Anfal Victims Feel Forgotten
Institute for War & Peace Reporting
May 5, 2004
Tens of thousands of Kurds still languish in poverty
and despair, 16 years after the Iraqi regime’s
By Shabaz Jamal in Sulaimaniyah (ICR No. 61,
The city of Sulaimaniyah recently marked the
anniversary of Anfal, Saddam Hussein’s murderous
campaign against the Kurds which left tens of
thousands dead and devastated large parts of
But a decade and a half on, many of the victims
question the sincerity of the slogan headlining the
commemorations – "Let's Not Forget Anfal".
"They are saying we should not be forgotten," says
Mahroub Sidiq Sadun, a 39-year-old mother of five,
whose husband was killed during the Anfal campaign.
"But we are forgotten."
Tens of thousands of Anfal’s living victims still
languish in poverty and despair, some 16 years after
being forced from their villages into soulless
“collective towns”, hastily constructed from cement,
often near military bases.
Anfal was a systematic campaign in 1988 orchestrated
by Ali Hassan al-Majid – who was dubbed “Chemical
Ali” by the Kurds as a result.
His aim was to eradicate support for Kurdish
guerrillas in their fight against the Baathist
regime, and he pursued it ruthlessly by depopulating
and destroying the countryside.
For the regime, the Anfal campaign was meant to be
solve what it perceived as its "Kurdish problem"
once and for all.
The numbers are staggering. As many as 100,000
Kurds, the vast majority non-combatants, were killed
outright, while another 100,000 disappeared and are
As many as 4,000 villages were destroyed and 500,000
people forced into the collective towns, where they
could be controlled more easily. Chemical weapons
were used in at least 40 separate attacks.
The campaign was a “success” for the regime as it
brought the Kurdish resistance to its knees.
Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani,
now a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, said at
the time, "We cannot fight chemical weapons with
bare hands. We just cannot fight on."
In Arabic, “anfal” means "spoils" as in “the spoils
of war”. But Saddam’s campaign seared the word into
the Kurd’s collective consciousness and culture. It
has entered the Kurdish language, used as a noun,
verb or adjective. People might refer to someone as
having been "Anfal-ed", or talk about an "Anfal-ed
Many of those who survived the Anfal campaign
continue to suffer both from psychological trauma
and from the social problems of displacement, high
unemployment, and lack of public services.
The Kurdish government says it tries to assist them
but it does not have sufficient resources.
Sadun is one of many thousands of “Anfal widows" who
struggle to support their families alone.
She lives in Shorish, one of the largest collective
towns, with a population of about 50,000 people, 70
kilometres west of Sulaimaniyah. To support her four
sons and one daughter, Sadun bakes bread in nearby
Chamchamal and occasionally travels to Sulaimaniyah
to work as a maid.
Like other Anfal widows, she is unable to remarry
because there is no official death certificate – the
former Iraqi government refused to issue them for
the tens of thousands it killed during its genocidal
"These are the most marginalised people in society
in terms of services," said Alan Atuf, former
director in charge of repatriation of Anfal victims
at the British charity HelpAge International.
The dilapidated cement and mud homes along the dusty
dirt roads of Shorish receive a few hours of
electricity at nighttime, and women spend a good
part of their day collecting buckets of water from
the few standpipes in the community.
The stress of the initial trauma of detention,
torture, loss and displacement, coupled with the
continuing pressure of poverty, takes its toll.
"The deteriorating psychological state of these
people is clearly seen in their faces," said Atuf.
Psychologist Nizar Muhammad Amin says many Anfal
victims are still living in a state of shock. Images
of killing, torture and destruction, he says, are
still vivid in the minds of victims. Many still
suffer from flashbacks of their experiences.
Khawer Qadir Jawher, 54, from Qadir Karam near
Kirkuk, was one of tens of thousands of people held
in the notorious government detention centres during
She was eventually released but the trauma has left
her mentally unstable.
Family and neighbours say Jawher cries constantly
for no apparent reason, and has outbursts of anger.
They make sure she is never left alone. Many others
share similar afflictions.
"They need to be under constant psychological
supervision," said Jawher’s husband Mahmood Ahmed
But there are no counselling services for Anfal
The Sulaimaniyah regional government minister for
Human Rights, Anfal, and Displaced Persons, Salah
Rashid, says, "We have done some work. But it is not
anywhere near what is needed for them."
Anfal victims receive 40 US dollars a month from the
ministry, and some have been moved into new housing
for internally displaced people.
Yet with so many people displaced from years of war
and ethnic cleansing in Kurdistan, the government is
faced with large numbers of people who need housing,
jobs and other services.
"All this is related to time and budget," said
Rashid. "We try to do better as we go along."
For many, displacement from socially cohesive
villages to huge impoverished communities was a
devastating experience that has not been easy to
There are few jobs for people from Shorish in nearby
Chamchamal, and the nearest large city, Sulaimaniyah,
would be a long commute even if people could afford
Most Anfal victims were farmers who have few of the
skills needed in urban areas.
Many people have been unable to return to their
homes over the past decade because much of the
“Anfal-ed” area was outside the "green line" of
Kurdish self-rule, and was therefore firmly under
the control of the Baath regime until last April.
While victims are now able to return, few have the
money to rebuild and the area is still heavily laced
Haji Aswad, 60, says that before Anfal he was a
wealthy man, farming many acres of land near Qadir
Karam, between Chamchamal and Kirkuk.
Now he lives in a rented mud-brick house and can
barely provide food for his family with the money he
gets as handouts and a government allowance.
Fatih Aziz Salihi, 57, who lost four members of his
family during Anfal, shares his despair.
"I can't even afford to give my children pocket
money," said Salihi, sitting in the dilapidated
two-room house in Shorish that he shares with his
wife and five children. The children of Anfal
victims have also suffered.
Omer Ali, now 23, says that after his father was
killed in the Anfal, he had to assume responsibility
for providing for his 10-member family. He dropped
out of school to work as a construction labourer,
but he says he still hopes to finish his schooling
After her parents were killed in the campaign,
Rozhan Ali Khurshid, 17, went to live with an aunt
while her two brothers were taken in by uncles. The
three children now try to meet up once a week.
Many women who lost their husbands, like Sadun, must
get jobs – although it is still rare in Kurdish
society for women to work outside the home,
especially those from the working classes.
"This has led people to view them with
condescension," said Hemin Baqir Abdoul, a
sociologist who specialises in the damage done by
Even if women find work, there are no day-care
centres for their children. Sadun says that leaving
her children home during the day is a huge problem
as there is no one to take care of them.
Like many others, Sabriyah Ahmad had to take her
oldest daughter out of school so that she could care
for the younger children.
Atuf from HelpAge believes that the local Kurdish
government lacks the capacity to cope with the large
numbers of Anfal victims effectively, despite their
plans and slogans to "never forget".
"That's why there has been little tangible outcome,"
He believes that only the international community
and non-government organisations have the resources
to confront the complex and deep-rooted problems
still facing Anfal victims.
Shabaz Jamal is managing editor of the
youth-oriented Liberal Education newspaper in