The city of Kirkuk in the North of Iraq lays right at the border between the autonomous Kurdish region and federal Iraq; not only that, but the city also sits on the biggest oil reservoir of the country, and it is therefore at the centre of attention of other countries outside of Iraq, namely Iran and Turkey.
Following the independence referendum held in three governorates of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the Iraqi army backed by Iranian military forces and Shia militia have regained controlled of the city after driving Kurdish Peshmergas out of its perimeter in yet another confrontation over the so called disputed areas.
But how is it to live in Kirkuk?
When people step out of their houses in Kirkuk they tell their loved ones: “I hope to see you again” – there’s no guarantee they will make it back. I was born in Kirkuk, a city of northern Iraq where Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians and foreign workers used to live together.
Back in the day, Saddam Hussein initiated several campaigns to ‘Arabise’ Kirkuk, evicting Kurdish families and giving their homes over to families from the south of Iraq. But when the US-led invasion of 2003 reached my hometown, Kurdish forces worked to reverse this process. The city fell within the so-called disputed areas; responsibility for administration and security was shared between Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities.
The security situation has been bad since 2003, but it took a turn for the worst with the war against ISIS. The economy went down, there were less jobs, people only bought the bare necessities. Arabs are suspicious of the Turkmen and Peshmergas and the other way around.
Photographing Kirkuk is difficult for many reasons. Most of the time, officials don’t understand what I’m doing, or don’t trust that I am journalist. People don’t want to be photographed because of security reasons. I also fear for my personal safety: journalists are big targets for terrorists and militias. Every character in my photo stories has a different story, a different religion, a different language. They are all important to me. These people used to live together, marry each other.
Now, nobody trusts each other.
What I find the most interesting is that people don’t leave Kirkuk. I met a woman who told me she lost her only son in an explosion. She hopes for better times but still won’t leave. Through my photographs, I want to show the world how it is to live here. I try to see the beautiful side of Kirkuk and how strong its people are, how easily they can adapt. People have always found new way of living their lives, constantly aware of the war and that everything can change at any moment.