“There is another Iraq, buried under Iraq”. So said the head of the Kurdistan Mass Graves Commission as she explained to me her work during one recent visit to Kurdistan with the All-Party Kurdistan Group. Travelling around Iraq, her job is to try and identify the mass graves of the victims of Saddam Hussein’s campaign of genocide against the Kurds. Sometimes using DNA techniques, sometimes through simple ID (like a chain, a wallet or ID Card), the Kurds are painstakingly going through every mass grave they can find, in order to try and bring respite to grieving families and some kind of closure to what happened under the Baathist regime.
So far around 300 mass graves have been discovered, some with hundreds of bodies, some with 50 to 60. There are also pits with just bones. We saw this for ourselves when we went to the far north area of Garmian. Row after row of baby-sized coffins, filled with bones. Incomplete, unable to be identified, but at least given dignity. Whilst there, we were not only greeted by the Mayor and other dignitaries, but also Shazad Hussein, a grandmother whose family was killed in the genocide and who literally played the grandmother in the award winning Iraqi film, Son of Babylon – a moving and tragic account of Iraq’s missing million people.
It is strange that whilst the world knows much about modern genocide: the Bosnians by the Serbs, the tragedy of Rwanda, little is known about the Kurdish story in Northern Iraq. In fact, their genocide which is known to most as ‘Anfal’, is not even recognised as an international genocide by the United Nations – something that I, chairing a committee of academics, lawyers, and Parliamentarians, am trying to change. The facts are these: if you define genocide as scientifically planned mass murder with various stages of development – notably, marginalisation, demonisation, and eradication, – then the Kurds suffered a genocide. As parts of the Middle East collapse into civil war and violence, most notably in Syria, it is more important than ever that the United Nations condemns genocide, and formally recognises where it has occurred.
Saddam and the Baathists were determined to ‘vacuum’ the Kurds from Iraq – partly because of Arabist nationalism, partly a desire to gain full control over Kurdish lands and resources. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were killed in a campaign that began in 1963, carried through to 1969, 1976 and 1988. In these years, many thousands Kurdish villages were destroyed, prison camps built and torture chambers established. In one, known as the Red House – which I have seen for myself – there was even an Auschwitz style incinerator. Women were raped in what was known as ‘the party room’; their foetuses and babies were burnt in the incinerator.
As with every other genocide the methods of killing get more and more sophisticated (think shooting in the woods by the Nazis, and then the concentration camps).
The culmination of the Kurdish Genocide came in 1988. This was the year when Saddam Hussein decided to drop mustard gas on the Kurds including, most notably, the City of Halabja. First, the planes bombed the houses, so windows and walls could break and leave no respite. Second, the pilots let loose the mustard gas: Five thousand Kurds died, almost instantly. Thousands more were disfigured. Even in 2011, recent diggers of mass graves have died from residual mustard gas. Even today, Kurdish people are suffering the evil of chemical and biological weapons.
If it were not for John Major’s safe havens established over Kurdistan in 1991 and Tony Blair’s subsequent determination to get rid of Saddam Hussein, it is likely that Saddam would have succeeded. There would be no Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, and hundreds of thousands would have died. Unlike Nazi Germany, where many of those responsible for the killing were tried at Nuremburg, there has been little justice meted out to those responsible for the Kurdish genocide. It is said that military organisers of the Anfal, and many of the pilots remain at large – some even living in Europe.
Whilst the Kurds are a people that learns from the past rather than lives in it, they have waited too long for justice. The state of Iraq has now officially recognised the Iraqi genocide: it is the duty of the rest of the world to do the same, to ensure all the perpetrators are brought to the International Court and help with a programme of education and remembrance, so that the true story of Saddam’s butchery can never be forgotten by future generations.
That is the aim of the All-Party Group of MPs, here in the UK. Our e-petition has now reached over 25,000 signatures, and the Government will soon respond formally. Parliamentary motions on this issue have been supported by MPs of all parties. Many MPs have tabled written and oral questions in Parliament, and spoken supportively in debates.
Finally, this Thursday the Kurdish Regional Government are organising an International Conference: The untold story: the Kurdish genocide in Iraq. This will bring together British MPs and Peers, Ministers from Baghdad and Erbil, the Deputy Speaker of the Norwegian Parliament and Members of the Swedish Parliament, as well as survivors of the genocide and their families, to discuss the next steps of the campaign (Norway and Sweden recognized Kurdish genocide in autumn 2012).
Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow. He tweets at @halfon4harlowMP and is Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Kurdistan.