Iraqi Kurds during the mass exodus. Kurdistanonline Photo
An emotional call from a Kurdish friend provided a vivid picture of the saddest aspect of Iraq’s history, a past awash in violence and blood.
“My grandfather was born in 1922, just after the First World War. His father hoped that he would not grow up in a war like he did, but my granddad spent his youth in the famine and war of the Second World War. So he wished that his son, my dad who was born in 1949, would not go through the same,” the friend said.
“But he spent his youth during the consecutive Iraqi-Kurdish wars and the destruction of Kurdish villages. So again, my father hoped his son would not go through the same.
“But I was born in 1977 and spent my youth during the Iraq-Iran war, Saddam [Hussein’s] Anfal Campaign against the Kurds and the Gulf War. Then I decided to leave the country, looking for peace.
Once I thought the war was over and things were fine I came back, hoping my sons would not go through the same again… Yet now they are living the brutal ISIS war. What will be in the future for their sons?”
As this conversation shows, the brutality that ISIS is using did not just happen. It is part of a cycle of violence that Iraq does not seem to be able to escape.
The Baathist regimes in Iraq and Syria used violence to spread fear and avert revolts. Stories that came out of prisons there told of unspeakable torture: beatings, eyes poked out, arms or legs chopped off – sometimes only because the guard felt like it.
To these regimes, violence was normal. To them, brutal treatment is all an adversary deserved. They believed the only way to rule was through fear.
Both regimes filled mass graves with their opponents. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, once ordered the murder of tens of thousands of people in Hama, a religiously conservative town that rebelled against his government.
Saddam Hussein carried out the infamous Anfal Campaign, a wave of terror against the Kurds in which he destroyed villages and unleashed poison gas, killing an estimated 180,000 people.
To seek revenge against the Barzani tribe, which took the lead in the Kurdish resistance, Saddam had thousands of tribe members – men, women and children – transported into the desert where they were executed and bulldozed under the sand.
Some of the acts of terror from ISIS bear strong similarities with those of Saddam’s regime. Not only because Saddam’s men now play a major role in the organization, but even more so because generations of Iraqis have grown up with the images of the violence, and the glorification of it.
Even to the resistance movement violence was normal. The rebels had no choice but to fight, and the byproduct was the glorification of the violence against the oppressor.
The more recent atrocities of Shiite militias, which took over the fight in Iraq from the ill-prepared Iraqi army that lost Mosul to ISIS, stem from the same past.
To them, the only way to defeat an enemy is through bloodshed. Some of their habits remind us of ISIS: beheading captives and openly glorifying their violent behavior.
All parties in Iraq and Syria are copying former regimes. They learned that violence is used to vanquish your enemy and plant fear in the hearts of your subjects.
How can Iraq and Syria break this cycle of violence, that seems to be getting worse with each generation? Who to kick these habits that seem to be so engrained in society?
The West, after the First and Second World War, pledged to never repeat the atrocities of those wars. For that reason, new norms and values were developed, and laws and mechanisms created.
International laws and organizations are meant passed to safeguard the world from institutional killings and excessive violence.
Just as important, many Western countries educated citizens about the plight of the victims. Anne Frank, a Dutch Jew who died in a Nazi concentration camp, became an international hero and her diary helped children learn about discrimination and violence.
Civilization could not eradiate violence, as the many wars since have shown, but it did in many ways limit it.
Education and civilization play an important role. It is not civilized to chop off heads. The concept of being morally superior to one’s enemy also helps: the enemy may chop off heads, but we are more civilized than that.
Iraq, in the middle of yet another bloody war, can start turning things around by admitting to and acting on its heritage of violence.