Peacemaking an Anti-venom

by: Matt Andrews

Delegation to Northern Iraq

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After three flights, hours of layovers, and the struggles of adjusting to changing time zones, our delegation arrived in Suleimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan early on the morning of Sunday, October 17th. Our delegation - consisting of four Americans and one Iranian Kurd - was planning to spend ten days assisting the full-time team members in their efforts to build a more peaceful future in Kurdistan.

In our first couple days in the country, our schedule has been focused on learning about the Kurdish culture and about the history of the Kurds in light of their interactions with their neighbours, most notably the Iraqi Arabs, Turks, and Iranians. Unfortunately, a lot of this history is violent.

On Sunday we visited Amna Suraka, a prison where Saddam Hussein kept Kurdish dissidents and political prisoners. We walked through the facility and listened to our guide tell us stories of merciless torture, overcrowded cells, and unsanitary conditions for men, women, and children. We also sat down afterwards and listened to Hussein, another visitor that we met while on the tour, tell of his uncle's captivity in the prison and the armed fight to liberate the prisoners in 1991. In addition, Mohammed, our translator, told us of his experiences as a child who was present in the vicinity of the prison's liberation and was close enough to hear the shooting throughout the day.

On Monday we travelled southeast to the village of Halabjah, where the Iraqi government used chemical weapons to murder more than 5,000 Kurdish civilians, almost two-thirds of which were women and children, in March of 1988. We were treated to images and video of innocent civilians with burned and peeling asking and frozen looks of horror. The only crime they had committed was being Kurdish. We were told of how the bombing of Halabjah was just one of several hundred villages that were bombed in an orchestrated genocidal plan.

The things we saw and heard were disturbing, and they were designed to give us an understanding of some of the challenges that Kurds have faced in the recent past. However, they also got our group talking about the very nature of evil itself. Tiffany, one of our delegation members from Washington D.C., noted that violence of this nature was what happened when there is a lack of accountability amongst people, and the more I've pondered this idea, the more I've realized that each of us houses the necessary items to commit unspeakable acts of cruelty. Because of sin, each of us has been poisoned to consider violence as an acceptable means of resolving conflict; when we are allowed to explore that option without any kind of deterrent, it tends to grow and expand like a cancer until it has dominated our lives.

We tend to think of peacemaking as stopping one group of people from killing another, and while that is part of it, it is merely addressing one specific manifestation of the violence in the world. The true essence of peacemaking involves forcing people to examine the attitudes and prejudices in their hearts and exchange them for love, forgiveness, mercy, and friendship. It is a method that involves not just convincing an army to lay down their weapons, but a person to ignore the violent impulses in their nature. By changing hearts, minds, and souls, we attack the very nature of the problem and not just a symptom. I am learning about how CPT is doing this in the way that they have forged powerful and lasting connections to members of the Kurdish community. In time, the hope is that enough people will undergo this transformation so that violence is taken off of the table as a viable option for future conflicts.

We got to see an example of this in Halabjah. Both of the men that guided us through the exhibit were able to point at pictures on the wall and identify corpses of their family members that had been killed in the chemical attacks. This came as an instant shock to me that a man could set aside the anger in his heart in order to face the bodies of his loved ones on a daily basis. When asked why they continued to face their demons in this way, they replied that they wanted to teach the next generation about what had happened so that it would never happen again.

My hope is that in my life, both in Iraq and back at home in America, I can embrace forgiveness and mercy in the manner of our new friends in Halabjah. May I always choose to reject anger and violence, embrace forgiveness and non-violence, and teach others to do the same.