I write from Akrê, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. From here, among the Kurdish mountains in the north, to the marshes of the south, exists a country that will break your heart and destroy your patience. I reflect in the garden of a friend’s summer house—pitch black, candle flickering, entirely alone.
When I first moved to Erbil in 2021—in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region—to work as an English editor at a media outlet covering the wider region, I naively thought I would take the country in my stride. Instead, perhaps inevitably, I discovered the inherent conflict between objective reporting and truly getting to know a country. I had some knowledge, I thought, and could probably learn the rest. I was partially right. I was also very wrong.
Right. In the newsroom, in the early months, I was quickly put in my place for my ignorance by far smarter and ambitious young reporters. But in taxis and shared-cars and trains, from Baghdad to Basra and Anbar to Sulaymaniyah, I would discover more about the country than I had ever imagined possible; stories of hope and hopelessness, and pieces of history that would gradually combine to create the complex understanding I feel confident now to thoughtfully explain.
Very wrong. Rather than simply building a career, I have gently sought to build a life. My ability and emotional capability to continue covering the country has been challenged. And as I have been drawn in ever closer, the lines between observing and becoming intertwined have blurred and bled and hurt. The reason I am sitting beneath the trees so far from the distractions of Erbil or Baghdad—silent aside from the buzz of mosquitos and soothing chirps of crickets—is to make a decision to stop reporting on the country I have come to love.
"The lines between observing and becoming intertwined have blurred and bled and hurt."
The political chaos, nepotism, abuse of power and environmental crises in Iraq are hardly far from sight. While Iraq’s 2021 elections saw protest-based parties drawn from the 2019 Tishreen Movement secure some seats, there have been few other reasons to hope for better—for alternatives to the sectarian political system which is failing so many millions upon millions. Even among themselves, young activists are divided about whether to engage in a political system they see as so rotten and corrupt (Travers, 2022). Young activists in Ramadi working to promote peace in the area destroyed by the 2003 invasion, Al-Qaeda, sectarian war and ISIS, now say they face most push-back from local officials, and it is so demonstrative of the oppressive situation that I feel unable to go into more detail.
Mostly, I am angry that for so many, work does not pay here. Particularly for Iraq’s young people, however resilient they’ve proven themselves, and for the most vulnerable, in camps and even greater numbers in informal settlements, with educational opportunities cut short (Travers, 2023a). Well over a quarter of Iraq’s young people are unemployed, although around 900,000 children are in the labor market and at least three million are not in school, with the majority being girls (“900,000 Iraqi children,” 2023) (UNICEF, 2022). Two-thirds of the population are under the age of 25, trapped in a system of wasta (Arabic for nepotism), and held captive by power dynamics that undermine the entire country’s potential for progress. Simply put, the experiences of young Iraqis offer a clear and especially enraging lens through which to observe the broken structures of the country.
Exacerbating this bleak situation is a series of environmental disasters—both urgent and looming. A friend from Basra is uncertain if her family will be able to live in the city in ten years, which regularly exceeded 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) this summer, and hopes they can move to Erbil. If they can’t leave their home, she will (Travers, 2023b). Climate migration in Iraq is often first explored by the youngest, hungry for better, operating entirely logically. Others who have resettled in the Kurdistan Region without a stable job (of which there are few) pay bribes for their paperwork, or risk their residency on the whim of a racist or corrupt official (of whom there are plenty).
"Simply put, the experiences of young Iraqis offer a clear and especially enraging lens through which to observe the broken structures of the country."
A total absence of confidence in the state is justified for many reasons, not the least being that the government often fails to even mention climate migration in environmental reports, let alone plan for it. For those who need it, the rule of law is conditional. The falsely accused languish in prisons. I have seen renowned human rights lawyers collapse under the strain of need, injustice, and pain. Those with firsthand experience of the brutal failings of the state struggle with relationships, daily tasks, and panic attacks. Things seem meaningless, and in a way, they are.
The unfairness and abuse of power in Iraq creates a lack of control that seems to keep mental health problems hovering ominously, but just below the surface of societal conversation. I have gently suggested a therapist to close friends—some of whom grew up in the physical shadow of US military bases in the post-2003 years, or were forced to leave their homes again as ISIS waged a bloody war—only to have the conversation shut down and the topic politely avoided. The struggles facing so many millions of young Iraqis battling depression, anxiety, OCD, and chronic stress are met with a dire absence of support from the state, and too many young people grow up instead watching videos of lives they long to live.
Authorities are not unaware of the frustration. After the suppression of the 2019 and 2020 Tishreen protests, when thousands took to the streets and at least 600 people were killed, many young Iraqis fled to the Kurdistan Region for safety—by no means less repressive, but ruled by different kleptocratic Kurdish actors, and enabled by a benign (albeit self-interested) international community.
My years here have been the most formative of my mid-20s, and I’ve spent them between Erbil and Baghdad getting to know others in the same seasons. Many of us share like-minded views, humour, and aspirations. I see myself and my life in theirs when I look at them, and they have taught me how to be a better person. Yet, too many cannot easily escape their situations, and the pain of realizing the burden these friends carry has been too much to bear.
At the same time, it’s been a painful realization via the pitching desks of international media that the country has been losing relevance in the world’s eyes. It’s difficult to grapple with. What are the responsibilities of those who choose foreign intervention? As a former conflict-zone recovers into such an unfair state, who speaks up (al-Khatib & Travers, 2023)?
Perhaps this is why I have stayed—I hoped the answer to the latter question could be, “me.” Yet, of course, it can’t just be me. The challenges are too overwhelming, too constant, too heartbreaking. And in time, my curiosity, intense and boundless upon my arrival, has waned as I have become more established in communities within it. I no longer want to hear about relentless stories of abuse, corruption on an incomprehensible scale, and the humiliations felt by so many on a daily basis. I’m exhausted by the world's collective ignorance, and how regularly I have to spoon-feed the failings of an invasion to people back home in Europe. I want to protect the people I love here, even if that means curling inward toward them to focus on addressing their gut-wrenching problems rather than reporting on the broader patterns of abuse.
"If I've learned anything, really, it is how good people can be in the face of deep pain."
Is there a positive? In the two years I have been based in Iraq—reporting, researching, editing, and falling into an unexpected and beautiful relationship—I have grown in empathy and courage, directly as a result of the people I have come to know, and the way of life I have found. If I've learned anything, really, it is how good people can be in the face of deep pain. Those with the least have always been the most generous. And there are brave and brilliant people trying, where they can, to affect change and improve the situation.
Many of my own experiences have stung. But I can leave, and I am lucky.
In a few hours, the sun will rise and I will climb a mountain and cry hot tears of fury for the realities of so many people I have come to know and care for. My sense of faith in so many others—those in power, those with privilege, the international community—has shattered. I am angry, less trusting, and bitterly disappointed. I rage against the exploitation felt by all, and the arrogance among those abroad who seek to raise the drawbridge. In the flames of so many nightmarish stories—kidnappings, execution, torture, corruption, extortion—I have loved more than ever before, but something within me has been lost forever.