A multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary approach is necessary to help prevent new genocides, according to a perspective published in the July 2018 issue of The SangSaeng, a publication of the Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding (APCEIU) under the auspices of UNESCO.
In the article published in the summer 2018 print and online issues of SangSaeng, Dr. Widad Akreyi, co-founder of Defend International, recalled her own youth in Iraq-dominated Kurdistan and the tragedies that made her dedicate her life to the service of humanity.
In the Peace in My Memory section, Dr. Widad discussed how the choices she made in her youth changed the course of her life.
“On a personal level, the lack of freedom around me made me grasp how important my freedom of thoughts was,” she said. “To cope with reality, I’d rather spend my time reading books, escaping to (fictional) worlds, freeing myself from the shackles of tyranny. In a way, I created my own world in order to survive.”
She added, “My life experiences have played a role in fostering my desire to campaign for global peace and an end to humanitarian crises.”
Specifically, she stressed that history repeats itself because we haven’t been successful in learning from it.
“By working together, we can help prevent future genocides. We are all on one road, and what we do or not do matters. Our world deserves better. It is my hope that we can come together as one to bring about peace, healing and wholeness.”
Below is the full text of the article:
Peace in My Memory: Unwanted Nation Living in Own Land
“By Working Together We Can Help Prevent Future Genocides”
By Widad Akreyi (Health expert and human rights activist, Co-founder of Defend International)
We are the product of our experiences and choices. Reflecting back, the choices I made in my youth changed the course of my life. The moments I will share below are merely some of the brighter or darker string of moments that make me who I am. They summarise how I discovered the ideals of peace and solidarity and how humbled I feel to have dedicated my life to the service of humanity from a very young age.
Born in southern Kurdistan, the sun rising over the mountains, trees swaying in the wind, leaves dancing in the breeze are images from my birth city embedded in my memory. Other than that, all my childhood memories are of warfare and persecution.
When I was five years old, I became internally displaced as the Iraqi government bombed the Kurds following the outbreak of an offensive against us. My mother took me, on the verge of death, and fled to another city where we stayed for months until we returned to what was left of our homes.
Our life was changed. There was, however, one thing that kept me excited: My yearning to learn. I couldn’t wait to go to school. Invariably, I found myself filled with a strong feeling that the treasuries of the world’s literatures would be open to me the moment I learned to read.
At school, I had high grades and was loved by my teachers and classmates. I easily developed friendships with other pupils. At 8 years old, the inclusion of those whom fortune didn’t favour became my goal. It saddened me to see children being isolated or rejected because of poverty, race or religion.
Then and there began my first personal confrontation with the Iraqi authorities, which resulted in my being blacklisted. I had no major problems until one day a high-ranking Baath Party official showed up at school and ordered us to join his party. Everyone obeyed without a word except for me. My reason for not joining made him angry, very angry. What made matters worse was that I didn’t let him force another girl to join. I stood up for what I believed in, even though that meant I had to stand alone.
After this episode, some of my classmates would look at me and say, “you are not a normal person.” I took it an opportunity for debate. To a certain degree, I managed to turn off my reaction to what others thought of me. I remember thinking “I wouldn’t be myself if I tried all the time to behave in a way that was generally accepted as being normal.” My classmates didn’t realise that I had to choose between becoming part of the elite or the vulnerable citizens. There was a lot of pressure on me to choose the former, especially because of my grades and popularity. Nevertheless, I refused to give up my right to make my own choices. To me it was essential to bring back the smiles on the faces of the marginalised. I decided to stand with the oppressed, to lift them up from the depth of despair. My choice came as a form of solidarity, a way of telling them that they were not alone, and a way of telling the oppressors that I wouldn’t be one of them.
On a personal level, the lack of freedom around me made me grasp how important my freedom of thoughts was. To cope with reality, I’d rather spend my time reading books, escaping to (fictional) worlds, freeing myself from the shackles of tyranny. In a way, I created my own world in order to survive. I didn’t wait for others to help me form my self-identity. With an open mind, I read to ensure a steady flow of information. I didn’t feel threatened by new ideas. On the contrary, I was chasing after them.
When the time came and I had to select a university at the age of 16, I enrolled in Civil Engineering at the University of Salahadin because I wanted to demonstrate that a woman would be able to enter a male-dominated profession and be good at it. It wasn’t unusual that wherever I went my views about human rights and fundamental freedoms were frowned upon. Still, the compassion I had for those in need was my guiding principle. My activism and thirst for knowledge got me through those trying times.
Then, in 1987 the Iraqi government launched a new offensive known as Anfal, during which chemical weapons were used against Kurds in specific areas. Civilians listed as “outsiders” or “opponents” were to be arrested and transported to the designated areas, where the army had unleashed summary executions, robbing and raping campaigns, human trafficking and disappearances on a horrifying scale. My parents and I were on their list and had no choice but to take desperate measures to avoid certain death or worse. The genocide peaked in 1988 when over 4500 towns and villages were destroyed, some of them wiped out completely without one single survivor. NGOs and other organisations were denied access, creating a horrendous humanitarian crisis that seemed to have no end.
In the face of devastating circumstances, it was critically important to document evidence of the ethnic cleansing, as well as the immediate destructive effects of chemical weapons on the victims and the environment. I focused on taking action to move forward. The attacks with mustard gas and nerve agents inflicted heavy losses. It dawned on me how life consisted of woven threads of time and tiny victories which ended in death.
The humanitarian crisis had reached critical levels. It was evident that it would not resolve with quick strokes, partly because the international community was silent. If it had been anywhere else in the world, steps would have been taken to protect the civilians. We were the unwanted nation despite the fact that we lived in our own land – the land of our ancestors.
Among the survivors were women and children who had been victims of sexual violence. They ignited my sense of duty to advocate for the protection of females and children against physical and sexual violence in conflict zones. Faced with unforgettable traumas, the survivors could hardly gather their thoughts. Their hopelessness hit me hard. There were many injured, starving and homeless, with no prospect for peace in sight. Not only the visible impacts of the use of chemical weapon on civilians captured my attention, but the invisible impacts as well. What about their internal body organs? What was happening to their genes? What about the children the victims may be having in the future? These and other questions were in my mind at the end of the 1980s. It was the most painful period in my youth. I remember feelings of powerlessness. Yet, I kept clinging to the last shred of hope for a peaceful future, for the sake of our shared humanity.
A new wave of indiscriminate military attacks on civilians in 1991 forced us to leave our land. Once again, we were driven out. The cycle of violence seemed unending. Another massive exodus of Kurds was triggered by the Iraqi government. Some decided to flee to Bakur, others to Rojhelat. The elders and those with disabilities or chronic conditions and those carrying kids suffered the most. With food, water and medicine out of reach, we walked for many days. We had no shelter. The suffering was profound, as was the demand of treating the injured and sick and burying the deceased as a final act of respect.
Human misery was getting worse by the day. I recall being exhausted, too exhausted to move. Many didn’t make it. I was among those who did. However, the Turkish authorities had closed the border to all traffic from southern Kurdistan. Following local and international pressure, we were allowed to enter Bakur. At 21, I became a refugee.
Past Builds Future
In the beginning of the 1990s, as I began a new life in the West, I decided to study genetics. The victims of the Anfal genocide were still in my mind. Their untold suffering was still there. The powerlessness I had felt back then had accompanied me to the new continent. My desire to understand what they were going through in terms of mutations and the chemical changes in their bodies caused a shift in my academic focus from engineering to medical sciences.
The above are a few of the significant moments of my youth. While some may wish to turn back the pages of time to relive the best moments in their lives, I am at peace with how my life has evolved. The darker moments have taught me valuable lessons. They have helped me build positive character traits that have moulded me into the person I am today.
We all have times when things get on top of us, when life feels hard or when we recall something awful that has happened in the past. It is normal to have days that are clouded with a haze of sadness and confusion. What is not recommended is to try forcing yourself to forget your past. Feelings of frustration and anguish mustn’t get you down. On those times, it is imperative not to deny your past because if we find the courage to step inside its tunnel we will emerge stronger and healthier at the end of it. Instead of having to endure a succession of bad days, recognise your past and make peace with it. And remember that personal peace is at the heart of global peace.
My life experiences have played a role in fostering my desire to campaign for global peace and an end to humanitarian crises. We always say never again. Yet, we see time and time again that history repeats itself because we haven’t been successful in learning from it. Systematic persecution aimed at ethnically and religiously cleanse our region continues. In 2014 another genocide was orchestrated and carried out. From the Yazidi genocide to the Anfal genocide, to the Armenian genocide, to the genocides committed throughout the centuries against our ancestors, the mass extermination of peoples has been unprecedented. We should ask ourselves why did we fail to stop it? If left unaddressed and unresolved, severe violations of human rights and accelerated catastrophic humanitarian crises will present major international security threats the like of which one has never seen. Hence, the need for our immediate intervention.
We, the inhabitants of Earth, are connected. By working together, we can help prevent future genocides. We are all on one road, and what we do or not do matters. Our world deserves better. It is my hope that we can come together as one to bring about peace, healing and wholeness.