For Kurds, democracy is the best revenge

Supporters of the Kurdish parties romped down central boulevards, brandishing posters of their leaders.

iraqi man 298.88 (photo credit: Matthew Gutman)
iraqi man 298.88
(photo credit: Matthew Gutman)
Shrapnel had split open his head and shredded his back and legs, but through semi-consciousness Aras Abded Akram smelled cooking gas and then rotten apples. Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Air Force dropped dozens of gas-filled bombs on this Kurdish town in 1988. About 5,000 civilians died immediately, 21 of them from Akram's family, including his parents and all 10 of his siblings. On Wednesday, Akram, now 39, buried his uncle, who died at 58 from cancer related to the sweet-smelling concoction of mustard, cyanide and VX gases he inhaled as he fled into the hills. But vengeance would be his, decided Akram, standing on the spot where the bomb that killed his parents landed. "This is my victory, this democracy," said Akram, "and it's a message to other Arab dictatorships. "I will be the first in line tomorrow to vote," he said. In many Kurdish towns, supporters of the Kurdish parties romped down central boulevards, brandished posters of their leaders and banged out traditional music. "I am free to vote for whomever I like," noted Akram. But, like most Kurds, he will vote for "730," the Kurdish coalition led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani. Ahead of the polls, security across Iraq is tight. In the Kurdish north, soldiers lined the highway every 100 meters. Polling centers were cordoned off to the public and heavily guarded. Redemption has come slowly to this town. It still lags behind its 1988 population of 75,000, according to Ibrahim Hawramani, curator of the memorial to Halabja's victims. Thousands of families fled to Iran. Even when the situation improved, not all of them chose to return, he said. Some 20,000 were poisoned by the gas and many of them, like Akram, require daily doses of oxygen to survive, said the Kurdish Minister of Health Dr. Muhammad Khoshnaw, who was visiting the memorial Wednesday. Congenital disabilities, blindness and grotesque skin diseases plague many, he said. Only now did the government have the funds to build a 200-bed hospital for the victims. The memorial is a soaring structure shaped to resemble the tail of one of the infamous bombs. In its central atrium, the names of the 5,000 victims are inscribed in black glass. The exhibit walks visitors through a recreation of the bombing. Life-sized babies, swaddled in blankets, lie in their parents' grasp, mouths gaping towards the sky. Then comes the hall of photographs. Kurds have grown used to the horrors of Saddam's Anfal campaign that sought to eliminate Kurdish separatism by bulldozing some 80 percent of this ancient people's villages and killing tens of thousands. But for Westerners, the images indelibly sear - the grotesque faces are seemingly frozen in tortured agony. Saddam's scorched-earth policy seems to contradict Halabje's green meadows, encircled with oak and fig trees. Fattened sheep huddle near mud huts topped with satellite dishes. After the bombing, friends hauled Akram to the mountains. That's all he remembers. Three days later he awoke and decided "God saved me to bear witness to Saddam's crimes." He now runs the Halabje Chemical Victim's Society. By rote, he rattles off the list of 21 family members. Finally he adds his uncle - that makes 22. As he lay dying at Akram's reconstructed home, the uncle begged to be put back on the respirator "to be kept alive so that he could vote." But he died a day too soon to cast his ballot. Not everyone in this war-torn town - which had for years been the hub for Kurdish Islamic fanatics - is jubilant about the elections. Mukhtar Nuri owns a music shop downtown selling traditional Kurdish music. He intends to stay there tomorrow while his kinsman vote. "I will not vote tomorrow because I am sure I will regret it. I know the politicians give only empty promises," said the vendor, dressed in a polyester suit. The same Kurdish leaders had held power for decades he said, "and that is no democracy." Anyone backed by the US administration would "be like Saddam. It will take 10 elections to reach real democracy," he added. "Maybe then I'll vote." A soccer field has sprung up on the ruins of the neighbor's home where Akram's parents died. Boys kicked a plastic ball around on the dusty lot. The bare, gray cinderblock buildings around the soccer pitch are the best testimony to the town's destruction and resurrection. Arkam excused himself to greet family that had come to pay respects to his uncle. He shook hands and turned to go. Then he swiveled back. "Inshallah," he said, "I will see you at Saddam's trial," where he would fulfill what he called God's role for him, and "bear witness."