I wrote the following for Kurdishaspect.com.
Five years ago this month, protesters burned down the Monument of Halabja Martyrs. As an outsider, I have always found the symbolism of the burning memorial to be the height of poetry and a high point for Kurdish democracy. The message of the burning is simple: the past, present and future of Kurdistan belongs to the Kurdish people.
I was living in Sulemania at the time and I clearly remember being told, “the politicians come every year and make speeches, but they do nothing for Halabja.” After 18 years, some people had had enough. Halabja had become (and still is) a metaphor for the years under Saddam. Post-Saddam, the city and the 1988 tragedy became a symbol of victory seeming to say “Look how far we have come, Kurds. In spite of this tragedy, we have become victorious.”
The problem, of course, is that in 2006 Halabja still very much looked like the city it had been on March 17, 1988, the day after the attack. Halabja still lacked basic services and the people of Halabja felt as though they were being ignored by the Kurdish government in whom they had put their hopes for renewal. The politicians came every year to show their commitment to the people who had suffered so terribly, but the people only heard words without seeing any action.
Halabja had become caught up in the narrative of Kurdish nationalism and Kurdish nationalism is the tool that the Kurdish government uses to keep order.
There are two versions of Kurdish nationalism; one that’s based on institutions and personalities and one that’s based on culture and history. Often the lines between these two are blurred and the average person believes that the government or a politician are the as important to their culture as a song or an event, like Halabja. It happens here in the US, when we confuse party affiliation or devotion to the president with patriotism.
Governments tend to prefer this blurring even to one strictly built around themselves because it allows them to co-opt great events to further their aims. It’s a cynical view, yes, but one which certainly played out in Halabja leading up to 2006. In Halabja, politicians and leaders had co-opted the tragedy and the suffering of the city.
The Halabja tragedy was slowly taken away from the people who had suffered and was turned into a talking point. The anniversary was becoming a day for politicians to make grand speeches because the heart of every Kurd turns to Halabja on that day: people are listening on that day. A politician could say, “I am a good Kurd. I love Halabja. See me making this speech from Halabja – I really came to this poor place and I am among these poor people. I am a good Kurd.”
The shared tragedy became a political rally, no longer shared, but owned by the leadership. The memories of 1988 put in a museum and made the official artifacts for remembrance and a part of the political narrative of Kurdishness.
The only way to truly honor those that died in 1988 was to remove the spectacle of the anniversary and the only way to remove the spectacle was to burn down the memorial. The people took the memory of Halabja away from the politicians and brought it back to the people to whom it had always belonged
The lingering question, however is did it work? It should have worked. The symbolism was so clear. Politicians must have read the writing on the wall. The people must have stood up that day and continued to stand up. Right?
The unfortunate answer, though, is that it didn’t work; nothing changed.
So, who’s to blame?
Surprise, it’s not the government, or at least not the government alone. A government that had done so much in so few years in any other society would be applauded and the KRG are moving forward, albeit slowly. More importantly, the Kurdish government is democratically elected. So, corrupt or otherwise, the current government belongs to the voters.
That means that everyone is to blame and everyone forgot the message of March 16, 2006: the past, present and future of Kurdistan belongs to the Kurdish people.
One day the current protesting will end. It has to. Will the government and the people continue to work for change? That remains to be seen, but change must be made in Kurdistan, not in the burning of things this time, but by igniting the fire in the Kurdish people.