21 September 2007

Another Growing Tragedy in Iraq

Kurdistan’s Fatal Flames
By Kevin Peraino

Why are a growing number of young women in this relatively safe corner of Iraq showing up in local hospitals, dying of suspicious burns?

Sept. 18, 2007 - The doctor knows, just from glancing at the burns, that someone is lying to him. Srood Tawfiq, a reconstructive surgeon at Sulaimaniya Hospital in Iraq's northern Kurdish region, buttons his white lab coat and steps into the burn unit. "Busy day yesterday," he says, pulling back a curtain to reveal a sleeping 16-year-old girl with kerosene burns over 90 percent of her body. The mother of the young woman, hovering over the hospital bed, tells Tawfiq that her daughter slipped and scalded herself while carrying a portable stove. The doctor listens sympathetically. But later, out of the woman's earshot, he explains that he doubts the mother's explanation. If it were really an accident, he whispers, "you don't get this degree of burn." Outside the hospital room he pulls off his hygienic mask and shakes his head. "We never tell them that they're going to die," he says quietly.

Kurdistan has long been considered the one consistently safe and relatively prosperous region of Iraq. So why, in increasing numbers, are the territory's young women showing up at local hospitals dying of suspicious burns? According to the Women's Union of Kurdistan, there were 95 such cases in the first six months of 2007, up 15 percent since last year. A December 2006 report from the Asuda women’s rights group in Sulaimaniya says that the "phenomenon is increasing at an alarming rate." Ninety-five percent of the victims are under 30, and roughly half are between 16 and 21. On the day before I stopped by the emergency hospital in Sulaimaniya, six young women were admitted with major burns, three of them telling suspicious stories. When I called Zryan Yones, the Kurdish health minister, he said that the trend among young women is more disturbing than a recent outbreak of cholera. He provided a startling statistic: since August 10, Kurdistan had had nine deaths from its cholera epidemic; in the same period, there were 25 young women dead of burns. "I have one young girl lying in our morgues every single day," he told me.

So what's going on? Most of the survivors tell doctors that the burns resulted from a "cooking accident." But surgeons told me they can tell that the vast majority are not telling the truth. Kerosene, the fuel used to cook here, is not particularly volatile; if a woman comes in with burns over the majority of her body, it is likely intentional. Women's rights advocates in Sulaimaniya believe that the majority of the burn cases are suicide attempts; the remainder are suspected to be honor killings or other murders disguised as accidents or suicide. ("Cooking accident" has long been a euphemism for dowry killing in India.) Doctors told me that it's virtually impossible to distinguish between murder and suicide based on the burns and the women's stories. Still, anecdotal evidence suggests that the trend may be aggravated by a copycat effect among Kurdistan's teenagers. One 20-year-old woman, Heshw Mohammad, who briefly considered burning herself after her father killed her boyfriend two years ago, told me that self-immolation has become a sort of fashion among teenage Kurdish women. "They imitate each other," she says.

What's the motive—and why fire? Doctors, rights advocates, and young women I spoke to described a collision of local tradition with modern technology and the fallout from the Iraq war. Death by immolation has a long history among ethnic Kurds. When someone is angry here, a popular interjection is "I'm going to burn myself!" Locals I talked to attributed the fire obsession to various local cultural sources. The Zoroastrian religion uses fire as a prominent symbol. The Kurdish new year, called "Nawroz," commemorates the day a folk hero named Kawa killed a tyrant named Zohak and then set a fire on a mountaintop to tell his followers; Kurds celebrate the day by burning tires and with other pyrotechnic displays. "Burning, traditionally, has been the way to die among the Kurdish people," says Yones, the health minister.

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