At the end of the Kuwait war in 1991, the long oppressed Kurds in Iraq rose up against Saddam Hussein who turned on them with a wrathful vengeance armed with helicopter gunships and tanks.
Given that these weapons had been used to wage genocide only three years earlier, millions of Kurds decided to flee to the mountains bordering Iran and Turkey, and then into those countries.
Many will remember the haunting scenes of good people freezing and starving – and Conservative MEP Paul Howell said after visiting the mountains: “On television, you only see the faces, you don’t see the ground. There you see human faeces, diarrhoea, sheep’s heads and entrails, it’s as close to hell as you can think of.”
MPs of all parties were horrified and the British public gathered more than a thousand tons of essential food and medicines for the Kurds.
The UK and the US had just driven Saddam out of Kuwait, a country which he had brutally pillaged. It may have been a brief war but the troops were understandably keen to go home, as were their governments.
But the biblical exodus, and the fact that 500 to 1,000 Kurdish men, women, and children were needlessly dying each day, changed the public’s mind.
Yet, you could have expected most governments to protest and refer it to the UN where warm words would been issued while people died. The watchword of the UN was to respect sovereign governments almost regardless of their crimes against their own people.
John Major had only taken over from Margaret Thatcher in November 1990. While he had briefly been Foreign Secretary, he was still fairly unknown and seen as fairly cautious.
But his response to massacre and misery was commendably moral and pragmatic. Major saw reports of “worsening conditions amounting to near-genocide” and “potentially a humanitarian disaster” and he took the issue to the Cabinet on March 21 which is, by coincidence, the start of the Kurdish New Year. In his autobiography, he says of Saddam Hussein that “genocide was in the man’s mind, and it was certainly in the man’s character”.
Major quickly and cannily devised a plan to avert slaughter and genocide. It was a novel plan to impose a safe haven over Iraqi Kurdistan and to police it with our fighter aircraft.
He won the support of the European Community at a vital meeting on April 8 and persuaded a reluctant American President to join. Within weeks of drafting his idea it was a reality. It was to last for 12 years.
This is where it gets personal. I had joined the RAF in 1988 and rose to become a Flight Lieutenant. In the mid-1990s, I was part of Operation Warden, the no fly zone over the Kurdistan Region. I was based at operation HQ in Incirlik, Turkey, but flew into the Military Co-ordination Centre (MCC) at Zakho and went on patrols with the Peshmerga.
The MCC’s role entailed visiting Kurdish villages to set up electricity generators and to reassure people that the aircraft above were ours and they were safe.
It was a great life-changer for me. I was able to return to Kurdistan with the All-Party Parliamentary group in 2013. I visited a large refugee camp for refugees from the Syrian civil war that began two years before. We had helped the Kurds return from refugee camps to their homes in 1991. This time, the Kurds were generously helping others in the same plight.
It got much worse the following year when the so-called Islamic State (Isis) captured Mosul and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing for sanctuary in the Kurdistan Region.
These people, who had nothing but the clothes on their back, were also helped. The Peshmerga also resisted them, again with the help of the RAF, and were decisive in defeating a monstrous genocide and rape cult. Their ability to do so has benefitted all in the Middle East and ourselves. If Isis had gone on to capture more of Iraq and Syria, we would now be facing more attacks on our streets.
Sir John Major and the Kurds were not to know that back in 1991, but Major’s generous and humanitarian intervention stands out in history. He and the UK are deeply respected in the Kurdistan Region, as I have seen for myself, and are our good friends and allies. We can be very proud of what we did 30 years ago.
Jason McCartney is the Conservative MP for Colne Valley.
Jason McCartney is joining a rally with Sir John Major and others this week. You can join at https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_ciaGHir1QzWsxLhH85Yj4g
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