Kurds Recall Their ’88 Flight to Mountains

Times Staff Writer

Rumors of war rumbled across Kurdistan’s grassy hilltops.

Legions of Saddam Hussein’s troops were coming in tanks, trucks and airplanes to crush the Kurds’ long-festering uprising. Filled with dread, Shazada Saeed and her family prepared to do what Kurds had always done to escape the brutality of their mightier Arab, Turkish and Persian neighbors.

Once the bombing started, they scrambled into the crevices and caves of the snowy peaks that had long sheltered them.

“The artillery shelling was so heavy we had to run,” said Saeed, who now lives in this small Kurdish town. “We ran to the mountains, because they have always been safe.”


The Kurds, the saying goes, have no friends other than the mountains. But the mountains offered scant protection during Hussein’s months-long 1988 “Anfal” campaign in the country’s north. The campaign is the subject of a genocide trial that is to begin today.

“The traditional escape route didn’t work,” said Fareed Asasard, head of the Kurdish Strategic Studies Center, a think tank in the Kurdistan city of Sulaymaniya.

At least 50,000 men, women and children were allegedly slaughtered in a counterinsurgency campaign that targeted antigovernment Kurdish militias as well as women and children. Bombs loaded with mustard and nerve gas were allegedly dropped on dozens of villages. Kurds were deported to transit camps and then taken to the desert, where they were reportedly shot and buried in mass graves or left to die of starvation and exposure.

A prosecution team of 19 jurists will present witnesses, documents, tape recordings and forensic evidence in an attempt to prove that Hussein and six other codefendants, including his cousin Ali Hassan Majid, also known as Chemical Ali, committed genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.


The defense is expected to argue that the Anfal, which means “spoils of war” in Arabic, was a perfectly legal and crucial operation to crush a rebellion threatening the Baghdad government at a time of war with Iran. Defense lawyers will say that Iran, and not Iraq, used the chemical weapons, which are forbidden under international law.

But prosecutors will counter that the six-month Anfal campaign ranks as a singular moment in recent history: an attempt to crush the lives, towns and spirit of the country’s Kurdish minority.

“The purpose of Anfal was to put an end to 70 years of Kurdish insurgency against the central Iraqi state,” said Joost Hiltermann, coauthor of a landmark 1993 study of the Anfal campaign for Human Rights Watch. “The method chosen was to destroy the Kurdish countryside. All villages were razed and, especially in the rural hinterland of oil-rich Kirkuk, most villagers were killed: men, women and children.”

In its human toll, the Anfal’s scope dwarfs that of the first war-crimes trial against the former Iraqi president. In that case, Hussein faces the death penalty in the killings of 148 Shiite Muslim villagers following a 1982 attempt on his life; a verdict is expected this fall.


The second trial represents a moment of vindication for Kurds, who once were an oppressed minority but now rule an increasingly prosperous northern enclave and control key posts in Baghdad.

Kurds have long fought violently for autonomy, collaborating with Tehran during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. Hussein appointed his cousin Majid as the de facto viceroy over the north in 1987 to put down their rebellion, and the Anfal campaign depended on a legal infrastructure that systematically sought to outlaw the Kurds’ existence in certain areas beyond government control and annihilate them and their livelihoods, prosecutors are expected to argue.

The military campaign began with an offensive against the strongholds of Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, now president of Iraq, north of Sulaymaniya on Feb. 23, 1988. It didn’t end until Hussein’s army pushed into the northernmost stretches of Iraq on Sept. 8.

Heavy snowfalls blanketed Kurdistan in the winter that began 1988, and the spring thaw made the fields and valleys bloom with bountiful harvests. But trouble loomed. Already, two stages of the Anfal campaign had been completed and word of a third, stepped-up campaign against Kurds came through the outlawed radio of the peshmerga militias and from villagers fleeing nearby areas.


“We knew something was coming,” said Saeed, who had moved to her husband’s rural village, Kani Qader, 30 miles northwest of Samood, after their marriage in 1986. “There were daily attacks on the village.”

Saeed was several months pregnant when word came from nearby villagers that a phalanx of ground troops was headed toward Kani Qader. She and her husband, Hussein, grabbed their 10-month-old daughter and headed up the mountains toward a canyon area nearby, hiding beneath tree cover to evade reconnaissance planes.

“We heard that those who survived were those who fled their villages,” she said.

They made their way to a cavernous gorge filled with caves and large rocks, where they were joined by hundreds of other villagers from Kani Qader and nearby hamlets.


“The peshmerga were in the mountains,” said Ahmad Amin Hossein, a 59-year-old survivor of the Anfal campaign. “We thought it would be safer.” Shivering in the cold and trying to preserve the few scraps of food they managed to keep with them, the families camped out for four days and four nights before the soldiers arrived.

They came in tanks and armored vehicles. They had requisitioned trucks and buses. Among them were Kurdish collaborators, the so-called Jahsh militia. They left little possibility for escape.

“They came like a flood, from all directions,” Saeed said.

They stormed the terrified villagers, and separated the men from the women, children and elderly. Hussein Saeed spoke to her one last time before he was taken away forever: “Please take care of my daughter.”


The trucks took the prisoners into a nightmarish gulag of camps that few survived. But Shazada Saeed and her daughter were lucky -- she spotted her brother-in-law in a car. One of his relatives was a member of the Jahsh and let him spirit her away. Saeed and her tiny daughter spent months in hiding. Despondent and terrified, she had a miscarriage.

Different terrors faced the women who didn’t get away. Trapped by Iraqi soldiers after days on foot heading toward the mountains of Iran, Khawer Ismail Jabah and her family were rounded up, loaded onto a truck and taken to several of the camps, which have become synonymous with degradation and misery to the Kurds.

Jabah said she and her relatives were beaten as they were ordered to climb into the trucks. On the road the children wept, begging for food and water. After four days of stops and starts, she said, they reached Topzawa, a harsh military base south of Kirkuk.

The soldiers came with hoses and cables and began herding the prisoners, separating the men from the women and children, jotting down their names as they were taken inside.


In Topzawa, Jabah lost track of her husband. She never saw him again. Many of the men were taken to remote desert outposts west of Mosul or in Sunni-dominated Al Anbar province, ordered to kneel before freshly dug trenches and gunned down. Their remains have been discovered in numerous mass grave sites that have been excavated and analyzed as part of the trial investigation.

A few wounded men managed to struggle out of the mounds of bodies and make their way through the desert back to Kurdistan, where they have been interviewed by human rights investigators.

Many of the elderly were dispatched to Nograt Salman, a desert encampment of southern Iraq that was to be their home. After a grueling trip in the summer heat without food or water, they were dumped in the desert prison. There was little hope of escape. The doors were padlocked and the compound surrounded by guards, barbed wire and miles of forbidding desert.

Finally, on Aug. 20, 1988, Iran and Iraq declared a cease-fire in their eight-year war. With the Kurdish resistance all but crushed, Hussein declared an amnesty for all Iraqi Kurds 17 days later.


Jabah and other Kurds began trickling home from prisons. Those in hiding, like Saeed, emerged from the shadows, picking up the wreckage of their lives. But even then they were ordered to report regularly to political offices, where they were subjected to humiliating interrogations.

They weren’t really free until more than two years later, in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. The 1991 Kurdish uprising and the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish enclave under the protection of a U.S.-British no-fly zone washed away Baghdad’s rule over much of Iraqi Kurdistan and permitted the unearthing of documents and witnesses to the Anfal campaign.

Saeed, Jabah and other women formed an association for Anfal victims in the Samood area, which was once a camp for displaced Kurdish victims of the Anfal. Judges and prosecutors involved in the prosecution have visited them and collected their stories.

The women meet regularly in the now-crumbling concrete edifice where they once endured regular interrogations.


“I know all the survivors’ names by heart,” said Saeed, whose red hair frames a gaunt, weathered face. “I also know their stories by heart.”