An Open Letter to Uncle Omar of Halapja
December 3, 2004
Dear Uncle Omar,
It has been sixteen years since you parted company from us. You and your infant son were discovered dead on the steps of your neighbor’s door. Journalists, who stumbled upon you, used several rolls of film to take your photos. Then they went into the underground shelter for the house and discovered your eight daughters and their mother, all dead, as well. These female members of your family though, didn’t get as much attention. As far as I know, we don’t have their parting shots the way we have of you from all angles. I suppose the journalists were thinking if you are found dead and in hiding, you are not noteworthy, oops, my mistake, picture-worthy. If I were there, I would have taken their pictures as well, and placed you all in the same album. I would have done that for you, Uncle Omar, and your family; but these journalists were, mostly, thinking of the markets, fame, and their editors, I guess.
To say that the aftermath of your death was chaos is an understatement. The Kurds, who survived you, if we could call it that, ran away with their lives to the north and east since the Arabs were to their south and west. The Iranian government flew in the western reporters to film the abundant harvest in human cadavers. Teheran, if you recall, had been telling an unbelieving world that the Iraqi army was using the internationally banned chemical weapons against its soldiers. With your death, as civilians, the Ayatollahs thought they could prove a point. You, I mean your pictures, became the proverbial grist for the mills of the Mullahs. Some people in the West even had the gall to suggest that the Iranians had committed the deed and duped the international media. Not that Iran is beyond such a thing, as we both know, but this particular act had all the hallmarks of the Butcher of Baghdad written all over it. The Herculean efforts of the Iranian government notwithstanding, no one mustered a word of protest, out of a population of some five billion people on this earth, save the Kurds, against Saddam Hussein. If the penguins of Antarctica had been gassed, the number of times that our people were, there would have been uproar in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow. The death of a Kurd elicited as much sympathy as the death of a mouse. Five months later, Iran, pushed to the edge of a precipice, sued for peace. Those monsters with turbans didn’t even have the courtesy to tell us, since nominally we were partners, that they were going to do so, and just like in 1975, left us on our own to deal with an emboldened Saddam Hussein. You, your family and what had become of your beloved city, with a population of seventy thousand people on the eve of the attack, — some Americans to this day refer to it as a village, — were pretty much forgotten.
In 2003, you were “discovered” again. Two years before that, nineteen Arab men had attacked America in broad daylight shocking and insulting a happy-go-lucky nation to its very foundations. What these disciples of enforced ignorance did in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia matched in its ferocity, no surpassed, what Japan had done, — with another sneak attack, — at Pearl Harbor in 1941. In less than a month, the Americans went to war in Afghanistan, to settle scores with a man by the name of Osama Bin Laden, — a beloved CIA operative gone sour, — the mastermind of the assault on the American targets. In a few weeks, he and his patrons, the Taliban, a noxious regime from top to bottom, were toppled. The UBL, as the Pentagon calls him, went into hiding and remains there to this day. Surprised with the speed of their victory in Kabul, the Orwellian Neo-cons at the Pentagon began planning another regime change, this time in Baghdad.
All at once, — I had never seen anything like it, — there was this torrential outpouring of sympathy for the victims of Saddam Hussein, especially you, Uncle Omar. People who did not know the difference between “a Kurd” and “the curd” began shedding crocodile tears over your dead body. This unrequited love for the hapless Kurds soon acquired the power of a mighty hurricane and swept even me, sturdy oak that I thought I was, in its wake. Fox News, a cable television, called me to be a guest in their studios for a live program on Saddam Hussein. I thought I could go there and honor your memory. The woman who interviewed me, whose name now escapes me, I soon found out, was absolutely not interested in you, but only Saddam Hussein and what he meant as a menace to the United States. Maybe you watched the program in your high heaven; if you did, you saw that I tried my best to keep the focus on you but, apparently, not that successfully. A true friend of the Kurds and Kurdistan called me afterwards and told me that I had been duped. Reflecting on it, I accepted the charge and promised myself to fortify myself against future traps.
You need to know something else, something very important, something that my generation of Kurds will not touch even with the longest pole in the world, but I suspect, unlike them, you will give me your full and undivided attention. In 1988, when you were gassed, in 365 days, according to Lexis Nexis, a barometer of news in the English media, there were 188 stories about you. In March of 2003 alone, in thirty-one days, the month the United States launched an attack on Iraq, you were honored, you will not believe this, 145 times. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to say, “unearned suffering is redemptive;” I guess, we Kurds have to come up with our own version of this very quandary, unearned love is, I am at a loss for words, perhaps toxic, like the stuff you inhaled, and dropped dead, the moment it touched your lungs! One other thing, Uncle Omar, please note this, in parenthesis if you will, but I am dead serious, I honestly think you had it better in that spring of 1988! Saddam Hussein hated your guts and displayed his hatred on his sleeves if you will. No such luck is in store for us, your surviving kith and kin. What we face is far more dangerous, far more treacherous, and surprise, surprise, it is called “love!” I don’t know about you Uncle Omar, but I would much rather face an honest but brutal foe than a dishonest but “affectionate” one.
Last September, the Kurdish world went through an earthquake, with the news that President of Iraq, Ghazi al-Yawer, had declared his unconditional love for our “favorite” daughter, Nesreen M. S. Berwari. Please don’t tell anyone that President al-Yawer has already two known wives and a bunch of kids besides. When an Associated Press reporter brought it up with Nesreen, she threw a fit and chased the reporter out of her office. But going back to the “love” offensive, you must still remember that when the monster from Tikrit was running the show in Baghdad, we were called Kurds, and our land, Kurdistan; do you know what the new American Ambassador, John D. Negroponte, the real power behind the façade called Iraqi Interim Government, calls the place you called home? “Northern Iraq!” “Attention, attention” will soon blare from the public announcement systems, throughout our homeland, congratulating us, hapless Kurds, on our graduation to a brand new status, as Iraqis. As if on a cue, our son-in-law, the President of Iraq, has just formed a new party, the “Iraqis’ Party” to tap into our votes!
Honest, Uncle Omar, I smell foul play, from some 5,000 miles away. I have been told the chemicals you inhaled smelled like rotten garlic, did they? Could it be that what Saddam Hussein started with noxious fumes, these guys will finish with empty platitudes? I have this eerie feeling that something very calamitous is about to take place in Kurdistan. I honestly think, you have to either work on God to dry up the oil wells of Kerkuk and the waterbeds of Tigris and Euphrates, or we are doomed! This “conquer it with love” onslaught will kill more of us than the operation that consumed you, which was named after a Quranic chapter called al Anfal. Did you, for example, see what happened in Kerkuk the day the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) was signed in Baghdad? The Kurds of Kerkuk thought that they had been granted freedom, three of them died from joy, I mean, they fired their guns into the air, but some were so drunk that they shot at each other! And you know what happened to TAL itself? Mr. Sistani, an Ayatollah in Iraq, the man who claims to be on good terms with God, made sure it was thrown on the dumpster of the United Nations, in New York. It looks like God didn’t tell Mr. Sistani anything about us Kurds. Uncle Omar, that is a gigantic negligence on your part. Unless, we work together, you up there in heaven, us down here in hell, oops, Kurdistan, we are going to be trapped either by Godless Saddams or God “fearing” Sistanis. Please, get to work, right away. If you must know how bad it is down here, imagine God airdropping Adolph Hitler on Israel. Herr Hitler may deserve his fate, a slow motion roasting till he is dead; we are “loved” as much, the only reason we are not subjected to the same end is the fact that we have to say, we are Iraqis, Syrians, Turks, and Iranians.
You are probably thinking aloud now and wondering what prompted this letter, dying to know what has happened in Halapja and the rest of Kurdistan. The answer to the first part of your question is, — you are probably not going to like this, — Fallujah. But bear with me Uncle Omar, to begin with, the Butcher of Baghdad is no more! Yes, Praise the Lord, and Uncle George too, no, no, not the father, not the “prudent” thing, but the son, the “decisive” one who toppled Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003 and captured him alive on December 13, of the same year, you will rejoice over this, in a spider hole, just outside of Tikrit. The man who thought building fifty palaces was nothing when half a million Arab children were dying from malnutrition is now in custody. And you know what else, his cousin Chemical Ali, the man who ordered your death, is a jailbird as well. Halleluiah, a thousand times, right! But wait, it gets more interesting, no, I take it back, bizarre is the word for it, when I tell you about Fallujah itself. The whole of Iraq fell prostrate before an advancing American army in less than a month. A year later, Fallujah managed to make itself a no-go zone for the Marines. President Bush caring more about his campaign at home than reasserting his control over the rebels, let them have it their way until his reelection last month. Five days later, on November 8, “Operation Dawn” in Arabic, but “Fury” in English, don’t ask me for the difference in the names, began and ended with the defeat of old Baathists and new Jihadists in the city of the beheadings, oops, “mosques.”
But the fall of Fallujah, Uncle Omar, did more to unravel this mysterious world for me than all the years and years of education that I had received in its schools. School is a waste of time, a place for the dimwits, not for those with two open eyes and any curiosity at all! To begin with, I thought of your beloved city Halapja every time I heard or read about Fallujah. Fallujans were given advance notice to leave their besieged city, but did anything like that ever happen in your city when it was gassed? In the city of Fallujah, an angry Marine killed a disabled Mujahaddin in a mosque. The news of it, captured on videotape, swept the whole world like a tsunami. The good folks from Norway to South Africa, from Vladivostok to Vancouver began accusing the United States of war crimes. Where were they, these very folks, when the very same acts, multiply them, please, with a quarter million times in Kurdistan, were perpetrated against you and your loved ones, with chemical weapons to boot? Do you know something else Uncle Omar, these Fallujans are very clever, had they rebelled say in year 2002, instead of 2004, Saddam Hussein would have turned their city into a parking lot and no one would have known about it! It is all a matter of timing isn’t it?
If I thought I had seen it all, I hadn’t, the wackier stuff came later when President Bush attended a conference in Chile on November 19, 2004. Thousands of Chileans took to the streets in Santiago, their capital, with a lead banner that read, “Sorry Fallujah, Stupid Americans Your Time Will Come …” The sign was all over the media. This UBL guy is really, really, really smart, I concluded after staring at the picture, in the Washington Post, for a good ten minutes. If he had attacked any of the U.S. supported Middle Eastern despots, he would have gotten nowhere with his brand of Islam. Now, God, as UBL would have put it with delight, — or should I say of the other mightier deity called, Ignorance, — will be sending al Qaeda thousands of “Christian” recruits from Latin America. This love of Chileans for the UBL types has been the most “edifying” experience of my whole life. Sorry Uncle Omar, you did not get to see it in person, but I am thankful to God for giving me the privilege of witnessing it live in the course of my own troubling stay on this earth.
I have got some other gems for you, Uncle Omar. Just a few days ago, I read in a magazine called “Kurdish Life,” a publication of the Kurdish Library in Brooklyn, New York, a description of the Kurds as “rank novitiates” in the “unsavory game of geopolitics.” If this was not enough to rile me, reading the exchange between Lord Curzon of Great Britain and Ismet Pasha of Turkey in the minutes of the Treaty of Lausanne on our homeland proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Ismet Pasha had the temerity to claim all Kurds as Turks and demanded the restoration of what we today call Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey on the basis of President Wilson’s principle of self-determination! This blockhead, a Kurd who relished calling himself a Turk, — since you are up in heaven now, will you please ask God why it has blessed us with an abundance of them? — demanded the hilly country of Jebel Hamrin as the natural border between Turkey and Arab Iraq. The hack was so sure of his assertion that, like the Neo-cons of our times, he dared Lord Curzon to hold a plebiscite. I winced when I read what had passed as negotiations over our fate. The response of Lord Curzon, however, sent cold shivers down my spine. “Poor fellows,” said the British diplomat, referring to us, alluding to the referendum, “do not know what it means.” I don’t know about you, but sleep has parted my company for several nights now. I can’t bring myself to call, for example, my old man, a “rank novitiate” or “poor fellow.” I know he was not as smart as Socrates, but on his own turf, Lord Curzon would have been no match to him. I knew Saladin, a humble Kurd, had outwitted Richard Plantagenet, a British King, a.k.a., the Lionhearted, but I wish he had done so in the name of Kurdistan rather than Islam. If that had been the case, you would have still been around and I wouldn’t have been in exile fighting for our fallen honor with a dull pen as my gun.
Perhaps Lord Curzon was right that our fathers did not know the meaning of the word, plebiscite. When you are denied your history, it is no different than being drunk, you don’t know where you are, you can’t tell a foe from a friend, and you would be lucky to escape a marauding bunch like the British, the French or the Turks. We were caught off guard and subjected to a second hacking, — the way a cooked Turkey is carved up for dinner at Thanksgiving, — but in our case, not even from the joints, among parasites who loved calling themselves diplomats. The Persians, as you know, were already in possession of approximately 24 percent of our lands. The Turks, although a defeated party at the conference, were holding onto 52 percent and clamoring for more, the 18 percent that was on the table. It makes an amazing reading to see their staggering machinations for as much supremacy as possible over the Kurds. It did not even register when the British representative, Lord Curzon, upbraided them for their nonsense that the Kurds were their cousins, as he put it, The Kurds “have no more affinity with the Turk, except the possession of common religion, than have the Chinese.” In the end, southern Kurdistan, — Lord Curzon called it as such throughout the conference, — was retained, but subjected to Arab Iraq because of the discovery of oil. In the Turkish controlled Kurdistan, the Kurds were called Turks just as Ismet Pasha had said they were and subjected to one of the gravest political crimes of all times, cultural genocide, that still goes on unabated.
There is one other thing that I want to tell you about the minutes of the Treaty of Lausanne, Uncle Omar. At the conference, the Turks submitted a list for various nationalities that populated the border cities of Mosul and Kerkuk and noted that the first had a population of 216,000 people. Of that figure, they said, 132,000 were Kurds, 35,000 were Turkmen and 28,000 were Arabs. Today, Mosul has a population of 1.6 million inhabitants. Only a quarter of them are Kurds. The Arabs are claiming the rest for themselves. If you think something is incongruous about the numbers past and present, wait till you see the figures for the city of Kerkuk. Ismet Pasha asserted that it had a population of 184,000 people. The British number for the city was 92,000. Of the Turkish numbers, 97,000 were Kurds, 79,000 were Turkmen, and 8,000 were Arabs. Of the British numbers, 45,000 were Kurds, 35,000 were Turkmen, and 10,000 were Arabs. The Kurds, by both counts, were the dominant population in the latter city as well. Again, the Arabs are now claiming the city as theirs; and the Turkmen are insisting that it has been theirs from the very beginning. It remains to be seen if a semblance of order coupled with right, and not might, will prevail in Kerkuk. I am not optimistic.
Last spring, a wire report from the city noted that a Kurd had written, “Welcome to Kurdistan,” at the entrance of the city. An American soldier took it upon himself to replace the word, Kurdistan, with the word Iraq. The Kurd went back, this time at night, and changed the word, Iraq, to Iraqi Kurdistan. As a Kurd, I should not perhaps read too much into what one American soldier did in Kerkuk. He may have thought he was in a country called Iraq, not Kurdistan, and he may be right. But the Iraq that he is asked to hold together with his blood is not a natural state the way Germany is for example. It took Saddam Hussein’s genocidal policies to keep it from falling apart. With him in custody, unless he is emulated deed by deed, the monstrosity, as a polity, will not persist, and if it does, will be in a state of perpetual violence.
Since no one wants such a Hobbesian world, one should perhaps look around for some alternatives. The history of Europe offers some salutary lessons. If the continent has a semblance of peace and order now, it is because it has finally pretty much resolved its nationalities question. The Germans are no longer dominating the Poles as they once did. The Czechs and the Slovaks can part amicably and it is not the end of the world. It is wrong, — sinful might be the better word for it, – to ask the Kurds to “help” put Iraq back together. It will be a blessing to see Iraq break along its natural fault lines. Imagine Great Britain being absolved, finally, of the crime of pitting the Arabs against the Kurds once and, hopefully, for good. But since neither London nor Washington is moving in that direction, others are gladly taking their place. Already, the graffiti in Mosul is heralding the “bright” new dawn. It reads, “To Kill a Kurd [is] to Kill a Jew!” The Arab-Kurdish enmity is not necessarily historical, but the advent of nationalism has made it inevitable, that is if they are forced to live under one roof. Unless, of course, we revisit yes, that word again, a plebiscite, and ask the Kurds, the injured party, if they would like to remain a part of the Arab Iraq. Where are you President Wilson when your country, the Kurds and the Arabs need you most? Your grandchildren are dying not for your ideals, self-determination for subject peoples, but for oil, sorry, President Bush, making them the object of hatred and derision throughout the world.
Speaking of oil, this letter would be incomplete, if I did not talk about it, even though it is not what I focus on these days. The Americans constitute about 5 percent of the world’s population; they consume about 25 percent of its oil. Iraq has 0.5 percent of the world’s people, but possesses close to 20 percent of its oil reserves. Of that amount, about 7 percent lies under Kurdish soil. Washington wants it all. Just like Great Britain, it is going to sacrifice the Kurds to the Arab majority to have a say in all the oil of Iraq. The Neo-cons may not say it, but I can state it for them, the loss of about 1,200 Marines in Iraq, so far, is nothing next to the known oil reserves of that country, which stand at 120 billion barrels. Nations have risked far greater sacrifices for prizes far less consequential. Uncle Sam is already building 14 permanent military bases in the land of the two rivers. He is aiming for a friendly country, a carbon copy of Kuwait if you will. If the UBL types or a genuine resistance outfoxes these plans, the indispensability card will be next in line, to force the different groups beg for the U.S. to stay in the name of genocide prevention. What should we Kurds do in the midst of these grand plans that have no room for Kurdistan? The laws of self-preservation demand that, we should work for their immediate and permanent derailment. Again, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
I am almost at the end of my letter, but I think you would want to hear two Kurdish stories out of Fallujah as well. The first one will give you heartache; the second will make you proud. Since Uncle Sam broke the back of Republican Guard, Iraq has been struggling to build an army of its own. It is a cumbersome task and the prospects aren’t that good. The man who is tasked with the duty, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, said it was, “akin to repairing an aircraft in flight and while being shot at.” So when the Americans decided to take Fallujah, they enlisted some Kurdish Peshmerga forces as part of Iraqi National Guard. One of those Kurds spoke with a BBC reporter, Quil Lawrence, on November 20, and shamed us all with his nonsense. He said, “I have got a picture of Ariel Sharon at my house.” He went on, “I want to send my children away to live in Israel.” Someone should remind this bonehead the time-tested admonition of Thomas Paine, “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” The other story belongs to one of the Kurdish commanders of the 36th Battalion. When he was told about the assault on Fallujah on November 5, 2004, he resigned. Wow, I said to myself, here is a soldier with a conscience, sense of history and the future, the only type that can liberate Kurdistan, and guarantee its survivability in the Middle East. I was a happy Kurd for it.
To Halapja, yes, I have finally made it, though your beloved city is crippled. On the day you died, some 5,000 other Kurds met the same fate. Looking at your picture today, if one were to forget its circumstances, one might think, you and your son are just taking a nap. An authority like Julius Caesar once noted that death is best when it is quickest, as he got it, and I am glad yours was as quick as his. What I am not glad about is what happened afterward. Saddam Hussein continued to bomb other parts of Kurdistan with impunity. I have seen one wire report note that 281 Kurdish settlements were gassed. In other words, death became a constant companion of the Kurds. Human Rights Watch has noted that the campaign claimed the lives of some 182,000 of our loved ones. Saddam Hussein’s cousin, Chemical Ali, is on record for saying that his estimate is closer to 100,000. In terms of remembrance, you have outstripped all the other victims. A statue of you and your son, prostrate on a pedestal, in the same position that you were found, which also adorns our website, now stands at the entrance of Halapja. You are probably blushing to read this, but there is one problem. The elders of the city forgot to honor your girls and their mother. I think it is a shame that we Kurds, who originally were Zoroastrians, also subscribe to the sexism that is prevalent throughout the Middle East.
Oh, Uncle Omar, I have to tell you about the indictment of Saddam Hussein and his company as well. On July 1, 2004, he and eleven of his top lieutenants, henchmen is a better word for them, were brought before a judge at a place near Baghdad. I was, literally, glued to the TV set on that day. It was an incredible scene. It was eleven to one, if you are into the numbers. It was also a disgrace. I have to say this up front: Saddam Hussein won the day. None of his henchmen came even close; in fact, they were all big time losers. You should have seen them trembling for their lives. People capable of ordering the deaths of thousands, through gassing and torture, should have, you would have thought, welcomed death, since they assumed the powers that we ordinarily attribute to God. That is not what happened at Camp Victory, the site of court. All were read their rights. All were indicted for crimes against the state as well as humanity. Halapja was part of the indictment. But only Saddam Hussein engaged the judge in a feisty exchange and refused to sign anything without his lawyer’s presence. All others pled guilty as charged and signed the dotted line as instructed. Middle East, I learned that day, produces a lot of yes men, but very few independent minds. Monstrous as was Saddam Hussein’s legacy, because he stood up for his freedom, he earned my gratitude. Your killer, Chemical Ali, only earned my contempt.
I think this has been a longer letter than I anticipated. A lot has happened and I have barely touched the surface. I wish I could say that I have saved the best news for the end and that our long night of captivity is now blessed with the bright light of freedom. Alas, that is not going to be my parting sentence. Instead, I want to share with you a short passage from “King Lear,” a play by William Shakespeare, a contemporary of our own Ehmede Xani, who has some telling advice for the Kurds and their leaders.
If that the heavens do not their visible spirits
Send quickly down to tame these vile offenses,
It will come,
Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.
Sorry UBL, and President Bush, — if you care to know, — God does not take sides in the wars of the human family. Each of you will have to depend on your wits and your resources to achieve mastery over the other. Humanity will continue to prey on itself as the bard noticed it in his times and immortalized it with his lines. As to us, the Kurds, who are toiling mightily in Baghdad and Ankara, to, supposedly, help our enemies get on their feet, I hope and pray that you are faking it, and if you are not, Kurdistan will rejoice in your failures, follies, vices, and misfortunes. The Kurdish foreign minister of Iraq has it wrong, when he says, “If we [Iraq] lose, the region will be hell.” I say, let hell come. If it burns a British imperial construct called Iraq, the world will be better off for it. Out of its ashes will emerge a smaller Arab state, reduced to its natural size and a Kurdish one! At least five million Kurds, out of a population of some thirty to forty million souls, will enjoy their manhood and womanhood as befitting the children of freedom. I will definitely spare a few minutes to write you a postcard on that day, Uncle Omar, and keep alcohol out of the hands of the Kurds besides!
I remain truly yours,