The KRG High Representative to the UK, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman reflects on Anfal Day.
Iraqi Kurds today mark the genocide carried out by Saddam Hussein in which 182,000 perished over a few months in 1987-88.
We are not a people that wallow in the past but we need our friends to understand the still heavy weight of genocide on our society.
We are grateful for the support of British troops who were part of Operation Provide Comfort in 1991 and later enforced a no-fly-zone over Kurdistan to protect us from the Butcher of Baghdad. If these steps hadn’t been taken by Britain, America and other allies, Saddam would have continued his campaign of death.
Iraqi Kurdistan is relatively small – about the size and population of Scotland. In almost any Kurdish gathering, half were affected directly and the other half indirectly by the genocide.
Saddam’s genocide campaign in 1987-88 was an industrialised effort to eliminate us. It was planned and executed systematically. Chemical weapons killed women and children; boys and men ‘of battle age’ were rounded up and ‘disappeared’. We are finding them in mass graves, 25 years later. This operation of death and destruction was called the Anfal by Saddam, meaning the spoils of war.
But Saddam’s brutality went beyond the Anfal. His most notorious act was a poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja where a chemical bombardment killed 5,000 people in one fell swoop and left thousands more permanently maimed.
Before this, untolled numbers of Kurds were butchered over many decades. Thousands of our villages were systematically razed to the ground. They were the backbone of our society as was
agriculture which was wiped out. We used to be self-sufficient and were the bread basket of Iraq. We now have to import most of our food. But we want to feed ourselves and are encouraging British and other companies to help kick-start our agriculture into life again.
The perhaps deeper damage is psychological. Many widows do not know for certain if their husband, brother, son, grandfather or uncle could still be alive rather than buried in an unmarked mass grave somewhere in Iraq. They wait forlornly and cannot easily live a normal life.
The survivors in Kurdistan do their best but it is undeniable that whatever we do for them it is too little as it cannot bring back their loved ones or repair the deep physical and psychological wounds they carry still. But their pain can be helped by the world acknowledging what the British Government calls the unique suffering of the Kurds.
That is why we have organised a global campaign to urge governments to formally recognise the genocide. The Swedish, Norwegian and British parliaments have formally recognised the genocide. We are confident that other parliaments will follow.
We are also very pleased that the British Government and the Labour Opposition have pledged to work together and with us to find a legal pathway to formal recognition by the British Government.
Marking the Kurdish genocide could become as regular and deep as the commemoration of the Holocaust. And for the same reason. Unacknowledged crimes become easier to repeat. Bearing witness is not merely moral but makes other genocides, atrocities and war crimes harder to carry out.
We have many friends who opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and we respect their sincerely held views. One of our best friends is the Labour MP Dave Anderson, who opposed the intervention in 2003, but who now thinks, thanks to his dialogue with Kurdish unions and others, that the intervention should have taken place before the worst of the genocide was inflicted on us.
This illustrates a new theme in international relations which seeks to go beyond making dictators accountable for their crimes after the act to seeking, under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine of the UN, to prevent such atrocities.
Sadly, the international community has been slow on the uptake concerning Syria where maybe 100,000 people have been slaughtered in the last two years and where chemical weapons could yet be used against civilians. The parallel is very close to our hearts given that Syria is our neighbour and is ruled by another Ba’athist regime like that of Saddam. One Halabja and one Anfal is enough for the world.