An Awful Truth Sinks In

Times Staff Writer

For 15 years, thousands of Kurdish families waited for their loved ones to return. They believed the day would come when Saddam Hussein would fall, the prisons in the south would open and the missing would come home.

But in the eight months since the Iraqi dictator was deposed, not a single person who disappeared during the Anfal military campaign of 1988 has returned alive.

The truth was buried in the killing sands of Iraq.

With Hussein gone from power, 263 suspected mass graves have been discovered, stretching from Mosul in the north to the remote deserts of the south. Many bodies were clad in the distinctive attire of the ethnic Kurds.


For the first time, many Anfal survivors are facing an awful reality: Their missing family members were the victims of a mass extermination campaign -- abetted by Kurdish collaborators -- that echoes the Nazi killing machine in its efficiency and brutality. It left at least 100,000 people dead.

Many of the missing were held just a few days before being loaded onto buses and driven into the desert. There, they were shot at night by waiting executioners and buried by bulldozers in shallow trenches.

“We had hoped for 15 years,” said Aysha Chachan Salih, 35, who lost her husband, three brothers, her home and all her possessions in the campaign. “But after Saddam fell, we knew they were not alive anymore.”

The word “anfal,” taken from the Koran, means “spoils of war.” The operation in Iraq’s north was designed to wipe out support for Kurdish rebels by eliminating broad swaths of the civilian population. For six months in 1988, Iraqi troops and Kurdish militias arrested the inhabitants of suspected rebel strongholds and destroyed thousands of villages. Males of fighting age were the main target, but many of the victims were also women and children.


In some villages, entire populations were slaughtered. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled for their lives, abandoning all they had. Some survivors lost dozens of relatives. Kurdish officials estimate that 182,000 of their region’s 3.5 million people were slain during the offensive, but no one knows for sure. Iraq once admitted killing as many as 100,000 in the operation.

In a landmark 1993 report, New York-based Human Rights Watch concluded that the campaign amounted to genocide against the Kurds. Yet unlike Bosnia-Herzegovina’s “ethnic cleansing” and Rwanda’s tribal massacres of the 1990s, the Anfal extermination received relatively little attention abroad during Hussein’s dictatorship.

Despite rights activists’ calls for action, no one has been prosecuted for the killings -- not in an international tribunal or in the Kurdistan region, which won autonomy from Iraq in 1991 after U.S.-led troops invaded the country during the Persian Gulf War. Now U.S. and Iraqi officials say they expect to prosecute only the worst of Iraq’s war criminals and are considering whether to create a truth and reconciliation process to expose abuses of the past.

Anfal survivors are among the Iraqis most grateful for Hussein’s downfall.


“The Americans did well,” said Amina Mohammed Aziz, 70, who lost four sons and all she owned in the Anfal campaign. “They freed people from terror and fear.”

The Anfal was a carefully planned, well-organized military operation. Hussein’s government kept detailed records, including communications between officers and names of the dead. Many incriminating documents were seized during the 1991 uprising against Hussein in which the Kurds won their autonomy. Many more records in Kurdistan have been recovered in recent months by U.S. and Iraqi authorities.

“We are finding execution orders and lists of victims,” said Brad Clark, an advisor to the U.S.-led coalition’s office of human rights. “The Iraqis documented everything they did. It was an incredibly arrogant attitude. They never thought anybody would check.”

The Anfal was headed by Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan Majid, who went on to kill thousands more as Iraq’s defense minister. He earned the nickname “Chemical Ali” for his use of poison gas on Kurdish civilians.


Majid’s most notorious chemical attack killed an estimated 5,000 Kurds while the Anfal campaign was underway, although it was conducted as a separate operation. He is in U.S. custody and is expected to face charges related to the Anfal operation and other crimes against humanity.

The Anfal was compartmentalized so that those involved -- the soldiers, bus drivers, bulldozer operators, prison guards and executioners -- knew only their own roles. Two Iraqi army corps and thousands of Kurdish militia fighters -- known among Kurds as “mercenaries” -- took part. The militias were essential to the success of the operation because they knew the terrain.

The mercenaries usually entered the villages first and rounded up the victims -- often with false promises that they would soon be released. As the remaining villagers fled, soldiers and mercenaries looted the houses and set them on fire, taking the livestock for themselves.

“Without the mercenaries, the Anfal could not have taken so many people,” said Arif Qurbani, a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan spokesman and author of “The Witness of Anfal,” which contains substantial documentation. “They knew the area and they deceived people.”


Most of those arrested were taken to the prison camp at Topzawa, just outside the northern city of Kirkuk. There, men and boys ages 14 to 50 were separated from the women, children and older men.

In the desert, groups of prisoners were tied at the wrist and shot with AK-47s while standing next to their freshly dug graves. Others were blindfolded and ordered to lie down in pairs in the bottom of a trench, then shot.

Only a handful of intended victims escaped. One was a 25-year-old Kurd named Ozer, who helped organize a revolt as prisoners were unloaded from their bus. Most of the men were gunned down, but Ozer managed to hide beneath the bus and flee into the desert.

“I passed only trenches filled with bodies,” he later told Human Rights Watch. “I could tell what they were by the smell. I also saw many mounds made by bulldozers. The whole area was full of trenches with corpses.”


Thousands of elderly detainees, along with some younger women and children, were sent to the worst of Hussein’s prisons: Nugra Salman in the remote southern desert. The heat was overpowering and the inmates were fed a starvation diet of bread and contaminated water.

Each day, prisoners would carry the dead into the desert for burial. Each night, wild dogs would dig up the bodies and eat them. Sherzad Salah was 13 when he was sent to the prison with his mother, Hanusha Hassan. His father and elder brother had been separated from them at Topzawa. His sister died at Nugra Salman, but his mother gave birth to another girl, wrapping her in clothes taken from the dead. The baby survived.

“I remember that there wasn’t food,” said Salah, now 28 and living in the bleak desert village of Fatah Homer. “I did not expect to make it. I saw too many people dying right next to us.”

In September 1988, Hussein declared an amnesty and the surviving Anfal prisoners were released. Reports of executions in the desert trickled back to the Kurdish north, but most survivors preferred to believe the rumors -- perhaps spread by Hussein’s agents -- that some of the missing had been seen in prisons and others shipped to nearby countries. The government of autonomous Kurdistan later helped keep hope alive by never declaring any of the missing dead.


Most of the survivors were women, many thousands of whom have been prohibited from remarrying because no government has ever declared their husbands dead. Without husbands, homes or livestock, the Anfal widows were doomed to poverty. Some families returned to their villages and rebuilt their homes, barely scraping out a living.

Others had no choice but to move to newly established “collective towns,” such as Shorish, where they live in concrete-block hovels and take whatever menial jobs they can find.

While the survivors struggled to rebuild their lives, many of the Anfal’s perpetrators did quite well for themselves -- even in Kurdistan. In 1991, the mercenaries switched sides and supported the uprising against Hussein. In exchange, militia members received a blanket amnesty from the autonomous region’s government.

“The amnesty was a very wise step,” said Sheik Mohammed Basaki, 68, who has long commanded a Kurdish militia force but declined to discuss what he did during the Anfal. “By that amnesty, it gave them a clear heart to come back and fight.”


The mercenary soldiers were incorporated into the legendary peshmerga -- “those who face death” -- and the leaders received party positions. Some still hold jobs in the Kurdish parties that govern the region.

“Some of them became high officials,” said Qurbani, the party spokesman, “but an Anfal widow who had nothing still has nothing.”

Now, as U.S. and Iraqi officials prepare to bring some of Iraq’s worst criminals to trial, it is unclear how far down the chain of command they will go in seeking culpability in the Anfal.

One top military commander unlikely to face charges is Sultan Hashim Ahmad Jabburi Tai, a former defense minister who surrendered to U.S. forces in September. The U.S.-led coalition has already granted him immunity in exchange for his cooperation.


According to documents found in Iraqi files, Jabburi Tai was a major general who headed the army’s 1st Corps, one of the two main units that conducted the extermination campaign.

Some Anfal survivors want revenge, especially against the mercenary leaders they say lied to them. “If I could, I would pile them all alive and burn them,” said Hujara Walid, 30, who lost her four brothers in the Anfal.

At Topzawa, there is no hint today that it was once Iraq’s most feared concentration camp. Used most recently as a military camp, it was stripped by looters within days of Hussein’s ouster, right down to its doors and windows.

Soon after, Kurds who had been forced from the area in the late 1980s began returning. Finding their old homes destroyed, they moved into the camp.


Among the returnees was Eimad Samad Ahmed, 24. He had heard of mass graves nearby and began looking for them. They were not hard to find. Less than a mile from the camp, he came across human remains in a mound of earth.

“Everyone among our people knew there were mass graves here,” he said. “I came and started digging and found bones. I became sick and spent two days at home.”

The mound extends three-quarters of a mile along the road, and officials believe it contains hundreds of bodies. During a recent visit, the bones and clothing of at least one victim were scattered on the ground. Officials say there are six more mass graves near Topzawa and two dozen elsewhere around Kirkuk.

U.S. officials say teams of anthropologists will identify enough victims for evidence in war crimes trials, but there is no plan to identify all of the dead, a process that could take a decade.


Though Anfal survivors have seen television reports of the mass graves, without the bones of their loved ones, some still cling to the hope that their husbands and fathers, sons and brothers will come home.

“Since they haven’t told us whether they are alive or dead,” said Hassan, the former prisoner who gave birth at Nugra Salman, “we will wait for them until we die.”