Jonah Naghi

Never Forget Halabja

Twenty-seven years ago today, the Kurds of Iraq experienced the most horrific event of their peoplehood: The Anfal Campaign; an assault that many have considered to be genocide.

On March 16, 1988, Sadaam Hussein’s troops invaded and used poison gas on the Kurds in their region. The most deadly attack of all was the notorious Halabja attack in which over 5,000 Kurds died in less than two hours from the gas attack. Nearly 200,000 Kurds died in the campaign altogether.

The background of the Halabja genocide was during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) when the Kurds in the north supposedly sided with Iran. Sadaam used this as a pretext to massacre the Kurds. His hatred towards the Kurds, as Stephen Mansfield says, was because they refused to be absorbed into his dream of pure Arab state of Iraq; they wanted to stay Kurdish.

The genocide is still fresh in the Kurds’ mind. It was just over a generation ago, but things have certainly changed.

The Kurds now have their own autonomous region in Iraq and have built a vibrant society through economic stability and religious tolerance. The Kurds’ military force, the Peshmerga, have also proven to be the only formidable force against Daesh (ISIS) this past year, including rescuing another minority of Iraq, the Yazidis, from a genocide of their own.

Time and again the Kurds have had their state stolen from them. Time and again they have helped the West in Iraq and have had their promises broken. Time and again they have been oppressed, massacred, and even experienced a genocide twenty-seven years ago today while the international community does little to help them.

Yet, the Kurds have stood strong and have helped others.

Since receiving their autonomous region in Iraq after the Gulf War, they have built a thriving economy with five-star hotels, literally, from the ashes. Their tolerance of ethnic and religious minorities complements their economy. For instance, since 2003, about 20,000 Iraqis have come to seek work in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurds have shown that they do not judge all Iraqis from what Sadaam did twenty-seven years ago by employing them.

Iraqi Kurdistan has also been a relative safe place of refuge for Iraqi minorities after Daesh’s rampage over the summer, such as Turkmen and Yazidis. As said before, the Kurds essentially rescued the Yazidis from a genocide by liberating them from Daesh’s siege on Mount Sinjar.

Nevertheless, this would not be the first time the Kurds have saved another religious group.

I had always heard of the story when Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, rescued the Jews from the Babylonians and allowed them to go back to the Holy Land. But did you know that Cyrus was actually a Kurd? Yes, Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, according to Kurdish expert Stephen Mansfield, was actually a descendant of the ancient Medes, whom to this day are known as the Kurds.

From the time when Cyrus rescued the Jews from the Babylonians to when the Peshmerga saved the Yazidis from the Daesh on Mount Sinjar, the Kurds, a people who have been oppressed by others, have time and again helped others.

Every year, I commemorate the Holocaust and the tragic event that happened to my people, the Jews, all those years ago. Well, I believe it’s time that more and more of the world began to recognize this day, March 16th, twenty-seven years since the day of Halabja, and commemorate the Kurdish genocide, acknowledge the adversity they have overcome, and to help pursue their independence.

It is simply spectacular that the Kurds have turned ashes into five-star hotels. It is simply spectacular that the Kurds run one of the most religiously tolerant societies after everything they’ve been through. And it is simply spectacular that the Kurds, the one stateless people in their relative region, were the one people who could stand up to Daesh this year and save another minority from genocide.

As we all know, independence cannot just be a privilege due to the politics that play a role in international relations. However, independence can, and should, happen when it is necessary. An independent Kurdistan is necessary for the Kurdish people, not just because they deserve a state, not just because they can run a state, but because they need a state for safe refuge in case of a time of Kurdish oppression.

“Never Again” and “Never Forget,” Halabja, 4/16, 1988.

About the Author
Jonah Naghi is a Boston-based writer and the Chair of Israel Policy Forum's IPF Atid Steering Committee in the city of Boston. A frequent commentator on Israeli-Palestinian and US-Israel affairs, Jonah has spent extensive time in the region and received his Masters in Social Work at Boston College (2020) and LCSW (2021). All the views expressed are his own.
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