6 April 2013
IRAQI KURDISTAN: Don’t forget the
It was uncomfortable. We were in Halabja
on the 25th anniversary of the gas attacks that killed thousands of
people in the city in a single day, part of Saddam Hussein’s Al’Anfal,
genocidal campaign against the Kurds. The Kurds, who endured this crime, deserved
the seats of honor at this gathering, not us, the internationals, who ignored
or even blamed others for the deaths, in order to support our then-allies the
perpetrators, Saddam and his Baathist government. Yet here we sat a few rows from
In the midst of our discomfort, we
noticed a small group of young men sitting — by a twist of fate, an act of God
or pure coincidence — on the floor next to our seats, holding rolled up signs,
and looking slightly agitated.
Public protest and demonstration in
Iraqi Kurdistan is a dangerous business. Since the Kurdish Spring of 2011,
people have feared being arrested, beaten, disappeared, or even shot in the
street by the Asaish (security forces) for “illegal protests”. They
only join permitted protests, which cannot criticize the government. The young
men sitting beside us were braver than most, so we offered our support, our
presence, our witness for the brave act they were about to undertake.
The action was simple. After Prime Minister Barzani had given his speech,
condemning the attacks and giving lip service to the men, women and children of
Halabja, the young men stood up, walked into the middle of the aisle directly
in front of the stage, held their banners high and called out to Barzani and
the government to honor the promises they make every year. CPT stepped behind,
watched, listened and supported. The group grew, doubling in number as other
young men grabbed signs and called others to join them.
Halabja was a convenient excuse for invading and occupying Iraq. Saddam’s
human rights violations were cited as making it a moral duty. On every
anniversary the dead are honored; politicians and diplomats make speeches
promising change that has never come.
Halabja is a poor city, with poor public services and a low standard of
living. The gas attacks left many mentally and physically disabled. The United
Nations’ crippling economic sanctions and “Oil for food” program
created heavy dependencies on government handouts.
Instead of dealing with these issues the government ignores them, opting to
build memorials and hold multi-million dollar remembrance events.
The people of Halabja and these young protesters ask us, the world, not to
forget the dead, but also not to forget the living. As they asked their
politicians to honor their promises to the survivors of the attacks, they also
ask us, the international community, not to forget.
The protesters were not immediately harassed. For now the action itself is
its only measurable reward. Other consequences may follow.
Ten years after the invasion, one year after withdrawal, I fear we have
forgotten those who suffer the consequences, who survived the actions and
inactions of our governments. I fear we have forgotten the Kurds.
|Matt Barr, a British activist, academic and veteran of CPT delegations in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, wrote two articles for Peace news, for non violent
revolution, one focusing on this event:
Halabja and the Politics of Tragedy