By Will Pedigo
On January 31st 2008, Vanderbilt University hosted a panel discussion led by trial judges from the Iraqi High Tribunal. It was a big deal for Nashville. The Iraqi High Tribunal was created by the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003 to provide justice for the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. It represents one of the few times in history, like the Nuremberg Trials after WWII, that charges of genocide have been brought before a court of law.
While Vanderbilt University Law professor Michael Newton served as a key international advisor to the Iraqi High Tribunal, this event connected in an even more intimate way for Nashvillians. Much of the audience present that night represented Nashville’s Kurdish community, the largest in the US. They were familiar with the history and relevance of the tribunal and when allowed, immediately raised several astute questions for the judges. What would have been simply a highly educative opportunity to hear from international trial judges visiting a prestigious American law school became a gripping debate about the future for justice in Iraq.
Contrary to public knowledge, the Vanderbilt event featuring the Iraqi High Tribunal was not its only speaking engagement in Nashville. Friday night, February 1, the tribunal convened again at Nashville’s Salahadeen Center, the first Kurdish Mosque in North America, to meet with Nashville’s Kurdish Community. Fortunately, NPT was invited to observe.
NPT is currently at work on our new Next Door Neighbors documentary series, which will explore Nashville’s emergence as a mid-sized-American international city. The first installment of Next Door Neighbors will look at the Kurdish community in Nashville. Now thirty-years strong, the community is remarkable, and an example of what has been termed the United State’s Global Interior — across the US, cities like Nashville have become prominent destinations for refugee resettlement and new immigration. In 2007, we produced the documentary Nashville: City of Refuge, which centered on one Somali family’s resettlement here.
It is through our research into the Kurdish community that we were invited to attend the meeting between Nashville’s Kurds and the Iraqi High Tribunal at Salahadeen Center. Unlike the Vanderbilt event, the Tribunal spent less time presenting information, and more time fielding questions from a packed house of Kurdish immigrants and Kurdish-Americans.
One question was repeated and redirected over and over again by those in attendance: Why was Saddam Hussein executed on December 30, 2006?
The answer, if there is one, says a lot about being Kurdish, the unstable future for justice in Iraq, and the complexity of Iraqi politics.
Saddam Hussein was executed on December 30, 2006 after being found guilty of the deaths of 148 people in a predominantly Shia town, only one of many charges against the former dictator.
Once he was executed, subsequent charges against Saddam Hussein were dropped. For the Kurds, this meant Saddam Hussein would never be personally indicted for his “Al Anfal” campaign, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 180,000 Kurds.
The frustration of Kurds regarding Saddam’s expedited death made headlines in the PBS program NewsHour.
That frustration was recently rekindled by the Iraqi High Tribunal’s trial of Ali Hassan al-Majid, nicknamed “Chemical Ali,” who implemented Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds in northern Iraq. “Chemical Ali” gained his infamous title through the use of chemical weapons against Kurds.
While Saddam was executed within 30 days of his sentence, as dictated by Iraqi law, Chemical Ali’s execution has been postponed.
The Kurdish community in Nashville gathered to hear the Iraqi High Tribunal respond to their demands for justice regarding the genocide of their families and friends. The Iraqi High Tribunal had no definitive answers to offer.
Kurds came to Nashville as refugees, fleeing genocide and oppression. Like many refugees, they sacrificed their former lives for new ones. They left their homes, their neighbors and their culture in search of security and survival. Kurds still carry the wounds of victimization. They also carry their homeland in their hearts, with memories of Kurdistan and their many years of struggle ever present in their lives.
Here in Nashville, Kurds have established a vibrant community that is known throughout North America for its strong Kurdish identity and culture.
Watching the evening unfold at the Salahadeen Center, I felt proud that Kurds have found a home in Nashville. The event reminded me that we as a city are becoming more deeply connected to global issues and events.
Our new neighbors have seen and experienced things we cannot imagine. Through their eyes we can benefit from a broader awareness of our city’s relationship to the world, and together, as neighbors, appreciate what it means to be a part of the new American frontier.