Why I had to flee my country

Steven Russell, Suffolk & Essex Online, September 26, 2006
CHOMAN Hardi is no stranger to hardship. She was born in Iraqi-controlled Kurdistan in 1974 – the year negotiations broke down with the Baath government. The Kurds had long been fighting for autonomy, but when the revolution was crushed many people fled to neighbouring Iran.
Among them was Choman’s family, their baby just over one month old. They ended up in Kerej, a small town outside Tehran.
“I grew up in a refugee Kurdish neighbourhood filled with stories about homeland and the hopes of return,” she recalls. “This is where I spent my first five years.”
In 1979 the Iraqi government issued an amnesty and after much hesitation her father decided to return. Choman remembers crossing back to her homeland; the journey captured in her poem At the Border.
“I was five years old and expected the other place behind the border to be much more beautiful. This is what my family had assured me. I realised I had been deceived. That day I probably learnt the first important lesson in my life: that the stories immigrants tell about their homelands are myths and beautiful lies. Suleimanya was not better than Kerej and the landscape was not that different.”
A year later, war broke out between Iraq and Iran.
“My childhood, like many of my generation, is full of the sound of sirens and planes and guns. Our days were dominated by the Iraq-Iran war and our nights by Iraq’s war against the Kurdish peshmarga (fighters for independence).
“In those years all of our textbooks started with glorious pictures of Saddam Hussein, grinning at us. A large portrait was also hung above our blackboard. Some days, after heavy breakouts of shooting the night before, we would go to school and there would be more triumphant posters of Saddam on the walls. My father told me that they were hiding the bullet holes.”
Nevertheless, Choman was a cheerful girl, if shy. She was furious when her parents outlawed music lessons, or any involvement in sports or art exhibitions. Years later she realised they’d had good reason.
“Any student who stood out in these fields was gradually sucked into the (Baath) party. I was once chosen as the model student and my father made me turn this prestigious position down. As a child I was angry with my father, refusing to believe that things were as bad as he made out. But soon life itself proved him right.
“When I was nine years old my brother took part in the students’ demonstrations and was arrested and tortured in 1983. He was only 17. In 1984 my other brother was arrested during a curfew because there was ‘an anti-government slogan’ on our wall. He was a university student at the time and had come home for the weekend. In 1986 both my brothers joined the Kurdish revolution despite my mother’s cries and begging. In this way the same circle started again.”
Action against the Kurds intensified throughout the 1980s. Then in February, 1988, during the last months of the Iraq-Iran war, the government started its ultimate destruction of the villages, known as the Anfal campaign.
“The Anfal offensive took place in eight stages, destroying over 2,000 villages and mass-graving about 100,000 civilians. The inhabitants were repeatedly bombarded by chemical weapons over seven months.”
Once again the Kurdish revolution was crushed. Choman’s brothers fled to Iran.
“This campaign targeted the villages but in March, 1988, Halabja, which was a town, was also chemically bombarded. The bombardment terrified all Kurds. The government was seen to be capable of wiping out all of Kurdistan in the absence of outside intervention.”
Saddam Hussein and six other defendants are currently being tried for these 1988 offensives.
“We lived in the city and were never targeted in this way. But the Anfal campaign, Halabja, and the peace treaty between Iraq and Iran convinced my father to leave. We joined my brothers in Iran, crossing through dozens of destroyed villages, guided by smugglers.”
Choman was 14 when the family ended up in Seqiz, a small Kurdish town known for its harsh winters.
“Under the Islamic republic we had to cover up and wear the hijab, and I had to re-learn Persian to continue my schooling. I had two classmates who were in the same position as me. In school, the girls were fascinated by us and wanted to find out what we were like. Some were curious to know what it felt like to have bare arms and legs on the street. The more religious ones even thought we were lucky that we had been saved from our previous sinful lives.
“Most of our teachers were very supportive but the history teacher refused to speak in Kurdish in the class, which meant that for a few months we were depressed throughout her lessons. I hated my life for about a year but then I discovered literature in Persian and everything started to look up again.
“Most of all I missed the relatively freer environment we enjoyed as girls. I had always looked forward to growing up and being a woman, wearing colourful dresses, make-up and bare-toe shoes. Living in Iran deprived me of all these things. I was turned into a black crow on the streets.”
Iraq invaded Kuwait and was suddenly re-defined by the West as “dangerous”. The first gulf war followed.
“The short-lived Shi’ite and Kurdish uprisings of 1991 brought hope to many families like us, who were eagerly waiting to return. But Iraq was left with enough army and the use of helicopters to crush both sides. More than 100,000 Shi’ites were massacred in the south and about two million Kurds fled to Iran and Turkey.
“Our house in Seqiz soon resembled a refugee camp when dozens of relatives and friends came to stay in our two-bedroom flat. This is when my father, encouraged by my sister in London and my brother in America, decided to leave the region altogether. We went to Turkey in 1991 and I eventually made it to the UK in 1993.”
Most of her family later went back to Iraqi Kurdistan.
“My two brothers returned there in 1991, after the creation of the safe haven for the Kurds, and my parents, who lived in London for 11 years, returned after the war in 2003.
“My older sister, who lived in London for 23 years, returned to Kurdistan in 1999. She has established a woman’s organisation and feels content for being part of the rebuilding process.
“I have been back and forth a number of times in the last three years. I spent much of last year visiting the remote villages and interviewing the women survivors of Anfal for my research.” After studying at Oxford and University College, London, Choman’s PhD thesis with the University of Kent focused on the effects of displacement on Kurdish women in the UK.
Choman is now based at the University of Uppsala, in Sweden, where she’s analysing her findings.
“Some of the women survived the detention camps where their brothers, husbands and fathers were taken away to their death. Lack of sanitation, hunger and the spread of epidemics led to the death of many people in the camps, especially the children.
“For most of the Anfal women, grief has never ended. A woman whose child asked for cucumber till he starved to death told me that every time she smells cucumber in the spring she gets a headache. A man told me that the cleaner in his workplace, who is an Anfal survivor, burst into tears when he offered her a hot loaf of bread one morning. Her child had begged for bread till he died; she could not eat a warm piece of bread without remembering him.”
The plight of her homeland and its people drives her poetry – highly effective in the way beauty and horror often sit at each other’s shoulders. The harsh years endured by her own family could not kill its creative spirit; poetry was always part of the household.
“My father had a brilliant memory and knew many poems by heart. My brothers and sisters in turn wrote in some form or another. I was in primary school when I wrote my first story after being challenged by my brothers, who said I could not. My heart raced as I wrote and I realised that I enjoyed inventing characters who could experience all the things I wanted to experience.”
Her father, Ahmad, was a well known and much loved poet in his 20s. “But as time went on, as he lived through turmoil, he became acutely aware that he needed to do something. He says that during the hardships he felt that more serious measures were required; that poetry seemed passive.”
He became more involved in politics, establishing a secret political party in the 1950s known as Kajik.
In the 1980s Choman’s father completed some of the poems he had written in the ’40s and ’50s, and published them in the second edition of his poetry book. Many became classic songs and one of his political poems became a national hymn.
Choman was 20 when she started following in his footsteps. “I had loved poetry but believed I could not write it. It was love that made me into a poet. I was also particularly influenced by Persian poets of the 1960s.”
She hopes her writings “capture a time and a place which may otherwise remain in the dark; that they provide insight into another perspective – another realm of experience that may seem too distant and strange”.
Meanwhile, Choman feels it’s naïve to believe the work of Saddam Hussein can be easily undone.
“He spent 30 years strengthening factionalism by using Arabs against Kurds, Sunnis against Shi’ites and vice verse. The situation is also exploited by Islamic fundamentalists from within and without the country.
“I don’t expect the situation to get better soon but I do hope that one day people will be exhausted and they will realise that they cannot wipe each other out. Democracy is not something we are born with; it is something we have to learn.”
Despite everything she’s lived through, and experienced second-hand, Choman’s an optimist.
“I have to be if I am going to do anything about the injustices in the world around me. I have to believe that what I do matters: that it is important to carry on even though many times, especially during the Anfal interviews, I felt totally hopeless while faced with so much grief and so many shattered lives.
“There are, of course, hours and sometimes days when I feel that I am fooling myself; that nothing will get better however much we, as individuals, try. But most of the time I try to work hard reading and writing, to lend my voice to those who don’t have a voice.
“I think the process of growing up involves becoming aware of our similarities and vulnerabilities. All the awful things we hear about and see could happen to any of us. This is why it is important to keep talking to each other, to keep working, and to build an understanding.
“I hope that my poetry is also in this spirit, opening the door to another world shaped by war and violence.”
Choman Hardi’s 2004 poetry collection Life for Us is published by Bloodaxe Books at £7.95. ISBN 1 85224 644 8. www.bloodaxebooks.com
CHOMAN Hardi appears at the 18th Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, which runs from November 3-5.
More of Choman’s views and reflections:
What’s her view of Iran and Iraq?
“Iraq and Iran are essentially very different countries. Iraq only came into existence when the Ottoman Empire was chopped up in the 1920s, whereas Iran has existed in the form of the Persian Empire for many centuries. This may be reflected in the psychology of the ruling class in both countries.
“The ruling Arabs of Iraq have always been aware of the fragility of the so-called ‘Iraqi nation’. They have been conscious that historically the three sections in Iraq have never gelled well together. Therefore the ruling elite were always nervous, insecure that the country may fall apart and that they may lose their power.
“We know that dominant groups are always worried about losing their position. They thus try to suppress the other groups and weaken them to remain in power. The ruling elite in Iraq tried to control the country and maintain its unity by utter violence and totalitarianism. This violence is very much based in fear and insecurity. It is the act of a desperate group which keeps things together by force. The moment the pressure is lifted everything falls apart.
“I believe both the Anfal genocide of 1988 and the current violence in Iraq are partly determined by the history of the country’s establishment. Another factor that plays a part in the current turmoil is the coming to power of the sunni-Arab-nationalist Baath Party which exploited the ethnic and religious rivalries and used them as an excuse to justify the use of violence to stay in power. The creation of a one-million-strong army, the construction of enemies within (Kurds and Shi’ite) and without (Iran, Kuwait, USA) also played an important role.”
What’s her view of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the way the US and UK, principally, have treated Iraq since then?
“Most of my life has coincided with Saddam Hussein’s rule and has been shaped by his policies. For someone with my history and experiences, the overthrow of Saddam is very much welcome. In fact, I believe, anyone who cares about their fellow humans should be happy about the overthrow of dictators in the world.
“Saddam Hussein should have been indicted for genocide in 1988. In fact, despite repeated cries from the international press and Human Rights organisations about the extensive use of chemical weapons and devastation of the countryside and its inhabitants, the international community failed to act.
“Both the UK and the US had evidence of what Iraq was doing at the time (read Physicians for Human Rights, 1989; Human Rights Watch, 1993; McDowall, 2005) but they did not want to lead such investigations or share the evidence they had. Instead they asked the UN to investigate ‘the allegations’, but Iraq refused to co-operate, stating it was ‘an internal matter’ and at the end the matter was dropped.
“The failure of the UN to implement the Genocide Convention has repeatedly caused disasters in the world and we are currently watching it happen again in Darfur. Respecting the integrity of states also rules out interfering when a state is destroying its own civilians for whatever reason.
“These are some of the factors that have crippled the UN and render it useless much of the time. The UK and US are guilty of silence, of not doing anything to stop Saddam Hussein. In fact, I believe, the Kuwait invasion only happened because Saddam thought he can get away with murder, as he had done till then. Failing to prosecute states that commit genocide only encourages them to carry on and encourages other rogue states to do the same.
“In 1939 Hitler is known to have said ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ The failure to sanction the Armenian genocide only encouraged Hitler to plan his own genocide of the Jews.
“The international community must learn that such silences and non-action have important consequences on the ground.
“Another terrible consequence is the failure to make amendments for the victims. The chemical attack survivors are dying slowly from cancer and deformities but, since Anfal and Halabja were never recognised as genocide or at least crimes against humanity, no help is available to this ill and fading community.
“Other consequences of non-action may be the build-up of resentment and anger towards the West and the rise in the number of refugees that these same governments complain about. But Britain has failed the Kurds from the beginning.
“In the early twenties, when the promise of nationhood was watered down to civil and cultural rights within Iraq, Britain was to ensure the implementation of these rights before Iraq was accepted as a new state in the League of Nations. Britain’s eagerness to get the Iraqi state established meant that they closed their eyes to the failure of the Iraqi government to meet these requirements.
“The US has also failed the Kurds repeatedly. Kissinger’s role in crushing the Kurdish revolution in 1974 was probably the first large-scale betrayal. It was followed by closing their eyes to genocide and mass murder. Later, it amounted to encouraging people to rise against Iraq in 1991 and then abandoning them when Iraq brutally suppressed the Shi’ites and the Kurds. The UK and US have failed the Iraqi people in general.
“I am saying all of this to make my position clear. I know very well that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with helping the Iraqi people. But I am also painfully aware that the tyrant could not have been toppled from within. Three decades of brutal rule meant the destruction of any viable opposition within the country and the displacement and impoverishment of the rest. There was no ground for change from within.
“I believe that Saddam Hussein could only have been removed by outside intervention, though I was hoping this would be an organised and well-planned operation which would take account of all the things that could go wrong. This was a big failure on behalf of the US and the UK.
“It seems to me that much harm could have been avoided if the security of the country was taken seriously from the first day. Dismantling the army and police forces, in conjunction with there not being enough coalition troops, created a gap which was exploited by Saddam’s men and Islamic fundamentalists. The way the Nazis were defeated was by complete destruction, which is not an option in modern warfare. This meant the lurking around of a large group of Saddam loyalists.
“It also seems that after decades of engagement or non-engagement with Iraq there was little understanding of the diversity of the people and their needs. I was angry with the Hollywood style of politicians’ and the planners’ discourse of the war. But I was also angry with the anti-war protesters who suddenly seemed to care about Iraqi people. Iraqi people had been suffering for years. Genocide, mass murder, sanctions and daily terror had crippled ordinary life.
“We knew the war was going to happen whether we liked it or not. I would have liked to have seen some people campaigning to pressurise the US and UK to get it right and be prepared for what may come. I also find it ironic that no-one seems to be protesting and organizing to pressurise the international community into helping people in Darfur.
“It seems to me that as long the West keeps its hands clean and doesn’t get involved, people don’t feel strongly enough about helping others who are suffering in their own distant countries. What the media chooses to highlight, what activists decide to campaign for and what people are being mobilized to do is very telling. There are many blind spots of truth and justice which I believe are partly determined by the media. Who will be given a voice and who will suffer in silence is decided by them.
“Repeatedly, I read articles by journalists who have not got the facts right because they don’t have time to research their topics properly. Very few people take the time to actually understand the complications and delicacy of certain situations. Naturally we want things to be simple, black or white, true or false, good or bad. But in real life things are much more complicated. Nations have histories which puts their current situation into context, ignoring that means not knowing the whole truth.
“To answer your question I want to say that the US and the UK have made many mistakes in Iraq but that is not the only reason for the current chaos. I want to draw you back to what I said earlier; what Saddam Hussein did in Iraq and the history of this nation has much to do with what is going on now. I get angry when people call the insurgents ‘resistance’. If they were only targeting the US soldiers, one could say that they want them out. But when they are killing Iraqi civilians on a daily basis I don’t want to call them anything but murderers.”

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