Kader Hassan Kader, a tribal elder from a small village along the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and the "other Iraq," had a long memory and a taste for revenge. In 1988, his sister and older brother disappeared, along with more than 100,000 others, during Saddam Hussein's Anfal campaign to destroy Kurdish village life.
They were never heard from again, and are thought to be buried in mass graves along the southern desert near Kuwait.
Mr. Kader says he was sure that when he saw the first Iraqi soldier defecting or fleeing during a probable war, "I would kill him instantly." But by midday, after he and about 70 other leaders from 21 villages listened to a seminar on human rights and refugee assistance, he changed his mind.
"Now I see that it is better to be merciful," says Kader, the creased lines of his face attesting to the burden of his years. "I will return to Mansoor Al Khan and do my best to convince my people. I will tell them that we have gained nothing from the war, and that we can benefit from leaving the fighting behind."
A coalition of Kurdish nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) made their first attempt Saturday to convince the villagers bordering Saddam Hussein's Iraq to respect human rights and avert a blood bath of revenge.
At the Nakada Primary School in Rizgary, just a couple of miles from the border with Baghdad-controlled Iraq, a lawyer pleads for restraint in a classroom full of men in black and white turbans and baggy balloon pants, their loafers caked in mud from the unpaved streets of their villages.
"We have to respect every prisoner," says Sarwar Ali, pacing in front of a chalkboard listing human rights principles. "We must show that we are serious about peace, even concerning Ansar [Islamic militants fighting against the secular Kurdish government.] Otherwise we will act contrary to our best interests."
Members of Ansar al Islam have set Kurdish fighters on fire while still alive, mutilated their bodies, and displayed them on their website. The name draws rumbles from the crowd and the question, "Are Ansar fighters human beings?"
But the villagers seem ready to treat Iraqi soldiers humanely. They also agree to open their homes to ordinary Arab citizens fleeing from fighting in the south.
"If Saddam Hussein leaves, we will invite all the Arabs and have a big party," interjects one attendee, eliciting approving laughter from the crowd.
"Saddam wanted to divide the Kurds from the Arabs, the Kurds from other Kurds, the Shia from the Sunni," says Hero Anwar, a program manager for REACH, a local Kurdish NGO that organized the village network and helped host the seminars.
"He was afraid that if the people think together, maybe they will be powerful enough to oppose him. He made us become enemies against each other. But we all suffered under Saddam, and now we want to help the others," she says.
The human rights training is just one aspect of a multipart program. With funding from the British government, and NGOs, the leaders of 89 villages are learning first aid, including the treatment of chemical wounds, and securing spare rooms for potential refugees.
Many in the crowd wonder aloud how they would care for the refugees when they are having trouble feeding their own families. A sheep that used to sell for 700 dinars now earns just 300, or less than $30.
In the next week, the seminars will be repeated in several more border towns. The hope is that the elders will organize teams that will separate soldiers from civilians and assign rooms. Each family is expected to care for another family, housing a total of 2,000 refugees with food and other assistance from aid groups.
The lecturer hands out a survey and asks the crowd, "Are you ready to assist the refugees?" Shouts from the crowd insist: "We are ready, we are very ready."
Changing hearts will be as important as securing extra blankets. Mohamed Kareem Shaswar says that 150 people in his village perished in the Anfal campaign. But even he says he saw the wisdom of the lawyers' advice. "We will give these criminals to be judged by God first and by the court second. I will not kill them with my own hands," he says.
The seminar organizers drew on Kurdish traditions of generosity and respect for elders to get their message across. Mahmoud Hama Aziz agrees that the younger men would follow his lead. "In our tradition if an old man shows forgiveness, the others will follow him."