Kurdish people, their ancient culture and their contemporary fight for survival. I learned about the atrocities committed against the Kurds, most of which never made it into the Western press, and I came to respect the Kurds' uncompromising political will. Before ever setting foot in Kurdistan, I became obsessed with the Kurds, their tragic plight and their futile attempts to secure a homeland.
The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation, numbering over twenty million people with a common language and culture. At home in San Francisco, I immersed myself in the subject, and found that Kurdish history came to a virtual standstill after World War I, when the region known as Kurdistan was divided between five newly formed nations: Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and the former Soviet Republic of Armenia. This cynical twist of geo-politics obliterated thousands of years of Kurdish claims to the region, and set in motion decades of oppression. But nothing could have prepared the Kurds for the ruthless chemical warfare waged against them by Saddam Hussein, whose troops levelled more than 4,000 Iraqi Kurdish villages over the last two decades.
Towards the end of 1990 I started to plan my first trip to Kurdistan, which would begin in the ancient city of Diyarbakir, Turkey. But by then Saddam had occupied Kuwait and the U.S. army was poised to erupt into Operation Desert Storm. What began for me as a personal project to document a story that warranted greater media attention, seemed imperiled to become a sidebar to the bigger story of the Gulf War. I never expected the Kurds to dominate front page headlines for the coming months.
The ground war ended by late February, 1991 and Operation Provide Comfort was set up to rescue nearly a million Iraqi Kurdish refugees who were left stranded in the mountains between Iraq and Turkey. On a whim, and with the help of an editor friend, I dashed off a letter to Tom Kennedy, the Director of Photography at National Geographic magazine, suggesting that the Geographic underwrite my efforts to document the life and struggle of the Kurds. We had never worked together, but with a great leap of faith he stood behind me and assigned Christopher Hitchens, the widely acclaimed political writer and columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation, to the story.
By late April, 1991 I was off to Diyarbakir, but the scope of the story had expanded way beyond Turkey. I now had the means to cover six countries over a gruelling six month shooting schedule. In addition to the ancient alleyways of Diyarbakir, I scoured the refugee camps in Turkey and Iran, and I witnessed first hand the landscape of destruction left behind by Saddam Hussein. In Lebanon's infamous Bekaa Valley I visited the training camp for the PKK, an armed Kurdish separatist movement fighting in south-eastern Turkey, and I managed to slither in and out of Iran despite the ever watchful eyes of the secret police. I froze through a fierce winter with both young Kurdish gangs in the streets of Berlin and courageous refugees living without heat or electricity in the rubble in northern Iraq.
On Christmas Day, 1991, I returned to Washington, D.C. from the last of three trips, having shot over 1,100 rolls of film. With my photo editor Susan Welchman's tireless and keen eye, we managed to edit over 40,000 images down to the 24 that eventually became the cover story of the August, 1992 issue. With the publication of this book, a long awaited dream has come true for me. I hope that anyone who sees this book will gain a better understanding of the nature and extent of the Kurdish struggle.
As I write this, the Kurdish situation remains dire at best: In Turkey, the government's denial of past injustices and its continued repression constitute a state of siege in the Kurdish region. This, combined with the armed movement of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has resulted in over 14,000 deaths since 1984. In the past two years alone, more than 16 journalists have been killed in the area.
In Iraq, for the first time in modern history the Kurds are in charge of a sovereign state, but tens of thousands of Iraqi troops amassed along the border of autonomous Kurdistan threaten this foundling nation's security. In the meantime, the Kurds struggle to endure the food and fuel embargo imposed by Baghdad, and Saddam's agents continue to terrorize U.N. relief workers and destroy supply vehicles bound for autonomous Kurdistan.
Although little is ever heard about the plight of the Kurds in Iran, their oppression continues, and in Berlin in 1993, three of the most powerful Iranian Kurdish leaders were gunned down in a restaurant during a meeting. In Syria, under the heavy-handed rule of Hafez al Assad, the Kurds are effectively muted by their small numbers and their inability to organize a strong opposition.
For a brief moment after the Gulf War the Kurdish story commanded world attention, but has since been relegated to the back page. In an age of disposable news, the Kurds are in danger of being marginalized and quickly forgotten, even though their suffering continues with no end in sight. From the genocidal campaign in Iraq to the insidious oppression in Turkey, the Kurds fight daily to maintain their lives, their land and their language. For anyone who comes in contact with the Kurds and their courageous story, it's impossible to remain silent.
The culmination of this project has resulted in a book, When the Borders Bleed: The Struggle of the Kurds, published by Pantheon Books in November 1994. The book is comprised of one hundred of my photographs and is accompanied by a cogent introduction by Christopher Hitchens. His essay traces the little-known history of the Kurds - a narrative filled with oppression, exploitation, and betrayal - helping us understand the legacy that has given rise to the Kurds' desperate self-reliance that finds expression in the adage: "The Kurds have no friends- no friends but the mountains." This book is dedicated to the strength and dignity of the Kurdish people.