In 1991 they received belated protection from the allied powers which had united to throw Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait. Safe havens were established in Kurdistan, a no-fly zone was imposed. Saddam withdrew and the Kurds slowly trickled back from their temporary refuge in the high Zagros.
Two years on, the Western allies, weary of staring out the dictator in Baghdad, have blinked. At the United Nations last week, Britain and the United States quietly dropped their insistence that the lifting of economic sanctions against Iraq must be linked to the downfall of Saddam.
The fact that sanctions will, for the time being, remain in place is of little comfort to the Kurds. Since they returned to the ruins of their homes, they have lived a precarious existence, constantly under the threat that Saddam's armies will return. A poorly armed frontline stretches from the Syrian border south of Zakho and follows the foothills to the southern limit of Kurdish territory, where it borders Iran. Peshmergas armed with rifles, rockets and the occasional piece of light artillery patrol the frontline trenches in such towns as Chamchamal, in the certain knowledge that if Saddam returns in vengeance he will come with tanks and planes.
The spring of 1991 was a time of tragedy for the Kurds, but it also marked a high point in international recognition of their plight and of their cause. That Easter weekend, Iraqi forces defeated by the allies in the south moved north to quell a month-old rebellion that had put the whole of Kurdistan under Kurdish control. Within a few days, as many of Iraq's 3 million Kurds who could manage the arduous journey headed for the mountains and into Turkey. Many perished there, or on the way. In the worst times, babies were dying at the rate of a thousand a day.
A tumult of protest arose in the West, not among the allied governments which had so speedily called a ceasefire in their war with Saddam, but from ordinary people who, whatever their views on the wisdom of the Gulf war, were outraged that the defeated dictator should be allow to annihilate his own people. For once, the politicians were forced to respond. At John Major's initiative, safe havens were established in the north, protected by allied troops, while the Americans warned the Iraqi forces: 'If you fly you die.' The Iraqis pulled back; it was safe for the Kurds to return.
Two years on, other victims have come forward to take up the world's seemingly finite quota of compassion - the Bosnians, the Somalis. The Kurds can merely shrug and recall their old adage that 'the Kurds have no friends but the mountains'.
They were victims of 'ethnic cleansing' long before the term was even coined, and then the world looked the other way. Those who were ethnically cleansed, in the sense of being uprooted from their ancient homeland and dispatched to exile in the arid south, were the lucky ones. During and immediately after the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran which ended in 1988, they were slaughtered in their tens of thousands by bullet, bomb and poison gas. They were victims of genocide in its true sense - the attempted destruction of an entire race. The Kurds are the only people to have been attacked by nerve gas since it was invented and then banned as a weapon. The attack took place at the Iraqi border town of Halabja in March 1988. They call it the Kurdish Auschwitz, not because the scale of the massacre was comparable with that of the Nazi death camps, but because the victims were chosen merely because they were Kurds.
THE PITIFUL refugees who now cling precariously to the wreckage of their former homes are the survivors of a policy of extermination which reached its climax between 1987 and 1989. It was a policy designed and conducted by the man with whom the West, apparently unable to unseat him, now seems ready to do business. It was a policy most chillingly enunciated by his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, the man put in charge of anti-Kurdish operations. He threw a cordon around great swathes of Kurdish territory and told his commanders: 'It is the duty of military forces to kill any human being or animal that exists in these areas, which are considered totally forbidden.'
During the campaign of destruction, 4,000 towns and villages were razed and half a million people were sent to 'protected camps' far from home. In one last blast of hatred and revenge, the Iraqis ordered the destruction of the town of Qalat Dizah, which still lies in ruins because its present occupants have neither the funds nor the tools to repair it.
Men like Majid are still in control in Baghdad. Will the world allow them once more to unleash their policy of genocide on the Kurds, now that the West appears to be steering towards a policy of appeasement with the Iraqi dictator? The answer must be no. But what can be done to stop them? Will allied planes stand constantly on station in Turkey to protect the Kurds if Saddam is to be allowed to go on forever?
Where are the written commitments and guarantees to a nation which has been so cruelly abandoned in the past by its so-called friends? There is irony in the fact that in the past two precarious years the Kurds have reached a level of political maturity unknown in their long history. For once they have overcome their tribal and sectarian divisions to elect a government from among their fellow Kurds. There is a Kurdish parliament, a Kurdish administration, Kurdish courts, a Kurdish police. Although they depend on outside aid and protection, the Kurds of Iraq fulfil more of the prerequisites of nationhood and statehood than do many other recognised emerging nation-states.
Yet statehood is not even among their demands. They aim, more modestly, for autonomy within a democratic Iraq. But does the world still want a democratic Iraq? Or would it not be simpler and safer to seek an accommodation with Saddam, trusting him, against all the evidence, to be kind to the Kurds?
'No Friends But the Mountains' by John Bulloch and Harvey Morris is published by Viking and comes out in Penguin paperback in June
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