Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Genocide; is it a question of national identity?

Wednesday, 30 January 2008
Kurdish Globe, Iraq
By Eleni Fergadi

Last Saturday, the International Conference on Genocide against the Kurdish people commenced in Martyr Saad Adbullah's conference center here in Erbil.

The conference, which lasted for three days, began two weeks after the burial ceremony of the remains of the Anfal victims with the somewhat sober aim of "academic" remembrance of sorts; in a way to present the research that has been undertaken on this very black page of Kurdish history and at the same time "internationalize" these events with the hope that similarly to the national recognition it has received by the Federal High Court as genocide, the same would follow on an international level.

Scholars, writers, politicians and artists were invited to this conference to present their own perspectives and research on the Kurdish genocide from the Ba'athist government-simply put and in the words of the organizers-to present "a record" of the atrocities that began with the deportation of around 40,000 Kurds from areas surrounding Kirkuk on July 10, 1963, and the destruction of more than 800 Kurdish villages during that time. Much followed throughout Kurdistan, such as the bombardment of the cities of Qaladze (April 24, 1974) and Halabja (April 26, 1974), the chemical attacks during 1987-88, the infamous Anfal Campaign (1988), as well as the destruction of villages that were burned to the ground, the indiscriminate killing of civilians and the bombardment of refugee camps.

The daughter of the late Saad Abdullah, in whose memory the conference center was built, and current Minister of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs, Mrs. Chinar Saad Abdullah, presented a detailed account of crimes perpetrated against the Kurds, providing startling statistics: The province most affected by the atrocities was Dohuk (70.33%), with Suleimanya (42%), Kirkuk (22%) and Erbil (17%) following; in terms of nationalities and religious affiliations, those who suffered the most were Kurds (99%) and Muslims (98%). In gender terms, 66.61% of victims were male and 33.39% female. The minister, while stressing the abhorrence of the Anfal Campaign, stated that in its duration "all human rights and ethics were violated."

The minister also provided figures relating to the preferred targets of the attacks (see Table above) and stated that 17% of those who survived the attacks suffer from mental and physical illnesses, pointing out that many families, having lost all possessions, still have to live under dire conditions.

At the Conference, the Chief of Staff of the presidential office, Fuad Hussein, reiterated that the aim of such a conference is "not only to deal with questions, but also to discuss the genocide...from different angles," expressing his hope that the workshops and panel discussions "will lead us to the answer of the question why this genocide...happened." Mr. Hussein also stressed that "just as our language, geography, history...form part of our national identity, so the genocide against the Kurds is the most important aspect in the formation of the Kurdish Nation." He added, "This tragedy must not only form part of our history, but it must also become a guideline for us to build a society far removed from hatred and violence....In this way we hope that one day we can feel so sure of ourselves that we can tell our children...and all the future generations...that the killings...will never happen again."

Within the framework of the conference, a documentary film on the genocide against the Kurds (Kurdistan TV) was shown on the first day (visitors could then watch it in a special amphitheatre that was held for this purpose); a series of photographs and artwork were exhibited and singers Diyari Qaradaghi and Melek performed Kurdish songs about Anfal. More than 60 papers were received by the ministries organizing the event; however, the time limit only allowed 37 to be presented. The papers will be published in a book on the subject and another conference will take place in Europe in the near future.

On Monday, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani visited the conference.

An interview on trauma and national identity

The Globe spoke with Dr. Zafer Yörük, a lecturer at the University of Kurdistan-Hawler and a specialist in identity politics, about the Kurdish genocide and the process of Kurdish nation-building, and it was discovered that in a nation-building process, such as the one Kurdistan is currently undergoing, there is more than meets the eye.

Dr. Yörük, what do you think of the International Conference on the Genocide against the Kurds?

"A few weeks ago, we witnessed the burial ceremony of the remains of victims, and this conference that followed shows both that the genocide and particularly the memories of Anfal are still fresh... this makes me fairly confident that the genocide can be called what in psychoanalysis is a trauma and in this case a collective one."

What is collective trauma?

"Trauma is a medical word used widely in the field of orthopedics to refer to the moment to define the cause of a broken leg or arm. When used as a psychiatric term, trauma refers to the same moment or experience, with the only difference being that what is traumatized is the soul and therefore healing the wound requires much more than a mere cast for a couple of weeks. In the case of collective trauma, we are talking about a different kind of scar, more so, because it was experienced collectively." Dr. Yörük explained: "Traumas determine our behavior usually in the form of a personality disorder. People repress their trauma; that is, they try to forget them and think that they never happened, but in reality the scars of the past traumas survive in our unconscious and come to the surface without us realizing it. For example, people who cannot cope with boundaries and authority in their adult lives definitely carry serious scars inflicted upon their souls by their fathers. Now, families and communities can share a collective trauma even though they have never experienced it themselves."

Can you be more specific?

"Older generations, who have experienced a trauma collectively, like the Kurds did, cannot repress; that is, they cannot simply ignore it, try to forget it and thus they 'speak it' to the younger generation in order to cope with it. This collective transmission is similar to what we call repression in the case of the individual. Vamik Volkan, an American psychiatrist, provides us with an interesting example when he discusses the Long March of the Red Indians. When a reporter interviewed a Navajo Red Indian on the subject, it was as if the interviewee was referring to an event that had taken place yesterday, but the journalist soon realized that the Long March had actually occurred 125 years before. Volkan argued that, for the Red Indians, the Long March is as real as the rising sun in the morning, even though they might not have experienced it themselves, even if it was an event that took place more than a century ago...the older generations projected their experiences to the younger ones and thus shaped the latter. So much so that the trauma itself has become the major collective bond that united the Red Indian community together; it has become the major plaster of a social identity. The problem with this style of building collective/national identity lies in what I said above. The scars of trauma have many negative effects on human behavior; they result in serious personality disorders. Therefore, if the genocide ends up as the most important factor of the Kurdish national identity, then there are dangers ahead...."

Are you implying that the Kurds should forget? And what do you mean by dangers? What are they?

"No, no, on the contrary...Kurds should be invited not to forget; that is, to remember what happened. But they should also be invited to forgive. From the beginning of the history of the 'person' and of the 'word' we have learned that the best way of coping with trauma is remembering it; that is, not repressing it, but at the same time trying to find ways to forgive those responsible. The beloved Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, for example, who was murdered last year outside his office in Istanbul, was well aware of this problem. In every public interview he gave, Dink systematically called on his people not to rely on the Armenian genocide for the existence of the Armenian nation and that is because he knew very well the potential disorders of such a practice. What are those disorders, you may ask? If you look at the emerging Turkish nationalist discourse preceding 1915, then you can see that the sole element that it relied on was some trauma that the Turkic-Islamic peoples of Central Asia, the Balkans and Caucasus had experienced during the 19th century. When these elements arrived in Anatolia from Russia and the Balkans, they not only brought with them a shared traumatic scar but also the feeling of revenge and compensation for what they had been through. It is precisely the reliance on a trauma in the Turkish nation-building that resulted in the Armenian genocide. The hatred and the consequent search for revenge and compensation were all projected onto the Christian peoples of Anatolia, particularly the Armenians, even though the only thing the Armenian population shared with the perpetrators of the past was that of religion; they were Christians. It is exactly this vicious circle, this chain of events that I am talking about. What I have said so far can be summarized as follows: In the process of nation-building, a collective trauma may be 'selected' to play a positive bonding role, but such selection also means the emergence of 'collective personality disorders.' Simply put, if the Kurdish nation insists on building itself by relying on the trauma of the genocide, then the potential danger of seeking compensation is very real. The Kurds should definitely remember, but they should also forgive."

What would you propose then?

When we are talking of building a community, a nation, then peoples' minds usually go back to the beginning of the 19th century, when nation-states and nationalism were mushrooming. When nationalism emerged, there were particular circumstances, such as modernity, new technologies and alienation. Almost 30 years have passed since Benedict Anderson showed that the nation is not natural, something that existed and exists 'just like that'; rather, it is what he called 'an imagined community.' Hobsbawm defined nation as 'an invented community' and I would rather call it 'a fabricated community.' Now, nationalism draws on both positive and negative aspects: The positive are usually a glorious past that is being reclaimed for today; for instance, Kurdish nationalist discourse refers to the glorious Med Empire, and the Kawa rebellion against the tyrant Dohak, and relates all these events to the Kurdish New Year (Newroz). It is these aspects that are imagined to be somehow shaping and determining the Kurdish identity of today. The Anfal and the genocide in general adds the traumatic dimension in play....No one should be allowed to deny that the genocide is as real as the rising sun, borrowing from Volkan's abovementioned example, but building an identity by emphasizing the genocide is a recipe full with traps. I think that in the 21st century the best way of creating a polity isn't by relying on methods left over by the 19th century, but to seriously activate and promote the norms of citizenship, solidarity and trust, as the primary bonds to cement a community together as one, the precondition of which are participation, accountability and transparency."

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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