Threatened by Saddam Hussein’s chemical bombs, a Kurdish family is forced to embark on a perilous journey.
August 25th 1988, Barwari, Iraqi Kurdistan
The order arrived one night in late summer. A messenger from the Peshmerga came down from the mountains and crept from house to house with instructions from the families’ husbands and fathers.
They are coming for you.
You must get out. Now. Get out and go far.
Keep walking north until you get to Turkey.
We will find you.
Everything will be OK.
Lazheen lit just enough candles for the family to see and told her two older children to pack what clothes they could fit into a small bag. Kerzen, only four, slept on. In the half light Lazheen stuffed nuts and apples and cheese into a bag and some old, treasured photographs into her pocket. She woke Kerzen, who protested loudly, and dressed her in clothes far too warm for the August night, telling the others to do the same.
Lazheen’s mother-in-law Yasna gathered her few belongings in a brief, practiced move and began to prepare breakfast for them all. She mixed flour and water, then went into the yard behind their one-room mud-brick house and squatted beside the clay-lined pit filled with embers from last night’s fire. She worked small pieces of the dough into large, thin circles and then spread them one by one over a metal dome in the pit. Her eldest granddaughter, Sipel, joined her and in the moonlight they silently baked thirty thin flat-breads, folding the finished discs, bubbling and cracking, into a bag.
When all of their preparations were complete, the family sat on foam mats around the edge of the room. Yasna and Lazheen drank hot, sweet tea in silence as the children shared a can of Coca Cola. An indignant yelp by Sipel was quickly stifled. Her brother Darra had spat in the can and Sipel refused to drink it. She began to cry. Lazheen gave her a piece of bread and Darra a perfunctory slap.
‘How will we know where to go?’ asked Lazheen.
‘They will send us guides, don’t worry’ replied Yasna.
‘I’ll carry the bags if you carry Kerzen when she gets tired.’
‘Of course’ said Yasna, stroking the little girl’s head.
‘We mustn’t get split up – Ibrahim has to be able to find us when we get to Turkey.’
‘It will be OK Lazheen. Now take some rest.’
Lazheen lay down, but couldn’t sleep. She listened hard for the sound of engines.
Baghdad, Eighteen Months Earlier
The Kurds of the north of Iraq were an indefatigable source of aggravation for leaders of modern-day Mesopotamia; from the Ottomon Empire through to the Second American War in 2003. The Ba’ath Party had been lenient when it first took power in 1968 and designated a ‘Kurdish Autonomous Region’ from the early 1970s. But the Kurds were not content with what they saw as superficial rights and continued repression of a substantive role in the running of their own territory and people.
The Kurdish Peshmerga rebels – called ‘saboteurs’ by the Iraqi government – conducted regular attacks on Iraqi government and army installations for decades, but it was their intermittent tactical support for Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 that most provoked Iraqi President and leader of the Ba’ath Party, Saddam Hussein. Iraq needed a final solution to the Kurdish problem.
The Revolutionary Command Council decided in its meeting on 29th March 1987 the following:
First: The Comrade Ali Hassan Al-Majid… will represent the Regional Command of the Party and the Revolutionary Command Council in implementing their policies in all of the northern region, including the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan, in order to protect security and order and guarantee stability and the implementation of the Autonomy Law in the region.
Second: The Comrade… will have authority over all the state’s civil, military and security apparatuses to carry out this decree.
President of the Revolutionary Command Council
Al-Majid, Hussein’s cousin, was notoriously brutal. A former mustashar (advisor) once commented that ‘In tough cases, in which [Hussein] needs people without a heart, he calls upon Ali Hassan Al-Majid’. His campaign against the Kurds was given the codename ‘Anfal’, meaning ‘spoils of war’, from a passage in the Koran about wars between ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’, and the former’s entitlement to looted bounty. Its relevance was marginal but the use of archaic religious references as codenames was common practice – pre-emptive justification of the Ba’ath Party’s actions, and assertion of their right to act on behalf of the people of an ancient nation.
The Iraqi army had found fighting the Peshmerga in their native, mountainous territory a near-impossible task. Al-Majid’s first move was to turn his attention to their civilian support. He knew that the villagers of rural Kurdistan were providing food, clothing, medical assistance and other resources to the Peshmerga and without them the rebels would struggle to survive. A programme of village ‘collectivisation’ soon followed. Vast swathes of Kurdistan – anywhere further than 5km from a major population centre or highway – were designated out of bounds on the grounds that the Iraqi army couldn’t guarantee their security. Residents of these villages were relocated to mujamma’at; large, high-security camps, and their homes were razed to the ground. Al-Majid ordered that if any armed resistance was encountered during this process, the entire village was to be killed in reprisal.
Over the next two years, slowed only by a squeeze on military resources because of the war with Iran, village collectivisation was enforced ever deeper into Peshmerga territory and closer to the borders with Iran and Turkey. Al-Majid also rolled out more regular use of his new military tool: chemical bombs.
Al-Majid had crossed the chemical threshold within weeks of his appointment. In April 1987 a key Peshmerga leader (and now President of Iraq) Jalal Talabani asked to open a channel of communication with Al-Majid. Al-Majid’s response was to drop chemical bombs on Talabani’s headquarters and the surrounding area. Discussing this attack in a meeting later, Al-Majid was recorded as saying (of the Kurdish villagers who wanted to stay in their homes across Kurdistan) ‘I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them!’
The use of chemical bombs began in earnest in Spring 1988 in a campaign that lasted until September of that year. Barwari, the fertile mountainous region in the far north-west of Kurdistan, was one of his final targets. Pock-marked with caves into which villagers scattered when their villages were attacked by Iraqi war planes, it was proving hard to bring the region to heel. In late August 1988 the Peshmerga, who now stayed well away from their villages for fear of bringing reprisal attacks on their families, heard that chemical bombs had been dropped on a village in the region. It had started. The Peshmerga leadership sent messengers as fast as possible to the villages, telling them that they had to flee. Their only hope was to get to the Turkish border, several days’ walk away, and pray that they would be allowed in. The men of the Peshmerga were powerless to help their wives, mothers and children, who would have to fend for themselves in the wilderness of the high mountains.
August 25th 1988, Barwari, Kurdistan
The first cockerels began to crow. Lazheen and Yasna rolled out their prayer mats to face Mecca as the children rested, fully dressed, under pungent sheepskins. After her usual recitations Lazheen stayed prostrate for a few moments extra. She prayed to God that she would be able to protect her children, that the chemical bombs would not find them, that they would survive the journey through the harsh mountains and that the Turks would allow them in. She prayed that Ibrahim would not be killed and that he would find them again.
Then Lazheen and Yasna woke the children and went out into the cool of the early morning. In the watery light of dawn they saw a procession of families walking quickly and silently out of the village. The line of people stretched past the houses and through the orchards, scented and heavy with apples, reaching steadily upwards until the track thinned to a goat-herding path, finally disappearing into the mist hanging low on the rocky outcrops above.
This is an edited extract of a book on the flight of Iraqi Kurdish villagers in 1988 from the chemical bombardments of Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign. It follows one woman and her family as they walk for five days and nights through the treacherous mountains of northern Iraq to Turkey, pursued by the Iraqi army.
All Kurdish names have been changed. The translations of Ba’ath Party documents and meeting recordings were taken from Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds, published in 1993 by Human Rights Watch.