Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Comment: No Protest In My Name!
Do the anti-war protestors who have been filling the streets and parks of the civilized, comfortable West have any idea what they are protesting about? I watched with dismay this week as Greenpeace supporters chained themselves to fuel pumps. I could not believe the naiveté of the protestors in Hyde Park a few weeks ago. They wouldn't survive a month if dropped into Baghdad and forced to live as Iraqis live. They would be arrested and tortured as soon as they started complaining about the lack of basic rights - among them, free speech.
What is more moral? Freeing an oppressed, brutalized people from a vicious tyrant or allowing millions to continue suffering indefinitely? Speaking as one of millions of Iraqis who have suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime, I would pay any price to get rid of this monster.
I have been imprisoned, tortured and gassed. I know life in Saddam's Iraq.
I was born in Halabja, close to the Iranian border in the northern Kurdish region. I went to school and graduated in Halabja, then became a mathematics teacher. In the mid-1980s, a law was passed decreeing that all teaching must be done in Arabic. No more would we be allowed to teach in Kurdish. There were demonstrations. Courageous students burned books in protest.
When this happened in Halabja, the ringleaders came to my school to escape from the Iraqi mukhabarat - intelligence officers - who were looking for them. I helped hide them in the physics lab and they remained undetected. But someone must have informed the authorities, for I was arrested the following day and held for three days. During this time I was forced to sit in ice-cold water. I, like so many other Iraqi women, endured many humiliations. All this for hiding two 16-year-old children who had burnt a few books!
After I was released, men from the mukhabarat followed me everywhere. No-one was allowed to speak to me. I was fired soon after, told not to go anywhere near the school or the children, and re-assigned to the education department of the regional government in the city of Suleimaniyah.
In 1987, I received a memo from the director calling me to a meeting. I arrived at the appointed time and found the hall packed with friends and colleagues. Mukhabarat surrounded the building and arrested us all. They loaded us onto a lorry and said: "Bring your men folk who are peshmergas [anti-Saddam Kurdish guerrillas] or bring divorce papers!"
I did neither. I joined the peshmergas and stayed in the mountains living the life of guerrilla - a life of hell, under constant threat of chemical attack.
In 1988, 21 members of my family - aunts, nephews and nieces - died of suffocation when Saddam attacked Halabja with chemical weapons. In many ways I was lucky: my mother, brothers and sisters were in Suleimaniyah and survived. When the planes came, I was in Kanyto, a small village in the mountains. Again I was lucky: I survived the chemical attack. Badly injured, though, I spent three months in hospital recovering from the chemical burns that covered my body, blistering it from head to foot.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait I decided to leave my homeland: still suffering from the chemicals, I felt vulnerable - helpless and hopeless. I fled to England and resumed my teaching career in a London boys' school. Today the most dangerous thing I have to deal with is disruptive, swearing teenagers. This is the world the protestors know - not Saddam's world of chemical weapons, of arbitrary terror and rape.
How many protestors have spoken to an Iraqi woman who has been raped - in front of her father and son - by Saddam's thugs? How many have asked an Iraqi mother how she felt when she was forced to watch her son being executed - and then ordered to pay for the bullet that killed him? How many know that these mothers had to applaud as their sons died - or be executed themselves? I saw this in Suleimaniyah. I heard the clapping. I hear it still.
In the 12 years since I arrived in England I have been back to Northern Iraq four times to visit family and friends. Thankfully, because of the no-fly zone imposed by the Western allies, life there has improved: the Iraqi army is no longer on our land. But Kurds outside the liberated area still live in fear that they may be picked up by Iraqi soldiers, conscripted into the Iraqi army or forced to sign papers declaring that they are not Kurds - but Arabs.
I have spoken to many people in northern Iraq over the last few weeks - to Kurdish officials, journalists, old friends, my brother. They all agree that this war proposed by George Bush and Tony Blair may be the one chance to rid Iraq of the disease that is Saddam Hussein. They, like me, believe that anti-war protests will be taken as a sign of weakness by Saddam and exploited by him to the full.
Giving the UN inspectors more time is a sad, bad joke. Saddam will never disarm. He will lie, cheat and bluff his way out. He always has and always will.
Freshta Raper is head of mathematics at a London comprehensive school.
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