BARCELONA, Spain – Why is it so important for Iraq’s Kurds to have the world acknowledge Saddam Hussein’s mass murders against them as genocide? After all, 26 years have passed since the infamous March 16, 1988 attack on the town of Halabja. What is to be gained by the world re-visiting this old wound of the Kurds?
The answer lies in a human imperative: Victims of brutality need recognition of their sufferings to help heal psychological wounds.
This is true both of persons and nations, and was seen in post-Apartheid South Africa when the perpetrators of decades of brutality against the country’s black population were made to face their victims and confess what they had done.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission “was based on the belief that if the truth were known about the South African past, healing would take place,” according to the independent South African History Online (SAHO).
“The acknowledgment of genocide is very important psychologically,” explained Enrique Bernad, professor of contemporary history at the University of Zaragoza in Spain and a recognized expert on genocide.
“When you meet families and survivors, you understand it is important for people to find reconciliation with themselves and with others,” he told Rudaw, saying he regards the 5,000 innocents killed in Halabja, and the estimated 180,000 massacred under Saddam’s “Anfal Campaign” that targeted mainly the Kurds, as genocide.
Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani recently appealed to European Union countries “to make every effort in order to recognize the genocide against the people of Kurdistan.”
Besides Iraq itself, so far only Sweden, Norway and Britain have done so, with France and Holland discussing the idea.
Until complete international acknowledgement that the world turned a blind eye to Saddam over his pogroms against them, Iraq’s Kurds say they cannot feel secure that something similar will not happen again.
“Recognition means protection,” according to Borhan Yassan, author and senior lecturer at Lund University in Sweden.
Until there is acceptance that the world – the United States, the West and Saddam’s Arab backers -- turned a blind eye and allowed the dictator to commit his crimes because they needed him against Khomeini, the Kurds feel they cannot have closure over Halabja.
But wasn’t the attack just another atrocity in the litany of brutalities committed by both sides in the war?
Even veteran journalists, who had covered the Iran-Iraq war and seen it all, described the aftermath of the Halabja attack as a darker nightmare. The scene was probably best sketched by Kaveh Golestan, an Iranian freelance photojournalist who arrived soon after the attack with a batch of reporters, flown in by helicopter.
"It was life frozen. Life had stopped, like watching a film and suddenly it hangs on one frame. It was a new kind of death to me,” said Golestan, who was no stranger to war and death. “The aftermath was worse. Victims were still being brought in. Some villagers came to our chopper. They had 15 or 16 beautiful children, begging us to take them to hospital. So all the press sat there and we were each handed a child to carry. As we took off, fluid came out of my little girl's mouth and she died in my arms."
Golestan’s pictures won him the Pulitzer Prize. In 2003, again reporting on the Kurds for the BBC, he was killed after stepping on a mine in northern Iraq.
Truth became another victim at Halabja.
Incredibly – but not surprisingly – there has never been a thorough investigation to trace which country sold Saddam the mustard gas and nerve agent used in Halabja, or the technology to make them.
It has never been in Western interests to probe too deeply into Saddam’s suppliers and friends, for fear of the inconvenient truths that could turn up.
The US government, which just before the 2003 invasion and under George W. Bush never tired of repeating in horrified tone that “Saddam gassed his own people,” expressed no such outrage when the attack took place.
With Washington backing Saddam against its arch-enemy, Ayatollah Khomeini, until years later it was still the official US line to blame Iran for the attacks, or say there was no proof to show whether Saddam or Khomeini was to blame.
A 1994 congressional inquiry found that dozens of biological agents, including various strains of anthrax, had been shipped to Iraq by US companies, under license from the commerce department. And in 1988, the Dow Chemical company sold $1.5m-worth of pesticides to Iraq despite suspicions they would be used for chemical warfare.
The UN Security Council – again not surprisingly, given the US and Western opposition to Khomeini – failed to pass a resolution against Saddam after the Halabja atrocity. Even the weaker condemnation it did issue did not name Iraq as the perpetrator.
The UN’s “feeble rebuke underscored its growing fear of an Iranian victory,” said writer and Middle East expert Joost R. Hiltermann in his book, A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja.
The attack was Saddam’s retaliation against Kurdish rebels who had taken over Halabja and sided with Iran towards the end of the war.
In his book, Hiltermann explained that Halabja is to the Kurds what 9/11 means to Americans.
“The international community’s inability to comprehend the transformative significance of Anfal and Halabja to the Kurds is roughly equivalent to failing to grasp how the events of 9/11 affected the American psyche," Hiltermann wrote.