We Have Not Forgotten You
“We neither manufactured these weapons, nor feel proud exhibiting it. In fact, these were used by those who threatened our existence. We also admit that these very weapons helped us achieve our freedom.”
These words are inscribed on a plaque in a room displaying weapons in the Red Prison. The Red Prison was used as a military base and torture center during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign against the Kurds which killed 182,000 and displaced more than 1 million Kurdish people. This plaque resonated with me because I have always struggled with the concept of nonviolence. I want to actively practice nonviolence and believe in the biblical imperative. However, I understand how desperation can lead people to violence and how sometimes the outcome allows us to justify the violence.
During my short time in Iraqi Kurdistan I have heard many stories that have challenged my views on nonviolence. We went to an IDP camp of an ethnic group called Yazidi who were forced to flee their home by ISIS. Hundreds of thousands Yazidi’s were stranded in the mountains without food, water or shelter and a Kurdish rebel group from Turkey saved the Yazidi’s from ISIS kidnapping. This did not happen nonviolently and I am grateful that they are now relatively safe and rebuilding their lives.
We visited a community that was targeted by the Anfal campaign in 1988. The homes were destroyed and many fields are still unusable due to active landmines. I heard the pain that community experienced when they were forcibly removed from their ancestral land. In 2003 people were finally able to return and recreate their lives. In 2007 their land was again forcibly taken, this time by an oil company. This community met with government officials and negotiated with the oil company. They have not received proper compensation from the government nor the community resources such as schools and hospitals promised by the oil company. Instead of working with the community and employing the people, the company tries to make life as difficult as possible by blocking roads and forcing people to drive long distances over roads in terrible conditions. This community has tried many different avenues of nonviolent resistance for 8 years and they are desperate. They mentioned they would die and take up arms before they were removed from their land again.
I understand their pain and desperation. They feel alone and abandoned. What do you do when you feel like you have no other option? I often see the decision to resort to violence laced in desperation and feeling there is no other choice. I cannot fault nor judge those who chose that path. While we were meeting with the community the Christian Peacemaker Team explained that they only partner with communities that choose nonviolent resistance but they will accompany the community and work with them as partners for justice. The community immediately agreed that if they are accompanied they will not resort to violence. We met with an Iraqi pastor who said that a person’s psychological state is lifted when someone tells them, “We are here and you are in our minds. We have not forgotten you.”
I sometimes forget the practical importance of solidarity in fostering nonviolent resistance. Even though I have accompanied communities, and have seen how it is a model that works, it is easy to forget when we are faced by violence and situations that feel too complicated. Sometimes it is hard to imagine ways in which we can practice solidarity with communities geographically, culturally and religiously different from us. During this trip we have considered the impact that divesting from fossil fuels might have on these communities. I believe that divestment is an effective strategy for change, but it will also tell these communities, “I am here and you are in my mind. I have not forgotten you.”
Whitney Palmer was an accompanier in Urabá, Colombia in March 2013 as a part of the PPF Colombia Accompaniment Program, and she was a Young Adult Volunter (YAV) in Guatemala 2009-2010. She now lives in Maryland and continues to stay involved in issues of nonviolence and Latin America.