Survivor of Attacks Speaks for Iraqi Women

Katrin Michael, who lived through chemical attacks unleashed by Saddam Hussein on Iraqi's Kurdish population, now advocates for women's concerns as part of the exiled Iraqi opposition movement.

Katrin Michael

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (WOMENSENEWS)-Katrin Michael knows firsthand how devastating Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons can be. She survived an attack by bombs containing mustard gas and cyanide in June 1987 in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. Her village, Gali Zewa, was among the first of more than 250 villages attacked with Saddam's weapons in 1987 and 1988. Many friends died. She and most of the other survivors were blinded for several days, and shehas had lasting lung, nerve and eye damage.

Now, as war clouds loom, Michael is in Washington pushing for women to have a voice in the shape of a post-Saddam government. A member of the Iraqi opposition in Washington, Michael has worked to increase women's presence in domestic and international resistance movements, with the hope of decreasing the violence.

“To this day, Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction,” she said. “If there is war, he will kill thousands of people. I was a victim of chemical weapons. My message is: Stop using weapons of mass destruction. We have to find another way.”

In a 12,000-page declaration to the United Nations on Saturday, Iraq said it had no weapons of mass destruction. U.N. inspectors are in Iraq investigating whether the country harbors any banned weapons programs.

No Women among Opposition Leaders Meeting with State Department

Michael has long struggled against the current Iraqi regime. A Chaldean Christian born in the oil center of Kirkuk and raised in the Kurdish area of Ninevah, she joined the Iraqi Women's League as a teen-ager, which led to her first arrest, at age 14. After university, she went to the Soviet Union for a doctorate in geology. In 1982, after her father, a founder of an Iraqi peace movement, was killed by the regime, she joined the Kurdish armed resistance. She worked as a political adviser to Kurdish women for seven years, and traveled in disguise to Baghdad to organize against Saddam Hussein. During 20 years of exile, she has lived in a Turkish refugee camp, traveled to Syria on foot, fled terrorist attacks in Algeria, crossed the Greek border with the help of smugglers and finally settled in the United States.

Today, she is working to establish an opposition group to speak on behalf of Iraqi women. Her goal is to make the women of Iraq as visible to the American public as the women of Afghanistan were a year ago, when the Bush administration criticized the Taliban for its repressive attitude toward the country's women and girls.

“We need a new constitution, we need to have a parliament, we need to bring women into the government,” Michael said. “Over the last four months, the Iraqi opposition groups have been very active in Washington, having many meetings with the State Department. But where are the women in the opposition? You're talking about democracy on one foot if you exclude half the community.” She added that in Iraq, 54 percent of the population is female.

Iraqi opposition groups are meeting today in London with the U.S. State Department to discuss the future of Iraq, post-Saddam Hussein. There are no Iraqi women among the opposition leaders expected there.

The women of Iraq fear Islamic extremists, Michael said. Although Saddam Hussein's repression is severe, Iraqi women have many rights not seen in neighboring Arab countries, including equal pay, five years' maternity leave and the opportunity to work in many professions.

“If they come to power, it would be a catastrophe for our country. They would turn the clock back for women, as they did in Iran,” Michael said. “They would say women should wear the chador; women should not work; women should not go to school. We are not like Afghanistan. We are a more open society. We are much more advanced, because of our diverse community. We don't want extremists to come to power.”

Women's Peace Work Will Have ‘Tremendous Effects'

Michael was in Cambridge last month to take part in the fourth Women Waging Peace colloquium sponsored by the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The program focused on women involved in unofficial and official peace negotiations, and offered conflict resolution, leadership and media training, as well as simulated negotiations and opportunities for delegates from Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland, Rwanda and other troubled spots, to exchange strategies.

“What women do is extremely important in the field of international peace and security, and their efforts will have tremendous effects on the future of some of the world's most deadly weaponry,” said Jayantha Dhanapala, United Nations under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs. He was the keynote speaker at the conference's policy day, when delegate peace builders met with State Department and United Nations officials, as well as other decision makers.

Dhanapala noted that the participation of women in peace processes and peace-building was emphasized in Secretary General Kofi Annan's Oct. 28 report on Women, Peace and Security to the Security Council, as well as a recent report by the U.N. Development Fund for Women.

“Women vote, they organize, they network even across national borders, they donate, they investigate, they publish, they win elections and they write laws,” Dhanapala said. “In short, they have the capacity to do all that is needed to convert the goals of disarmament and arms control into concrete realities.”

After her home village of about 500 people was bombed, “the international community was silent,” said Michael, “as if we didn't deserve to live. We were one of the first groups that Saddam shelled. In 1988 he used chemical weapons again. If we had had support from the international community, maybe they could have stopped him.”

Over three days in March 1988, thousands died instantly in Halabja, a city of 80,000, in what has been called the “Kurdish Hiroshima.” Halabja was bombarded with a chemical-weapon cocktail that included mustard gas, which burns, damages DNA and causes malformations, and the nerve gases sarin, tabun and VX. Survivors are still sick and dying, suffering from cancers, infertility, congenital malformations and other serious health problems.

Michael, herself a survivor, has worked as a consultant for the nonprofit Washington Kurdish Institute, which collaborates with Dr. Christine Gosden, a medical geneticist from Liverpool, England, in research on the long-term effects of chemical, biological and possible radiological weapons on survivors of Saddam's bombings in Northern Iraq in 1987 and 1988.

“Generations and generations are going to be affected by chemical weapons,” Michael said. Like many in the Iraqi opposition, Michael believes U.S. officials made a big mistake when they left Saddam in power after the Gulf War ended in 1991. “There was an uprising from the Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north,” she said. “Baghdad was ready to have an uprising, Saddam was counting the hours. Then the U.S. stopped it.” But a diplomatic solution will never work, she said.

“Saddam Hussein will not leave power and he will never give up his weapons of mass destruction. He is alive today because of these weapons. He is not only dangerous for the Iraqi people, he is dangerous for all the countries in the Middle East, he is dangerous for all the world.”

News from her homeland indicates that conditions are deteriorating by the day. It is likely that Iraqi civilians, including women and children, will be the first target of Saddam's wrath.

“We the Iraqi people suffer the most from this regime,” Michael said. “It needs to be changed. We need democracy for our country. We need support from outside. How this will be done I will leave that question for the military people. But we need to have fewer victims. We have had enough of killing.”

Jane Ciabattari is a contributing editor to Parade Magazine and a member of the editorial advisory board of Women's Enews.

For more information:

Washington Kurdish Institute:

The Kurdistan Observer:

Women Waging Peace-2002 Colloquium:

Human Rights Watch-Iraq: