Prestigious exhibition to present Kurdistan Museum in Geneva, Switzerland

The Geneva Museum of Art and History is the largest museum in Geneva and specialises in the history of western culture from ancient times to the present day.

Kurdistan Museum is featuring in a prestigious exhibition about contemporary museum architecture in Geneva which will run from 11 May until 20 August 2017.

The exhibition has been created by the Art Basel Centre at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Geneve (Museum of Art and History), the largest museum in Geneva, which specialises in the history of western culture from ancient times to the present day.

Entitled ‘New Museums: Intentions, Expectations, Challenges’, the exhibition may also be staged at two other, as yet undisclosed, venues.

Kurdistan Museum was designed by the world’s leading memorial architect, Daniel Libeskind. It will be presented in Geneva with an architectural model, photographs, renderings, plans, drawings, sketches and a special film presentation.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) kept its museum project under wraps for eight years before asking Daniel Libeskind to unveil the venture in San Francisco on April 2016 at the Yerba Buena Centre. Construction has been delayed because of the KRG’s involvement in the war against Daesh and its financial support of 2 million refugees and internally displaced people.

‘Architecture is a symbol of identity,’ says Libeskind. ‘And so amidst the destruction of Palmyra and of great ancient places, to build a museum in Erbil is an affirmation of the very opposite. By constructing the present you really are building the future.’

Kurdistan Museum seeks to set the story of the Kurdish people in stone, sharing the Kurdish story with the international community and inspiring open dialogue amongst future generations. The landmark requires a new national archive and a permanent collection, which is being assembled by the Kurdistan Memory Programme, and will chronicle Kurdish history and culture from present day to the 16th century.

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Family of the late Kurdish revolutionary Leyla Qasim proposes reburial at Kurdistan Museum

LEYLA QASIM remains an icon of the Kurdish nationalist movement.

The sister of the late Leyla Qasim, the Kurdish national heroine who was executed for her opposition to the Iraqi Ba’ath Party in 1974, has called for her to be reburied in Erbil in the grounds of the proposed Kurdistan Museum.

Leyla Qasim was the first female political activist to be hanged in the Middle East in the 20th century, and her execution mobilised a generation of women to join the Kurdish national movement. She was buried in Najaf in southern Iraq despite her publicly expressed wish before her death to be buried in her native Kurdistan.

‘I feel the time has now come for her be buried in her homeland. What could be more fitting than that her remains are taken from Najaf and re-interred in the grounds of the Kurdistan Museum in Erbil when it is finally built,’ Sabiha Qasim told the Kurdistan Memory Programme (KMP) in Erbil.

Leyla Qasim died at a time when Kurds in northern Iraq were in armed revolt against the Iraqi regime. Her name continues to inspire compatriots involved with the Kurdish struggle for statehood, no matter what their party political allegiances are.

A member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and a student at Baghdad University, she belonged to a secret underground cell working in Baghdad. The undercover KDP unit’s role, according to one member of the group, was ‘to make people in Baghdad aware there was a war going on up north.’

Born in December 1950, Leyla came from a very patriotic Kurdish family who supported the KDP led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani. She grew up in Khanaqin, northeast of Baghdad, and was a star pupil at the local school. She always saw herself as a Kurdish nationalist and even as a young girl wanted to see the Kurdish flag hoisted in her home town instead of that of Iraq.

The family of Kurdish national heroine Leyla Qasim have requested her reburial in the grounds of the proposed Kurdistan Museum, Erbil.

The family of Kurdish national heroine Leyla Qasim have requested her reburial in the grounds of the proposed Kurdistan Museum, Erbil.

On 29 April 1974 Iraqi security forces raided Leyla Qasim’s family home in Baghdad during the middle of the night.

‘She calmly ordered the secret police to wait outside her bedroom as she got dressed,’ recalls Sabiha Qasim. She told her family at the time, ‘They want me because I’m a Kurd’.

Leyla Qasim was taken to the security headquarters and incarcerated in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison on terrorism charges.

With her were four male Kurdish students, Hassan Hama Rashid, Azad Miran, Nariman Masti and Jawad Hamawandi, all members of the same cell. They were tortured and ‘falsely accused’ of planting an explosive device in a cinema, according to the KDP’s leader Masoud Barzani.

The group was kept in solitary confinement but with the help of a friendly female prison warden Leyla managed to alert her family to her whereabouts. It was the day of her execution on 12 May 1974.

Visited by her mother and father, she broke the news of her impending execution and also revealed she had been visited by the Iraqi government’s then second-in-command, Saddam Hussein.

She said Saddam had offered to let her study abroad if she would renounce the Kurdish cause. ‘I am a proud Kurd and will remain so to my grave,’ she reportedly told him. By rejecting his offer, she faced certain death.

At Abu Ghraib, her mother heard friends urging her to try and get the sentence commuted because she was a woman.

‘I am not frightened although I am a girl,’ she replied. ‘I want to be the first of us to be executed.’

Leyla Qasim was hanged a few hours after her parents left the prison. On the way to the gallows she is reputed to have sung the Kurdish national anthem, Ey Reqib (‘Oh Enemy’). Leyla’s body was returned to her family next day with her eyes gouged out. Permission for a funeral was refused and she was finally buried in Najaf.

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Kurdistan Museum, Erbil is announced in San Francisco

'By constructing the present you are really building the future,' says Kurdistan Museum architect DANIEL LIBESKIND.

On 11 April 2016 the world renowned architect Daniel Libeskind publicly unveiled a sensitive project that he had kept secret for six years at the request of the Kurdish Government.

The announcement was made at the Bloomberg Businessweek Design Conference in Yerba Buena Centre in San Francisco, famous as the site for the Apple product launches.

The secret project was Kurdistan Museum: a new symbol of Kurdish liberty that tells the story of the Kurdish people, and the genocide they suffered under Saddam Hussein.

Daniel Libeskind was an apt choice as architect for a museum addressing the difficult subject of genocide given his family’s past suffering in the Nazi concentration camps. He is the world’s leading memorial architect and renowned for his ability to evoke cultural memory in buildings.

Kurdistan Museum will play an important dual role: it will memorialise the death of 182,000 Kurds in Iraq during the 1980s whilst at the same time preserving Kurdish history and cultural heritage from as far back as the 16th century. It will stand as a beacon of Kurdish freedom for the future, and be the first major world institution devoted to sharing the Kurdish story with the world.

Daniel Libeskind’s credentials for such a project are impeccable: he was chosen as the master planner for the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre in New York after 9/11, and has also designed buildings such as Berlin’s Jewish Museum, the Military History Museum in Dresden, and the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, England.

The design of the museum has been informed by the character of the city of Erbil, which celebrates its ancient history while embracing economic progress and modernity.

‘I think ancient cities need contemporary life in order to affirm their traditions,’ says Libeskind.

The Kurds’ war against ISIS, however, has added a new dimension and urgency to the project to build Kurdistan Museum.

‘Architecture is a symbol of identity,’ says Libeskind. ‘So amidst the destruction of Palmyra, and the destruction of great ancient places, to build a museum in Erbil is actually an affirmation of the exact opposite. By constructing the present you are really building the future.’

For the time being, however, construction has been put on hold as the Kurds of Iraq battle against the so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’, their financial resources drained by their epic struggle.

‘The Kurds are inviting outside financial support for the project,’ says Libeskind.

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The psychological aftermath of violence and genocide

DOCTOR BAYAN RASUL is a psychiatrist who has studied trauma for over 35 years. She has helped numerous Kurdish communities whose lives were impacted by Anfal and poison gas attacks, and in doing so has herself been affected by stress related illness.

Aisha Ismail Ali, whose six children died during Anfal, has never recovered from her loss. She still lives in the village of Goptapa, which was gassed by the Iraqi army in the Fourth Anfal of May 1988, but painful memories still haunt her sleep.

‘My boys and girls still visit me in my dreams,’ she tells visitors as she strokes her children’s clothes. ‘Their clothes still smell of them. Until I die I’ll be waiting for them.’

There is no psychotherapy available to Aisha to help alleviate the effects of the massive trauma she and thousands like her have experienced across Kurdistan. Survivors still suffer long-term physical and psychological effects decades later, and clinical research suggests the trauma they suffered can be transmitted to people around them.

The experiences of chemical bombing victims in Halabja, where 5,000 peopled died in 1988, is a case in point.

‘A woman from the town told us how she’d been left for days amongst the piles of dead bodies,’ says Doctor Saren Azer, a Kurdish doctor who treats Anfal survivors. ‘She was finally brought out alive only to discover nobody had survived from her immediate family. She still lives in the trauma of that event. When we doctors hear her story, we feel traumatised ourselves.’

Doctor Bayan Rasul is a Kurdish psychologist who has studied trauma for more than 35 years. She was present when thousands of Barzani males were abducted from Iraqi Government camps near Erbil in 1983. Over the years, she has witnessed first hand how deep psychological scars have been inflicted on the Barzani women and children who were left behind.

‘They would never laugh, and were always in tears,’ she says. ‘Their children would get sick and die. During the day they were in mourning. They suffered from stomach pain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and internal bleeding. They also had mental health issues and many were diabetic.’

The women complained of heartburn, headaches, stomach and colon problems. They could not sleep and were stressed, unable to relax.

Doctor Rasul, who has helped numerous Kurdish communities hit by Anfal and gas attacks, has herself paid a price for treating other people’s trauma. She has been diagnosed with a series of stress related illnesses including Bell’s Palsy, and has also suffered from cancer and high blood pressure.

‘I had to hide my own trauma to help my people,’ says Doctor Rasul.

With limited professional psychological help available in Iraqi Kurdistan, the trauma suffered by many Kurdish communities can seem endless. And with a flood of refugees from the war with ISIS now reaching Kurdish refugee camps near Mosul, it is a problem that is overwhelming available resources.

There are only around 80 clinical psychologists working in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, according to the aid agencies. There is a larger number of psychiatrists, but they are overworked too.

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Interviewing victims of trauma with sensitivity

It is important for future generations in Kurdistan to understand how their lives have been shaped by events of the past – even though the memories are frequently painful.

Abdullah Mohammed Abdullah crouches at this sister’s grave in Rania, 20km west of Iraq’s border with Iran. She died on 16 April 1987 when the nearby Balisan valley was gassed, one of Iraq's first chemical weapons attacks against the Kurds. Abdullah has never recovered from the trauma of her death and the loss of his father.

He was 12 years old when his father saved him from the bombing, but both were then captured and bussed to Erbil, the Kurdish capital. There they were separated.

‘The secret service took him away from me and my father just said, “Abdullah, I am gone.”’ he says. Abdullah was released but never saw his father again.

His eyes fill with tears as he finishes his story. The location of the interview, outside the Ranya hospital where he boarded the bus in 1987, is poignant. Abdullah’s pain is palpable and in an attempt to comfort him the interviewer, himself clearly affected by the story, embraces him.

It is difficult not to be deeply touched by the raw testimony of those who have survived the dark, tragic moments of Anfal or ISIS brutality. They have, in most cases, been deeply scarred in the process. However, Kurdistan Memory Programme (KMP) interviewers have learned how to address the emotional and psychological turmoil they encounter in the villages.

KMP interviewers have deep respect for those who want the world to know what happened to them, even when – decades after the event – their memories remain almost too painful to share.

National tragedy has defined the history of Kurdistan. But it is important for future generations to understand how their lives have been shaped by events of the past. The testimonies collected by the KMP team make that possible, whilst at the same time honouring those whose lives were taken by Anfal or other cruelties.

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The importance of documenting painful memories

Many of the KMP's interviewees have been been psychologically scarred by trauma yet want the world to know the truth of what happened to them.

Since 2008 a team of Kurdish and British filmmakers have been travelling all over Iraqi Kurdistan collecting testimonies from villagers who witnessed key events in Kurdish history, especially the Anfal and Yazidi genocides.

They have been documenting their experiences for a project called the Kurdistan Memory Programme (the KMP), which seeks to collect this oral heritage to create a new national historical archive for Kurdistan.

The KMP has interviewed more than 1,000 people and is providing an original perspective on modern Kurdish history, which is viewed through the eyes of those nordinary people who experienced it first hand.

Over the years, dozens of Kurds have worked for the Kurdistan Memory Programme (KMP) as researchers, directors, cameramen editors and translators. They come from Britain, America, Europe, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan itself, and their participation is vital to the success of this unique project.

National tragedy has defined the history of the region. This is why these professionals are applying their expertise to establish an authoritative and accessible record of historical events that have changed life in Kurdistan irrevocably. Their work will inform the world about the importance of Kurdish history and how it shapes the political contours of the Middle East.

The Kurdistan Memory Programme records the accounts of survivors of executions, gas attacks, deportations, flights, imprisonment and rape by Saddam’s regime and the Islamic State (ISIS). These video testimonies form the basis of a remarkable and definitive collection.

This work is important. During Saddam Hussein’s persecution of the Kurds, which culminated in the Anfal military campaign of 1988, up to 182,000 people died and more than 4,000 villages were destroyed. In the more recent war against ISIS, thousands of men and women have been killed, wounded, abducted and abused by Islamic extremists.

That’s why it’s vital this history is not forgotten, so that future generations can understand the pain and sacrifices of their ancestors to help forge a more peaceful future.

Collecting testimony from victims of genocide demands a high level of sensitivity. The interviewees have been been psychologically scarred by nightmarish experiences but are willing to revisit them to let the world know the truth of what happened. Aware that they must be be sensitive to the continuing trauma of survivors, the KMP has learned many techniques to ensure that emotional turmoil is met with deep sympathy and understanding.

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