I am almost four years old. I am on horseback with my mother as our family is being smuggled from northern Iraq across the border on a clear spring dawn. It is 1988 and the Iran-Iraq War is at its final, gruelling, violent end.
A cool breeze blows against us.
I stare up at the sky tracking the sound of the planes and anticipating the familiar silence before the bang of exploding bombs shatter the earth. The planes circle overhead, but this plane is different from the other planes we’ve seen so often.
My father’s disbelieving voice suddenly cuts through the silence of our group: “They are dropping chemical weapons!”
It is an ominous statement no one wishes to debate. Besides, most of us are children under the age of 12.
On my father’s urgent instructions, my mother and aunts quickly rip their scarves to pieces, drench them in water and wrap them around our faces.
We are lucky. We are not only almost out of the city, but we are also travelling against the wind. Still, we smell the sweet, summery apple scent of the chemical weapons, designed to encourage the victims to inhale. Later, I have vivid memories of the burn marks on my mother’s arms.
Much later we learned 5000 people in the city died on that day because of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attack.
Almost thirty years have passed since that fateful day.
It is now March 12 and I am in the city of Kobane, northern Syria and counting down the days until March 16. Less than 100 kilometres away another war rages and another genocide is pending.
But I do not regret leaving my life in Australia and my academic career at the University of Newcastle three years ago to help rebuild the city. In truth, I was deeply drawn to the radical democratic revolution occurring in Rojava, the Kurdish-dominated northern parts of Syria — a stark contrast to the constant feeling of alienation I had felt living in Australia.
In 2011, in the heady days of the Arab Spring, when the people of Syria rose up against Bashar Assad, the Kurds also rose up against the Assad regime and its oppressive and marginalising policies towards them. Empowered by the writings of imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan and his proposal for a radical, anti-state, anti-capitalist gender liberating inclusive democracy, the Kurds seized the day.
But the Kurdish revolution took a different turn when ISIS — newly rising in neighboring Iraq and Syria from the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s collapsed Ba’athist regime after the US invasion of 2003 — attacked Kobane in late 2014 and a fierce and historic battle ensued.
It captured the popular imagination and the whole world watched breathlessly.
Living in Australia, having just graduated with a PhD, I inhaled the inspiring images of young Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) fearlessly fighting the terrifyingly bearded, unkempt jihadists and felt a fierce, corresponding beat in my heart. Only months before we had witnessed thousands of Yezidi Kurdish women being kidnapped by ISIS and sold into sexual slavery. The contrast between the two groups of women was clear: one was empowered and the other enslaved.
These YPJ inspired me, revolutionised me, galvanising me towards something more meaningful than my life on the margins in Australia, where we had arrived, traumatized, bringing only post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the clothes on our backs almost 23 years ago. Working in homogenous, Anglo-Saxon Newcastle, I felt more immigrant, more refugee, more Kurd and more out of place than ever — despite the immense privileges and opportunities Australia had afforded me.
Now the Kurds, a marginalised people, split into four countries in the Middle East through colonial scheming, are being invaded by Turkish forces in Syria.
For months Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been making alarming statements about ethnic cleansing and needing to return Afrin, a historically Kurdish city, to the “original” inhabitants and the bygone Ottoman era. His massacres of Kurdish civilians and mass violations of human rights in Turkey left no doubt in our minds what Erdogan desired as he collected the remaining jihadists in Syria and formed an invading army.
Although the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ forces) pushed back Erdogan’s army for 52 days, there is little they can do against his airstrikes in Afrin. Hundreds have been killed, many of them children. More than a million people are besieged in the city, lacking water and food.
My phone beeps and my heart beats a nervous palpitation — that familiar state of anxious existence the oppressed and colonised live with. It is an urgent voice message from a YPG comrade in Afrin.
Voice breathless but urgent, muffled by the sounds of war in the background, he tells me how close the Turkish army and the jihadists are to Afrin’s city centre. He urges the need for international attention and protests, for the Kurds to rise up and demand an end to this invasion and the killing of children.
I tell myself that if we can just hold on in the little besieged city and pass March 16 (and maybe even the whole month) then it will be as if all is well with the world. As if that other genocide long ago did not occur and the world is a place worthy of living in.
But March 16 marks the 30th anniversary of the Anfal genocide and the chemical weapons dropped on Halabja in Iraq, the genocide we barely escaped that spring dawn when I was a child.
A revolutionary song plays on my opened laptop, a long neglected report left unfinished. The singer calls for the oppressed to rise up in mutual solidarity, resist the oppressors and liberate themselves.
The pristine beaches of Newcastle, with the ever-present sunbathers, come to my mind. I wonder if the Australia I know can be roused from its deep sense of comfort and safety.
Could it ever be roused to protest for Afrin and the YPG-YPJ? But Australia, like the rest of the international community has remained largely silent over Afrin and the famous Kurds who beat ISIS and saved the world.
It is 3am now in Kobane and I am tired.
I wonder, surely a person cannot be so unfortunate, and her people cannot be so oppressed, that one can witness two genocides in a lifetime?
The cardamom-flavoured coffee tastes unusually bitter in my mouth.
[Hawzhin Azeez is the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist and co-founder of Hêvî Foundation. You can follow her here.]
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