From Xenophon to Kurdistan: The story of the Dutch Grandfather of the Kurds
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Piet Muller, who many considered the Dutch “Grandfather of the Kurds,” passed away on April 5 at 90 years old due to Parkinson disease. He was one of the first Dutch citizens to support the Kurds, notably discovering them by following the footsteps of Greek historian Xenophon.
Muller co-founded the scouting group, the Argonauts, named after ancient Greek heroes. In 1969, the group set up a plan to travel in the footsteps of Alexander the Great by car through the Middle East. As a result of this journey, Muller traveled through the northern and eastern parts of the Greater Kurdistan for the first time.
His group planned another trip to Kurdistan in 1973. They were intrigued by the Kurds for one reason: they didn’t have their own country.
In a 2008 blog post, Muller said the Argonauts wanted to visit the Kurdistan Region “because the Kurdish resistance movement controlled a part of their mountains, an area as big as Switzerland.”
This was during Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s rebellion against the central government in Baghdad in the 1970s, during which the Kurds drove out much of the Iraqi army from Kurdistan with foreign support.
Dutch photographer Michiel Hegener, who published a book on the Kurds from northern Iraq, wrote on Facebook that the book resulted in a two-month trip with Muller, himself, and five others in a minibus from Utrecht, Holland, to parts of the Greater Kurdistan in Syria, Turkey, and especially Iraq.
Hegener told Kurdistan 24 that the trip took place in the summer of 1973 in the areas Barzani had liberated.
According to Dindar Kocer, head of Kurdish diaspora affairs of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the Netherlands, Muller’s goal was to visit all parts of the Greater Kurdistan, but also to meet the late Mustafa Barzani, who he considered a “freedom fighter and leader of the Kurds.”
“So, he came with the idea to follow the footsteps of the Greek historian Xenophon,” Kocer said.
He wanted to make a trip through the ancient lands of the Carduchoi, mentioned in Xenophon’s travel history in 400 B.C. The goal was not to raise suspicions from the governments of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
“The car had a large Xenophon logo painted on the top. But this was all just a joke: it was to stop the authorities from getting suspicious,” Kocer said.
“The special thing was that at that time no one in the Netherlands knew about the Kurds, let alone travel to Kurdistan. So it took us a long time to collect information before we could start our trip,” Muller wrote in his blog.
Muller was unable to meet Mustafa Barzani during the trip due to sickness but traveled to Kurdistan again in 1974 and met Barzani extensively in Iran.
In 1975, the Kurds were betrayed when the Shah of Iran signed a border treaty with Saddam Hussein and abandoned them. As a result, many Kurds fled to Iran. Muller met Barzani for the last time there in March 1975.
“In the summer of 1975, the first 17 Kurdish refugees came to the Netherlands. Piet was closely involved to receive refugees through a group called Initiative Group Kurdistan, created by the scouts of 1973,” Hegener said.
These refugees included Siamand Banaa, the first Iraqi ambassador to the Netherlands after the fall of Saddam, and Fuad Hussein, the current Finance Minister of Iraq, who met his Dutch wife in the Netherlands.
Muller’s group pressured Dutch authorities to accept more Kurdish refugees. At the time, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs was reluctant to accept more, fearing this would damage relations with Baghdad, according to a book by Dutch author Jan Willem ten Doesschate.
“Muller always advocated for the Kurdish question in the Netherlands, and this is why he was known among the Kurds as the ‘Grandfather of the Kurds.’ Moreover, he not only supported Kurds but also Christian refugees from Turkey,” Kocer added.
“At that time, not many Dutch people visited Kurdistan and felt the pain of the Kurdish people. This while the Iraqi government wanted to show how the situation was fine and there were no human rights violations.”
Muller traveled to Kurdistan with his wife from 1991 to 1993, bringing humanitarian support for families suffering from the war, especially Kurdish widows whose husbands were killed in battle.
In 2008, Muller and his wife visited a different Kurdistan—one after the fall of Saddam Hussein. “It was a dream for us to see it again after all those years,” he wrote in his blog.
“Kurdistan, and we mean Iraqi Kurdistan, has a special place in our heart. They are the people that always had a strong desire for freedom and suffered and struggled for this for a long time,” Muller wrote.
Only a limited number of people (30) could attend his funeral on April 10 due to anti-coronavirus measures, but 300 people still took part via a live stream on YouTube.
Kocer, who offered condolences on behalf of the KDP and the Barzani headquarters, told Kurdistan 24 that it was an honor for him to speak on behalf of the Kurds at Muller’s funeral.
“Kurds say their only friends are the mountains, but I don’t believe that because we have true friends, and one of them was Piet Muller.”
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany