Halabja: Echoes of Genocide in Kurdistan at the Newseum

Left to right: Dr. Michael Newton (Vanderbilt University), Nawaf Ashur (Yezidi witness to 2014 genocide), and Dr. Gregory Stanton (founder of Genocide Watch). And the moderator at the end is Dr. Elie Abouaoun, from the US Institute of Peace.

Article by Emily Scheppegrell

Thirty years ago, college student Muhammad Aziz, 24 years old, excitedly returned to his hometown of Halabja from the University of Baghdad for spring break. His spring break was brought to a catastrophic halt when Saddam Hussein dropped chemical bombs on Halabja. The attack killed almost 5,000 people. The ones who were not killed were injured for life by the toxic chemicals used in the attack and carried by the wind across the area. Aziz, although lucky enough to have lived, spoke at the Halabja Genocide anniversary event while wheezing and relying on an oxygen machine to continue breathing. He, like many others, have had their lives irreparably devastated by a series of deliberate attacks against the Kurdish population.

The event, Halabja: Echoes of Genocide in Kurdistan, hosted by the Kurdish Regional Government on March 14th, 2018, began with a series of clips and stories created by the Kurdistan Memory Programme, an organization with the intent of documenting Kurdish history. The Kurds have influenced Middle Eastern history in monumental ways but are largely neglected by history. Terrible tragedies have occurred to them, like the horrific genocide perpetrated by Saddam Hussein with deadly chemical bombs and violence. The Kurdistan Memory Programme aims to change history’s ignorance of Kurds by collecting memories and stories and preserving them as the truth in film and audio recordings.

As conference members watched a survivor solemnly walk through a Halabja cemetery, with rows of white gravestones painted in curling blue Arabic script, tears began to fall. Many of the individuals attending the conference were there because of a personal connection to the genocide and history of Kurdistan. Even people with no connection to Kurdistan at all were horrified by the brutal violence and heartbreaking loss shown on screen. But the screening was not only despair; it transitioned to stories of hope, narratives of children lost during the genocide and reuniting with their remaining family years later.

Following the Memory Programme clips, Maryland Senator Christopher Van Hollen spoke, noting the lack of assistance Kurds received from the international community and calling the audience to action. Van Hollen has introduced legislation and is now working with the Senate to fight emerging genocide. “This is an area the world has failed in too many times,” he said. “We need to rededicate ourselves to make sure this never happens again.”

Next, the conference administration made a Skype call to a survivor in Kurdistan. Countries away, he spoke of his life and story. Zimnako Mohammed Ahmed was lost during the genocide as a small child and his parents assumed he was dead. He was adopted by an Iranian nurse and many years later, returned to his home and took a DNA test to find his birth parents. He is now happily married, with a one-year old daughter. But the tragedies of Halabja have not left from his life. “There is no guarantee that what happened to my family and me won’t happen again to my daughter,” Ahmed says somberly.

Following Ahmed, a panel on justice and accountability covered topics like genocide progression, tribunal effectiveness, recognition, and transparency. One of the most interesting points was brought up by Dr. Gregory Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch. He spoke about a process of genocide that had been identified, with ten recognizable stages that allow researchers to predict genocide before it happens. Dr. Stanton even predicted the 1994 Rwanda genocide five years before it happened. He set up a meeting with the Rwandan president to warn him and request that the population identification cards have ethnicity identifiers removed so minorities were harder to single out. He was denied and disbelieved.

Kurdistan still is not recognized as a country. They still seek justice for the atrocities committed against them throughout history. By 1999, over 4,000 Kurdish villages had been attacked. Hussein and others attempted to wipe out an entire group of people but failed. The Kurds survived and work towards a future in which peace and equality will reign over hatred and distrust.

On your spring break this year, recall the Kurds and the horrors they have faced and resolve to spread peace and justice throughout the world. As John F. Kennedy originally said and survivor Ahmed emotionally quoted over Skype, “mankind must put an end to war, before war puts an end to mankind.”   

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