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Iraqi Kurds
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Video: March of the Kurds
In some cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.
Photograph by Rebecca Hale

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On Assignment
Iraqi Kurds



    I did my first National Geographic story on the Kurds in 1991 after Saddam Hussein had spent the past couple decades waging a genocidal campaign on them. So it was quite moving to be able to return 14 years later to take an intimate look at what they've done with their autonomy. The Kurds have built a more pluralistic and democratic society, and the current president of Iraq is a Kurd. Women are also enjoying more freedoms, and the economy is growing. And while there are still problems such as suicide bombings, their region in the north is very secure compared with the rest of Iraq. I'm hopeful about the Kurds. They're at this incredible golden moment in their history, and they're seizing it.
    It was impossible for me to do any street work in Kirkuk, except in the Kurdish communities, and even then I generally had a police escort with me. Going into any Arab communities would have been a huge risk because this is a city where car bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations happen on a regular basis. This isn't being dramatic; it's being very real. I received death threats while photographing oil fields and a suicide bomber targeted my guide's family, killing three of his relatives a week after I left. So I had to organize my coverage carefully. For instance, I based myself in Suleimaniya, a Kurdish city about an hour and 15 minutes away from Kirkuk. Then I'd drive in with my guide for one-hour forays and get out.
    At this point, the security situation in Kirkuk has deteriorated nearly to the point of Baghdad, a place I quit working in after April 2004 when it became too dangerous.
    One of the issues I wanted to cover was the empowerment of women, so I photographed Parwen Babaker, the minister of industry in Iraqi Kurdistan's eastern sector. I spent a day on the job with her, visiting a cement factory where she listened to employees' concerns. Then later that night, after we'd separated, I got a call from Parwen on my cell phone. She wanted to know if I thought she'd done a good job. This would almost be the equivalent of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice or some other high-powered official calling and asking for my opinion. I thought it was very sweet and emblematic of the still developing nature of the Kurdish experiment.

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