It’s Time to Come Clean on the Disappeared

Michael Rubin

By Michael Rubin:

Kurdish history has had no shortage of tragedies, many of which were the result of foreign powers and beyond the control of the Kurdish people. Some tragedies have been self-inflicted, however, most prominent of which was the 1994-1997 civil war. After three years working to build the Kurdistan Regional Government and fill the vacuum left by Saddam Hussein’s abrupt withdrawal of state support, disputes regarding power- and revenue-sharing between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led to civil war. Many died on the battlefield and both PUK and KDP forces expelled their opponents’ sympathizers from territory they controlled. It was a tragedy which ended in 1997 for most Kurdish families who swallowed their losses and began to restart their lives. For about 3,000 families, however, the tragedy never ended. Their fathers, brothers, and sons disappeared, but they never learned the truth about what happened to their loved ones in PUK or KDP detention. Over subsequent years, the PUK and KDP reconciled but the fate of the missing became a subject too sensitive to discuss largely because of the complicity of senior leaders in both parties.

PUK leader and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s debilitating stroke and lengthy absence from Kurdistan, however, coupled with the PUK’s poor showing in recent elections has pushed the PUK to select new leadership. The process has not been easy. There are three main factions to the PUK: Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Talabani’s wife; former PUK prime minister Kosrat Rasul, who has strong support among the peshmerga and Hawleris, and Western-educated former Prime Minister Barham Salih. In recent weeks, the Iranian government has moved to help the PUK resolve its impasse. While the delay in the PUK’s convention has thrown a new roadblock into the inauguration of a new PUK leadership, it appears that Barham Salih will become the party’s secretary-general, with Qubad Talabani and Darbaz Kosrat acting as his deputies.

Rather than focus on factional politics, however, Kurds, whether PUK supporters or not, should celebrate the inauguration of a new generation of leaders. Because Barham Salih was absent from Kurdistan during the civil war, he has no personal complicity in any crimes that occurred during those troubled years. Nor does Qubad Talabani, who was just 17 years old at the start of the conflict.  Darbaz Kosrat likewise comes from the post-civil war generation. If Barham and his deputies truly wish to promote a reformist agenda and break free from the past, then it is time to come clean on the issue of the disappeared. Families of the missing deserve closure. Barham and his deputies cannot compel the KDP to embrace such transparency, nor is it likely the KDP’s more ossified leadership desires to open its files, but the PUK need not take its cue from the KDP. Had the PUK stood firm to its own agenda in recent years, it may not have lost so much support to Gorran.

It is unrealistic to expect accountability in Kurdistan today for crimes that occurred years ago, but it is not too much to demand truth and reconciliation, as occurred in South Africa upon the fall of Apartheid and Morocco, after the death of King Hassan II. Should the PUK come clean on its past activities, then the KDP and other civil war-era members who have since migrated to Gorran or retired might eventually feel the pressure to follow suit. Perhaps this should be the litmus test for the new PUK, to see whether a new generation of its leaders is as committed to progressive values and justice as they like to claim.

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