In the summer of 1985 I found myself crossing the wild mountains of Kurdistan with a battalion of Kurdish peshmergas, guerrilla fighters. We moved single file through narrow zigzagging trails on steep mountain slopes. They carried Kalashnikovs, and I sat astride a mule loaded with crates of ammunition for AK-47s and mortars. I was there with a French TV crew to film a documentary on the Kurdish struggle against the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
How did I, a young Venezuelan, who had pursued her education in Caracas and later in Paris, find herself in this remote land? I had always been adventurous during my Latin American childhood, reaching for new challenges through art and literature. That had been my passion and it was this passion that ultimately led me to the Kurds.
In 1982 I attended the Cannes Film Festival—and it was there that my life took another unexpected turn. From that moment on, it seemed as if every single event in my life began leading me to the Kurds. There were unbelievable connections that emerged to support this direction, which for over three decades—nearly half my life—has felt like my destiny. My Latin open-heartedness found resonance with the irrepressible spirit of the Kurds.
At the Cannes festival, I had been given an invitation to see the film Yol, which means “The Way,” by Yilmaz Güney, a Kurdish director from Turkey. His film won the Golden Palm award that year. I admired his work, was introduced to him, and became an instant fan.
A few weeks later, out of the blue, Güney’s translator called and asked to meet in a Parisian café. When I entered I was shocked: sitting there were Yilmaz Güney and his wife, Fatosh.
Güney said he wanted me to work with him—to which I replied, “But you don’t know me—for all you know, I could be a Turkish spy.”
Looking at me, he said: “I can see in your eyes that I can trust you.”
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
He replied, “Put me in touch with the revolutionary movements of Latin America.”
I have to say that during those times, I was politically clueless. But I said yes — and it was this “Yes” that changed my life. Since then I have been saying “Yes” to the Kurds. And for someone coming from Venezuela, this unique destiny has shaped my life and writing.
So: Who are the Kurds? Simply put, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without an independent political state. The unofficial estimate is they number 30 million. An ancient people, guardians of the sacred fire that burned in the Temple of Zoroaster, they were the last to be converted to Islam when the Arabs invaded the region. Their land, Kurdistan, lies in the rugged mountainous borderlands where Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria converge.
I have been fortunate, since that first encounter, to be closely connected with the Kurds, both as a journalist and a friend of its people and leaders. One of those leaders was Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, a forward thinking Iranian Kurd. His determined and progressive wish for Kurdish autonomy would lead to his untimely and brutal assassination by Iranian agents in 1989.
It was by another unexpected encounter that I met this visionary leader. In 1983, I found myself in a crowded art exhibition at the Kurdish Institute of Paris. As I was leaving, a friend pulled me aside and introduced me to a charming man.
I had no idea who he was but I was taken by his warm smile, charismatic personality, and vast knowledge of Western and Eastern culture. I was even more impressed as he recited Sufi poets—Hafez, Rumi—in the melodic sweetness of Farsi and translated them into flawless and exquisite French. I later found out he spoke a total of nine languages. This was my introduction to Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, leader of the Iranian Kurds and secretary general of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI).
That night Ghassemlou told me about his life in the mountains and his fight against intolerance and cruelty, in the person of Ayatollah Khomeini.
However, that night I did not really understand who Ghassemlou was.
That came later—when in the pursuit of his vision and the struggle of his people—in 1985 I would find myself on a journey from Ghassemlou’s hidden headquarters in the Iraqi Kurdish mountains, traversing Iraq to Iranian Kurdistan under the cover of night.
Ghassemlou had invited me to come to Kurdistan and obtained travel visas for me and the French TV crew I was traveling with. In 1985 the Iran-Iraq war was at its height, and the “war of cities” was raging as Tehran and Baghdad bombed each other. We entered through Baghdad. Saddam Hussein’s secret police searched all our belongings and equipment. They took our passports and told us: “You will get them back when you leave.”
We traveled to the backcountry on unending dilapidated roads, with tanks and soldiers stopping us at every turn. The moment we crossed into Kurdistan, something changed. Somehow, the strength and resilience of the Kurdish people were palpable.
The Kurds welcomed us, and escorted us to the PDKI general HQ on the Iraq-Iran border. From there we set out on muleback with a battalion of peshmerga to cross the Zagros Mountains.
The journey would be exhausting— through a land of stones, rocks, and precipices —endless climbing, awkward padded saddles, wistful melodies sung by the peshmerga in harmony with the mules’ tinkling bells . . . I felt I had entered another time, a time of proud warriors and ancient mountains.
I recall the moment we rounded the shoulder of a ridge and I gasped: before me lay a scene from The 1001 Nights, hundreds of white tents bordering a winding river, and donkeys loaded with supplies. This was a bazaar for the contraband between Iran and Iraq, where smugglers sat on carpeted ground, playing cards, drinking tea and smoking while negotiating under the glow of gas lamps.
Later that night, we set out in columns under the moonlight. Orders came and went. Flashlights flickered only for fleeting moments. The whole column seemed like a traveling fair, drawing slowly away from the bazaar, into the hills.
The trail became narrower. Far below me I could hear the rumbling river. What never changed was the ever-present chain of mountains. The mules were panting, the climb always steeper. “When will we get there?” The answer was always the same: “After the mountain.” But at the top of the ridge, there was always another mountain before us to climb.
Finally we arrived at a plateau, full of noise and dust. Men shouting, mules laden with contraband braying. We could not use a flashlight or even light a cigarette for fear of the army base just across the border: the least sign of lights, and they would fire.
The next day under a scorching sun we arrived at the river Choman. We were in Iranian Kurdistan, welcomed by rowdy children, squawking chickens and barking dogs. The Kurds, very poor but generous, offered us the little they had, yoghurt and bread for breakfast.
Coming from a society which is very individualistic, suddenly I found myself in the midst of a nation whose cultural ways were focused on the collective. Privacy was non-existent and the mutual safety and survival of everyone in these villages was primary.
From village to village, the constant feeling of danger contrasted every moment with a landscape filled with life. The bright colored clothing of the women, who always refused to use the chador, made the proud wearing of their traditional clothes a form of resistance to the regime.
You may be wondering, “What was it like to be a Western woman among all these men?” I encountered the utmost respect and gratitude from the Kurdish people, who just wanted their story to be told.
For days there was whispering and secrecy as we waited long hours, drinking tea, in a half-destroyed house, for the chance to film a peshmerga attack against a government checkpoint.
At our destination we waited again, squatting on a hillside, as the peshmerga began their assault. Suddenly I heard a whistling over my head. I was told the Iranians were firing their katyushas, land-to-air weapons.
It was time to leave.
The Kurds asked if I was afraid.
“Nooo,” I responded. But the truth is, I was scared to death.
One of the men said, “If a bomb falls, throw yourself on the ground with your hands over your head.”
We moved away through a plowed field as I saw creamy white smoke from exploding mortars.The peshmerga walked calmly, chatting and picking green beans from the field. I felt the danger, very close. To me the shooting seemed to be random, and these shots could land anywhere. All I wanted was to get out of there.
With a thumping heart from the constant barrage and too exhausted to continue, I suddenly felt incapable of climbing another hill. A peshmerga appeared on a horse. I asked him, with signs, to give me the horse. He leapt down, I put my foot in the stirrup, took his horse and galloped away.
He caught up to me in a little while with news that the attack had been a success and we were to ride and meet the others.
Imagine the scene as I approach, galloping across an elevated plateau surrounded by immense and majestic mountains: the sky exploding in orange and purple as the sun is setting. In the midst of the plain, I see the peshmerga celebrating, their weapons hanging from the trees, dancing to the sound of a tambourine.
Word came that 20,000 Iranian troops had arrived in the area and we had to return to headquarters. It was too dangerous to remain.
So began our journey back through villages, surrounded by hundreds of peshmerga bracing for an attack. One night we huddled in a hut in the mountains, awaiting news on Radio Kurdistan. We were on our way to join a battalion that had suffered a surprise attack which left men dead or wounded.
All at once, our translator screamed and then began to cry. The beloved commander who had accompanied us in our crossing, had been killed in another attack. The mood was somber. For the first time, I truly felt the random cruelty of war.
During this journey, I contracted typhoid and spent my last week shivering with fever at the headquarters and witnessing Ghassemlou’s leadership first-hand.
Who was Ghassemlou?
As a visionary leader, a democrat, and a humanist in a region rife with tribal agendas, Ghassemlou had spent much of his life in the mountains, fighting the intolerance and violence of the Iranian regime.
Emerging during the 1979 revolution which overthrew the Shah and brought Khomeini to power, he inspired and embodied Kurdish pride. For the Kurds, Ghassemlou became the leader who could bring change. His party’s slogan became: Autonomy for Kurdistan. Democracy for Iran.
But Khomeini’s Islamic government accepted neither democracy nor the rights of other religious and ethnic minorities, and persecution of the Kurds quickly followed.
In August of 1979, the Kurds rose up in rebellion and inflicted a military defeat on the regime forces. An enraged Khomeini launched a full-scale military attack against them. He issued a fatwa, an edict, banning the PDKI and condemning Ghassemlou to death.
The Kurds were forced to abandon the cities and initiate guerrilla warfare from the mountains.
Though he had to take arms to defend his people, Ghassemlou never believed that violence and war were a solution. By the end of the Iran-Iraq war, he decided it was time to sit down and negotiate with the regime.
And yet ironically, it was while negotiating a peace agreement with Iranian emissaries on July 13, 1989, in Vienna, that Ghassemlou and 2 colleagues were viciously murdered by these very emissaries. The meeting for peace had been a trap to kill him.
My friendship with Ghassemlou spanned many years. I knew him as an inspiring leader. He did not go around with the pride and arrogance displayed by some leaders faced with the monumental shifts and turmoil of the Middle East; he was a humble man who spoke with passion about the love he felt for his people and his desire to improve their lives.
My collaboration with him had deepened after Yilmaz Güney’s death. I had written a eulogy for Güney, and one day, I translated this to Ghassemlou. It was then that Ghassemlou uttered one request that would capture the next decades of my life. “When I die,” he said, “I would like you to write about my life and people.”
Immediately I said, “Yes.”
Little did I realize how prescient his request would be. I had started out intending to write his life; instead I found myself investigating and writing his death.
It was ironic that I, a Venezuelan and a woman, would be the person to write the story of this dynamic leader—since in the Kurdish culture a woman’s place was mostly home, caring for children, cooking and so on. Not only was my book the first to research and document the life of Ghassemlou, but since its publication I’ve traveled all over the world speaking about the male-dominated Kurdish society and way of life to mainly male audiences, even today.
A year before he died, Ghassemlou told me that if he ever wrote his story, it would begin like this: “On many occasions, Kurdish leaders have been assassinated due to treason by the Persian authorities. It happened with Simko, one of our most important contemporary leaders. While Simko’s blood ran through the streets, in a nearby house, a boy was being born. That boy was me.”
“Did it really happen like this?” I questioned.
No,” he answered. “Simko was murdered in June 1930. The same year I was born—but not the same day. But do you realize how strong that beginning is? One Kurdish leader dies and at the same time another is being born.”