In order to have a future, and to lay the foundations of justice for the future, the people of Iraq must come to terms with the atrocities perpetrated in their name during three decades of Ba’thist rule. The ultimate rationale behind the Iraq Memory Foundation (MF) is that the truth can help heal a society that has been politically and physically brutalized on a large scale.
Citizens of a new and free Iraq have whole new identities to forge. And identity is memory. People whose identities are cobbled together from half-truths, or from distorted memories of who is to blame and who is blameless, are prone to commit new transgressions. The Iraq Memory Foundation has no “higher” purpose than to place the Iraqi experience of suffering and oppression, between 1968 and 2003, in the global context of the history of pain and suffering. The MF seeks to do this by filming and archiving the individual stories of many thousands of survivors and witnesses of atrocity. The MF also seeks to digitize, index and classify the totality of the documents recovered from the outgoing regime that deal with Iraqi pain and suffering.
These words of the victims and records of their victimizers will become available to the public through a museum, a public outreach project intended to work with teachers of elementary and secondary school students, and a research facility linked to the Iraqi university system. Such sensitive material will not be used for purposes of apportioning blame or playing politics, but in accordance with a protocol established by a fully sovereign and constitutional Iraqi government.
The History of the Iraq Memory Foundation
For a society that has been politically brutalized on a massive scale, and for so long, comprehensive and accurate documentation of the past is essential. Citizens of a new and free Iraq have whole new identities to build. And what is identity if not memory? Identities that are quickly cobbled together on the basis of half-truths, or false and distorted memories of the blameworthy and blameless invite new transgressions. To keep an accurate record of Iraq’s traumatic past, the Iraq Memory Foundation has developed five core projects, and plans more.
In November 1991, shortly after the establishment of a safe-haven zone in northern Iraq, Kanan Makiya traveled to northern Iraq to see the archive of Ba’th documents seized by Iraqi rebels. Makiya was accompanied by a BBC filmmaker who filmed his investigation of the Iraqi government’s campaign of ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Kurds (the Anfal), an investigation made possible by the information in the documents.
The film, “The Road to Hell”, aired in January 1992 on BBC and then on PBS as a Frontline documentary under the title “Saddam’s Killing Fields.” On April 27, 1993, it received the Edward R. Murrow Award For Best Television Documentary On Foreign Affairs in 1992. The film stressed the importance of the documents as an information resource on the legacy of abuse in Iraq and argued the case for their collection and removal from the country for safekeeping. It shows the archive in its original state: mounds of files and records randomly stacked on the floors of buildings previously occupied by the Iraqi government, covered with dust and vulnerable to deterioration. The importance, volume and condition of these documents drew attention to the urgency of preserving and studying them as an invaluable historical record.
The Memory Foundation is an outgrowth of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project (IRDP), founded by Kanan Makiya at the Center of Middle East Studies at Harvard University in 1992. In 1993, the IRDP developed a plan to create an archive that would organize and preserve the documents already in its possession for more long-term scholarly purposes. Utilizing a 1993 grant from the Bradley Foundation, followed by a 1994 bridging grant from the National Endowment for Democracy, the IRDP began its work processing the small collection of documents in Makiya’s personal possession and transcribing interviews conducted with Iraqi refugees. The IRDP continued to receive and process small datasets over the next ten years.
After the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003, the management of the IRDP relocated to Baghdad, and expanded the organization’s mission to the documentation of all facets of the Iraqi experience of dictatorship. The new name of the Iraq Memory Foundation reflects that change. At this time, the MF was also incorporated as a Jam’iyah (a society) in Iraq.
Soon after relocating the organization to Baghdad in 2003, after long negotiations with the municipality of Baghdad and the Iraqi Governing Council, the MF was granted use of the “Crossed Swords” monument and parade ground in Sahat al-Ihtifalat in central Baghdad as the prospective site of its office, research and museum complex. That same summer, the organization acquired a major document collection, which the MF named the Ba’th Regional Command Collection, from the basement of the Ba’th party headquarters in central Baghdad.
On March 8, 2005, the MF gave an official presentation hosted by the Library of Congress titled: “The New Iraq—Memory and National Identity.” Speakers included Library of Congress Associate Librarian Deanna Marcum, Baghdad Mayor Ala’a al-Tamimi, University of Pennsylvania Law Professor Carole Basri, Library of Congress Director for Preservation Diane Van der Reyden, Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies Director Falih Jabar, University of Utah History Professor Peter Sluglett, and Harvard University History Professor Roger Owen.
On September 21, 2005, MF Directors Kanan Makiya and Hassan Mneimneh testified in front of the Congressional human rights caucus. Their testimonies described the demand for and urgency of the work of the Memory Foundation. Professor Peter Sluglett also joined them to testify on the importance of the Foundation’s documents collection.
The Memory Foundation has offices in Baghdad, London and Washington DC.