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Meet the Icelandic journalist who took iconic photo of Kurdish leader

By Rudaw 20/6/2017
Today’s referendum is a continuation of the efforts of Mustafa Barzani, says the Icelandic journalist who met the Kurdish leader in the mountains in the 1960’s.

Most Kurds are familiar with the photograph of Mustafa Barzani, father of current President Masoud Barzani, walking down a mountain path. Few, however, know Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson, the Icelandic professor and journalist who took the photograph. 

Rudaw’s Shaho Amin sat down with Dr. Haraldsson to hear about his visits with Barzani in the Kurdistan mountains and his thoughts on the future of Kurdistan. 

Rudaw: I would like to know about the beginning of your relationship with the Kurdish movement. How could you find Kurdish leaders, Kurdish Peshmerga while you were living in Iceland?

Dr. Haraldsson: Well, I didn’t really come to know them in Iceland. I came to know some Kurdish students when I was studying in Berlin in 1961-62. And I found them interesting and developed a liking for them and they told me about the Kurdish revolt in Iraq. So later when I was going to travel through the Middle East, I decided I wanted to go and meet these revolutionaries.  

When was the first time that you went to the mountains to meet Peshmerga?

Well, that was in 1962 when I went to Qasr-e Shirin [Iran]. Then we went secretly over the border into Iraq again and into the Kurdish area. And then we traveled mostly at night for some time until we came into the area that was ruled by the Peshmerga.

Where was that area?

That was, I think it was somewhere north of Halabja. I do not know really the full name but it was far south of Sulaimani. It was in the southern part that was controlled by the Peshmerga.

Who did you meet there?

There was one leader of the Peshmerga there, one Hilmi Ali Sharif. Hilmi Ali Sharif was his name.

I have an article here that was published in the Sunday Telegraph, the British newspaper. So you met Barzani there, in the same location?

No, that was further north. Then I made another trip to Kurdistan in September-October 1964. Then there was a cease fire, there was no fighting at that moment. Then I went again over there, close to the Iranian border but then the Kurds took me up to their area, even by car to Sulaimani and then further on to Ranya. And there I met the Mullah Mustafa.

You met Mullah Mustafa. This picture was taken by you and this is the most famous pictures of the Kurdish leader and many people do not know that it was taken by you. Tell me about the history of this picture. 

Well, Barzani, he invited me one day to come up to his living quarters in the mountains of Ranya. These were hidden, secret quarters because you never knew when there might be an air attack. So he lived there and he invited me up to his quarters and we had a dinner and a long discussion. This photograph was taken on the way down the following morning. This was about almost an hour’s walk from Ranya up through the mountains. There were also a number of Peshmerga with him who lived in the mountainous area.

What was your subject of discussion with Barzani?

Well I was keen to know about his view of – there were negotiations that were back there taking place and he didn’t expect much from that. He said they were sort of not really willing to do anything much for Kurds. But then, at this time he had organized a meeting in Qaladiza, a last meeting. We have a photograph of that. He is addressing the meeting – there is another photograph. And he had assembled Kurds from different parts of Kurdistan, Iraqi Kurdistan. Quite a number of people, I think there were a few hundred. But also a representative of the Peshmerga in different parts of Kurdistan.


How did you see the personality of Barzani?

He was a charismatic leader, very firm, but a likeable man. I liked him. I think he commanded much respect and they greatly admired him, I know this, the Peshmerga who was with him. He was also a very smart man. Like this assembly he had gathered there, that was in a way, a small kind of a referendum, like what Kurdistan is making now. 

At the time you had published an article, the report in the Sunday Telegraph. The heading is “Kurdish rebels set up their own state.” What was Barzani’s view regarding the future of Kurds at that time? Like, the state?

I think at that time, he wanted autonomy for Kurds but I’m not aware that he asked for an independent state. I think he might have thought that was something for the future, but what they needed was autonomy. 

What was his focus in regards to the Kurdish issue with the Iraqi government at that time? What was his view regarding the future of the revolution?

He wanted to go on fighting until they obtained autonomy and he was not optimistic about getting any agreement with Baghdad. There were, in between, some negotiations but they really didn’t lead to anything. At that time there were dictators ruling Iraq.  First it was Abdul Karim Qassim, then it came one Bakr, then the last one was Saddam Hussein. But then of course, by that time, Barzani was away and had passed away.

This is another picture which tells us like a combination of religions, the bishop, the Muslim imam, and Barzani are all gathered. Tell me about this picture. Where was this taken and what was the aim of having these different religions with Barzani?

This was taken in Ranya, possibly in Qaladiza, I’m not sure. And Barzani was very inclusive in his approach in Kurdistan. He wanted to unite the people so he thought it would also be important to invite the main religious figures in the country. So he did that. They were members of that last assembly in Qaladiza.


The pictures were taken with your camera? 


And was Barzani happy with the equipment you had?

Barzani, yes. But he asked me, wouldn’t you like a movie camera? Yes, I said. So he sends someone down to Baghdad and he brought back a 60 mm movie camera and I used that to take some movies. There’s one that I took that’s become well-known, when he is with his Peshmerga, walking down from his night quarters in the mountains down to Ranya.

These books are written about the Kurdish movement but they are not in a Kurdish language. What was the impact of your attempts to spread the Kurdish issue, the rights of Kurds? 

Well, my first book, this one, that I wrote, it was just in Icelandic, but then it was translated to German and then after my second trip when I met Barzani, I added some chapters to it on my second journey and then it was published in Germany. And now I understand there’s a publisher here in Kurdistan, Muayid, he is going to publish the book in Kurdish and in Arabic. I am very pleased it’s also in Arabic and then the readers in the Arabic area can also read it and learn about it.


Very good. Your relationship with Ismet Sharif Vanli, according to this document in front of me, you were accepted as a representative of Kurdish abroad. How was that?

Well Ismet Sherif Vanli was Barzani’s representative abroad. He gave out press releases sometimes and he informed about the Kurdish situation and he made me his co-worker. He gave me the right to represent the Kurdish issue to newspapers and whoever wanted to be informed about the Kurdish situation. So we had a close relationship.

Dr. Haraldsson to go towards referendum, what’s the responsibility of media in this country to support the process of referendum?

Will, I think, in the modern society, the media is very important. We not only have parliaments and government, we should also have active media that is a bit of control on the politicians and so on. So it is very important that the media really sends the view of the population, which in this case overwhelmingly for the establishment of an independent state in Kurdistan. I have spoken to people here, they tell me, especially one woman that worked in the hospital, she said to me, I haven’t met anyone who will say no in that referendum.
And the step after the referendum is obviously independence. What do you think? Do you think the time is suitable to go for referendum?

Well, I think it’s very smart to do the referendum because if there is a high percent of Kurds who vote for it then it is clear what is the will of the people. And I understand it will be overwhelmingly approved by the population. I think it is, at least in the western world, the best argument you can have is for the Kurdish independence. But then the question is, what comes after that? I asked your prime minister about that yesterday, and he told me after that there would probably be a long process of negotiations with Baghdad because there are many issues that need to be solved because Iraq has existed for almost a century and there have been so many ties knit between the different parts of the country.

But the matter is that, for example, the countries around Kurdistan are not happy with the referendum and the consequences of the referendum, so how can this be dealt with? How can the KRG deal with this situation?

Well, I think that is a problem of course that there are Kurds also living in Syria, Turkey and Iran, but you must go your own way. And I think Kurds must seek and make a decision to be a sovereign republic and I would think that you will get that recognition by a number of countries in the west. 


How? Well, I can tell you Iceland for example was the first country to recognize the Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. No one dared to do it before because of the Russians. But when we had done it, then all the northern countries, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark followed suit. And I met at a conference that was here a few days ago a member of the parliament in Estonia. And he reminded me that Iceland had been the first to recognize the Baltic countries and then he said to me, “But now we are going to beat you, we will be the first to recognize Kurdistan.” 

So do you think internationally, there’s a big support for this?

I think so. Yes. Yes, there’s a big support I think among the European countries but Iran will be much opposed, I understand. The Turks, I don’t know how they will react. But I think you will make it. I am optimistic. But, maybe you take it easy, you don’t do it immediately and there must be some kind of an agreement with Baghdad, a find a consensus about different things. But another question now, Iraqi Kurdistan rules itself. You have your own government, you have your own parliament, and the Peshmerga controls all of Kurdistan within Iraq, so you are in a good position. But of course you would like full recognition and I think you are likely to get it, if you go about it in a smart way.

What’s the smart way?

Well, that’s a good question. I think you’ll need to publicize your case abroad. And it would be good if foreign journalists would come occasionally to Kurdistan to report about the situation so that the people of Europe are well informed, because I think they will, by their hearts, be very supportive of the Kurdish issue if they knew it well enough. And of course many were of that terrible attack on the Kurds that was done by Saddam Hussein where a large part of the population had to flee their homes. So I think the Kurds they have a lot of sympathy among other nations.

And after like 55 years, you went back to Kurdistan, you are in Hawler now. Were you expecting this situation in 1964, 62?

No, I was not expecting this situation so I was very impressed when I came here, but I had of course followed the news and I was well aware that Kurdistan had been practically independent after the invasion of the United States into Iraq that brought the rule of Saddam Hussein to an end. So after that, the Kurds really ruled themselves and so they have done ‘til this way. And even more because the Iraqi army was in Kirkuk and when ISIS came, they fled and then the Peshmerga got ahold of the Kirkuk area.

And while you are in Kurdistan, you see the pictures that you were taking in the cities, in the offices, and in the newspapers. Did you know that these pictures were widespread now in Kurdistan?

I didn’t know about that. 

In your archives, do you have some more stuff that hasn’t been published?

Well, I have written several articles, mostly in Icelandic, but not in English that I remember. But I follow the news.

And you met the Prime Minister. Have you talked about this issue with him?

Yes, I talked about the issue of the referendum, and I told him my view that it was a very smart decision, really the best decision you can make now. And also that it was kind of a continuation of that assembly of people from all over Kurdistan that Barzani gathered in Qaladiza in 1964. Well, at least according to the view in Europe with a longer democratic tradition of course than here, if a nation is overwhelmingly for something, then it is hard to deny it. So, just go ahead.


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The name of Barzani is already woven with golden threads n the marvelous tapistry of the Kurdish History
Hoshyar zaxoy | 20/6/2017
Barzani will stay great resilient mountain leader who devoted his life from first breath to last breath for Kurdish freedom. At a time when our parents were so oblivious. A great inspiring brave man who lives inside my heart every moment.
THE READER | 20/6/2017
Reportings like this one are an absolute must ahead of the independence referendum of September
Erdil | 20/6/2017
To all the pessimistic this Icelandic reporter gave the right answers. Sounds like Mullah Mustafa sending a message from heaven
god bless kurdistan | 20/6/2017
barzani was great patriot and kurdistanist and he deserves all honor and glory but his son is too soft when it comes to handling traitor islamits in parliament.

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