Canadian MPs join solidarity with the Kurds in Iraq

CALGARY, April 13, 2016 – Today, Member of Parliament for Calgary Shepard, Tom Kmiec was elected chair of the Parliamentary Friends of the Kurds, an all-party caucus within Canada’s Parliament dedicated to supporting Kurdish refugees in their transition to life in Canada, promoting peace in the Kurdistan region, and promoting institutional, legislative, and parliamentary democratic education and reform within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

“There is a Kurdish proverb: A good companion shortens the longest road. I am encouraged by the feedback we have received from the community and the enthusiasm of the Kurdish Regional Government in working with us to enhance our understanding of the region”‎ says Tom Kmiec. “I am honoured to have been elected chair and look forward to enhancing our understanding of Kurdistan and promoting peace and democratic education in the region.”

Tom Kmiec was elected chair, while Gord Johns (NDP, Courtenay-Alberni) and Dan Albas (Conservative, Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola) were elected vice-chairs. The Parliamentary Friends of the Kurds includes 14 parliamentarians including members of all recognized parties in Parliament.

Organizations and individuals interested in Kurdish culture, history, and the peaceful resolution of the conflict(s) in the region are welcome to contact Mr. Kmiec to engage with the Parliamentary Friends of the Kurds.

http://www.tomkmiec.ca/parliamentary_friends_of_the_kurds_inaugurated

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British formally mark Anfal Day

The British Minister for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood, has paid tribute to the victims of the Anfal campaign on Anfal Day, 14 April.

The British Government refused to follow the example of the House of Commons in formally recognising Anfal as genocide in 2013 but agreed that it would mark Anfal Day each year.

The then Middle East Minister addressed a KRG event in London in 2014 and issued a statement last year as the anniversary fell during the British election campaign.

This year, the Minister has also issued a statement which appears on the Foreign Office website. The statement reads: “Today marks the anniversary of the Anfal – Saddam Hussein’s brutal campaign against the Kurdish people in Iraq. Between fifty and one hundred thousand men, women and children were slaughtered during the Anfal campaign. Many more were maimed, separated from their families or forced from their homes. It is not just the scale of the atrocities that is hard to comprehend. It is the chilling fact that people conceived the plans, discussed them and carried them out.

Today our thoughts are with those mourning lost loved ones. We must mark this day to honour the memories of those who died and to ensure that we never forget Saddam Hussein’s monstrous crimes against the Kurdish people. But we must also mark it because the Anfal campaign was a warning of what can happen when evil goes unchecked.

Now all the people of Iraq face a new evil, in the form of Daesh. Daesh seek to tear apart the multicultural society that has existed in Iraq for centuries. Ultimately, the only way to protect the Iraqi people from Daesh is by defeating this barbaric organisation and their poisonous and hateful ideology. The UK is committed to supporting the Iraqi people in this fight.”

Some years there will be statements and other years there may be meetings but the most important point is that marking Anfal Day is on the agenda every year. In an ideal world, the anniversary should be marked in a much more prominent manner.

The Prime Minister could be asked to mention it at the nearest Prime Minister’s Questions as he does for other significant anniversaries and events.

When the KRG High Representation and the all-party parliamentary group began its campaign to win official recognition of the genocide, many questioned the decision and said it was backward looking.

But within months of the 25th anniversary in 2013 of Halabja and Anfal Syrian Baathist soldiers were using chemical weapons in that country. And in 2014 Daesh was committing genocide against the Yezedis in Iraq. Marking the past is the best way of helping ensure Never Again or at least that it will not go unremarked and grow.

The international community failed to punish Assad for using chemical weapons in 2013 and they have been used again by the regime and by Daesh.

Gary Kent

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Three cheers for Sir John Major

A letter-writer in a national magazine in Britain recently demanded one example of a good British intervention in the Middle East. My reply cited two: the liberation of Kuwait and initiating a no-fly zone over the Kurdistan Region. 5 April saw the 25th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 688 which enabled the no-fly zone and protected the Kurds for twelve years.

Two million Kurds who fled from Saddam’s air force to the mountains overlooking Turkey and Iran then returned home from their frozen and barren eerie to rebuild society. British public opinion was crucial in answering appeals for blankets and food and encouraging British action. My small role was helping persuade Iran to provide a 747 to take such supplies to the Kurds.

The then British Prime Minister, John Major was also shocked and persuaded his Cabinet to support action – by coincidence on Kurdish new year in 1991 – and then took the lead internationally. He deserves credit for persuading a reluctant American administration to police the zone despite all enforcing aircraft being shot at almost every day by Saddam.

The current Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region, Jason McCartney MP was an RAF officer who visited Kurdish villages to reassure people that overhead planes were friendly. Those who served have every reason to be proud of what they did.

The Kurds had every reason to fear Saddam would have resumed his genocidal campaign. Instead, they were able to embrace democracy, and establish many new universities. Despite the harsh impact of sanctions enforced by the UN and by Saddam, and their own bloody civil war, they laid the foundations for a dynamic society that took off when Saddam was overthrown in 2003. Both Sir John Major and Tony Blair are widely revered in the Kurdistan Region.

This success story should make those who believe that our involvement with Iraq has been an unmitigated disaster think again. Liberal intervention averted genocide and saved the Kurds. They now play a pivotal role in helping roll back Daesh, whose forces face them along a 650 mile front with daily fighting. The Kurds have, with western airstrikes, secured their territory and will help push against Daesh in Mosul.

But their biggest enemy is now what one Kurdistani MP calls their economic heart attack. The cost of war and the strain of hosting nearly two million refugees and internally displaced people have combined in a perfect storm with the oil price slump, and an unsympathetic government in Baghdad cutting off budget payments.

Vast and fast economic growth has spluttered to a halt with civil servants enduring pay arrears and cuts. The cranes on city skylines that once symbolised massive investment in infrastructure are still while unemployment and poverty have soared.

In ten years of frequent fact-finding visits to Kurdistan, I have seen a massive disconnect in attitudes to liberal intervention between Kurdistan and the UK. The Kurds will fight for their survival and will get through, having suffered much worse in their history. They share western values of democracy, tolerance and pluralism – though they have major political divisions to overcome in unpromising conditions – and are embrace British intervention. Many British people despair about such intervention because they see it through the prism of the Iraq war in 2003 – deemed a disaster here but liberation in Kurdistan.

The lack of appetite for various interventions including, if necessary, the use of combat troops will elongate the rule of Daesh. In a massive over-reaction to Iraq 2003 we are neglecting the massive good we did in 1991 and in 2003, despite errors in the occupation, and could yet do.

We need a nuanced approach to British foreign policy in the Middle East rather than cherry picking to sustain a general theory. I could, for example, focus on Sykes-Picot, the secret agreement between representatives of British and French imperialism that led through twists and turns to denying Kurdish nationhood, and selfishly carving up countries. Or how great powers cynically used Kurds as pawns in the Cold War. Or how the West saw the monstrous Iran-Iraq war as one between two four-letter countries and hoped they would exhaust each other. Or the willingness, even when Saddam’s genocide was known, to sell arms to Iraq. In the balance, however, must be the decision to save the Kurds.

The anniversary allows us to reflect on that and how to help the Kurds we saved to save themselves now and construct stronger secular politics and economic dynamism that can defeat Daesh, and ensure it is not reinvented in some new form. Major’s successors should also be brave and far-sighted. The West does our friends no favours by believing we can never do the right thing.

Gary Kent

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KRG High Representative pays tribute to Sir John Major

Dear Sir John Major

Twenty five years the Kurds in Iraq were once again at the mercy of a genocidal dictator and the British public was horrified and angered by scenes of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish families fleeing for their lives to freezing conditions on the mountains. They kindly responded with blankets and food.

You responded by mobilising your Cabinet, the European Union and the Americans to establish a no-fly zone and a safe haven to which the Kurds could return. Your decision to do this under UN Security Council Resolution 688 of 5 April 1991 should be an important part of a balanced picture of British involvement in my country.

You rightly conclude in your memoirs that “Genocide was averted, and literally tens of thousands of lives were saved. So too, I think, was the reputation of the allies, which would surely have been harmed had we turned a blind eye.”

If anything, you understate the number of lives saved. We know we would have been subdued by Saddam and slaughtered in our scores of thousands. As you saw on your visit to the Kurdistan Region five years ago, you are considered a national hero in Kurdistan.

It may all seem like a long time ago to many but it is ever-present for us. We may have some sharp words to say about older British interventions as we move in May towards the centenary of the Anglo-French and secret Sykes-Picot agreement, which began a process which led to the Kurds being marooned in a state called Iraq.

But we refuse to be defined passively by our history and we and the British have moved on. The achievements of liberating Kuwait and instituting the safe haven in the Kurdistan Region are amongst the finest hours of the UK and should never be forgotten. They also show that the UK is capable of judicious interventions that make a real difference.

Without your leadership, the Kurdistan Region would no longer exist and the Middle East and the world would be without one of the main bulwarks against a new genocidal threat, the so-called Islamic State or Daesh which we have turfed out of our territory although we still face them along a 650 mile border.

Your safe haven enabled us to start our journey to freedom, develop much of our region from scratch, helping for the first time those who survived genocide, and to play our part once more in the international community.

We explored for oil and gas, which Saddam had long neglected, and made peace with Turkey. Our economy became dynamic and lifted living standards but has recently been hammered by the slump in oil prices, budget cuts by Baghdad, the influx of nearly two million extra people, and war. But we will survive, with help from our friends, and our moderate model of a tolerant Muslim society can do much to undermine the appeal of Daesh.

Today, we not only thank you from the bottom of our hearts but also argue that British diplomacy, economic and political expertise, and military force can do much to help us overcome Daesh and continue to build a new Kurdistan Region.

Sir John, you did the right and brave thing in 1991. We know some argued you should not intervene in supposedly sovereign affairs but we are alive and kicking because you put humanity first. We salute you and stand with your country.

Yours sincerely

Karwan Jamal Tahir, Kurdistan Regional Government High Representative to the UK

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Kurdish visa rejections soar as British groups urge reform

A dramatic increase in Kurds refused visas for the UK has been revealed in a parliamentary answer. Between April and September last year 1,165 of 1,790, or two-thirds of all applications made in Erbil were turned down.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Chairman, Jason McCartney MP had discovered that the rejection rate for applications from April 2014 to March 2015 was 55%. The latest figures obtained by the Northern Ireland MP Danny Kinahan represent a one-fifth increase in rejections.

The issue of visas has been raised with visiting British parliamentarians on every delegation to Kurdistan since 2008. The APPG has teamed up with three major British trade organisations to urge changes to reduce the rejection rate for legitimate visitors.

The joint memo from British Expertise International, the Middle East Association and Pathfinder Trade and Invest is also supported by the KRG High Representation in London. It notes the KRG has designated the UK as its “partner of choice” and quality British goods and services are sought by a government with a deep historic affection for the UK and where English is the unofficial second language. It says visas are vital to building business links, to purchase health treatment or tourism.

The groups acknowledge positive changes such as the Visa Application Centre in Erbil, which means applicants no longer need to travel and stay in Amman or Baghdad while their application is processed. Applications are processed by independent entry clearance officers (ECOs) who only use the information on the form because there is no interview process. Common reasons for rejection include failing to correctly complete the complex form, and omitting sufficient proof of assets or jobs.

ECOs can choose to disbelieve evidence and some with substantial sums to their name have been refused, as have senior government officials and those who have been invited to the UK on official matters. One Kurd who applied for a visa for a three day conference was even questioned why they wanted to stay a few extra days. People understandably take advantage of a work conference to take a break and do some sight-seeing, which increases tourism revenues too.

The signatories fear Kurds may vote with their feet and go elsewhere. American and other European applications are much easier to complete. The memo cites “very many instances where people who could by any reasonable standard be deemed useful to the British political and commercial interest have been rejected” and argues “it materially jeopardises the export of UK goods and services to the region and undermines bilateral good will.”

The groups accept the UK has the right to control and patrol its borders and make sure visitors are genuine and will return but conclude British diplomats and politicians should be able to influence visa decisions in the British national interest.

They also recommend the Government investigates the validity of the reasons for refusing so many applications, which was ruled out in a further answer to Danny Kinahan. They say a checking system prior to acceptance of applications could sift out errors and omissions, and this service could be provided privately, but in close co-operation with the UK authorities. They urge the Government to quantify the cost of staff cover in Erbil for a new post to facilitate interviews, given the importance of building commercial and political links. The forms should also be simplified. The memo to the British government will soon be released alongside the report of the APPG’s most recent delegation to Kurdistan in November.

British parliamentarians have also been exercised by changes to the American visa system which stipulate that those who have visited Iraq, Syria and Iran in the last five years are no longer automatically considered for the American visa waiver scheme.

MPs and others who have visited Kurdistan would, unless exempted, have to take time to apply in person for an American visa rather than the online visa waiver system. Members of the Newcastle-Gateshead Medical Volunteers, for instance, have also voluntarily provided vital medical operations. They may now all have to spend time and money in securing a visa for American holidays. This may discourage business people from seeking contracts in Kurdistan if they intend to visit America afterwards.

There may be case by case exemptions for those who have visited for governments, humanitarian NGOs, and the media as well as business purposes. MPs recently raised the matter with the US Ambassador to the London in the Commons. They accept America has good reason to protect its borders but argue this measure has the unintended consequence of making it harder for those seeking to build relationships with crucial and joint allies such as the KRG, an ideological and military bulwark against Daesh. The MPs hope the rule can be scrapped after the American election in November.

This article by Gary Kent originally appeared in Rudaw.

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Remembering the Kurdish Uprising and the urgency of solidarity today

Twenty five years ago this month, Iraqi Kurds rose against Saddam Hussein and, for instance, captured the Red House in Slemani after days of fierce fighting. It was a vile torture centre where thousands were murdered, and women raped in a “party room” with incinerators outside for their babies. Today, the bullet-pocked building is a sombre museum where you can also climb on Saddam’s rusting tanks.

The uprising faltered because Saddam, despite his calamitous defeat in Kuwait, was allowed to use helicopter gunships to attack rebels. Two million Kurds fled to the mountains where many perished. One man and his children faced a terrible choice: stay and freeze, return and die, or jump several hundred feet down a mountain. Miraculously, they survived.

Such suffering filled our TV screens and British public reaction encouraged John Major to establish a no-fly zone which gave returning Kurds safe haven. Our jets patrolled it for twelve years and constantly faced Saddam’s anti-aircraft guns. But Kurdistan survived.

They began building democracy in tough times until Saddam’s overthrow in 2003 enabled a new start. They remarried Iraq and helped secure a federal and democratic constitution. As the safest part of Iraq, they attracted foreign investors, developed plentiful energy supplies, and overcame Turkey’s hostility. Living standards soared. They expanded education, and recruited more teachers – some used to ride donkeys between schools. But they didn’t reform their state-dominated economy and excessive employment rolls, used to reward political party supporters.

This mattered less when massive oil revenues rolled in but the oil price slump prevents that largesse. If that were the only problem it could be righted by ending unproductive “ghost working” and boosting private sector jobs. But the Kurds were then attacked by the so-called Islamic State – Daesh. They were repelled by the Peshmerga, with Western planes making a decisive difference. The KRG now has a 650 mile border with Daesh but has retrieved most lost territory.

The most tragic loss was Sinjar where Yezedis – an ancient religious group – were slaughtered, raped or kidnapped. Sherri Kraham Talabany, who runs the SEED Foundation that supports escapees, recently told me about “Runak,” one of almost 5,000 women and children captured by Daesh. She was repeatedly sold into slavery and nearly starved to death. Runak and others often stood in the open in the hope of being bombed by Western planes.

Runak is now one of nearly two million refugees from Syria and people displaced from the rest of Iraq. Kurdistan is normally five million strong, so public finances and services are strained to breaking point. Once continuous electricity is now six hours a day.

But the federal government in Baghdad arbitrarily stopped and then slashed constitutional budget payments to the Kurds, who now rely on oil exports for revenue that doesn’t cover spending and debts, let alone investment. They should reform their economy but that takes time. But most civil servants and the Peshmerga have not been paid for months, which understandably drives disaffection. Peshmerga are being spoon-fed heavy weapons or denied kit such as night vision goggles. Britain gifted fifty heavy machine guns but the rounds ran out months ago and replacing them seems controversial.

Great powers fear Kurdish independence in Iraq, difficult given it is landlocked. But the Sykes-Picot settlement of a century ago that helped create Iraq is bust. Their peoples probably cannot live in one state and new borders need negotiating. Unless Sunni alienation is addressed, a defeated Daesh could yet spawn son of Daesh.

The Peshmerga are the most efficient force fighting Daesh and will help liberate its capital, Mosul. Senior MPs visited Kurdistan last year and will shortly issue a report urging our government to do more. They need emergency loans that encourage reform and kick-start the economy. The Kurds endured worse before but we cannot let them go under as in defending themselves, they protect us too.

This personal view by Gary Kent appeared in the Newcastle Journal on 12 March

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Meeting with the KRG Speaker

Minutes of APPG Kurdistan meeting on Wednesday 24 February at the Commons. The guest speaker was Yousif Mohammed Sadiq MP, Speaker of the Kurdistani Parliament. APPG Chair Jason McCartney MP and Director Gary Kent discussed the current situation with the Speaker and his aides and encouraged all parties to seek a resolution of their differences through calm dialogue. Apologies were received from several members of the group.

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Praise for Peshmerga in British Parliament

Nadhim Zahawi: The Kurdistan Regional Government army has been valiantly battling against Daesh over a 1,000 km frontline since summer 2014. Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the peshmerga and say more about the role they may play in the liberation of Mosul?

Foreign Secretary Mr Hammond: I am very happy to pay tribute to the peshmerga. They have proved themselves to be an extraordinarily resilient fighting force and perhaps the most effective force operating against Daesh. The UK is training and providing equipment to the peshmerga. I had an opportunity a couple of weeks ago to meet President Barzani of the KRG, to talk about the liberation of Mosul and the role that the peshmerga might play. I am pleased to be able to report two things. First, the KRG appear to have become more open to the idea that the peshmerga will play a role in the liberation of Mosul. That will be very important. They have also agreed to Iraqi Government security forces being based in the KRG to prepare for the assault on Mosul. Those two things make it much more likely that we will see a successful assault on Mosul earlier rather than later.

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Baghdad’s budget offer to the Kurdistan Region

If something is too good to be true, it usually means that it is. That is a reasonable conclusion to draw from the Iraqi Prime Minister’s recent offer to the Kurdistan Region to pay its civil servants’ salaries in return for putting its oil exports under the control of the federal government. A little history is needed to understand why this particular gift horse is not all it seems.

Ever since Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003 and a new, federal and democratic Iraq was agreed in a referendum in 2005, the government in Baghdad has failed to provide the Kurdistan Region with its full budget entitlements. Instead of receiving 17% of the national budget, the actual figure has been nearer to 10%.

The budget was arbitrarily and entirely cut by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in 2014 and a deal in December with his successor Haider al Abadi lasted one month before Baghdad reneged on it and the KRG began independent exports of oil in June 2015.

The KRG received $2 billion from Baghdad in the first half of 2015 and made $4 billion in independent oil sales in the second half of the same year, despite falling prices.

On the face of it, Abadi ‘s offer would mean $750 million per month or $9 billion a year. For those who have gone, and not for the first time, without salaries for many months or whose salaries are being temporarily reduced on a progressive basis, it seems a very tempting offer.

But could Abadi actually deliver it? Indeed, Abadi told the KRG in recent discussions that it cannot afford to fund the KRG anyway given that the oil price slump has slashed federal government revenues.

Abadi failed to mention the offer in direct discussions with the KRG, whose Prime Minister and his Deputy recently visited Abadi in Baghdad, and in a further meeting with President Barzani at the Munich Security Conference.

The KRG has nonetheless immediately accepted the offer to call Baghdad’s bluff and there has been no response to this. But Baghdad must do better than this transparent student union politics if it is serious about trying to keep the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

This is a personal view by Gary Kent

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A living hell makes death preferable.

A living hell makes death preferable. At her lowest point, Runak (not her real name) wanted to be bombed by Western jets rather than live in Daesh captivity. Her story should shock us into action.
Runak is a Kurdish Yezidi and one of 5,000 women and children enslaved by Daesh. Her husband was taken, presumed dead. Her eldest son was abducted, probably to a Daesh training camp. Her eight-year old son was held for months and returned, probably after sexual abuse.

In one year Runak was auctioned to many men as a spoil of war and witnessed torture, murder, and children dying of hunger. On a terrifying journey from Iraq to Syria she saw Daesh fighters select women and separate them from terrified children. One woman shaved off her children’s hair and eyebrows to fool Daesh into thinking they had cancer so she would keep them. Eventually Runak and others were bought by a man who starved them and when being bombed to smithereens seemed better than being hungry slaves.

But Runak and four of her children survived. Her younger son was returned, and they escaped to Kurdistan, as have 1,300 others. They live at one of many camps for internally displaced people but thousands remain with Daesh and some may have been trafficked as far as Thailand.

Sherri Kraham Talabany, the founder of the SEED Foundation, runs a centre in one camp, funded largely by local businesses. Sherri, a determined American who was a senior official at the State Department in Washington and now lives in Kurdistan, puts the Yezedi story in context. Many other Kurds suffered decades of violence and persecution as targets of Saddam Hussein’s genocide. His regime may have killed as many as 182,000 people in 1987/1988 and the worst atrocity was the chemical bombardment of Halabja during which five thousand died in days. “But the problem,” says Sherri, “is very few survivors of torture and violence ever received any psychological support. The genocide was overtaken by the invasion of Kuwait, the Kurdish Uprising in 1991 and the establishment of an autonomous region buffeted by UN and Iraqi sanctions, poverty, and civil war. The imperatives of survival and limited resources meant those who had suffered fended for themselves. They had no help coping with their trauma then and most have gone untreated, so they experience the symptoms as if it were yesterday.”

The genocide against the Yezedis is an opportunity to learn lessons and systematically organise services for victims. SEED promotes sustainable development and delivers humanitarian assistance. Its motto is no survivor should suffer alone. Sherri’s centre caters for hundreds of people every day: “it provides psychosocial counselling for those who have seen someone murdered, tortured or raped or who are victims of rape and abuse. We increase their skills in healthcare, hygiene and other life skills, as well as understanding human rights so they can overcome their marginal status and become healthier and more resilient.”

The centre includes a small agricultural plot where women grow fruit and vegetables which are used in cookery classes. Livelihood training for men includes turning wooden pallets into affordable, beautiful and rustic furniture, so they can earn an income to meet basic needs. Baking, knitting and sewing classes as well as music classes attract hundreds. Recreational activities create an opportunity to socialise, critical for healing and reducing the stigma of attending the centre.

But the Kurdistan Region shoulders a huge humanitarian burden. The country normally has about five million people but that has soared by a third since 2014. Its government’s resources have been stretched to breaking point by this as well as war, budget cuts by Baghdad, and falling oil prices. The liberation of Mosul will also sharply increase those needing help.

All this suffering evokes WH Auden’s poem, The Shield of Achilles, which describes a concentration camp where “Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot/Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)/And sentries sweated for the day was hot:/A crowd of ordinary decent folk/Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke/As three pale figures were led forth and bound/To three posts driven upright in the ground.”

Its crescendo of disgust echoes today: “The mass and majesty of this world, all/That carries weight and always weighs the same/Lay in the hands of others; they were small/And could not hope for help and no help came:/What their foes like to do was done, their shame/Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride/And died as men before their bodies died.”

The Daesh nightmare will one day end but its barbarity and inhumanity will remain vivid for survivors without greater support for SEED and other humanitarian and development programmes. We should not watch from without but should speak up for the Runaks of the world.

To follow the SEED Foundation or donate, visit www.seedkurdistan.org

Gary Kent

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