WMDs AND MEMORIES OF THE MONTH OF MARCH
"We helped the Americans and the Turks did not. We set up the war front from west to east for the Americans. . . Moreover, we did not offer them any deal. Our aid was given unconditionally." ~ General Babakir Zebarî, Commanding General, KDP Peshmerga, Hell Is Over: Voices of the Kurds After Saddam by Mike Tucker.
Kevin McKiernan is one of the few people in the world who is a genuine friend of Kurds. I know that he is a genuine friend because he doesn't divide Kurds into the "good" and "bad" dichotomy, which is strictly based on someone else's national interests. Kevin McKiernan's interest is Kurds for their own sake.
The Boston Globe published a little something yesterday, written by this friend. It's called Did US know Iraq had no WMDs?. Having read it, and since we are now in the month of March, I am reminded of a story.
Last year, as I was sitting in a teahouse in Dohuk with a couple of friends, our talk somehow turned to the events of March, 1991. We had taken a road trip north, toward the border South Kurdistan shares with Turkish-occupied Kurdistan. Along the way, one friend decided to show me where his family had fled after the betrayal by the US and failed uprising against the Saddam regime. We stopped a number of times to get out of the car, to look across the border, to remember.
We finally arrived at a place where there had been an old customs facility and it's new occupants are pêşmerge, doing duty as Kurdish border guards. It is a strange but wonderful thing to see Kurdish border guards, as wonderful as it is to see Kurdish police and Kurdish soldiers. Nowhere else on earth are there Kurdish border guards, police and soldiers. Only here. My friends pointed across the border, to some buildings painted green and a village just near them, from which we were separated by a fence with an old gate and a fairly large patch of no-man's land. The green buildings were the Turkish customs houses. My friends had gone through there in March, 1991.
One of them had been in charge of carrying all the family's money, and it was a considerable amount in US dollars. The Turks couldn't believe it. They couldn't believe Kurds would have so much money. They don't know that in South Kurdistan, Kurds own lands. They have businesses. They have been to university. Of course, in Turkish-occupied Kurdistan there are very, very few Kurds in a similar situation, hence the disbelief of the Turkish guards. My friend was still indignant over the reaction of the Turks. I had to explain that it wasn't the same on the other side.
The pêşmerge come out and stand with us and listen. I approach the old gate. It is almost falling over. They warn me not to go too close; the Turks will surely shoot me. I know they will.
To the left of the gate is a field, but it rises up. It isn't quite flat. Everyone tells me that it is a mass grave. . . of children mostly. The snow was bad in 1991 and the Turks provided no facilities. In fact, they refused to allow the first South Kurdistanî refugees across. It became an international issue, but not soon enough for the children or the old people. The children died of the cold and of disease, so they are buried here, next to the gate.
My friends are Dohukîs, so when the uprising failed, they had taken the women and small children by car to Zaxo, while the men and older children walked. In Zaxo, they found that the roads were too jammed with vehicles to continue, so they abandoned the vehicles and everyone continued their flight on foot. Another friend went with his family by a different route, through Amedîya, the ancient capital of Bahdinan. Soon it became unsafe to stay there and once again they took flight on foot, to this place where the mass grave of Kurdish children is, in the mountains, at the border. They arrived two weeks after other friends and relatives. The snow was still deep by that time, April, 1991.
Along the roads in this area, one sees the skeletons of cars. "Was it an accident?" I ask. "No. It was abandoned in '91," would come the sure answer.
My friends eventually returned to Dohuk to find their homes stripped of all possessions by Saddam's army. It was the third time in thirty years this had happened to them. The years following the uprising were as bad, if not worse in some ways, than their flight had been. There was no food; people starved. There was no fuel; people froze. And I mean even unto death.
In hearing these stories, I am once again amazed at the perseverance of the Kurdish people. From this point, all the construction efforts I had so far witnessed in South Kurdistan suddenly took on a new light. In my mind they became monuments to the perseverance, or stubborness as some would say, of Kurdistan.
In the teahouse that evening, we remembered our road trip and the uprising and the hard times in the following years. "Did the Turks really give you poisoned bread?" I asked. "Yes. And they poisoned the water as well."
For a while we sat quietly, smoking nargîle and sipping tea. As Steven Kinzer rightly observed in his book, Crescent and Star, teahouses and nargîle are conducive to thought, interrupted occasionally by talk.
One of my friends broke our momentary silence by asking me if I remembered what the Israelis did during the Gulf War. I asked him what he meant. He went on to explain that the way in which the Israelis prepared their homes for possible chemical weapons attacks from Saddam's SCUD missiles, was what Kurds had tried to do in March, 2003. There is a deep remembrance here of the chemical weapons attacks in March, 1988, at Halabja and the surrounding area. The Kurdish fear of a similar attack was palpable in March, 2003.
My friend described how they prepared his parents' house before Operation Iraqi Freedom began. In my mind I tried to imagine the house, with its many windows lining the front, all covered with plastic and duct tape. I imagined the buckets of water stored in the hallway in the center of the house, ready for anything, especially soaking strips of blankets. I tried to imagine the fear they must have felt.
"The difference was that the Israelis were given gas masks by their government," my friend continued. "We had no masks, so we took charcoal, like this used for the nargîle, and we crushed it. Then we sewed it into pouches that we could wear over our mouths and noses like a surgeon's mask. Then we would have wrapped strips of wet blanket around them."
My heart skipped a beat. The vapors of certain chemical agents can slowly seep through sensitive membranes, like those of the eye. "What about your eyes!" I thought to myself, feeling panic. I wanted to cry in the face of my friend's determination to beat the weapons of the "civilized" world, armed only with nargîle charcoal and wet blankets. I wanted to howl at the injustice targeted against the people of Kurdistan.
I remembered signing the visitor's book at the Halabja Memorial--a feat in itself since I could scarcely see the book for the tears. I remembered the photos of the dead at Halabja. Dead in their homes. Dead in the streets. Dead in the mountains, and the sound of my own heart wailing silently for Kurdistan even as the wind wails through the mountains of Kurdistan.
Kevin McKiernan's article has reminded me of all of this.
If the US believed there were WMDs in Iraq, why did it fail to deliver the gas masks these people needed to save their lives? Why did it leave my friend, his family and all the South Kurdistanîs to fight this menace with field expedient means? If the US did not believe in the existence of these WMD's, why did it promise the masks and the atropine and other protective gear?
Why didn't the US trust the Kurdish people enough, through its leadership, to tell them the truth? Stubborn, faithful Kurds, dying for freedom for so long! Fearless, generous Kurds, willingly throwing themselves into battle, all 100,000-pêşmerge strong, with never a doubt! The second most numerous ally, suffering death and injury second only to American forces!
Operation Iraqi Freedom was worth it, because now Kurds have a chance, and everyone looks to the South with hope. But the deception by Kurdistan's "ally" is another bruise on my heart for my beautiful, restive ones--the Kurds.
Yan Kurdistan yan naman!