Growing up in war-torn Kurdistan to serving in the Australian Army: A reflection on my journey and the ANZAC spirit

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To be born and to grow up as a child in the mountains of Kurdistan, at a time of war, the word Australia did not exist in my vocabulary or my mind.

Anything outside the Zagros Mountains seemed like a world that I would never be able to see in this life – as escaping and surviving our decades-long nightmare was unimaginable.

Life was about surviving now and today. We will manage what comes tomorrow then. We will sleep somewhere when we need to, we will eat something when we have it, and we will try to hide somewhere when we have to.

For now we have to avoid being seen by the aircraft that has been hunting us.

For now we have to wake up at 3am, walk through the 1 metre of snow and freezing cold, grab our blankets and hurry into the hole that my father dug out of the side of the mountain.

All this as the howling of artillery shells flew over our heads and explosions rang out around town. He did this so that we may survive if our tiny one bedroom mud hut was hit.

As a child you may never know the reasons why life is how it is, but you know you are running, hiding under any rock, shrub or a tree that may provide you some protection when the bombs start dropping. You are in a never-ending fight for your life.

Hardy growing up in Balisan.

My father was a teacher and a political activist. He was one of the founding members of the major political party in Iraq (PUK). My whole life growing up was surrounded with politics, war, violence, prosecution, fear of being captured and going to a processing camp.

With very little access to food, water and shelter, we spent days at a time hiding in caves in the mountains with nothing at all (I often say I am a modern day caveman).

As a Kurd we were stateless – we were in no man’s land between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. With nowhere to go, we were sitting ducks for the Iraqi regime to capture, kill and gas us. In 1988 Saddam Hussein ordered the gassing of the Kurds. Our town ‘Balisan’ and the surrounding villages were amongst the first group of villages that were gassed. We lost almost half of the people in our village in under 12 hours. I was the middle child of 5 boys (aged between 3 to 10 years old). We, a family of 7, were one of the lucky ones as we all survived.

Life only became harder and more uncertain by the minute. We had to take much bigger risks with our lives, moving through minefields, barbed wires, sneaking past military outposts all around the borders between Iraq and Iran during the Iraq – Iran War. We had to cross the borders into Iran illegally in an attempt to escape the war and in the hope of reaching a place where we would have some sense of normality. A place we could call home.

After almost 2 decades of war, refugee camps and 3 weeks spent in an Iranian prison camp, we were lucky enough to make it to Australia in July 1997. I did not speak English, knew no one, had no idea about the culture, the people and its history.

I remember walking out of Sydney International Airport as I took my first breath of air. I felt like I was reborn. It was precisely in that moment of time I decided to make this place home. It still took me well over 3 months to realise I was here in Australia, often finding myself thinking “When I go to Australia I will…” I would then stop and remind myself that I am actually here, I am home and I am free.

Free to do all the things I had ever imagined, I soon realised I was hungry for knowledge, however my language skills were very limited. I hit the books and started studying and learning English. I got into competitive sports, aiming for the Olympics. Two and half years later I received my Australian Citizenship. Within a few months of this happening, I decided to join the Army.

I spoke with my father and told him I was interested in joining the Army. At first he asked me “why? Have you not had enough of war in the last 2 decades?” to which I responded, “this is my home now Dad. I need to learn about my new country, its culture and people.” He agreed and I enlisted in the Army in 2000. I remember receiving my uniform on Remembrance Day of 2000. As I put that uniform on I felt a sense of pride and belonging that I had never felt before. I felt that I was part of a family that I never had, a citizen of a country I never had. I soon made a lot of friends that I will have for the rest of my life.

I completed every training, every course and took every opportunity I could. I went in every Military Skills competition, visited all the historical sites and tours, all the war memorials in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand as well as many other places. What I discovered was, at every tombstone and memorial there were the names of young men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could have the freedom to enjoy today. It was their sacrifice that created a world and a country outside of the mountains for me to dream of escaping to, so that one day I could grow old in peace.

After 13 years of Fulltime and Reserve, I left the Army having completed multiple deployments, taken part in ANZAC Day Services every single year, made friends for life, and learned about our history and our people.

I learned about the Army’s core values of Courage, Initiative, Respect and Teamwork, understanding and learning why they are the cornerstone of the Army’s culture. You read stories about ordinary Australians doing the most extraordinary things. You read about countless acts of valour and self sacrifice to save your mates. You walk the footpaths that diggers have walked decades before you, under circumstances unimaginable. You can’t help but have an overwhelming feeling of love and respect for those diggers. As you visit each site the writings and images become real, stories play back in front of you. The life they lived is not just some words in the history books.

As you stand in the little chapel at Changi Prison in Singapore and look at the beautiful brass cross; handmade out of an artillery shell case by the Australian soldiers, you realise the sacrifice and the struggle that those young men went through, creating a chapel to give them hope.

You realise this same sacrifice as you walk over historical sites such as the Burma Railway, also known as ‘Death Railway’. Here 61,000 Allied soldiers were subjected to forced labour during its construction, of which almost 10,000 were Australian. 2,815 soldiers died due to hard labour, removing 7 million cubic meters of earthwork and rock, shifted to build a 420 km railway.

I look back at my life growing up and where I am today. I smile and think “you are an extremely fortunate and lucky man, and I am forever grateful and privileged to have had the opportunity to serve in the military.” I often remember standing there looking at my mates with a smile on our faces and the certainty of knowing we will always support one another.

No amount of words can describe what ANZAC means to me. I take a great deal of pride in educating my kids about the spirit of the ANZACs and our history as Australians. We are a nation of many; from different backgrounds, beliefs, languages and pasts, that have come together, united by a shared dream, a dream to make this place and the world a better place for all.

Every day is a reminder that we have more in common as Australians than what divides us. Every day is a reminder that we are extremely fortunate to be in this country. So this year I ask that you go out there and support our ANZACs, remember them, have a chat with a past or a current serving member & learn more about our history. Gallipoli was one of the many battles that Australians fought & died in to defend our freedom today.

Lest we forget.

Hardy Azeez is a Product Manager at Willow.

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