Hazhar Majeed, owner of the Endese bookshop and publishing house in this southeastern Kurdistan city, was talking with us July 24 about the Kurdish people’s resistance to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s assaults between 1986 and 1991. The more than 40 million Kurds in the Middle East are the world’s largest people without a nation-state — something that was denied them at the end of World War I and ever since by the victors in that colossal slaughter. They remain carved up to this day by arbitrary borders, largely between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
“The division that exists is a political division imposed on us,” Hazhar said. “Otherwise the Kurds would never have been separated. Even with the division, Kurds still have very close cultural, social and political ties.”
During our three-day stay in Sulaymaniyah, Hazhar arranged for us to visit the former regional headquarters, prison and torture chamber of Saddam’s secret police — the Amna Suraka (Red Security). Now a museum, it focuses on two chapters from that regime’s quarter-century-long reign of terror.
The first is Saddam’s 1988 Anfal Campaign of extermination and forced removal of Kurds, during the closing stages of Baghdad’s eight-year-long war against Iran. Visitors to the Amna Suraka enter through a corridor lined with a mosaic of 182,000 shards of shattered mirror, recalling the number of Kurds slaughtered in the most horrible ways during the Anfal. The passageway is dimly lit by 4,500 small bulbs marking Kurdish villages destroyed in the operation.
The second theme is the March 1991 uprising in Kurdistan against that hated regime, captured in part by the still bullet- and shell-pocked walls of the garrison, liberated by Kurds March 7 that year. The museum also recounts the subsequent mass exodus from cities, towns, and villages, as the regime’s helicopter gunships sought to drown the rebellion in blood.
Hazhar Majeed was born and raised in the Kurdistan region of Iran, before moving to Sulaymaniyah in Iraq as a young man in 1998. “Even though the border was tight during the Saddam years, and it was hard physically to move from one side to the other, there was still a lot of contact among Kurds,” Hazhar said. “In many families, the father might be Iraqi, the son Iranian. The same with uncles, aunts, cousins and so on. The political subdivisions weren’t able to separate Kurds from each other.”
That was already true “before mass media came into being,” he said. “Now, with so many means of communication, solidarity among Kurds in all four countries — Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria — has become even more cemented. Right now, Kurds from Iran and Iraq are fighting ISIS in Syria alongside Kurds from there. Solidarity is growing.”
As for Saddam’s Anfal atrocities, Hazhar said, “I was still in my early teens at that time, so I don’t remember a lot. But I’ll tell you what I do remember, as well as what I’ve read and heard from family members, friends and others.”
During Anfal, some 100,000 Kurds from Iraq took refuge in Iran, in addition to the same number or more driven from their homes by various Baghdad regimes over the previous decade or so. “Kurds in Iran considered them brothers and sisters, not refugees,” Hazhar said.
“When they came to Iran,” he said, “many just divided up among families in Kurdistan, or local mosques and schools.” Then came Baghdad’s shelling of the town of Halabja with chemical weapons on March 16, 1988, during which some 5,000 Kurdish men, women and children suffered horrifying deaths. This was the deadliest but far from the only use of weapons of mass destruction against Kurds, ordered by Saddam through his cousin Gen. Ali Hasan al-Majid, branded with the infamous nickname “Chemical Ali.”
“I remember very well that when refugees from Halabja came through our city in Iran, the government in Tehran said they were contaminated by chemicals and wouldn’t let them disembark, as it had done earlier,” Hazhar said. “But people from across the city lined the road — and I was there — with blankets, food, tents, whatever we had in our houses. We’d throw them on the government trucks that were transporting them. I still get emotional when I think about it.”
There were so many refugees that many couldn’t be housed simply by relying on people in Iran’s towns and cities. So the government authorized a couple of international agencies to establish camps.
Washington, which backed Baghdad’s war against Iran while professing “neutrality,” largely kept its mouth shut about the Anfal until the story of this human catastrophe became useful in 1990-91 to rationalize the U.S. war against Iraq. The major media followed the U.S. government’s lead.
1991 Kurdish uprising
In August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, on Iraq’s southern border. Ever since 1979, when the shah of Iran had been toppled by a revolution, the U.S. government had been looking for a pretext to unleash its military might in the Middle East to defend its interests in the oil-rich and strategically important region. The Iraqi regime handed it the chance.
After Washington defeated Saddam’s forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq in early 1991, the U.S. rulers chose to sidestep the risks of pushing north to overturn the government in Baghdad. Instead, on the eve of the U.S. ground assault in late February, President George H.W. Bush publicly called on “the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.”
The Kurds revolted across Iraqi Kurdistan in early March, driving out Baghdad’s forces. The Shiite population across southern Iraq also took the streets. But Washington had lifted its air cover over Iraq, enabling Saddam’s regime to unleash its helicopter gunships and troops against the rebel population. Thousands were killed. By the end of March, there was another massive exodus of Kurds fleeing their homes in search of refuge in Iran or Turkey.
The U.S. government wanted to do nothing that would break up Iraq and begin undoing the borders and social relations imposed on the peoples of the region in the aftermath of two world wars. And the U.S. rulers had pledged to Turkey’s brutal regime — which itself oppresses millions of Kurds — that it would oppose an independent Kurdistan in Iraq.
Neither of the two main Kurdish liberation organizations — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) or Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — “initiated the Kurdish uprising in March 1991,” Hazhar said. Under the blows of the Anfal in 1988, these organizations “had unraveled, and most of their leaders were living in Tehran or elsewhere.”
So the Kurds who rose up weren’t under the command of any organization, he said. “The rebellion began on the fifth of March, in Ranya, a town about two hours north of Sulaymaniyah. Of course, fighters from the peshmerga” — the military units of the KDP and PUK — “are always in the cities, towns and villages, living undercover. So when the people rebelled, the peshmerga joined in with their rifles, handguns, whatever they had.
“And many other Kurds were armed, too, not only those in the peshmerga. Many Kurds had weapons at home and were using them to attack Saddam’s forces and defend themselves and their families,” Hazhar said. “More recently, you recall Kobani, don’t you? Old men and women, teenagers and others were armed and resisted the brutal occupation by Daesh, by the so-called Islamic State, of that Kurdish town in northern Syria. They helped fight off Daesh in Kirkuk too, right here in Iraq.
“That’s what began happening in Ranya on March 5, 1991. And in 16 days, all of Kurdistan had been liberated,” he said.
“Those we refer to here as the jash also took part in the rebellion,” he added. “That literally means ‘donkey’ in the Kurdish language. It’s the term we use for Kurds who joined armed units subservient to Saddam and earlier repressive regimes. They were mercenaries. They did much of the government’s dirty work, including during the Anfal and the gassing of Halabja and other towns.
“So as Saddam’s forces retreated in face of the uprising, the jash had to do something to try to exonerate themselves in the eyes of the people and the eyes of the Kurdish leaderships. So these armed units joined in the rebellion, too,” Hazhar said. “I should add that many of them have continued functioning as jash for the current Kurdistan Regional Government, for both the KDP and PUK leaderships, to this day.”
Kurdistan Regional Government
“Kurds on both sides of the border, in Iraq as well as in Iran, welcomed the blows to Saddam’s regime in 1991. We had nothing to lose,” Hazhar said. “It was the inevitable course of history unfolding, and we enjoyed it and took advantage of it. Baghdad’s defeat opened a wedge for our uprising, and then in 1992 for the establishment and survival of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq.”
Washington, London, Paris and other powers sought to cover their own tracks regarding the Kurds’ unrelenting struggles for their national rights. These governments seesawed between tactically arming Kurdish organizations to a tiny degree, followed by cynical betrayals, depending on their shifting interests and relations with successive regimes in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and across the Middle East. Newspaper, radio, and television outlets largely taped shut their eyes and mouths in deference to the governments they serve and promote. The silence during and after Baghdad’s Anfal campaign was deafening.
“But there have been two events in the Middle East over the past quarter century that finally caused the world press to pay attention to the Kurdish question,” Hazhar said.
“One was the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the Kurdish uprising, and Baghdad’s initial repression of it, which caused the world to despise Saddam Hussein.
“The second, still very much in the eyes of the world since 2014, is the war against Daesh. Kobani, Sinjar, the wars in northern Iraq and Syria — the place of Kurdish fighters in liberating people from Daesh is showing the world another face of the Kurds.”
During the 1991 war, Hazhar said, “Saddam pulled his forces out of much of the north, leaving a power vacuum that Kurds began to fill during the uprising. We even took back Kirkuk, which has always been a red line for Kurds, and also a red line for the central Iraqi government, for Ankara and for Tehran.”*
Then came Baghdad’s brutal counteroffensive, beginning March 28. Among the most powerful exhibits at the Amna Suraka museum is a large hall whose four walls and ceiling are covered with photographs of Kurds driven from their homes in flight toward Turkey and Iran. The photos were taken by a young Kurd from Iran who crossed the border to document the exodus.
Turkey closed its borders to the refugees, fearing their impact on its own large Kurdish population. Thousands died from the bitter cold, starvation or disease.
“But there has always been movement back and forth between Iraq and Iran as part of these flights, as I described from the Anfal,” Hazhar said. “Refugees were met with solidarity from Kurds in Iran, who consider Sulaymaniyah and its surroundings their backyard.”
With its long war with Baghdad only a few years in the past, the Iranian government had its own reasons for accepting the refugees. Among others, Hazhar said, “Millions of dollars in cash poured into Iran from international organizations, and the regime and businesses there were selling food and other products for the refugee camps. It was profitable for Iran, which was still recovering from the economic consequences of the war with Iraq.”
The Iranian government and international agencies also arranged for refugees to resettle in Europe, Australia and the United States, where many are still living today, Hazhar said.
“And many returned to Kurdistan in Iraq after the KRG was established in 1992, including refugees from the Anfal and Halabja attacks in 1988,” he said. “This included children who had been separated from their families and raised by Iranian families for several years — both Kurdish and Persian families, it didn’t matter. Many were able to reunite with their families here, either on the basis of DNA records or other ways.
“Mass evacuations have happened often in Kurdish history,” Hazhar told us. “Walk around Sulaymaniyah, and you won’t find a house that hasn’t been burned twice, or a family that hasn’t been refugees several times and had two or three martyrs. The same for other cities and villages. It’s part of growing up as a Kurd.”
Yet the people of Kurdistan remain determined to win their right to national self-determination and a nation-state. They’ve made big strides in Iraq since 1991.
Recalling an earlier visit to Amna Suraka a few months ago with one of the authors of this article, Hazhar recited lyrics by the Kurdish singer and songwriter Adnan Karim: “Don’t tell me I’m a refugee. I’m merely roaming in my own land.”
* Kirkuk is a historically Kurdish province with large Turkmen, Christian and Arab populations, located at the center of Iraq’s richest oilfields. Long considered by Iraqi Kurds to be their capital, the city of Kirkuk was excluded from the Kurdistan Regional Government in 1992 due to Saddam Hussein’s insistence on monopolizing and plundering Iraq’s oil revenues. Labeled a “disputed territory” in the post-Saddam Iraqi constitution, Kirkuk’s status was to be determined by a 2007 referendum that Baghdad refused to organize. Since 2014, when Iraqi armed forces abandoned the city in face of advancing Islamic State troops, it has been governed by a majority Kurdish administration, defended by the peshmerga. Its population will participate in the referendum on Kurdistan’s independence set by the KDP, PUK and other KRG parties for Sept. 25, 2017.
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