Kurds' quest for justice overshadowed by economic discontent
Saddam Hussein was charged this week with genocide for attacks on Kurds that killed as many as 100,000 in the 1980s.
HALABJA, IRAQ — The decision this week to charge Saddam Hussein with genocide for the death of thousands of Kurds in the late 1980s has been welcomed by Kurds across northern Iraq who had previously worried that Iraq's Shiite government would try him only for crimes against Arab Shiites.
Kurds "were subjected to forced displacement and illegal detentions of thousands of civilians," said Raid Juhi, an investigative judge at the Iraqi High Tribunal that charged Mr. Hussein and six former members of his regime on Tuesday. "The villages were destroyed and burnt. Homes and houses of worshppers and buildings of civilians were leveled without reason or a military requirement."
Hussein again faced prosecutors in Baghdad this week for charges that he was behind the 1982 massacre in the village of Dujail that killed at least 148 Shiites. While that case has gone on for several months, officials said a second trial based on the charges of genocide in northern Iraq could begin in 45 days.
To many Kurds, however, and particularly young people brought up in the Kurdish autonomous region that existed after the 1991 Gulf War, the thirst for justice is increasingly overshadowed by daily concerns of finding a job, getting educated, and receiving proper medical care.
Every year the [local] government receives $4 to $5 billion [from Iraqi's central government], and no one can see where the money's going," says Mariwan Hama-Saeed, the Kurdish editor of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting's (IWPR) Iraq Crisis Watch. "Every day the government tells us that next year everything will be solved. But each year nothing changes."
Last month Kurdish anger at the slow pace of reconstruction boiled over. Protesters in Halabja destroyed the town's famous memorial to 5,000 civilians killed there in a chemical attack by Hussein's army in 1988.
Sifting through the Halabja museum's ashes the following day, its director, Ibrahim Hawramani, picked through burnt photos, torn children's drawings, and smashed plaques listing the names of the victims. "The people of Halabja shouldn't have done this," he said. "This wasn't a symbol of any political party. This was a symbol of everything in Kurdistan."
The shocking, but calculated, vandalism represents the rising anger and resentment felt by many Kurds over widespread corruption, lack of jobs, and fewer than expected reconstruction projects. Deepening the mistrust between the Kurds and their leaders, now mostly in Baghdad, is the heavy-handed approach of the security services toward the protesters.
The March 16 demonstration at Halabja that began peacefully with demonstrators trying nonviolently to block an official visit to the Halabja monument on the 18th anniversary of the chemical attack ended with troops firing shots into the crowd.
"At the beginning we were very positive, but when the policemen started shooting, the people grew angry and started to throw stones," says one university student who helped organize the demonstration. "Then the police started to shoot."
In the resulting melee, a student protester, 17-year-old Kurda Ahmed was shot dead. The outrage in Kurdistan has swiftly eclipsed any anger at the demonstrators for burning Kurdistan's best known monument.
"It is really shocking for young people to be fired on by the peshmerga [Kurdish militia] who are meant to be protecting them," says Mr. Hama-Saeed, who witnessed the demonstration.
"We know that the reconstruction of Halabja is inadequate and that we need to do more," says Azad Jundiani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's media office in Suleimaniya. The PUK is one of the two largest Kurdish political parties. "But we need money and we need time. We simply haven't got the funds right now."
"We have freedom to demonstrate in Kurdistan and we are proud of that freedom, but there must also be responsibility," says Mr. Jundiani. "Generally demonstrations in Kurdistan are a model of peaceful protest."
Observers say, however, the recent protests and the government's violent response are not isolated incidents. A March 8 protest in the town of Koya, in which students demonstrated over not being paid their stipend for the past three months, was also attacked by police.
"The youth discontent has been going on for a while," says Tiare Rath, international editor of IWPR's Iraq Crisis Report, adding that the protests partly reflect Kurdistan's success in schooling young people in freedom, democracy, and human rights.
"It's a generational thing," she says. "Young people here have grown up under independence. But no one here understands why there is no reconstruction up here in Kurdistan as the security situation is good. And we don't get any answers because there is no transparency."
Kurdish authorities have so far responded to criticism by blaming Islamic parties for causing unrest and local journalists for reporting it. In late March, Hawez Hawezi, a reporter from Hawlati, Iraqi Kurdistan's largest independent newspaper, was arrested at his home by the police and beaten before being released the next day.
Last December Kamal Khadir, a Iraqi Kurd holding Austrian citizenship was sentenced to 30 years for writing articles critically of the Kurdish government. Following an international outcry, however, Dr. Khadir was retried for slander, sentenced to 18 months, and then pardoned and released on April 3.
"For more than a thousand years we have suffered, and been occupied and exploited," says Farhad Auny, head of the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate in Arbil. "Now we want to establish a progressive new country. And the government knows that this will not happen without freedom of speech."
• Material from the wire services was used in this report.