Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Story That Needs to be Told

On February 5, 2008 Christine and I were treated to a special invitation. Yunis and Jamilla, a Kurdish couple with whom we have come to know quite well in the past two years had us to their home for a meal and a most enjoyable and enlightening visit.

We were treated to a delicious meal of ethnic Kurdish cuisine including their well known “Nane-tanik (a type of pita bread) and “Dolma ”(mixture of meat, rice, and vegetables wrapped in Swiss Chard leaves, garnished with dill and baked). We finished off the meal with a relaxing cup of tea and some sweet pastry dessert.

Jamilla and Christine have become close friends in the past year. Jamilla is a deeply compassionate young woman who has lived amidst a lot of tragedy and hardship during her life. As one of the older girls in her family, she had to stay at home and help take care of the family instead of going to school, so was denied the opportunity to learn to read and write in her own language. Today she speaks with much pride about the progress she is making to learn to read and write in English. “I thank God every day for how God has spared my own and my husband’s lives and how He has brought us to America and for what your country has done to defeat Saddam.” she tells us. She fled, along with her parents and other siblings to the mountains during the “Anfal” (the genocidal reign of terror unleashed by Saddam Hussein on her home village in 1988) and, because they were able to get out in time, her immediate family was spared the loss of life suffered by tens of thousands of Kurds in their own and surrounding villages in northern Iraqi Kurdistan.

Following the meal our hosts shared with us a video which told the story of Saddam Hussein’s rise to power and the execution of the “Anfal” in which Saddam’s army systematically destroyed over 4000 Kurdish villages by mass evacuations, bombing with chemical and conventional weapons, bulldozing the ruins, and leaving their fields scorched and poisoned. It is estimated that over 100,000 Kurds died. There were scenes of Saddam Hussein barking orders, laughing devilishly, and his followers knocking people around. There were horrific scenes of devastated Kurdish villages with dead bodies lying everywhere and one scene of a blindfolded and bound prisoner having grenades taped to his body and then detonated. A second video showed Junis testifying at Saddam’s trial in Baghdad in November 2006. Jamilla had taped the trial from a televised broadcast. Now I tell Junis’ story.

Junis, then in his late teens, was a member of the Kurdish “peshmerga”, a guerrilla army of freedom fighters who were fighting to defend their homeland from the ravages of Sadaam’s Baath regime. He joined the peshmerga, not because he really wanted to be a soldier, but because, as said in his own words, “Sadaam was killing even our old men, women, and children and I had a responsibility to protect them!”

Yunis was injured by a gunshot in his arm, arrested, and along with 180 of his companions, imprisoned. About a month later they were all tied up and blindfolded, loaded onto canvas covered trucks, and told they were going to be transferred to a prison in Baghdad. Yunis remembers riding along a rough unpaved road and realizing that they were not going to Baghdad as he knew that the road to Baghdad was paved. As he rode he somehow managed to get his hands and feet free despite the as yet unhealed injury in his arm.

They arrived by night at some undisclosed desert location in Southern Iraq, unloaded from the trucks, knocked unconscious by a powerful electrical shock to the back of the head and thrown on top of one another into a long deep ditch. A bulldozer began shoving dirt over the prisoners, most of whom were still alive. Several minutes later Yunis regained consciousness to find his body half buried in loose soil and he could hear the bulldozer going to get the next bucketful. He managed to struggle free and to roll away from the spot where he was about to be entombed, and under cover of the darkness of night and the cloud of dust generated by the bulldozer now dumping its load on the spot from where he had just escaped, he jumped to his feet and fled to the other end of the ditch. Realizing that in his weakened condition he would be unable to climb out of the ditch until it was filled, he continued running from end to end of the ditch, climbing on top of the mounting piles of dirt, and taking advantage of the darkness and dust to stay out of sight of the bulldozer operator until he could escape the ditch.

Yunis managed to cross the border into Iran shortly after and lived there about two years. He then returned to Kurdistan, rejoined the peshmerga and met and married Jamilla. Following the birth of their first two children, a US based human rights organization assisted them in arranging their emigration to our country.

For much of the past year the world and national news has been dominated by the 2008 presidential campaign. In past years I have usually ignored political campaigns, particularly presidential campaigns, mostly because I view them as big games, organized and run by those with big money and media influence, and nearly as silly as the student council elections I remember in high school.

This year is different though. I have been following the political shenanigans with considerably more interest. I even voted for the first time in the Virginia primary, registered as a Democrat, and cast my vote for the person whom I thought would be the better choice for the Democratic presidential nominee. Then I will decide whether to vote Republican, Democrat, or something else in the November election. My wife Christine also registered as a Republican in the VA primary, and voted her choice for the preferred Republican nominee.

So why, may you ask, am I writing about politics? Well, there is this thing about this war in Iraq—who got our country into it—what this next presidential administration is goingto do to keep us in it or to get us out of it. Oh there are the other things of course—the economy, taxes, government spending, education, global warming, issues affecting our agricultural future, yada yada. I don’t really have strong opinions about whether Democrats or Republicans will most effectively handle these issues, but I am concerned about how this war will be resolved.

I grew up in and was nurtured by a religious community that taught that militarism and participation in war was wrong for Christians. Jesus’ teachings that we should “love our enemies” and “live as peacemakers” contradicts in spirit much of what I believe military establishments throughout the world model and teach.

Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Sadaam Hussein are all examples of men who became what they were largely as a result of military training. It is only such men who are capable of committing the kind of atrocities that were seen in the German Holocaust, the Bolshevik revolution, the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima, or the Iraqi Anfal. There are few people anywhere who disagree with the idea that these men were evil. There also is broad agreement in our world that men like these, when they rise to power, must be stopped by whatever means is necessary. Now comes the really big question. Is it ever justifiable to fight evil with evil?

I confess that I don’t have a good answer for this question and that if I did, many of those who read this, including myself, would not like it or agree with it. I only have an interest in the persons who are going to be positioned in the coming years to deal with that question more directly than I ever expect to.

Now my thoughts go back to the stories of Jamilla and Yunis and others among our Kurdish friends. They have given me a perspective on this whole Middle East situation that few Americans ever get. Somehow that perspective has got to be given some consideration as I contemplate how I am to exercise my right to do my little part to help choose our country’s next leaders.