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 The Kurdish exodus of 1991 – the plight that transformed Kurdish destiny

 Opinion — Analysis 
  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


The Kurdish exodus of 1991 – the plight that transformed Kurdish destiny ‎ 16.4.2013 
Bashdar Ismaeel

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Iraqi Kurdish refugee crisis 1991. Photo: Flickr
  Read more by Bashdar Ismaeel
April 16, 2013

Triumph at time of great adversity – how national despair gave birth to the Kurdistan Region

This week marks the 22nd anniversary of the great Kurdish exodus of 1991 that was triggered by a cold-hearted retaliation by Saddam Hussein, resulting in a humanitarian plight that Kurds will never forget.

After popular uprisings in both Kurdish and Shiite areas in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, encouraged and then quickly abandoned by an idle U.S., Saddam used the full-force of his arsenal to rapidly quell the uprisings, ruthlessly killing thousands and driving two million Kurds to the Turkish and Iranian borders.

Thousands of Kurds died of starvation, disease and harsh conditions, if not the military might of Baathist forces.

The timing of the latest act of mass repression against the Kurds could not be more ironic. It was merely weeks after the US led coalition swiftly came to the aid of their oil rich friends in Kuwait, days after President George Bush encouraged Iraqis to take matters into their own hands and to compound the misery of the Kurds, it was just three years after the great genocide of Halabja in 1988.

The already ill-fated Kurdish plight undoubtedly hit a fresh low in 1991 and reinforced the feeling amongst Kurds that they have no friends but the mountains. Indeed it was those mountains that were the source of refuge in 1991 when in spite of the growing international media coverage on the Kurdish disaster, the world’s powers laboured far too long to respond.


It’s hard to forget that for their short-sighted strategic interests, the West played a blind-eye to the atrocities committed against the Kurds and in spite of his unforgivable crimes against humanity, kept Saddam in power.

In spite of the immense evidence at the time, the United Nations Sub-Committee on Human Rights inexplicably voted in August 1988 not to condemn Iraq for human rights violations.

All the while, Saddam was further strengthened with the West providing new war planes, more advanced scud capabilities and not forgetting the ingredients for the very chemical weapons that were used against the Kurds.

The thousands of Kurdish refugees were an unwelcome site on the borders for Turks battling their own restive Kurdish population and Kurds endured further pain that they should never have faced upon arriving to what they saw as safety. How ironic that Kurds evicted from their own homes, were treated like foreigners and unwanted guests in the other parts of greater Kurdistan, the lands of their forefathers.

At times greatest of triumphs come at times of great adversity and so it proved for the valiant Kurds. The bravery in the face of the Kurdish uprising of 1991 and the tough conditions for the millions that fled soon after with crucial international spotlight that followed is now a milestone in the Kurdish renaissance and the ushering of a new era in their history.

Of course, great credit must still be placed to the coalition forces and in particular the then UK Prime Minister, John Major, who despite common objection to his stance broke ranks and played a great hand in realising his vision of a Kurdish Safe Haven and the effectively the birth of the Kurdistan Region.

However, as much as Kurds will always be grateful for the ousting of Saddam, at any time for that matter, it cannot be overlooked that for far too long Kurds were left to fend for themselves and in cases such as the Algiers Accord of 1975 fed to the lions.

The Iraqi liberation of 2003 came years too late for the Kurds. It was the strategic interests of the West and the Arab world that led to the mass support for Saddam, particularly in the bloody Iran-Iraq war. Saddam was viewed as a secular bulwark against Islamist revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini and the resurgence of a powerful Iran.

The moral of the story is that as grateful as the Kurds are to the Americans, the U.S. had more pretext to liberate Iraqi in 1991 than 2003 and they only toppled Saddam after the monster that the West created could no longer be contained.

Fast forward 22 years since the great exodus, and Kurdish fortunes could not be more different. The sacrifices of those who fled and of the Peshmerga who bravely battled Saddam were not in vain and indeed it was exactly those actions that make the Kurdistan of today possible.

2003 may have heralded the start of the golden age for Kurdistan but it was 1991 that was the true spark and the “Spring” that transformed the destiny of Kurdistan. It is Kurdish sacrifice, spirit, bravery and desire that pushed the Kurds over the line, more than coalition forces ever did.

Now 2013 marks a new passage in the history of the Kurds and the beginning of a fresh dawn. The Spring Equinox or Newroz always had a special place in people’s hearts and in the numerous milestones it has heralded in recent years. The talk in the Kurdistan Region of today is about economic boom, new construction, oil infrastructure and prosperity. Meanwhile, the talk in Turkey is about peace, breaking taboos and finally taking bold steps to resolving the age-old Kurdish problem. All the while, the Syrian Kurds, breaking from the shadows of their Kurdish brethren, are now key components of both the Syrian and Kurdish national and political landscape.

Times have changed and with the onset of the Arab Spring and the unravelling of the Middle East, the Kurds have risen in prominence.

The Kurdish determination and never-say-die spirit is the very reason for their resurgence today and the fruits of the labours of Kurds in all respective parts of Kurdistan.

But lofty heights and new dawns must bring a firm acknowledgment and great appreciation of the past. The Kurds cannot and will not ever forget the tragedies and travesties of yesteryears.

The Kurdish best friends remain their own brethren and indeed their mystical mountains.

It is all the more ironic that having played such a great role in the repression of the Kurds, some Arabs in Baghdad remain unrepentant and indeed despise the Kurdish economic and strategic drive.

Even America, who stood idle for so long while the Kurds were persecuted, now look to growing Kurdish power and autonomy with weariness, only not to upset their Iraqi friends and the balance of their interests in the Middle East.

The growing energy ties between Ankara and Kurdistan, promoted just this week by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is viewed as the source of Iraq’s disintegration, while America and the West can clearly see it is the policies of Baghdad and specifically Nouri al-Maliki that has been the real wedge in Iraq.

The Kurds must take lessons from their past and ensure their destiny remains firmly in their own hands. The dependence on Baghdad for oil revenues and oil exports is one last umbilical cord that Kurds must cut.

The building of new pipelines and new energy deals with Turkey are protected by Iraq’s constitution.

Kurds must not follow policies to suit their American allies or the wishes of Baghdad but those that benefit the Kurdish nation.

After decades of repression, destruction of thousands of villages and chemical bombings, while much of the world’s powers remained idle, Kurdistan deserves that much.


Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel is a London-based freelance writer and analyst, a regular contributing writer for website. Ismaeel whose primary focus and expertise is on the Kurds, Iraq and Middle Eastern current affairs. The main focus of his writing is to promote peace, justice and increase awareness of the diversity, suffering and at times explosive mix in Iraq and the Middle East. Most recently he has produced work for the Washington Examiner, Asian Times, The Epoch Times, Asia News, The Daily Star (Lebanon), Kurdish Globe, Hewler Post, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), KurdishMedia, PUK Online and OnlineOpinion. He has achieved seminar recommended readings for Le High University (Pennsylvania) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His work has been republished extensively elsewhere on the Internet. He is a longtime contributing writer and columnist for You can visit Bashdar's website at ( and reach the author via email at: [email protected]

First published on Kurdish Globe

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


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