German peace movement shows scant interest in plight of Iraq's Kurds

April 09, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Aso Mohammad grew tired of waiting for the demonstrators to arrive, so he picked up the banner denouncing the massacre of Kurds in Iraq and started walking ahead of about 300 people. When they stopped an hour later their ranks had swelled to 350.

For a country where hundreds of thousands turned out for anti-gulf war demonstrations the scene seemed paradoxical. Almost no one seemed interested in the Kurds' plight at the weekend demonstration except for Kurdish refugees and a few of their personal friends.

When confronted with the pitiful turnout in a city of 3.5 million, the German peace movement immediately went on the defensive.

"We can't work magic. We're trying to organize demonstrations, but they don't happen overnight," said Laura von Wimmersperg, speaker of the Peace Initiative Wilmersdorf.

Ms. von Wimmersperg said the Kurdish question did not have the emotional impact on Germans that the beginning of the gulf war had. Back in January, schools spontaneously closed as children and teachers streamed out onto Berlin's boulevards to protest the beginning of the allied offensive.

"It's more abstract. People don't feel it affects them," Ms. von Wimmersperg said.

This is probably because the gulf war had been portrayed as a kind of Third World War that would inevitably lead to worldwide ecological horrors. Even Germany would be affected, newspaper and television commentators had intoned, as skies would darken and oil would rain down on the war makers.

In comparison, the Kurds' plight seems like a small problem. Except for hard-core peace activists, some of whom have worked on Kurdish solidarity committees for years, the deaths of a few thousand Kurds in a faraway land has not been enough to cause people to demonstrate.

All of this has caused deep disappointment and anger among Kurdish solidarity groups.

"Where are the Berliners now? The war was only important to them because they thought they would be hurt," said Mohammed Amin, spokesman for the Kurdistan Front.

Another reason for little interest, Mr. Amin said, is that the United States is not directly responsible for the Kurds' fate. Opponents of the allied offensive could draw on latent anti-Americanism to rally support,but opponents of Saddam Hussein must content themselves with calling on people's consciences, he said.

"When American bombs rained on Iraq, they demonstrated. Now Iraqi bombs fall on us and they keep quiet," Mr. Amin said.

Ms. von Wimmersperg, however, said it was not anti-Americanism that motivated the protests but a feeling that demonstrating could change the German government's passive support for the allies. The German government is not doing anything against the Kurds, she said, so few people see the point in demonstrating.

"It won't change Saddam Hussein's mind if we go out on the street," Ms. von Wimmersperg said.

On top of this is the "physical and psychological exhaustion" of the demonstrators, who had organized countless silent vigils in front of churches and marches through town centers. Many people cannot gear themselves up for another big action, she said.

One thing that the Kurdish and German organizations do agree on, however, is that German chemical firms should stop arming Saddam Hussein and other dictators. Both groups demand a change from Germany's current export laws, which in principle allow all weapons to be exported with some exceptions, to a U.S.-style system under which all weapon exports would require government approval.

In an effort to slowly react to the situation, the peace groups have organized a demonstration for tomorrow, but even Ms. von Wimmersperg said she doesn't expect more than a few thousand people to show up -- perhaps 2 percent to 5 percent of the protesters who participated in the big peace demonstrations earlier this year.

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