Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Anfal Victims Feel Forgotten

Tens of thousands of Kurds still languish in poverty and despair, 16 years after the Iraqi regime’s devastating campaign.
By Shabaz Jamal

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 northern Iraq.

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 presumed dead.

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 area".

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 campaign.

"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 the campaign.

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 Mustafa.

But there are no counselling services for Anfal victims.

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 overcome.

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 cars.

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 with landmines.

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 one day.

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 Anfal.

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," said Atuf.

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 Sulaimaniyah.