Hawraman: A cross border region in full mutation

This mountainous region enjoys a rich heritage although its recent history is shrouded with tragedies. Recently, it has enjoyed a second wind thanks to the development of tourism as Hawaramis managed to put forth their heritage. But will this new start manage to close the wounds of the past?

After an hour and a half’s drive from Suleymaniye, we finally arrived in the Hawraman mountains. The road, good and straight until then, suddenly becomes winding. The bends increase so does the altitude. The roadsides bristle with restaurants. Some emphasize the unique mountain panorama from their terraces. Others focus on the supposedly exceptional quality of the region’s meats. All target the same audience: tourists. It is true that the Hawraman region, perched in the mountains that enclose the Sharezur plain, has a lot of assets to please its visitors. 

Situated in the Zagros mountain range, the region is known throughout Kurdistan and beyond for its typical villages, its stone houses built into the mountainside, its shepherds in their traditional coats. While all the region’s inhabitants speak Sorani today, you can still hear Hawrami in the alleys of the villages Tawila or Byara. Once a refined literary language, it is now endangered, though cherished as a dying witness to an illustrious past. Almost everything here exacerbates the imagination of an observant in search of Kurdish authenticity. 

Yet the Hawraman region is cut in two by the Iran-Iraq border. Its most remarkable sites are to be found on the other side. As visitors arrive on the road to Halabja, watchtowers are already visible on the mountain crests. These are the Iranian border guards, the notorious pasdarans who, it is said here, occasionally fire on the kolbers, the Kurdish smugglers. Today, Hawraman is an Iranian region, a small part of which, by a quirk of history, has become Iraqi. So much the better, some would say, as it allows Iraqi visitors, Kurds and Arabs alike, to explore the region while remaining “in their country”. 

And the region has no shortage of visitors. Tourist stores are everywhere. In the central square of the village of Byara, just a couple of hundred meters from Iran, stores for tourists rival the traditional cafés lining the Sufi madrasah. You’ll find a variety of charms and souvenirs of varying quality. Some of the poor-quality trinkets come from China, others from neighboring Iran. You’ll find everything from “local” wooden pipes and scarves with “traditional” motifs to plastic gadgets for children and shepherd’s coats for all ages. 

Further afield, the village of Tawila also displays the symptoms of a constant influx of visitors. A hotel dominates the small central square. Up the small wooded road that winds along the river, you come to the guesthouses, scattered as far as the border, where small chalets offer a breathtaking view of the Iranian watchtowers, just a hundred meters away. Below, steep stone-paved streets lead to the upper part of the village. This is where Karwan lives. 

His house is charming in many ways. The rooms are cramped and the ceilings low. Karwan’s raven-black hair and mustache are typical examples of the elegant physical vanities that older men in the region indulge in. Being a native of Tawila, Karwan’s life is deeply enlaced with the Hawraman region. He told us more about it.

Born in the 1950s, he has been part of all the conflicts that tore Iraqi Kurdistan apart, starting with the first war of autonomy in the 1960s, where his family and himself saw their home destroyed. Later enlisted as a peshmerga in the ranks of the PDK, Karwan fought against Saddam Hussein’s troops in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. But the retired peshmerga points out with a touch of pride that he was never captured, unlike his brother. 

As Tawila was on the border, it was evacuated throughout the war. Karwan found refuge in Suleymaniye until the “Uprising” and the departure of the Iraqi troops in 1991. Upon returning to Tawila, Karwan found that his house had been destroyed, once again. But the departure of Saddam Hussein’s army and the end of the Gulf War did not mean that peace would endure. In the early 1990s, skirmishes broke out between rival Kurdish armed groups. The armed conflict between the KDP and the PUK was further complicated by other smaller players. These included the Kurdistan Islamic Movement, a radical Islamic organization that took control of Tawila in 1993, only to be driven out a few years later. However, the peace agreement signed between the KDP and the PUK in 1998 failed to bring peace to the region.

While the rest of Kurdistan licked its wounds and received aid from the international community, the Hawraman region followed a different path. Ansar al-Islam, a jihadist group expelled from Afghanistan in the wake of the US intervention, forcibly moved in with local Kurdish organizations in 2001. Ansar al-Islam controlled the nearby town of Khurmal, a key gateway to the Sharezur plain and Suleymaniye. Tawila, on the other hand, came under the control of the Kurdish Islamic Movement. These dark years left their mark on the region’s history. And although the control of a few villages and Halabja enabled Ansar al-Islam to proclaim a short-lived “emirate”, the memory of this period remains painful to evoke today. 

Tawila was cut off from the world, with all comings and goings severely restricted and monitored. Although the village was controlled by a local radical movement, it was impossible to avoid the Ansar al-Islam checkpoints in Khurmal. Cars were searched, passengers questioned. Would someone’s links with one of the two main Kurdish parties be discovered, it would mean an instant death. Karwan recalls the case of two people whose links with the PUK were discovered by the jihadists. Both were executed on the spot. Karwan, who had fought in the ranks of the PDK, never once went to Suleymaniye during the days of the “emirate” for fear of passing their infamous checkpoints. “The rich left and the poor stayed. It really was a terrible time,” recalls Karwan. 

It wasn’t until March 2003 that, with air support from the US army, PUK troops regained control of the region. The jihadists fled and their Kurdish accomplices were arrested. As early as 2005, the authorities of the newly-formed Kurdistan Regional Government financed the construction of a road between Tawila and the Ahmed Awa site. The region became accessible after decades of closure. The first Kurdish tourists, many of them city dwellers, made their appearance. 

However, the situation remained volatile and Iraq’s political instability did little to encourage international tourism. In 2009, the Iranian pasdaran arrested a group of three American tourists who had unwittingly crossed the border. With Kurdish tourists having great difficulty leaving the country’s borders because of their Iraqi passports, local tourism was nevertheless developing at a slow but inexorable pace.

The economy in Hawraman was at a standstill. For years, the region had been emptied of its vital forces, then the scene of deadly confrontations. Isolated from the rest of the world, the border villages could only survive under the thumb of radical groups. Tourism thus represented a godsend for a battered economy. But has the emergence and growth of Iraqi tourism really benefited the inhabitants of the villages concerned?

Without a shadow of a doubt, Karwan guarantees. “Of all the guesthouses and restaurants in Tawila, I don’t know of a single one owned by an outsider. The influx of tourists is viewed all the more sympathetically because, for the moment, it remains limited, and it would be an exaggeration to speak of a mass phenomenon. In a region where the economy remains fragile and where, as Karwan is keen to point out, the non-payment of civil servants’ salaries is a recurring problem. Tourism is helping to stabilize a still precarious situation. No doubt this explains why the locals, whose region was martyred not so long ago by Saddam’s troops, don’t see the arrival of Iraqi tourists as a bad omen. 

Although tourism remains limited and brings joy to the people of Tawila, it’s impossible not to notice its impact on the region. Firstly, through the construction of houses and hotels in relatively unspoilt or exposed locations, sometimes right up to the Iranian border. But above all, it’s the poor management of tourist-generated waste that’s the real issue. The river that flows through Tawila carries a great deal of plastic waste. In Byara, too, the surrounding forests are littered with garbage. At Ahmed Awa, the region’s most visited site, garbage is omnipresent. The problem of waste management is a wider one, affecting every resort in Kurdistan, from picnic spots to high mountain resorts. 

The growing number of visitors to the Hawraman region is part of a wider trend towards local tourism in Iraqi Kurdistan. Hawraman’s situation is by no means exceptional, and the sites of Amedî and the village of Akre, in the north of the country, attract at least as many Iraqi visitors every year. The Hawraman region differs from other Kurdish tourist sites in that, just twenty years ago, it was considered one of the most dangerous and backward regions of Iraqi Kurdistan. Paradoxically, the region owes part of its charm to the isolation it enjoys as a result of its turbulent history. 

Alongside this relative boom in tourism, the smuggling of goods with Iran, Hawraman’s traditional lucrative business, has recently been severely curtailed. The opening of a new border crossing in 2023 has been viewed very negatively by the local population. The increase in the number of Iraqi (federal) border guards has made it more difficult for smugglers to operate in areas where, until recently, the peshmerga had turned a blind eye on their illegal activities.

The young people who used to help the kolbers cross the border now find themselves destitute. Karwan tells us of staggering sums of up to $20,000 a month that smugglers would make, but we are unable to verify his figures. The increased number of “federal forces” is not the only cause of this drop in activity. According to Karwan, smuggling has always fluctuated with the ups and downs of the market and commodity prices on both sides of the border. Six months ago, meat was much cheaper in Iran,” he explained, “but today, its price has seriously increased there, which is why the kolbers have stopped importing it.”

The few international travel options that the Iraqi passport offers means that the flow of Kurdish visitors will not dry up quickly. But will the persistence of tourism on a limited scale make up for the loss of income caused by the fall in smuggling? Clearly not, as the chronic instability of this border region means that it is currently impossible to attract visitors from other countries en masse. Once again in its history, the Hawraman region finds itself trapped by its thankless geography. But perhaps it is this very geography that will spare this exceptional mountain region the stigma of mass tourism.

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