Written by: Hanan Jiyad
Iraq, as the country we know today, is a little over 100 years old. In such a short period of time, it has been home to chaotic coups, a ruthless regime, inevitable instability, and wars. Countless genocides have occurred in Iraq, from Simele and Anfal to those committed by Daesh. Yet the genocide of Iraqi Fayli Kurds during the 1980s is one that has been discarded and forgotten not just by the history books, but also by the conscious minds of Iraqis themselves. It is that which makes this genocide among the most tragic occurrences in human history, and so becomes incumbent upon us to do its victims justice.
Ethnic cleansing/genocide is the elimination of an ethnic group by means of mass murder, forceful deportation, and violent displacement. It is not a rare phenomenon – genocides have happened throughout history on every continent on Earth. One example of active ethnic cleansing, specifically state-sanctioned, is happening to Palestinians today at the hands of Zionists. Turning back time to 98 years ago, the Kingdom of Iraq planted the seeds for a state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing campaign.
Mesopotamia, as it was then known, was governed by the Ottoman empire until its collapse after WW1. Under British occupation, the Kingdom of Iraq was founded and in 1924, citizenship law No.24 was passed. This law classified Iraqis as being either 'tabaiya Othmaniya' (of Ottoman origin/dependence) or 'tabaiya Iraniya' (of Iranian origin/dependence). Arabs were classed as the former and considered true Iraqis, while all non-Arabs were classed as the latter and considered aliens.
Under this law, Fayli Kurds belonged to the alien class. Faylis are Kurdish people who live around the Iranian-Iraqi border mainly in the Iraqi provinces of Diyala and Wasit, and the Iranian provinces of Ilam, Lorestan, and Kermanshah. The borders of the Middle East were drawn only 106 years ago by European colonisers, hence artificial states were created that did not reflect the demographics well. For Faylis, this meant they were divided between Iraq and Iran. A large community also existed in Baghdad, particularly in an area in the centre named ‘the Kurdish quarter’. There are 3 dialects of the Kurdish language including Kurmanji and Sorani. Southern Kurdish is the third dialect and the one Faylis speak. It is not only the dialect that differentiates Faylis – the most distinguishing factor is their sect. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims whereas Faylis are Shia Muslims, and thus a minority within a minority. For this, Faylis have found themselves marginalised by the wider Kurdish population and excluded from receiving protection from Kurdish forces.
Iraqi Faylis were well integrated in Iraqi society. They spoke Arabic and practiced Iraqi customs. Due to their connections to both Iran and Iraq, Faylis had unique access to trade routes and were able to import and export goods between the two countries, and the wider region. Faylis were known to be excellent merchants and became the dominant tradespeople in Iraq, which saw them accumulate vast wealth and gain middle/upper class status.
The Iran-Iraq war and 1980 genocide
In February 1979, a popular revolution in neighbouring Iran culminated in the overthrow of the Shah and establishment of an Islamic Republic. The Islamic Iraqi resistance was approaching its peak and so for the dictator Saddam Hussein and his secular Ba’ath regime, the threat of an Islamic revolution was imminent. This warranted immediate action as the regime feared that non-Arab Shias would join the Arab Shias in rising up against them. The Kurdish resistance and independence movements were also highly active, so Faylis posed a double threat. Moreover, as the Ba’ath regime prepared to wage war on Iran, Faylis were flagged up as prime victims for their wealth.
The ethnicity, sect, and occupation of Faylis mandated their persecution under the Ba’ath regime. In 1980, Saddam Hussein personally signed decision No.666 which legalised the nullification of Iraqi citizenship and expulsion of Iraqis of ‘foreign origin’. Fayli Kurds were falsely accused of being traitors and disloyal to the Iraqi state. There was no evidence to suggest this, and they were never questioned or given a chance to defend themselves. The intelligence services were given the task of expelling them. Law No.666 was not limited to Faylis – the regime used it against anyone they deemed a threat including Persians, Turkomans and even Arabs.
April 7th 1980 was the start of the Fayli Kurd genocide. Beginning with the wealthiest merchants in Baghdad, Faylis were kidnapped from their homes, schools, and workplaces and held in detention centres and prisons for weeks, awaiting deportation to Iran. Their assets were seized, their homes occupied by Ba’athist officials, and all their money was amassed by the regime. Many were raped and tortured, thousands were killed and buried in mass graves, and the whereabouts of at least 15,000 young men remain unknown to this day. Interracial families were separated; Arab spouses from their Fayli spouses, children from their parents. Faylis were taken to the Iranian-Iraqi border in their masses, without any money or belongings, and forced to cross into Iran by foot as Ba’athist soldiers watched with guns pointed at them. Deportations and mass killings lasted throughout the 1980s, and it is estimated that over 650,000 Iraqis were unjustly expelled on false allegations.
Left penniless in a country whose language they did not speak and culture they did not know, Faylis struggled to rebuild their lives in Iran. Many were forced to live in refugee camps. Though Iranic people, they could not legally claim Iranian citizenship unless they could prove Iranian ancestry through documentation. Some lucked out, but many Faylis were left unable to access education, healthcare, and jobs because they were not citizens. It is important to mention the rife racism and discrimination that Faylis face. To Iranians, they are considered Arabs. To Iraqis, they are considered Iranian. And to Kurds, their own people, they are considered a mix of the two states which deny Kurdish self-governance, Shia, and thus traitors.
Today, many Faylis do not know the whereabouts of their relatives, nor have they been compensated for the huge loss of assets. Some are still without citizenship and left stateless, unable to return to Iraq. No real effort has been made by the Iraqi government to restore the rights of Faylis. In a post-Ba’ath Iraq, Faylis have miniscule political representation and the major parties do not think it important to include them. The Iraqi education system fails to even acknowledge this genocide.
Faylis in Iraq are as much Iraqi as Arabs in Iraq. The country of Iraq and the borders it boasts today did not even exist 105 years ago - there are living human beings older than that. Iraq is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse countries in the region which is something we should embrace. To do so, we must understand that the ‘Iraqi’ identity is the primary one and everything else is secondary. “Iraqi” is not an ethnic group; it is a national one. Arab, Assyrian, Fayli, Kurdish, Persian, Turkoman are all Iraqi. It is the Iraqi identity that unites us and allows us to put aside our racism and prejudice to peacefully co-exist. The world has changed, and it is the pining for homogenous societies that is intellectually and morally regressive.
State-sanctioned violence is perhaps the most sinister of all, and this is what unfolded in Iraq only 40 years ago. Faylis were victims of genocide for political, economic, ethnic, and religious reasons under the tyrannous Ba’ath regime. We must now ask the question of how do we fight for justice for the Faylis? We must first and foremost make a conscious effort to educate people about this genocide. Every April, Fayli communities commemorate the genocide among themselves, but this should be internationally recognised and commemorated by all. Iraqis must demand that Faylis be given fair political representation, are compensated for their economic losses, and have their citizenships reinstated. Answers must be given to Faylis; the search for those forcefully disappeared and killed should continue. Although violence against Faylis no longer occurs in the form of genocide, the effects of it are still being felt by every single victim. Some wounds do not heal. Though nothing can fully atone for genocide, justice can begin with compensating victims and restoring their rights.
There is a Kurdish saying: “no friend but the mountains” which symbolises their feelings of isolation and abandonment. For Fayli Kurds, this is tragically too true.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of IraqNow.