Childhood memories are indelible in Dr. Widad Akreyi’s mind. They still mark her life and her battles around the world. The iconic Kurdish defender of human rights was born in Akre, not too far from Erbil in Iraq’s southern Kurdistan. She was just 10 years old when Saddam Hussein’s Baath Regime took power in Iraq in 1979. Akreyi had already survived the Iraqi government offensive against the Kurds in the mid-1970s. She also lived through the Anfal genocidal campaign, when atrocities were committed against Kurdish civilians by the Iraqi government between 1986 and 1989 — the campaign was commissioned by Hussein to crush Kurdish resistance in northern Iraq in the last phase of the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War. Today, she is an award-winning peace activist, but those distinctive memories of her early age become clearer with each passing day.
She vividly remembers the Baath Party youth organization, which spied on pupils. “The model was the Hitlerjugend and Jungmadel of 1930s Germany,” Akreyi told Al-Monitor. She added, “The girls were mostly the daughters and relatives of Arab settlers; they usually questioned pupils who did not understand what was going on. If the girls who spied had the slightest suspicion of ‘wrong’ opinions, the questioned pupils and their families would face serious consequences. We learned at ages 6 and 7 that the world was not as safe as we had previously thought.”
When a male member of the Baath Party entered her class to force pupils to join the youth organization, she stood up and declared that she would not do as ordered. “I could see that my head only reached that man’s knees. The contrast was striking,” she recalled. “The man intimidated me, castigated me and my parents, and turned to physical violence against me in front of the class as a means to make me change my mind, but in vain,” Akreyi added.
Her passion and involvement for justice and freedom as a young girl soon became a direct call into action. In 1987, she secretly documented the immediate and long-term impacts of torture and other violations of human rights on victims in the Kurdistan Region and throughout Iraq. After the Gulf War, at the beginning of the 1990s, she fled to Turkey. “Many emotions crowded my heart on my last night in Kurdland (as she calls Kurdistan, which she says is based on Sumerian records) after I had decided to leave. My mind was in turmoil,” she confessed to Al-Monitor. “I was connected to the soil and history of my country. At about 3 a.m., I had to bid my family and closest friends farewell. I wanted fate to hand us a future in which I could be with my parents when the time came for them to bid farewell to this world. That was all I could think about, unaware that my wish would not be granted,” Akreyi said.