By Kani Xulam
The following speech was delivered in the Rayburn House Office Building on March 18, 1998, on the tenth anniversary of Saddam’s gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja.
There is a story in Greek mythology, which sheds some light on Saddam’s poison gas attack against the Kurds. It goes something like this: When Athens wanted to invade the island of Sicily, it wanted to enlist all of its able bodies to join in the war effort. So when the call went out for total mobilization, an elderly Athenian matron who only had two sons joined the patriotic fray, registered her two boys, and urged them to do their share for the city that had given them life and liberty.
Athens’ involvement in Sicily lasted for decades, and some historians have compared it to America’s involvement in Vietnam. The naval power of Athens lost many of its soldiers in the field and eventually abandoned the costly mirage in defeat.
The Athenian matron, in the mean time, had taken to the many temples of the ancient Greeks on the mountaintops and had prayed for the safe return of her sons. When the boys came home, she was happy to see that her sons were among the survivors. But the steel and the fire had changed them; just as anxiety, her sons discovered, had aged her. Nevertheless, they were all happy to see each other alive again. One day, the sons asked their mother if she had a wish that they could fulfill. The mother asked them to take her to the temple where she had often gone to pray for their safe return. The boys knew that their mother was too weak to do the climb, so they found a stretcher and transported her to the place of the gods as she had requested.
The mother was grateful. She thanked the deity for the safe return of her two sons. She also prayed for the other sons that never returned. She prayed for peace between Athens and the other city states, and finally, gazing at the home of the stars, the place of all gods, she prayed for her own sons again, and wished that the very best would be their lot from now on.
As she walked out to meet with her sons, she discovered that they had both dropped dead by the stretcher – much like the Kurdish father Omar and his infant son [show the picture].
Modern readers of Greek mythology struggle hard to read meanings into the words of the ancient wanderers on this earth. For a long time, I myself could not read much meaning into the story of the Athenian matron and her two sons. Then I witnessed Halabja on the television set in my living room. I saw the dead, the victims, and the living, the so-called “survivors”. The story became no longer a myth for me but a reality of my people, some four millennia after their history began.
On March 16, 1988, Saddam’s air force dropped poison gas on the Kurds. Close to 5,000 of my kin met with instantaneous deaths. 7,000 others were taken to hospitals in Iran and in Europe. Before the dust had settled, the Kurds had entered the annals of our tumultuous history as the first civilian victims of a chemical attack in the world.
A recent “60 Minutes” program on CBS showed how, a full ten years after Saddam’s attack, the deadly fumes are still consuming the Kurds of Halabja. Dr. Christine Gosden, head of the Genetics Department at Liverpool University in England, spoke of the nerve damage, brain damage, untreatable skin diseases and infertility problems that have become the lot of the surviving Kurds.
In a subsequent article in The Washington Post, she wrote: “The chemicals used in the attack … have a general effect on the body similar to that of ionizing radiation.” This is another way of saying the DNA of the Kurds has been effected, their genes have been altered. She went on to add, “The terrible images of the people of Halabja and their situation persist and recur in my nightmares and disturb my waking thoughts.”
Perhaps the most poignant part about Dr. Gosden’s report is her observation in The Post that: “The surgeons [in Halabja] often have to remove bullets from people who have failed in their suicide attempts.” This is the tale of the survivors envying the lot of the dead. These are the Kurds who are enduring not just their physical pain, but also the indignity of having survived to live in an indifferent world.
Ironically, we are gathered in a building that whose occupants can make Saddam Hussein account for the crimes he has committed against the Kurds and humanity. The recent Senate resolution declaring the Butcher of Baghdad a war criminal is a step in the right direction. Just like other war criminals in places such as Bosnia and Rwanda, he too should be made to account for the crimes he has committed.
So on this day of remembering, our call remains for the advocates of humanity in this country and across the world to come together, to close ranks, to have Saddam stand trial for the barbarity that he committed on the Kurds. This call may go unanswered, just as it has for the last ten years. But we Kurds will never forget Halabja for as long as we live. This is a promise we make to the dead and will pass it on to the future generation of the Kurds. Dead or alive, Saddam and his henchmen will pay dearly for the blight they have caused to the Kurds.