Remembering Yannis Behrakis

33rd anniversary of 1991 Kurdish exodus

NEWSROOM — Thirty-three years ago, the Iraqi military’s brutal assault on the cities of Kurdistan prompted a massive exodus, later known as the Million Person Exodus among the Kurds. Greek Pulitzer-winning photographer Yannis Behrakis documented the major event, bringing international attention to the crisis.

26 days after the 1991 Uprising, residents from cities like Erbil and Sulaymaniyah fled towards the Iranian border, while those from Duhok headed towards Turkey. The initial days of the exodus saw widespread coverage by various media outlets and international agencies, including Yannis Behrakis, then heading Reuters’ photography department in Greece and Cyprus.

The 1991 uprising was a series of widespread rebellions following the Gulf War, led by Kurdish populations in the north and Shiite groups in the south of Iraq. These uprisings aimed to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s oppressive Baath regime, capitalizing on the weakened state of the Iraqi military after its defeat by Coalition forces in the Gulf War over Kuwait.

The 1991 uprising began in Ranya on March 5, 1991 before swiftly spreading to cities and towns across the region, culminating in Kirkuk on March 20.

Despite initial successes, including capturing key cities and towns, the uprisings were brutally suppressed by the Iraqi government, which used heavy artillery and helicopter gunships, leading to significant casualties among insurgents and civilians.

The international community’s lack of intervention allowed Saddam Hussein’s forces to crush the uprisings, resulting in a humanitarian crisis and mass exodus of Kurds and Shiites fleeing the government’s retaliation.

Just six days into the Kurdish exodus, a critical food shortage at the border between the Kurdish region and Turkey was reported on April 5, 1991. Behrakis captured these moments, including images of people reaching for bread distributed by humanitarian aid trucks.

Behrakis stated, “I risked my life to save others, showing the world the hunger and suffering of these people.” His photographs profoundly impacted the global community.

Born in Greece in 1960, Behrakis covered several major global events, including the death of Khomeini, the Afghan War, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the 1991 Kurdish exodus.

In 2016, Behrakis was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the refugee crisis, influencing European countries’ decisions to open their borders in 2015. Yannis Behrakis passed away on March 3, 2019, after battling cancer.

Due to the exodus, the United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 688 on April 5, 1991, establishing a safe zone and no-fly zone over the the Kurdish north and Shia south. It also led to the deployment of allied forces at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussain’s air force and armed helicopters. This resolution enabled the return of refugees to their homes.

In response to the no-fly zones, Baghdad withdrew its military presence and government services from many Kurdish areas entirely, enabling the Kurdish population to pursue self-governance without interference from the Iraqi state. This newfound autonomy led to significant political developments, including the organization of free elections and the establishment of Kurdish administrative structures.

On May 19, 1992, the first parliamentary elections in Kurdistan were held, and on July 4, 1992, the first cabinet of the Kurdistan Regional Government was formed, marking the beginning of Kurdish autonomy in Iraq that has persisted to this day.

Ranya commemorates 1991 uprising with festival at Raperin University

Ranya commemorates 1991 uprising with festival at Raperin University

Remembering the 1991 Kurdish uprising

Remembering the 1991 Kurdish uprising

Erbil commemorates 33rd anniversary of uprising against Baath regime

Erbil commemorates 33rd anniversary of uprising against Baath regime