February 8, 2003
Center for Cultural Exchange, Portland, Maine
I want to start by thanking your friend and my host, Reza Jalali, for his kind invitation to address you on the plight of our people, the Kurds. I also want to acknowledge the organizations that have lent their names to this event as sponsors, your municipality’s Office of Multilingual and Multicultural Program, Maine Peace Action, Pax Christi, the University of Southern Maine’s Office of Campus Diversity & Equity and the World Affairs Council. Of course, my appreciation must also extend to you, conscientious citizens who have braced the cold of the season for this hall of cultures to honor a cause and learn something of our tribulations. Your curiosity is gratifying. I will try, with trepidation, to satisfy it.
I would like to begin with a tribute to my host for his own dedication to the Kurdish cause. Here in America, he could have easily chosen a torment-free life. Maine certainly has its idyllic corners, and the Kurds hardly make it to the front page of your newspapers to throw him or his likes into the tantrums of guilt. But your friend was born for something larger than himself. He is a man of faith and true to the dictates of his religion. He is also deeply aware of his obligations to our enslaved people. He works hard, lives simply, prays often, fasts as the traditions of his religion demand, and willingly shares the modesty and serenity that defines his life with his friends as well as strangers.
Personally, I am touched by the generosity of his spirit to make our night a special one. You have all been bombarded with his emails and phone calls — just to share with you the obvious — to attend the evening. He has even twisted the little arm of his son, Azad, only seven and half, not only to be here, but also to lobby his teacher to do the same. His daughter Setareh is too young; otherwise, he would have had her post and distribute flyers in the churches, schools and the malls. Tradition has precluded me from asking what his better half has done for the evening, but I think I am safe to assume that her role has been even greater. Simply put, to her belongs the title of the quiet heroine. I am honored to call all of them Kurds worthy of the name. Thank you all for your heartfelt service to our common cause.
We are gathered here at a difficult time in the history of the Kurds. The clouds of war are gathering fast over the skies of the Middle East. Not rain, but torrential bombs may soon come down upon Iraq. For now, there is an eerie silence surrounding the role of the Kurds in the coming conflict. The Americans from the above, the Arabs on the ground will fight, either a prolonged war or a short one, for the demise or upholding of one of the cruelest rules ever to profane our earth. But a bleeding wound hardly cures when you poke in it with needles, or should I say missiles. At the end of the war, the survivors will not know the difference between the unspeakable that they have endured already, and the indescribable that they will have to go through, if the Republican Guards decide to fight with their chemical and biological weapons.
As, we the peace activists have long noted, war is organized crime let loose. Those who have lived through it should do everything possible to forget it and those who only know of it from the history books should do everything possible to avoid it. With foes like Saddam Hussein, we Kurds have never had a problem with knowing or ever forgetting about war. We could indeed lecture the world about it. But if the maxim, what you sow is what you reap, is valid, I shudder to think what the Kurdish children of war will do when they come of age and power. Will they emulate their destroyers and avenge what they endured on the children of their oppressors or reach out to the bridge builders like Mother Teresa and her likes to expand the boundaries of comfort and happiness? I hope the latter happens; I am afraid, to quote Bismarck, events have always bested the plans.
One of those seminal “events” that we thought we could, at least, watch it as spectators was the Gulf War. As you know, Iraq had invaded Kuwait. The United States together with the United Nations vowed to liberate the tiny state. Saddam Hussein promised the “Mother of All Battles” against the coalition forces. The Kurds, already suffering from the dictator’s wrath as favored subjects of his chemical and biological weapons, prayed for a quick end to his misrule. The war started all right and the progress was swift. Then, something unexpected happened. President Bush urged the Kurds in the north, the Shiites in the south and the Sunnis in the middle to rebel against the author of their woes. The liberation of Kuwait was almost complete. The White House’s credibility was at its peak. Our people threw away their fears and responded to freedom’s call body and soul, young and old, men and women for the enduring dream called free and independent Kurdistan.
For a brief period, Iraqi Kurdistan was free. Like many Kurds, I offered thanks to God for the good fortune of having been alive at such a momentous time in the history of Kurdistan. Sleep hardly entered my apartment. Joy never left my face. Hope animated every cell in my body. America was too small to accommodate my happiness. I was ready to take the next plane, to kick the little nest that I had built here for myself, for the one-way ticket home. But it was not to be. The powers that be had other plans for me, and my compatriots.
Saddam Hussein who had been dislodged from Kuwait, an artificial state, was set free to subjugate a portion of Kurdistan, a part of a real country — divided in the aftermath of the First World War by the British and French colonialists — that has struggled for decades to set itself free. 5 million Kurds, a different people, were seen fit to be entrusted to him, while 300.000 Kuwaitis, his blood relations, were rescued from him lest he abuse them and their oil for his grand design of using both as stepping stones to become the next “Great Saladin”. Our oil, one third of Iraqi reserves, was not ours in the eyes of the oil barons that dictated policy to the White House. Neither then nor now, do we count as humans, other than the change money, for the men and women that speak on your behalf and run your country from Washington, DC.
So the dictator who turned his back to the “Mother of All Battles” was allowed to send his minions in helicopters to drop powdered sugar and flour on the Kurds thinking correctly that they would believe them to be chemical and biological concoctions. Panic took hold of the Kurds. Three million of them fled to the mountains. All the United Nations could do was watch, and the United States government hoped for a quick departure of the reporters from the region. It took the kinder sex, the First Ladies of France and Britain to goad their reluctant husbands into action for the hapless Kurds. Only then did President Bush take a break from his fishing in Louisiana to initiate Operation Provide Comfort.
To say that what we endured was biblical in proportion is an understatement. I have met Kurds who have shared with me their stories of how they had to eat unleavened bread to stay alive. I have met others who have told me how they had to fast not from sunrise to sunset, but for days and nights in a row with only water, no, snow, as their only intake. I have met still others who lost their children in one day to frostbite and their ailing mothers and fathers the next day to hunger and buried them all, along the way, on the mountain slopes. I have met still others who to date cannot locate the graves of their loved ones. And I have met a few afflicted Kurds who envy their dead compatriots because their sufferings were short, while they themselves have to suffer continuously from the chemical and biological agents which have caused cancers, collapsed lungs, and most dangerous of all, altered DNA.
There may be people of faith among us who will automatically recognize similarities with a time in the past when another people survived on unleavened bread and forced fasts. There may be people from medical profession here who have studied the children of the survivors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima with deformities and mutations that offer an uncanny similarity to those of the Kurds who have been exposed to chemical and biological agents. There may also be people here who are curious to know if the nations that suffered these calamities, the Israelis and the Japanese, have offered the Kurds a helping hand? And there may be people here who may wonder if the United Nations through the World Health Organization has tackled this blight that still cripples the Kurds?
The United Nations is a “members only” organization. The un-represented Kurds have had no nation to champion their cause to goad the World Health Organization to look into the affliction that still haunts us. Israel, oblivious to the lessons of Exodus, has failed to extend a helping hand to the Kurds, no, it is busy working overtime to bypass the U.S. laws to supply Turkey with weapons, who openly vow to obliterate the very name of the Kurds and Kurdistan from the face of the earth. The Japanese may have earned a sister city, Halapja, for Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but I have not heard or seen of any effort on their part to acknowledge the Kurdish victims of chemical and biological weapons or share with them their knowledge and experience of how to deal with the monstrosities of mutations and deformities.
What have we done to deserve this fate? Has God forsaken us? Will we ever get a chance to turn back from our forced march into the abyss? Or will those who speak for the earth continue to watch us nonchalantly or should I say applaud our deranged adversaries, while supplying them with chemical and biological weapons, to finish their unholy task? Why is there so much reverence for the “integrity” of the states that were put together by the delirious British and French imperialists, in a rush, without regards to stubborn facts on the ground, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War? Is it right for your government to prop up, these houses of cards — when both God and nature would command one to dismantle them, one by one, to free the largest enslaved people of our times, the Kurds?
We are a people as old as the dawn of history, the natives of the soil we call Kurdistan, reeling under the yoke of the Turks, the Arabs and the Persians. We number some 40 million people but carry the identification papers of our foes to conduct even the simplest of transactions. Our language remains banned as a language of instruction and our Kurdish voices are supposed to go dead in the sight of our oppressors. In Turkey, for example, we can’t give our children Kurdish names. On our lands, we can’t learn about our ancestors. Most of us have two names, a Kurdish one for our use at home, and another one for the business with our foes. Our villages, towns, cities and even rivers and mountains have not escaped from the curse of the second names. Is it any wonder that some of us think that the Stone Age has reared its ugly head in the occupied Kurdistan? Can someone stand up and contradict us?
The most “civilized” and “tolerant” of our foes, the Turks, after decades of pressure from the European Union, have presumably accepted our presence in “their” country, but the “acceptance” has come with a price forcing one to weep or smile depending on how one views progress among the children of God. I count myself among the weepers and here is a specimen of what the Turks have agreed to offer us as a boon for our lot: you could have your Kurdish bodies alright — without a legal acknowledgement on the part of the Turkish government by the way — but you can only walk around with our Turkish education in your heads. I cannot help but reflect that what light and darkness are to a blind, our rights and welfare are to a Turk. Of course, there are honest Turks, people with no time for these bewildering European niceties, racists who openly declare their hatred of us, and here is what they say to our face: “Beware of the fate that befell the Armenians.”
In Iraq, there are five million Kurds, and their tragic fate may take a bitter turn in the coming conflict. For 70 years, Baghdad’s control over us was absolute and peace and justice banished from our lands. In 1987, the specter of al Anfal, a name as odious to us as al Qaeda is to you, began to haunt us when Saddam Hussein approved the use of chemical and biological weapons against us. 281 settlements were gassed. Over 100.000 people met painful deaths. In one city, Halapja, five thousand Kurds fell dead while the rest of the population, 65 thousand people, were exposed to these deadly agents. It may not be in the job description of your new Secretary for Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, but a visit by him to the desolated and profaned Kurdish country will, I believe, do him a lot of good, the only positive thing that could be gleaned from the blight that rained on us, the Kurds.
The afflicted Kurdish city, by the way, has earned a dubious distinction of becoming a hub for all kinds of new developments. It has, for example, become a stronghold of Islamic fundamentalism. Is it because when earth becomes hell, a desire for the other world takes precedence in peoples’ lives? A few of the deformed Kurds, people filled with anger towards the indifference of the world, would make ideal recruits for Osama Bin Laden. Perhaps it is no coincidence that a group associated with his name has lodged itself, Ansar al-Islam, in the mountains of Southern Kurdistan. The microbiologists have not made it to the region, or very few have, but I can safely say that they will not be disappointed if they ever venture into the area.
For 12 years now, an accidental semblance of peace and justice has revisited the Iraqi-Kurdistan thanks to reluctant consent of President Bush. But when one considers the speed with which the power of corruption and persecution gallops and compares it with the speed with which the power of cure and improvement crawls in any society, is it any wonder that scores of Kurdish rebellions have met their sorry ends or have been co-opted by our implacable foes. Perhaps, like many others who have preceded us, we too have to light our fire of liberation abroad and then transport it to our beloved Kurdistan to cleanse it, once and for all, from its foes.
One thing is almost a certainty in the coming days. Iraq will be rescued from the misrule of Saddam Hussein. The United States government, always a friend of the rich, hardly that of the Kurds thirsting for freedom, will forsake its present protection, the northern no-fly zone, and abandon us to the tender mercies of the emerging government in Baghdad. President Bush’s solemn declaration that, “America was a slave owning society that became a servant of freedom”, will, apparently, not apply to the Kurds. Heaven forbid, the fulfillment of such a wish could give hives to the Turks and ruffle the feathers of Arab dictators who “supposedly” speak for 250 million Arabs.
Some Kurds whose beliefs are regulated by their wishes, a characteristic of minds that have not had enough exposure to the rays of freedom, are hopeful that the Arab majority will, contrary to historical evidence, accept them as their equals in the post Saddam Iraq. I need to only, painfully I should add, remind them that they are only fooling themselves. Alas, your government, which knows better, has subscribed to same lie and is pushing us with all its might in the direction of this awful trap. The unforgettable lesson of history that a master race and liberty cannot coexist together will, again, bypass us. The Arabs, the dominant race, will have only one role for the Kurds: “submit to our yoke, carry our water or food and stay put for whatever else we may find suitable for your strong back.”
Thank you for coming and I look forward to your questions.