Breaking the Silence: The Anfal Campaign in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Human rights violations are often committed under the cover of secrecy and silence. Perpetrators want to hide their crimes and avoid guilt; surviving victims may be too fearful or ashamed to speak out; witnesses often find it easier to look away. And so the cycle continues. But change can begin when the silence surrounding these violations is broken.

In its exhibits and programming, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) will feature material on a wide cross-section of large-scale human rights violations.  In addition to learning about the violations themselves, CMHR’s visitors will also have the chance to explore how people have strived to expose the truth about these atrocities; dragging them into the light of day from the shadows of secrecy, silence, distortion and denial. 

One of the violations that the CMHR is looking to feature in this way is the Anfal Campaign – a series of organized attacks against Iraq’s Kurdish population in 1988, perpetrated by the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Kurds were targeted because of a strong Kurdish push for sovereignty from Iraq. Anfal involved indiscriminate bombing (including the use of chemical weapons), mass executions and disappearances of non-combatants, the destruction of villages, and forced displacement. 

During his rule, Hussein’s forces kidnapped and killed thousands of people that the regime considered threatening. These operations were often shrouded in secrecy, and victims’ families were left clueless about their fates for years. However, in the years following these attacks, there have been efforts to excavate mass graves to find the remains of some of those who disappeared. For some family members of those victims that have been found, these discoveries have helped resolve the mystery of their loved ones’ disappearances, even as the pain of the loss remains.


 Pair of children shoes

A pair of children’s shoes found during the excavation of mass graves in Hamreen, Iraq. Photos courtesy Susan Mohammad. Susan Mohammad website
Susan Mohammad is an independent Toronto-based writer, editor and broadcast journalist whose work has appeared in Maclean’s, Canadian Business, Homemaker’s, the Ottawa Citizen and the CBC-Online


In some cases, victims have spoken out in court. Amena (last name omitted for safety reasons) is one of many Kurds who testified when Hussein was arrested and put on trial. She lost many members of her family under Hussein’s rule. She was herself imprisoned in the notorious Nugra Salman prison camp, and suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her captors. Despite a cultural taboo that discouraged victims from talking openly about sexual abuse, Amena refused to be silent during her testimony. She told the court what happened to her, prompting an enraged outburst from Hussein. Amena recalls, “He stood up shouting, ‘I am the president of this country! How do you accept a woman to say such things about me!’”[1]

Hussein’s reaction is a stark reminder that those who violate human rights often try to hide the truth about their actions. While victims or witnesses may not have the chance (or challenge) to directly confront perpetrators as Amena did, everyone can help create a world where human rights are respected by speaking out and exposing the truth about atrocities like Anfal. For instance, in April 2010, Canada’s Parliament unanimously supported a Motion by MP Jim Karygiannis’ to recognize Hussein’s attacks against the Kurds as a crime against humanity. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will provide another space where the breaking of silence can occur. 


[1] Susan Mohammad, “I Testified Against Saddam Hussein,” MacLeans (4 June 2008), 25. 

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