Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Iraq Journal, Part Two

[This is the second in a series of posts about goings-on in Iraq. In the first, my father who is teaching at the American University in Iraq - Sulaimani wrote about getting to the Kurdish north. In this post, my mother, who is visiting my father in Iraq for a few weeks, writes about a trip to Halabja.]

Another fascinating and very stimulating weekend. (And did I mention that the weekends are Friday (the holy day) and Saturday.) Both Friday and Saturday we were taken in to the mountains surrounding Suli, first in the east and then in the west. The Kurds are fond of saying that "the mountains are our only friends" and that "Saddam had tanks but we had the mountains." The mountains surrounding Suli are different than any I've seen but Jerry compares them to the Grand Tetons. They rise sharply up from the valley without the surrounding foothills that are more typical in the US. And they vary dramatically in type from bare and rocky, to sandy with desert type plants, to covered with lush green

On Friday, a staff member at AUIS and her husband took us to Halabja, the town in the eastern mountains very close to the Iranian border where they were born and raised. Mention Halabja to any Kurd and they immediately know what it means and what you are going to see. Halabja is to the Kurds what the Holocaust is to Jews. It's the town that Saddam destroyed by chemical bombs, killing 5,000 men, women, and children. Visiting Halabja with Kurds, who are now in their 20s but were children of around 7 at the time of the attack, was a moving experience. Both had lost many friends and family members as well as having their homes destroyed; both had parents blinded for several weeks by the chemicals. Sham had never before visited the memorial because she feared the photos of those burned or killed would be too upsetting. Her husband recounted fleeing in fear, clinging to his mother's skirt. He took us to the path in the mountains on which, if they had chosen it, they would have died along with countless others who are now buried in mass graves that dot the hillside. He showed us the path they took instead to a village which though also hit by a chemical bomb, luckily, did not explode. Standing in the mountains, surrounded by wildflowers, and seeing families picnic at the cemeteries and mass graves it's difficult to imagine the horror which happened only 20 years ago.

Saturday, Dildar, a woman I was introduced to, took me to visit the Women's Commission, an organization which collects statistics, educates, and advocates on behalf of women. Although the women of Suli are relatively modern, women in the small villages still live lives of second class citizens. Honor killings still occur. Female circumcision is common. And few women are allowed to own property, receive their husband's pensions if they are widowed, or to withdraw money from bank accounts. Even in Suli, girls do not have the same freedoms as boys. The girls at the high school where I have been volunteering complain they are not allowed to go out with friends, they certainly can not have boys visit their homes, and many families prize boy children more than girls.

After an elaborate Kurdish lunch at the home of a Kurdish Member of Parliament with enough food to feed 30 people, Dildar also took Jerry and me for a drive in to the mountains (with a driver and uniformed guard carrying an M16 rifle!) She showed us the village and huts where she and her husband had been in hiding with other members of the pesh murga during the fighting with Saddam. She related stories of horror: bombing of the villages, climbing the mountains under sniper fire, having 3 miscarriages from effects of chemical weapons.

Again this weekend, Jerry and I were in awe of the stories of loss, heroism, and personal bravery that we heard. When we become frustrated with the construction debris, the dirtiness, and the inefficiencies of basic services, we try to remember how far Kurdistan has come in the brief time they have been at peace. We also once again were impressed by the warmth and hospitality of the Kurdish people. Sham's family in Halabja prepared a huge feast for us, family members from all over the city came to meet us and show us their children, and then they sent us home with a big bag of home-made bread. Shopkeepers, cab drivers, and others tell us over and over how much they love America. They are anxious that their stories are heard in the West.

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