Wars Against the Kurds Never Become World’s Issue

<i> Vera Beaudin Saeedpour directs the Kurdish program of Cultural Survival, an organization of anthropologists based at the Peabody Museum at Harvard. Her commentary is from Pacific News Service. </i>

Flushed with victory and satisfied that the international community will react with little more than rhetoric and reports, the government of Iraq waited only 24 hours after the cease-fire with Iran to mount a full-scale attack against a Kurdish population that once numbered 3.2 million in northern Iraq. The aim is to finally break the back of the Kurdish forces that have struggled for decades to regain control over their homeland and their lives.

What the world is sitting by and allowing to happen is more than the final phase of a protracted guerrilla war; it is the last stage of a campaign of annihilation launched 25 years ago. Iraq’s chemical attacks against the Kurdish town of Halabja last March convinced the government that it could crush Kurdish resistance once and for all by destroying civilians with impunity.

In 1963 Iraq initiated the first phase of the campaign with an Arabization policy, forcibly removing Kurds (an Aryan people ethnically related to Iranians) from Iraq’s oil-rich regions. The Kurds were simply carted away in lorries from their mountains to remote desert areas in the south.

In 1974 security belts were created running the length of Iraq’s borders with Iran, Turkey and Syria; 20 million Kurds lived under these four powers since the end of World War I, when their ancestral lands were divided up by the victorious Allied powers. Kurdish villagers were again driven out, their homes razed, the refugees herded into “strategic villages.”


A new stage began in 1985 with the destruction of 781 villages over a two-year period. Arab tribes were imported to take over the Kurdish lands.

The final stage to dispossess the Iraqi Kurds is now under way. Earlier this year four Iraqi divisions, four battalions and two armored brigades attacked and destroyed more than 500 villages. The men were taken as prisoners of war, the women and children driven off to unknown destinations. Of 5,000 villages extant in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1975, nearly 4,000 have now been destroyed.

Sporadic chemical attacks against Kurdish civilians were reported as early as 1984, escalated in April, 1987, but attracted the attention of the world community only with the atrocity at Halabja in March. Thousands died. Scenes of the grim deaths were publicized the world over. Apprehension over the proliferation of chemical warfare moved even the most powerful nations to express revulsion.

But the victimization of Kurdish civilians and the endangerment of Kurdish survival never became the issue. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, granted a visa to visit American officials in the United States, warned that a genocide was under way in Iraqi Kurdistan. To no avail.


Now it has come to pass. Since Aug. 25, chemical attacks against civilian Kurdish villagers have been mounted daily. About 60,000 Iraqi soldiers are fighting Kurdish guerrillas who are acting as a buffer between four Iraqi armies and the fleeing civilians. In less than one week 100,000 Kurds--85% of them women, children, elderly and wounded--have fled across the Turkish border; 100,000 to 150,000 more are trapped and in imminent danger inside Iraqi territory.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Turgut Ozal has announced that his country will grant “conditioned temporary refuge for the fleeing Kurds,” but this, too, is an uncertain fate. For most of the past 63 years, successive regimes have denied and punished any manifestation of the ethnic existence of millions of indigenous Kurds within Turkey’s borders. Even now the Turkish prime minister and the Turkish press refer to the fleeing Kurds of Iraq not as Kurds but as Iraqi citizens.

Back in January, 1977, Roger Baldwin of the International League for Human Rights brought to the attention of the U.N. Committee on Racial Discrimination Iraq’s “executions, torture, mass detention and the deportations of tens of thousands of Kurdish people in an apparent effort to destroy the Kurdish ethnic group.”

Like the league, Amnesty International has documented and publicized the massive escalation of these odious activities, only to be met by persistent denials by the Iraqi government.


To date the United Nations has done nothing to forestall the destruction of Iraqi Kurdistan by the same regime about which Baldwin complained in 1977. In its latest roll-call vote, the U.N. sub-commission on human rights called for human rights to be respected in Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala, Albania and Chile, but decided not to take any action on texts relating to the human-rights situations in East Timor and Iraq.

Divided by borders that they never made, dispossessed of their lands, denied their cultural heritage, endangered by heinous regimes at home and the silence of vested interests abroad, the Kurds are infinitely closer to many of our histories than their remote homelands indicate.

Where is the nation, east or west, to demand an emergency meeting of the United Nations and an immediate cease-fire to stop this massacre? And why is the Muslim world sitting back in silence?