Mustafa Barzani photographed by William Carter in 1965. Photo: Stanford University
By Dr Simon Ross Valentine
This month marks the 70th anniversary of the crossing of the river Araxes (Aras) by the “500” Kurdish fighters led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani on June 17-18, after their long march from the failed Mahabad republic, to the safety of the Soviet Union.
The Mahabad republic 1946-47, although short-lived, had been, as Qazi Muhammad’s son Ali Qazi (thirteen at the time of the republic) stated, “was a golden page in the history of the Kurdish liberation struggle.”
Azerbaijan (another newly established republic) fell to Iranian forces in December 1946. With the Americans, British and Russians leaving Iran in the same year, the Kurds stood alone against the military might of Iran. On 16 December Qazi Muhammad (President of the Mahabad republic), in an attempt to save as many lives as possible, surrendered to General Homayuni, the Commander of the Shah’s army, bringing the republic to an end.
On March 31, 1947 Qazi Mohammad and other leaders of the republic were tried by the Iranians and executed. Shortly after, Mustafa Barzani and the Kurdish fighters under his command, finding continued resistance futile, decided to return to Iraq. Constantly harassed by the Iranian army and air-force, Barzani’s beleaguered force reached the Gadar River on the Iran-Iraq border on April 13, but was prevented from crossing by Iraqi police.
After repeated skirmishes with the Iraqi authorities, on May 6, at the village of Argosh, Barzani and his fellow commanders, made the historic decision to head for the Soviet Union.
By early June, having been refused entry into Turkey, and under attack from both Iranian and Turkish soldiers, Barzani and his men began the trek along the mountain road of Tasta-Bedaw, an arduous climb, reaching up to 3,000 metres in altitude. Masoud Barzani, the current President of the Kurdistan Region and also Mustafa Barzani’s son, writing up the memoirs of his father (published 2003), records how the leading group of Peshmerga, the group led by Misto Mirozi, made snow steps using the butts of their rifles enabling the following groups to carry the sick and wounded on their backs.
As at other times in Kurdish history, the mountains proved to be the Kurd’s trusted friend. Masoud Barzani states how on one occasion Turkish reconnaissance planes failed to discover the slowly moving Peshmerga because they hid in a forest thicket (Nahaila Gavari) near the headspring of the Great Zab River. At other times Barzani and his men cleverly out-manoeuvred their pursuers by marching, halting then changing course when it was dark. By adopting such tactics he and his diminutive, yet efficient fighting force had by May 27 climbed to the top of mount Spiraiz, and again entering Iran, travelled through the regions of Begzadeh and Shikak.
Everywhere they went the Barzanis were welcomed by the local people who, although poor themselves, gave them food and clothing. In the Shikak area Masoud Barzani describes “misty-eyed, the villagers lined up along the roadside, outside every village, welcoming the Barzanis and offering them water, yoghurt, and food.”
Throughout this march, guerrilla tactics proved to be effective against the Shah’s troops. However, sometimes the Peshmerga faced the Iranian forces head on, usually achieving notable victories. Such was the case at the battle of Mako on June 9 and at Mount Sousoz the following day, when Barzani’s force defeated much larger and better equipped Iranian forces. Taking advantage of this victory, and the disarray of the Iranian army, the Peshmerga captured the Mako Bridge thereby enabling them to cross the Zangi River.
By June 16 the Barzanis had reached the village of Soketli, a check-point at the river Araxes near Mount Ararat on the Russian border. The journey had been arduous and demanding. During the fifteen or so days since being barred from Turkey, the Peshmerga, already fatigued from previous fighting in Iran and Iraq, had walked with weapons and kit, 250 miles across the Zagros Mountains. Several lost their lives, not only to the pursuing Iranian army, but to disease and inclement weather. The list of the fighters who accompanied Barzani on this march mentions Othman Miro, from Shirwani, with the poignant note: “died in the snow on the Iranian border."
The crossings of the river Araxes took place over two days, between June 17-18. Masoud Barzani informs us “Sheikh Sulayman crossed with a group on June 17, Barzani and another group crossed on June 18th."
Zrar Sulaiman Dargalaye one of the original “500” Peshmerga still living today, told me: “Once we reached the Araxes we asked the Russians for help. We asked for boats. No help was given though. So we had no option but to swim." Zrar adds however: “Before we could cross the river we came under heavy machine gun fire. We had no choice but to take the machine-gunners out. Mustafa Barzani was watching us with his binoculars. There were five heavy machine guns. We managed to capture four. As we advanced the Iranians ran away.”
Many Peshmerga, stated Zrar, “swam, with their equipment on their backs, through the fast flowing, icy water. Some, early in the morning, others at night.” ... “Some fighters,” continued Zrar, “used their cheet (the sash, waistbands each Kurdish man wore as part of his tradition garb) as a rope, tying themselves together and, carrying a full army pack, swam across the river.”
Four of the Long March 500 Peshmerga circa 1949 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan: (from right) Mohammad Amin Dargalayi; Soleyman Bag Dargalayi, sitting, third person (unknown), and the Zrar Solaiman Bag Dargalay.
Muhammad Biyayi, another survivor of that march, informed me how, as the “Russians refused to help, providing no boats, we made rafts from poplar trees growing nearby”. Others, he said, defied the strong currents of the river by “wading hand-by-hand through the freezing water."
Other survivors describe the scene. “Once on the other side," stated Kazim Mustafa Omar Shanedari, now living in Salahaddin city near Erbil, “the Russians came and asked us to leave our weapons. They brought us trucks to transport us”. “When I crossed the river," remarked Hamad Amin Hussan Dargalaye, now an old man living in Soran, “there were two or three people on the other side to pull me out of the water. I carried my rifle and ammunition on my back."
Although traditionally it is said that “500” crossed the Araxes River, the actual number was most probably less due to fatalities from the fighting (and the harsh weather) during the journey through the mountains. Mustafa Barzani later refers to 469 Kurds registered for Russian citizenship.
Although initially the Peshmerga were treated harshly, deliberately separated into different groups and most placed on collective farms, they later made Russia their home obtaining jobs, receiving university education and raising families. They returned to Iraq, as heroes, (many with Russian wives) shortly after the July 14th Revolution of 1958.
The historic march of the “500” and the crossing of the Araxes River into Russia, was a defining moment in Kurdish history. As Masoud Barzani states: “The name Araxes entered Kurdish culture, and to this day, Kurds name their boys Araxes after it.”
It also marks an important stage in the development of Peshmerga as a fighting force. While in the Soviet Union, Mustafa Barzani and his fighters received military training from the Russians, acquiring new skills and procedures, which would be used most effectively in the Ayloul Revolution, after their return to Iraq. As such, Peshmerga was, in a very real sense, an army in waiting.
But most importantly, as Masoud Barzani remarked: from 1947 “Peshmerga became the symbol of Kurdish freedom,” a model of courage and an inspiration to Peshmerga fighting Daesh today.