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Memories of past wars haunt Kurdish daily life
By Alan Attoof
People often focus on civilian and military deaths as salient casualties of war and genocide; however other less noticed direct targets of totalitarian governments extend beyond the loss of lives to include culture, collective memories, the use of language, thought and daily social life. The impact on society of such loss is immeasurable and may be felt by several generations.
Wars and weapons were part of Kurds’ daily life under Baath rule; they were part of family conversations and daily routines. During the Iran-Iraq war, the Baath regime’s television station aired a program, around dinnertime, called Swarun Min Al Maaraka (Scenes from the Battlefield), which broadcast battle scenes and soldiers dying. It was an attempt to portray Iraqi soldiers as martyrs, as well as to instill fear and insecurity in the population.
Saddam’s brutality did not distinguish between foreign and domestic enemies. He used chemical weapons against both Iranians and Iraqi Kurds.
In Iraq under the Baath, the media establishment was complicit in promoting the military goals of the government and in glorifying extreme violence. TV and radio outlets introduced us to war, brutality and violence. Kurdish children played with toy guns and imitated the Anfal helicopter pilots, unaware that these weapons were tearing their communities apart.
For decades prior to the genocidal Anfal campaign, the Iraqi government took systematic steps to destroy Kurdish culture, education and everyday life. In the early 1980s, the Iraqi government shut down the University of Slemani, and replaced it with government offices, including a military conscription center.
The consequences of these actions continue to impact Kurds who struggle to rebuild educational and cultural institutions.
Zana Rasul's work, powerful yet simple, captures the essence of how war and violence pervaded our society. His installation, displayed at the National Museum, is made up of bullet boxes and books, and carries a lot of symbolism. For those of us who suffered through war, we are reminded of how these materials were used to inflict harm, but also for practical use in times of economic hardship.
Bullets used to murder thousands of Kurds were imported in these boxes, which were later used by many Kurdish students as bookshelves. This is ironic because the bullets imported in these boxes were used by Saddam’s army to kill people, and ultimately to destroy a culture.
Secondly, this work reminded me of how the weapons that were used against the Kurds severely damaged Kurdish culture and literature. To the Kurds I ask, “Do you remember the many thinkers and writers who were killed or fled? When there was a curfew, do you remember that the first things we burned were our books? Do you remember how they flattened the schools in villages and towns, and how we resented going to school after becoming so accustomed to air raid sirens?” Even all these years later, after the regime was destroyed, I ask, “Did these wars leave behind a violent heritage that still grows and reflects in our writing, daily conversations, our social life and interactions and our behavior?”
Rasul’s work inspired me to reflect on our collective past. It led me to think about how objects change their functionality, and what has been linked to brutality may later be used for a benign function. Kurdish civilians who suffered from extreme poverty made use of what was available and even tried to beautify instruments of war.
While bullet boxes were used as shelves, artillery shell cartridges were used as flower vases.
Finally, Rasul's work reminded me of the most important thing: wars recur in our memories. Violence as an inevitable legacy of war manifests itself in different forms in our culture and in our daily life. We must examine these issues through scientific research and discourse. We have been captives of a violent past for too long and we have to work to rediscover our culture, our heritage, and our strengths.