Shirin Amin, widow of murdered journalist Kawa Garmyani: 'For Kawa, journalism was about freedom'

This interview with the widow of a murdered Kurdish journalist is part of the book 'Hope became a dream', about press freedom in Iraq, by Fréderike Geerdink. This book wil soon be published by Eva Tas Foundation in the Netherlands. The full PDF will be made available for free.

Two new born chicks are pottering about right at the exact spot where journalist Kawa Garmyani was shot to death in December 2013. In the walls surrounding the small patio, several bullet holes are visible. The wall separating the patio from the street has been hightened after the murder. It is no longer possible to look over that wall and shoot, as was done on that rainy December evening. The murder ended the life of one of the bravest journalists that the Kurdistan Region had seen in a long time. His widow, Shirin Amin, now continues his endeavor. 

Kawa’s son Amed carefully held one of the chicks in his hands. He was born seventeen days after his father was murdered.

Shirin Amin is still dressed in black, more than five years after the mourning of her husband started. Wearing black is no longer required after the official mourning period of fourty days is over, but for Amin, this has become political. In an interview in the house of her late husband’s family in the town of Kalar, she said: ‘I will keep wearing black until corruption is rooted out. Only on the day the perpetrator behind my husband’s murder is caught, I will wear red.’

A painting of Kawa Garmyani and items that belonged to him in the small museum that his wife and brother made for him.

She cried a few times during the interview as she remembered the evening her life changed. It was 5 December, a dark and rainy day. ‘We had a small house’, Shirin said. ‘Because of the rain there was no electricity, so we decided to go to Kawa’s family’s house to spend the night. We had guests that night, but they left around a quarter to nine. Then, Kawa went to another room to work. He was always busy on his laptop, writing or updating his website.’ His mother went to the kitchen, which was outside the house in a corner of the patio. Somebody shouted over the low wall around the house. If Kawa could come out? His mother wasn’t suspicous, as friends and colleagues were coming over all the time to chat or to talk about the stories they were working on.

Shirin said: ‘It was two minutes past nine when he went out. He didn’t even have his slippers on yet and the shooting started. Two in his chest, of which one in his heart, and one in his back as he struggled to turn around to get back into the house.’ 

Nine more bullets were shot, leaving marks on the walls and floor. Shirin said: ‘I didn’t immediately realize what happened. I thought maybe the sound was caused by damage because of the rain.’ She rushed outside though as soon as she heard her mother-in-law scream, only to find her husband beyond help, lying there in a pool of blood. It was no use anymore to take him to the closeby hospital. 

The funeral, the next morning, was crowded. Shirin said: ‘The people came from everywhere. It was like it was everybody’s funeral.’

Determind

Don’t be fooled though. Shirin Amin is the last to stay at home sobbing over her loss. While naturally remembering the evening that it happened triggered the rawest of emotions, the most accurate words to describe her are ‘determined’, ‘fearless’ and ‘unstoppable’. It is corrupt politicians that her husband was and she is after - and she’ll get them. 

Kawa Garmyani wrote for newspaper Awene but more importantly, he had started his own magazine, Rayal. It was published fourteen times and usually distributed by Kawa and his family in friends. They would just go to the city center of Kalar, a town in the south of the Kurdistan Region close to the border with Iraq proper, with a pile of papers and sell them for 1000 Iraqi dinar (€0.75) per piece. Rayal was popular, since it was the only publication that not only dared to write about corruption, but to name the culprits as well. 

Kawa’s younger brother Karwan, who works as a teacher, often helped selling the paper. During the interview, he remembered that time that the security services hindered the sales. Karwan said: ‘So we had to distribute it in secret, which we of course did.’ 

Shirin Amin next to covers of Kawa's work in the small museum that she and Kawa's brother made for him.

There was enough material for every issue of Rayal, since corruption comes in many forms and shapes. For example, there was the story about people who worked for the government but who also had a fountain in their garden, a structure that is not allowed in private gardens. Or the story about corruption in the municipality, which brought trouble to Shirin, who worked at the municipality at the time. Karwan explained: ‘Since Shirin worked there, they assumed that she had leaked information to Kawa. This was not true. Luckily Kawa could proof with a recording that it was a man who had leaked, not Shirin. The man who had leaked, was a PUK member [the party that holds power in the part of the Kurdistan Region where Kalar sits) and he faced no consequences. Still, Shirin was transferred to another job. You know, she studied business administration, but her successor didn’t even finish secondary school. This is also corruption.’

Karwan laughed when he suddenly thought about a personal consequence he himself faced because of the journalism of his brother. That was when he was getting married and went to a local administration outside Kalar, with Kawa as one of the witnesses. The civil servant tasked with registering marriages and carrying out the ceremony, simply refused to do his job. They had to go elsewhere to make their commitment official. 

Amplifyer

Which doesn’t mean that the citizens of Kalar and the wider Sulaymanya province didn’t approve of Garmyani’s work, like the civil servant. On the contrary. Shirin said that in the course of time, more and more people contacted Kawa to share their tips about corruption with him. This is why she said that her husband’s funeral felt like ‘everybody’s funeral’: Kawa brought out the stories of misuse of power by the people whose duty it was to work not for themselves but for the people. In a land with a lack of jobs and a lack of proper basic services like 24/7 electricity and clean running water, citizens needed somebody to bravely scrutinize authorities. With Kawa’s death, they all lost a piece of themselves. The amplifyer of their voices.

When Shirin thinks of her husband, she pictures him working on his laptop. But about the last days of his life, she holds very dear memories, as he prepared for the biggest change of his life: becoming a father. He had just made the final arrangements at the hospital where his child would be delivered. His journalistic work was eventually about his fatherhood, Shirin explained: ‘For many journalists in Kurdistan, journalism is a job, a way to earn money. For Kawa, it was about freedom. A freedom he wanted for his son. You know, sometimes he said that he would make his son the smallest journalist. He imagined him giving a helping hand, like carrying the laptop.’

Kawa Garmyani at work. 

But Kawa also knew that his life was in danger. He didn’t say it explicitely, but his friends said that Kawa had mentioned to them that he hoped to see his child. To understand this, it must be explained that the murder didn’t come out of thin air. Kawa had worked as a journalist since 2003 and the authorities had tried every trick in the book to make him stop revealing corruption. He was prosecuted twice and spent two years in prison because of his journalism. Salient detail: one conviction was by a judge about whom he had reported on a corruption case. During an uprising in mainly Sulaymanya city in 2011 against corruption, nepotism and injustice, he had been in trouble. Three times, he was beaten up, with a broken nose as a result. 

Shirin spoke of other intimidations as well. ‘Sometimes’, she said, ‘the police would stop him on the street and take him, only to show him to the public as somebody being in trouble with the police, to harm his reputation.’ And: ‘The PUK [Pattriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party in control in Sulaymanya province] offered Kawa money to stop publishing Rayal and they offered to buy the magazine. Also, they offered him all kinds of positions in the PUK and they even said that if he wanted to live abroad, they could take him to any country in the world he wished to live. He did not bow. So the only thing that remained to silence him, was murder.’

Exonerated

In 2012, Kawa had been threatened over the phone by a PUK peshmerga general – the PUK has its own peshmerga force, just as the rival party KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) ruling in the northern part of the region. This man, Mahmoud Sangawi, was detained for two weeks in January 2014 but released for lack of evidence. He was detained again in December 2014, a year after the murder. In a court hearing in January 2015, Sangawi was exonerated. Kawa’s brother Karwan Ahmed told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) at the time that the family would continue their quest to find justice. Rahman Gharib, at the time the general coordinator for the local Metro Center to Defend Journalists, told the CPJ that the court decision was ‘doubtful’ because the Kurdistan Region’s justice system was politicized. Gharib added that questions about Sangawi's threats to the journalist had not been properly addressed by the court. 

Also in January 2015, the court in Kalar upheld the death sentence against Twana Khaleefa, who had been conviced to the gallow several months earlier after he had admitted to the crime. The Kurdistan Region imposed a memorandum on the death penalty in 2003 (except for terrorism and for ‘exceptionally heinous’ crimes) and Khaleefa remains in jail. The PUK has condemnded the murder of Garmyane and denied any involvement. Since January 2015, there have been no significant developments in the investigation.

Although there have not been any developments in the investigation, in the last months of 2017, Shirin Amin’s life did take a new turn. The political party Gorran (Change), a split from the PUK and the PUK’s most important competitor in PUK-controlled area, asked the families of three murdered journalists to propose one of them as a candidate MP for the general elections in September 2018. Besides Kawa’s family, they asked the family of Zardasht Othman (from Erbil, murdered in 2010) and Wedat Hussein (from Duhok, murdered in 2016). Together they decided to nominate Shirin. She was highly motivated, well educated and determined by character. Who’d be better fit than her? In September 2018, she was elected as an MP. She is now the head of the anti-corruption commission. 

Museum

The work in the parliament hasn’t really started yet in the spring of 2019 since the government has not been formed yet, but Shirin has started on het job already. As an MP, she has better access to places where she suspects corruption. She said: ‘The commission has gathered already. I pointed out that I find it very important to leave party politics out of the fight against corruption. We investigate regardless of whose patry is suspected, and that of course includes Gorran, the party I ran for.’ 

During the interview, Shirin and Karwan mentioned a small museum they had put together in the house where Kawa was murdered and where Karwan now lived with his wife and two children. It was a few streets from the house where Shirin lived, which is the house of her parents-in-law. We drove to the house with the wall that is now higher than before, with behind it the patio where it happened. In the room of some eight square meters, the fourteen issues of Rayal were pinned to a few lines of thin rope hanging in the window frame. On the longest wall some thirty small shelves were fixed, together forming the basic shape of a flying bird. On the shelves all kinds of items that belonged to Kawa. Several press cards for example, pens he used, a photo camera, old mobile phones, a framed school diploma, books. In the middle a huge painted portrait of Kawa. Red T-shirt, presscard around his neck, the bag on his shoulder. Friendly eyes. Frowning eyebrows.

Shirin and Kawa's brother Karwan in the courtyard where Kawa was murdered.

The edges of the shelves are all decorated with short pencils with sharpened points, all together hundreds of them in all colours. Karwan said they spent evenings with packs of pencils that they broke in three and then sharpened and glued to the shelves. Only the pencils’ grey shadows gave away what they meant: they had the shape of bullets. The pen was Kawa’s weapon. 

Outside on the patio again, where Kawa’s life ended, Karwan wanted to state that as a family, they found it important to break a tradition. He said: ‘In Kurdistan, if you become a widow you are supposed to return to your parents house, where you mainly stay inside and sob. Shirin had already decided to stay with her husband’s family after Kawa was killed. Her life had not ended. Now she can work in a place where she can serve Kurdistan.’ Shirin nodded and said: ‘Kawa and I were one. We shared a dream of freedom. I continue that dream now.’