Don’t forget how the Kurds were betrayed again

by Beri Shalmashi

Over and over her people were betrayed, driven out, massacred. However it ends this time, Dutch-Kurdish Beri Shalmashi writes, don’t forget us. Not again. 

by Beri Shalmashi, who is seen on the picture with her father in Kurdistan 

I was four years old when in 1988 Saddam Hussein committed that huge gas attack on the Kurds in Halabja. We were living in Almere in the Netherlands and I did not have any memories of our flight from Iran. Yes, I had this sinister dream of flushing Ayatollah Khomeini down the toilet so I could visit my grandmother. I never saw many of our people, except at weddings. We would dance in community centres until my feet hurt. And then we made it to the news in 1988. We were on TV: children and adults lying on the cold ground in front of their houses gasping at the sky with a lifeless gaze. I was glued to the tube. ‘Kurds’, the anchor explained. As if he was talking about an endangered species. This is what we were in fact, an endangered nation. Forty million people more or less, of which two hundred thousand would die during the Anfal campaign of Hussein between 1986 and 1989. I was too young to comprehend who was fighting whom, but I felt the grief of my father and mother. 

Sometimes it was genocide, other times assassinations in which good friends of my parents negotiating peace with Iran were getting killed here in Europe. There are pictures on the internet of these people, shot to pieces, hanging over chairs in restaurants in Vienna and Berlin. Last year Iran struck a camp of Iranian Kurds in Iraq with rockets, seventeen people I was making a film about died in deafening silence. Far before I was born my uncle was executed by the shah. My own mother was tortured in prison when she was pregnant with me. Khomeini promised her generation human rights to create backing for his revolution. 

Naive hope 

Anyone who knows history a little bit is maybe laughing at the naive hope of the Kurds who really thought things would change for the better. I stopped laughing ever since Trump said: you know what, Erdogan with your tentacles, you go ahead and mess with the Kurds. My troops are going home. 

If I’d get a bead for every betrayal the Kurds have endured, I’d be wearing a chain of sorrow around my neck. My generation knew Kurdistan from the parties, but also from the protests we’d be driving to after every atrocity. As a young girl I’d fiercely hold our flag up in the air. Blissfully happy if a Dutch passerby would ask about its meaning. Kurdistan, four countries, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, one story, enemies, distress. I can still recite it now. I grew up in a safe country, hopscotching in the schoolyard, eating chicken and french fries with apple sauce. But there was something different about my family and me, different from my schoolmates. We only had each other. No grandmother, no grandfather. No aunt, no cousins. Joy and grief reached us bit by bit by phone. Sometimes through the huge Philips television in the living room. 

Wet grass

Every year crumbs of my hope melt, like the ice caps at the North Pole. If it continues like this, nothing more will remain than a growing pool of pain and deceit. Maybe this was the water touching my boots last weekend in the wet grass at the protest in The Hague. Another demonstration. I took my eleven-year-old niece, a revolutionary scarf around her neck, a water bottle in her hipster backpack. All ready to tell her class about it in the Monday morning conversations. The same story, over and over again. A different generation, the same suffering. Kurdistan, four countries, one story, enemies, distress. I wish she didn’t have to see this, too. With the only expression we can give to our despair: slogging through a swampy field on a grey Saturday chanting that Erdogan is a terrorist. 

Erdogan’s hate of Kurds is his biggest trademark. I cannot digest how the Americans unleashed this wolf on our newly regained land. Running over our soil, foaming at the mouth. Not to just kill us, but to demolish us. Like his troops did with politician Hevrin Khalaf, on the middle of the road. Her mother gathered her shattered remains and lovingly buried her. A woman who was a symbol for a new political wind, for a future, for equality. She was murdered before the very eyes of the tweeting world. For someone who grew up with dead fellow Kurds on TV I am terribly bad at dealing with such imagery. How can this continue to happen? 

I ask my niece why she is marching along in the streets of The Hague, as deep inside I hope she’s only here for a treat at Starbucks afterwards. But she knows why we are here. She knows of the agony of her parents. We meet some friends who, just like me, are sleep deprived, on Monday, on Tuesday, on Friday. And again tonight. The rain is pouring down, but I don’t want an umbrella. 

To Kurdistan

When I was twenty-eight, I moved to Southern Kurdistan, in those days the only Kurdish area with some sort of self-governance. It was 2012, I was living alone at a family house in a neat and new neighborhood. One day two boys were at my door, around the same age as my niece today. They carried a picture of a pile of bricks, a home in ruins. Did I have anything to eat, they asked. I did. I had a lot of things they didn’t have. A youth with careless Dutch children’s songs, for example. During the chaos of the Arab Spring the Kurds got their lands under control. The Kurds, who were treated in such an undignified way in Syria they were not only unrecognized as Kurds but couldn’t even get papers as Syrians. Something breaks inside of me thinking Assad, from whom they tore themselves away eight years ago, might now be their only hope for survival. 

Two years after I gave cookies, water and dinars to the boys at my door, their families were still living in the makeshift sheds at the edge of my neighbourhood. Waiting to go home. In one of the shelters a girl was born, behind the laundry line in a corner on the ground a man was dying. Entire lives were moved around to get stuck in temporality forever. Before we knew, the city got stuffed with cars and disoriented souls who had driven from Mosul to Erbil because Da’esh – ISIS –, a strange word that was whispered around ever more often, had taken their city. In Syria, the same scenario unfolded. 

Disposable heroes 

ISIS turned the green mountains gloomy. They wrenched humanity out of everything they encountered. Everything. Women were used, art got destroyed, oil was stolen, bridges broken, children sold. Everything had to go down. They came as close as fifteen minutes from my door. The stateless Kurds suddenly became the essential force behind an international operation to defeat ISIS. A coalition was formed in which the Netherlands took part, too. We became known as the civilized soldiers rooting out weeds for themselves and for the world. But the Kurds are more than the disposable heroes we got to become because of ISIS. More than our sacrifices, time and again. More than the troops they let march to hell.

In 2015 I visited the mountains where my father and mother once fought, right across Iran, within sight of the enemy shooting down Kurdish couriers crossing the border from their helicopters. There are hills full of mines there from past wars. There, on the border between one suppressor of Kurds, Iran, and the other, Turkey, I was confronted with our reality. We are surrounded by dictatorships with a deep hatred of our people. They will leave no military method unused to destroy us. Erdogan was busy wrecking Kurdish cities in Turkey, but not too busy to surprise us that night in the mountains with what would become the biggest trauma in my life: for some minutes five F16s were circling above my head. It felt as if I laid down in my coffin waiting for death, while someone was rapidly sealing the lid already. The sky glowed yellow for a moment, followed by a short bang and a long silence. It could have been my ending. My trivial ending. At a place where you can’t just get away, not even dead.

Dark days 

During the protest in The Hague a friend came walking up to me. The dark days of autumn came early for him this year. His family is stuck in a city where Turkey is charging through. How do you talk to someone when suffering has sunk into his veins even deeper than in yours? Sometimes being Kurdish is like a chronic disease, which now and then crops up so stubbornly for everybody to see. Like now. With Rojava. Anyone who can, will flee. Like we did one day. Like they did after us, from Iraq. While we were standing firm during the battle against IS, liberating cities like Kobani, with bombs from Europe and the press present from a hill on the other side, over the border in Turkey. The state that blocked refugees and meanwhile patched up the terrorists that we fought in their hospitals. 

For a long time, we were alone. Until now. Because everyone has seen who we are. It helps that my Dutch friends now phone me to talk, help circulate petitions for a no-fly zone and join us in demonstrations. How can it be that Dutch PM Rutte doesn’t take more than just mediocre measures? How does he digest that a MP of his party casually chooses holidays in Turkey over human rights? Is there enough backbone to throw Turkey out of NATO? Are we going to sit and wait until the unhinged members of IS take flights back to Europe? Are we going to watch how the ‘cease fire’ is being used to chase Kurds off their land to areas where bombings continue, while Erdogan packs their properties with refugees? North-Syria has turned into the biggest dump of our civilization. In this war the Kurds gave eleven thousand lives and countless were injured. To now get pushed from the claws of one enemy back into those of another. If we have to hand over West-Kurdistan, that will be unforgiveable. Everyone has seen. The genocide in progress by Erdogan, the unleashed dogs of ISIS, Assad rubbing his hands and Putin who gets to have a say next week. Whatever will happen, don’t forget who we were. Don’t forget how the Kurds fought. How dignified we battled. How the Kurds treated ISIS captives with humanity. And don’t forget how we were betrayed again.

Beri Shalmashi is a Dutch author and film maker. Her roots are in Kurdistan in Iran. 

This piece was published in Dutch daily De Volkskrant on 18 October 2019. Beri gave permission to publish the English translation here.