The trauma of absence

In 1996, when an AP journalist asked Barzani whether former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was his friend or foe, Barzani responded, “He was our enemy, but I cannot say he is our enemy anymore.” The subsequent events, following this newfound “friendship” with Saddam Hussein, inflicted immense physical and psychological trauma on the Kurdish people in Iraq. 

The post-1996 history of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, brought disastrous traumas to the collective memory of the people. Imagine for a moment that you have never met your father. He was arrested when you were but a mere idea, an unborn child. As the years passed, you celebrated every milestone, every birthday without him by your side. You were never told the true story about where your father was. Then you start protesting to your mother as other mothers and their children ask for the fate of your father. After some years, at the cusp of adulthood, a cold letter accompanied by a small sum of money informs you that your father is no more; he has attained the revered status of “martyr.” 

Imagine otherwise being a 15-years old teen who gets arrested and raped multiple times before keeping the psychological trauma of this assault for about two decades before publicizing it without having any hope of seeing justice for the perpetrators. 

About a decade ago, Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani downplayed the crimes of forced disappearances. He portrayed the issue as one that would be settled between the KDP and the PUK, and then addressed with the families of the disappeared. However, this discussion with the families never occurred. President Barzani should have assisted the families in pursuing legal action, as these acts can be considered crimes against humanity. Such issues cannot simply be settled between two rival parties. If crimes have been perpetrated, it’s essential that we learn from them and ensure justice is served and not an arbitrary compensation.

In the realms of Muslim and Kurdish culture, martyrdom holds a significant, unparalleled status. A martyr’s sacrifice renders their killers the ultimate enemies. Yet, consider the harrowing reality when this enemy isn’t a foreign invader or a distant adversary, but rather your own kin, your countrymen, your very own government. How does one reckon with such a revelation? The tragedy is that for many in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), this isn’t mere imagination but a traumatic memory. 

The Civil War’Background 

Between 1994 and 2003, approximately five hundred souls disappeared in the tumultuous backdrop of the KDP-PUK war over power and resources. While some were tragically caught in the throes of war, many were detained and perished in prisons. As a child who grew up within the war, I can never forget the day when five PUK Peshmerga were arrested in my hometown Choman and later were killed by the KDP. This personal story is a story of many like me who were experiencing their worst days amid the international sanctions and Iraqi blockade on the KRI. The civil strife that wracked the region from 1994 to 1998 saw heavyweights like the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, spearheaded by Jalal Talabani, locked in a bitter conflict. Beyond the direct casualties of this war, the disappearance of 400 individuals casts a long, haunting shadow.

The recently established KRG struggled with inclusivity, allowing political parties to tighten their grip on power. These inter-party struggles threatened to drag the Kurdistan Region into chaos. Each political entity maintained their own militia, with many financing them through illicit means, notably funds from Turkey, Iran, and some Sunni Gulf countries. Without a unified national Peshmerga army, these militias overshadowed the official KRG police forces.

Notably, former PUK Secretary General Jalal Talabani repeatedly stated that internal Kurdish conflicts had ended. Yet, on 20 December 1993, warfare between the PUK and the Kurdistan Islamic Movement (KIM) reignited. Though the PUK perceived itself as the rightful ruler of KRI, this conflict weakened them, making KIM a potential ally for the KDP.

On 1 May 1994, a significant civil war outbreak occurred between the historically opposed KDP and PUK. The core conflict post-1991 centered around resource control, particularly the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing’s income. Each party had their regional strongholds, the KDP in Duhok and the PUK in Sulaimani, a division stemming from 1960s disputes.

The KDP-PUK confrontations were devastating, resulting in numerous casualties and displacements. Despite a brief ceasefire on 29 August 1994, tensions remained unresolved. By December 1994, conflict resumed, culminating on 31 August 1996 with the KDP aligning with the previous Iraqi regime to reclaim Erbil. This event remains a significant scar in Kurdish history.

US Intervention and the Path to Stability

Following the Kurdish divisions deepened after 1996, any acts previously avoided in Kurdish politics, such as aligning with the Baathist regime responsible for genocide against the Kurds, became normalized. The political landscape in KRI changed dramatically, with areas split between KDP and PUK control.

Though major confrontations between KDP and PUK ceased, they remained without accord. The PUK, in alliance with the PKK, attempted to challenge the KDP in October 1997 but faced a strong counteroffensive backed by Turkish support.

The United States, recognizing the Kurds as significant allies, sought to stabilize the region. The Iraq Liberation Act, passed in September 1998, aimed to replace the Saddam Hussein regime with a democratic one. This legislation shifted the US focus towards the Kurds, particularly the KDP and PUK. To mitigate energy lost in internal conflicts and counter external influences, the US brokered the Washington Agreement. This pact, endorsed by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, led to a rekindling of hope among the Kurdish people, further buoyed by the UN’s Oil-for-Food Program.

With the new agreement in place, infighting decreased as the shared power and revenues became advantageous for both parties. The US’s deeper involvement in Kurdish politics aimed to redirect the focus to the broader Iraqi issue, preventing further exploitations by Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Meanwhile, KDP and PUK parties remained in place, strengthening their positions as major players and ensuring their grip on Iraqi Kurdish society at the expense of the creation of an accountable and transparent society. This remains particularly true when it comes to crimes committed against Kurds themselves. 

The incomplete quest for accountability

In 2015, a group of members of parliament from the Committee of Human Rights initiated a petition aimed at uncovering the fates of those who had disappeared during the tumultuous 1990s. The parliament members were disheartened to uncover the grim truth that these individuals had met their demise within prisons or had been executed shortly after their arrests or kidnappings during the bleak days of the 1990s. The petition garnered signatures from 12 parliament members, urging the Kurdistan Parliament’s presidency to summon the then KRG Interior Minister, Karim Sinjari, for a session of questioning within the parliament. This was prompted by the Minister’s prior appeal to the Kurdistan Council of Ministers (KRG) on March 6, 2012, to designate the disappeared as “martyrs.”

illustration 1: Interior Ministry’s decree asking for considering the disappeared as martyrs and giving their families a monthly salary

The Interior Ministry’s decree was explicit: “The Kurdistan Parliament is required to enact a decree that designates all the disappeared as martyrs, entitling them and their families to the full privileges associated with martyrdom, including financial support for their families.”

For the KRG leadership, this marked the conclusion of a tragic narrative. Yet, for the families affected, it marked the commencement of another tragic chapter, exacerbating their wounds. These families found their voices stifled, unheard within the parliament’s corridors of power, since the legislative body seemed incapable of action. Meanwhile, due to the lack of judicial independence in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), the judicial system was bereft of credibility.

Among the affected families with whom I conversed, a common aspiration emerged: the desire to eventually elevate their cause to an international court, despite the challenging journey ahead. This initiative would be unprecedented, a pioneer of its kind, and would serve as an initial step. Although Jalal Talabani has passed away, Masoud Barzani remains alive. Concurrently, numerous leaders of the Peshmerga militia, notorious figures from the civil war era, still retain positions within the KDP and PUK factions or continue to hold roles within the Peshmerga ministry. Notably, the United States and European Union member states have maintained engagement with these figures.

illustration 2: A petition initiated by Soran Omer, a former member of parliament, asking KRG Parliament Presidency to investigate the decree issued by the interior ministry saying that the “disappeared are to be considered as martyrs.” The petition challenges this decisions, arguing that it is not “possible for the disappeared to have been killed without exposing the fate of their bodies and bringing justice to the criminals.” The Kurdish parliament made no response and the interior minister was not summoned to parliament as he would have been compelled to answer the plea.

The time has arrived for justice to be administered, or at the very least, for discussions pertaining to justice to transpire. 

During the re-inauguration of the Kurdistan Parliament in 2003, Masoud Barzani and the late Jalal Talabani addressed the nation, absolving themselves of any misbehavior during the civil war by portraying it as an event that occurred beyond their control. However, historical evidence contradicts this narrative.

“The Letters”

“The Letters between Mam Jalal, Massoud Barzani and Nusrewan Mustafa, 1990 – 2009” stands as a significant documentary book authored by Salah Rashid. This comprehensive volume comprises 182 private and confidential handwritten letters exchanged among the three prominent Kurdish politicians from 1990 to 2009. Published in early 2023 across 709 pages, the book sheds light on the intricate relationships that have shaped the Kurdistan Region of Iraq over the past fifty years, encompassing both its triumphs and failures. 

Within these letters, which have influenced the pivotal decisions of the Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani candidly informs Jalal Talabani in one communication: “Your No 1 Regiment is mobilizing. I must be forthright – even the slightest clash with our forces will trigger widespread conflict. You must bear the responsibility, as we refuse to initiate aggression and will not tolerate any injustice against us.” In a separate letter, following a series of minor confrontations, Masoud Barzani once again implores Talabani, urging him to prevent “the conflict from escalating.” Expressing his disillusionment over the PUK’s inaction in curbing the clashes, he proceeds to convey, “Regardless of what may transpire next, we cannot be held accountable.” Unfortunately, what followed this exchange is a grim history marked by the loss of around 10 thousand lives, the displacement of hundreds of thousands from both sides, and the disappearance of 400 individuals.

This issue isn’t solely confined to the KRI. Globally, regimes have frequently been characterized by their penitentiaries: the Al-Aqrab Prison, the notorious Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, Evin prison in Tehran, and even the more recent Asayish prisons in Erbil and Slemani. These establishments have, over time, morphed into symbols of oppression, where dissent is crushed, and voices silenced.

While KRI traversed its tumultuous journey – from civil conflict between 1994-1998, to a fragile peace till 2003, followed by a transformative phase till 2018, and currently under the consolidation of the Barzani and Talabani legacies – the ghost of the disappeared loomed large. It was only in 2015 that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) even began to acknowledge these individuals as “martyrs”. Protests by aggrieved families in 2012 indicate the profound sense of injustice and pain that prevails.

The ghosts of the past

According to one member of parliament, a breakdown of the disappeared comprises various affiliations: 118 from PUK, 82 from KDP, 67 aligned with PKK, 11 Islamists, and many others. Yet, beyond these numbers and affiliations lies the universal human story of loss, despair, and the yearning for closure.

In the context of international conventions, enforced disappearances are flagrant violations of human rights, encompassing multiple facets like the right to life, the prohibition of torture, the right to liberty and security, and the right to a fair trial. Global instruments such as the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance aim to prevent such heinous acts, ensure that culprits are penalized, and victims and their families receive reparation.

The UN General Assembly enacted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2006 in which it addresses the act of enforced disappearance where individuals are secretly abducted or imprisoned by a state or political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate and whereabouts, with the intent of placing the victim outside the protection of the law. The Convention obliges states to take effective action to prevent and punish acts of enforced disappearance in their jurisdictions. It establishes the right of individuals to know the truth about the circumstances of an enforced disappearance and the fate of the disappeared person, and the right to reparations and prompt, fair, and adequate compensation. The convention’s article seven says: “The widespread or systematic practice of enforced disappearance constitutes a crime against humanity as defined in applicable international law and shall attract the consequences provided for under such applicable international law.”

Additionally, Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court pertains to “Crimes Against Humanity.” It provides a detailed list of acts that, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack, constitute crimes against humanity. This list includes acts such as murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, imprisonment, torture, rape, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, persecution, enforced disappearance, apartheid, and other inhumane acts. 

Justice isn’t merely retribution or acknowledgement; it is also about ensuring non-recurrence. For the families of the disappeared in KRI and elsewhere, true justice will be realized when the international community, under the aegis of universally accepted standards, ensures that states adopt preventive measures, hold transgressors accountable, and most importantly, provide the much-needed closure to those left behind.

VIAKamal Chomani