Kurds struggle to transcend Saddam Hussein's legacy

After decades of abuse by the Iraqi regime, some Kurds find it difficult to rejoin postwar society

At what was once a place of torture, a Kurdish boy comes to remember his father.

Twelve-year-old Shirwan Dartash views an exhibit of photographs at a complex of buildings here that formerly housed the Iraqi security forces. One of the pictures is of a neatly lettered chalk inscription on the wall of a detention cell. It says that on Oct. 16, 1990, Bakr Dartash was sent to Baghdad to be executed.

No one knows exactly when Bakr was killed, but it was probably before his son's first birthday. Shirwan has seen the photograph many times. It makes him feel proud. "When I come here, I become happy," he says.

His words seem incongruous in such a sorrowful place. They seem a testament to the power of love to overcome hatred and loss.

As Iraqis and the rest of the world begin to assess the horrors of 35 years of Baath Party rule, the country's Kurds have a head start. They began their reckoning in 1991, when then-President Saddam Hussein pulled his officials out of northern Iraq and allowed the Kurds to rule themselves.

They have turned the Sulaymaniyah complex, known as the "Red Security" because of the ochre tint of its exterior paint, into a memorial to their suffering under Iraqi regimes. "If we will not remember what happened," says Hero Khan Ahmed, the organizer of the memorial effort, "we cannot be strong for the future."

Iraq's Kurds seem to have concluded that they must defeat the rage and injustice caused by the Baath Party's oppression, in part because they are committed to integrating themselves more tightly into Iraqi society. Kurdish leaders say they have put their dreams of independence on hold.

Even so, the Kurdish process of reconciliation remains in its infancy. The Kurds say they have much to do to account for the dead and the missing, build a nation that offers some redemption for their suffering, and ease their sadness and anger.

More than a decade ago Kamaran Aziz Ali spent day after day in a torture chamber at the Red Security, his big hands manacled behind his back. His interrogators attached the handcuffs to a hook suspended from a pipe near the ceiling, hanging him so his shoulders dislocated. They spat in his mouth, whipped him with cables, shocked him with electricity.

In late 1990 and early 1991 the Iraqis detained him, Bakr Dartash, and 29 others because of their involvement with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a political party that was agitating against Iraqi rule and that today administers the eastern portion of northern Iraq. Mr. Ali still serves the PUK as an education official.

He hasn't forgotten his torture and isn't inclined to forgive those who carried it out. "I want everyone who served the regime even for one day," he says calmly, "to be exterminated."

The peak of Kurdish suffering under the Baath Party was a genocidal campaign known as the Anfal - the Arabic word for "spoils" and the name the Iraqi government gave to its effort to suppress the Kurds. It was the culmination of decades of strife between Kurdish groups seeking independence and central governments in Baghdad.

In the late 1980s Iraqi forces destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages and killed as many as 100,000 people, according to human rights organizations. Iraq used chemical weapons against its own civilians, including those in the city of Halabja in 1988, when 5,000 people died after an Iraqi attack.

Government officials moved the inhabitants of the destroyed villages to austere "collective towns" in the north or to other parts of Iraq, declaring vast areas of the north off limits to civilian habitation. The idea was to eliminate support for the PUK and the other main Kurdish political group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

In this respect, the project failed. Immediately after the Gulf War of 1991, the Kurds rose up against Iraqi rule. Hussein's regime struck back, but later backed off after Western nations imposed a "no-fly zone" in the north of the country.

The Western protection gave the Kurds a chance to practice the autonomy they had long sought. With the overthrow of Mr. Hussein's government, the Kurds will have a greater opportunity to track down its victims.

The Kurdish village of Kariz lies along the line that once demarcated the end of Hussein's control in northern Iraq and the beginning of the Kurdish-ruled zone. Iraqi forces maintained control of the area until a few days after the US attack began in April.

But "liberation" didn't mean much in Kariz. In 1988 the Iraqis emptied the village of its inhabitants and knocked down its houses. Since then, time and the weather have turned the rubble into waist-high mounds of earth, brick, and stone. A few trees rise over the desolation.

Amanj Khalifa, a PUK official in the nearby town of Kifri, points out where his aunt used to live, where the tea house was, and where the mosque stood. He nods his head toward the village well, which the Iraqis covered with cement.

He recites the Anfal numbers that all Kurds know: 5,000 villages destroyed, 180,000 people killed. "The families of these people are waiting - after the liberation of Iraq - to go and search for the bones of their relatives and the graves of their loved ones," he says.

Ali sits with two other torture survivors in an office in the Red Security complex. The three men tell stories of grim treatment at the hands of Iraqi officials and marvel that they now give interviews in a place that was once so feared.

They ponder questions about the meaning of the suffering they endured, about what it will all add up to now that the Baath regime has fallen. They struggled for Kurdish independence, but that goal seems as elusive as ever.

"Now what exists is to try to make a modern Iraq and a model of democracy that will lead to the collapse of [governments] in Iran and Syria and ... Turkey," says Bakhtiar Aule, referring to three neighboring countries that also have significant, often oppressed, Kurdish minorities. If the Kurds can't have their state, he seems to suggest, at least they can be free.

Ali Suleiman offers this: "The acts they performed we will not do," he says, referring to the members of the Baath regime. "We will bury these acts and perform good ones. The Kurdish struggle is for this sake."

In another part of the complex, a room is devoted to art and photography about the massacre at Halabja. One poster, by an artist named Mohammed Fatah, shows a bomb piercing a bed of flowers. The photographs, taken immediately after the Iraqi attack, depict dead children with milky eyes and blackened lips.

In this room the acts of the regime are far from buried, a reminder that Kurds are still skeptical that the world has acknowledged what they have experienced.

In the late 1980s, when they were so heinously treated, the West was largely silent.

A brochure at the Red Security reads: "Hoping that our coming generations and guests see who our enemy was."

Mr. Fatah, much of whose work focuses on the trials of the Kurds, says "we cannot forget Anfal, Halabja, or many tragedies very easily. But we are ambitious, like all people around the world, and we want to forgive [those responsible] and rehabilitate them so they, too, will be good people."

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