An Awful Truth Sinks In
After years of hope, survivors of Iraq's slaughter
of Kurds now know the missing won't be coming back.
At least 100,000 died
Times Staff Writer
December 5, 2003
SHORISH, Iraq 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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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