"Apparently, my pen is too sharp for them," deported journalist tells +GercekNews
Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink, who was deported from Iraqi Kurdistan while trying to cross the border to Syria, gave an interview to +GercekNews. She explained how she was involuntarily sent back to the Netherlands. She also talked about why she thought the influence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan played a role in her deportation.
First of all, thanks a lot for being here with us. I would like to begin by asking you the most obvious question. You were on your way to northern Syria and just as you were about to cross the border you were suddenly detained and Iraqi Kurdistan authorities took you to the Erbil airport. And then you tweeted that you were deported. So, what exactly happened there?
Yeah. They didn't say that I was detained or something. But it was obvious that I was. But they said like you know there is a problem and you have to go to the Erbil airport. Because they asked for my residency permit and I said I don't have a residency permit because I don't live here, but I arrived on Sunday at Sulaymaniyah airport and I got my visa from there and I showed it. But they didn't really accept that. You know they say the Kurdistan region in Iraq is like one administration but it is obviously not because of course Sulaymaniyah in the south is under PUK control. And I think KDP doesn’t really like it that, you know, that I came to Sulaymaniyah. And maybe they were sort of surprised that I was at the border. Like "how did she get here? because she's not supposed to get into the country," but I came through Sulaymaniyah so they could not control that. But they said we will take you to the airport and then you can arrange formalities. But that is of course strange because if they want me to arrange things at the airport they don't need to take me in an official car with a driver and a policeman, full speed to the airport. they can just say, normally they would say in such a situation, “okay your paperwork is not in order. You have to get a stamp at the airport. Go find your way and we will see you back when it is arranged,” you know. So, the whole situation was clear, I'm not free to say like “oh I'm going to go to the airport myself,” but nobody said like “you are detained” or whatever they said there is no problem, the border will be open again on Saturday, you can cross on Saturday no problem blah blah blah. But I felt like, you know how it is.
Just to clarify here. There were also some reports by news agencies that stated that you claimed you were detained. You tweeted that was not a claim that it was a fact. You said yourself that you were deported yet they reported it as if you were making this claim. So did you receive any official notification about whether you were deported or not?
No. It is political. You know this is very, sorry I understand that you ask it but it is a very strange question to ask. I was factually deported, it happened to me. You know there is a slight chance that I'm actually dreaming that I am in the Netherlands. But in fact I am reporting in Kobani now. I think it's a very small chance. I was involuntarily put on a plane to Amsterdam. In my vocabulary, that means that I was deported. And I heard that the authorities at the airport are denying it. But that's what authoritarian governments do. They just deny the facts. They just deny it. I was deported, it happened to me. I mean you don't need a form you know. They are not going to give me a form that says “we, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq are deporting journalist Frederike Geerdink,” they are not going to put that in writing because then they cannot deny it anymore or they would expose themselves too much you know. But it actually happened. We don't need a report.
No, we definitely don’t. And that is what I was trying to clarify. I just wanted to give you chance to express your opinion on this. You also mentioned that at one point they tried to make you pay your own way back. What exactly happened there and how did you resolve that issue?
Yeah, they said that I had to leave within 2 days but it was a little bit difficult because their English was not very good and my Kurdish is very bad so communication was not always easy. But they said like I have to leave within 2 days and I had to get the tickets. And I said “if you want to kick me out you pay the tickets. You know, I'm not going to finance my own deportation,” obviously. And then, you know they have this big hole on the like minus one floor at the airport where you can look outside on the landing platforms. They left me there and it took like two hours. I don't know I was reading a book and WhatsApping with the consul. And I told him that too like I'm not going to buy my own tickets. He was still trying to reverse the situation so that I would not be expelled but that soon turned out to be impossible. And he helped me you know so that they would buy the ticket for me. And he said “I can come to the airport if you need my help,” but I said that's not necessary because you know there's nothing we can do anymore and if you can help me to get them to they buy the ticket. That's enough. But then he showed up anyway then they came to get me from that hole because they said the consul is here so come with us. And he came and he stayed with me for one and a half hours and talked to me, let me talk you know because I was of course stressed. And he talked to the police people like okay you have to get our tickets. First, they asked if I had a problem with flying Turkish Airlines. I said it's okay for me but maybe Turkish Airlines is not going to accept me on board so maybe it's going to be extra trouble. And then the consul said like “no, Qatar Airways is better. They have a good connection,” blah blah blah, so you know he made really much easier than it would have been without him. So, I'm very grateful for his help and his efforts to you know to make it at least as less uncomfortable as possible so to speak.
Thanks a lot for clarifying that. Now, I want to get to the crux of this matter. When you announced that you were being deported, you also tweeted “Erdogan has a long arm.” What exactly did you mean by that? Do you think that the Turkish President or Ankara is somehow behind at what happened to you?
Not in a very direct way. You know I'm not so arrogant that I think that Erdogan would call Barzani and say “kick Frederike out.” But it's also not necessary because the KDP knows what to do. They are in cooperation with Turkey. They are suppressing the Kurdish armed movement that is in the mountains there. They're fighting it together. So they know that I'm not supposed to go to Syria, that I'm not supposed to report about the threat that Turkey is posing now, again. Last year there was this peace group of Kurds from Europe that was going in June to the Kurdistan region for a peace effort because it looked like maybe the KDP Peshmerga and the PKK were going to fight each other. And this peace group wanted to get a civil society effort going to help prevent that from happening. And I was going to report about it and then all the people in this peace group were deported. I waited for them so that we could leave the airport together then they also didn't allow me in, even though I already had my luggage taken from the band. But they said at the time like it is just for dislocation it's not that you cannot come back. But I've sort of been postponing going back. Because I was afraid that something like this could happen. And I had in the back of my mind like I was sort of fooling myself a little bit, I think. By not going. Telling myself that I can go to Kurdistan anytime I like. But eventually, I needed to go again, and now that Turkey is threatening to invade Syria again. I thought “okay this time I want to make this story. And I need to try,” So I try to you know, to navigate my way through all the political balances and dynamics but unfortunately I failed. But now I cannot pretend anymore that I can go to Kurdistan anytime I like because now I'm sure that I cannot and that's it. That makes me very sad actually, yeah.
Going back to your reporting and your reason for wanting to go cross the border to Syria in the first place. You tweeted “on the bright side: the chance that erdoğan will drone me to smithereens on the wKobanekobani (because that's where I was going for a big story for a dutch magazine) has decreased to zero.” Do you think your deportation is related to the story that you were planning to cover in Kobani?
No. Because I said that you know you have to ask permission before you come to the border so I had a letter from the magazine I worked for. And also the authorities want you to put the reason in as to why you're going to Syria and I said I want to report about the fight against ISIS. And that could have been a story I made but the first focus was Kobani. but I thought "let's just mention the fight against ISIS everybody agrees on that." Well not Turkey but, well long story. If Turkey takes Tel Rifaat and Manbij, if that is what Turkey is planning you know, we are not sure but that's the speculation of course. Then Kobani becomes very isolated because the road to Kobane goes via . After all,ecause Turkey has occupied Serekaniye and you cannot take that road anymore. And when Kobani is very isolated and SDF cannot get new people or new weapons and ammunition there, then Kobani becomes very vulnerable. And then Erdogan later can take Kobani. Because I think Erdogan still has a very big Kobani trauma. You know when he said “Düştü, düşecek,” he was planning for Kobani to fall into the hands of ISIS and to his frustration, it didn’t. But it has become such a symbolic city. So, I was planning to make the story like, Okay. You know Turkey is threatening. But at the same time, people try to of course still continue to rebuild their city. To try to focus on the future and build a life. Build an administration. But with Turkey, you know always as the threat behind them, you know. And how do they deal with that? With that paradox, like building the future knowing Turkey wants to occupy you and we all know what occupation by Turkey looks like you know. Ethnic cleansing. Wide-scale human rights violations. So how do people deal with that, that's the story I want to make. But of course, these drones are a very big danger and of course, I would not be traveling with any car that would be according to their intelligence as a car which is considered a target or something. I would just be with a civilian driver and my fixer. But you don't know. It's been on the back of my head. I’m really good at that. When something bad happens to see the bright side. Like “I'm expelled but at least I'm not going to get a drone on my head,” It's a little bit surreal but that's very quickly sort of just the click I make in my head you know.
To conclude, I would like to ask you what is next for you and whether you have any messages to those who are trying to silence you or not?
Well, I have enough work you know, and this doesn't really change the work that I'm doing. I'm writing a weekly column for medianews.net. I'm doing a podcast for them at least once a month and I'm also working on other stories that have nothing to do with Kurdistan. So, I am also focusing on power structures. And I try to tell stories from the people who are trying to undermine power structures. So, recently I've been to Scotland. To a small community that is trying to defend their lands against a takeover by very rich outsiders. And the flag of the story is “who owns the Highlands?” So, also I made an anti-gentrification story in Amsterdam about a group that very creatively and very strongly opposes gentrification in Amsterdam. So, I sort of broadened my stories in that direction. Like people who try to undermine power. But my connection with Kurdistan will always be there. So I will keep following that very meticulously. I have this weekly newsletter “Expert Kurdistan” people can subscribe to that. Because. You know that authorities apparently said to the Dutch consul that I can come back as a tourist if I want to. Which is really ridiculous and I thought you know these authorities try to somehow change my identity. That's what I thought like I'm not a tourist, I don't do tourism. It's not in my life you know. but they want to make me a tourist. And in Turkey, they prosecuted me for making propaganda but I'm not a propagandist. They should know that I'm a journalist and I will remain a journalist and I will keep doing that. Apparently, my pen is too sharp for them but you know I will keep it that sharp and I will not change anything about how I work.
Frederike Geerdink is a freelance journalist and author. She focuses on power structures and those who want to tear them down. She also reports on Kurdish political issues.