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

Anfal Widows' Sad Fate

Women widowed by Saddam’s Anfal campaign still struggle to get by nearly 20 years on.
By Wrya Hama
Zaineb Faris's cloud of depression has hung over her for 18 long years.

Three days after celebrating her new marriage with family and friends, the Iraqi army took her husband away. That was in 1988, and she has not heard from him since.

Faris is now 36 and still lives with her parents, her memory of Sabah kept alive by a single photo that sits below the family's television. With no education and no job opportunities, she spends her days cleaning their two-room house and listening to the radio.

The local programming and music broadcast in the Germyan area of Iraqi Kurdistan is her daily connection to the outside world. Faris's father, who is in his seventies, does not let her speak to other men, even male cousins and certainly not this IWPR reporter, who had to interview her in secret.

Even though her love for Sabah remains steadfast, she is willing to remarry. But her father refuses to allow this, as local custom discourages widows from marrying again.

Faris believes that Sabah's body may lie in one of the mass graves that are still being uncovered in post-Baathist Iraq.

Her husband was seized during the Anfal campaign, the notorious operation that Saddam Hussein's regime launched against Iraqi Kurds from 1986 to 1989.

Human rights groups estimate that 182,000 civilians were killed, but most of the victims have never been found. Many of the bodies removed from the mass graves across the country are thought to be Kurds or Shia Arabs - whom Saddam also persecuted - but the process of identifying them has been fraught with problems.

As horrific as the Anfal campaign was for victims, the widows must live with its aftermath every day. According to the Germyan human rights directorate, just one local town called Rizgary is home to 700 Anfal widows.

Approximately 27,000 people reside in this makeshift town in Sulaimaniyah province, which Saddam's regime originally built as an internment camp for Kurds whose villages had been razed during the military operation.

The town will commemorate the 18th anniversary of Anfal on April 14. They had a rare chance to celebrate last week when it was announced that Saddam Hussein and six of his former deputies, including Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali", will be tried for crimes against humanity committed during the Anfal campaign.

"I'm very happy that he'll be put on trial for Anfal," said Nazdar Salih Qadir, 71, who lost eight members of her family in the operation. "It will bring us peace."

Qadir does not understand Arabic but says she will get someone to translate as she watches the trial on television - whenever she has electricity, that is. Both electricity and water are scarce here, which is driving some to protest against the Kurdish government during the commemoration this week.

Most of the town's widows lead lonely and difficult lives. Women like Qadir are highly dependent on their families and the Kurdish government, which gives the families of Anfal victims 100 US dollars a month, a small patch of land and loans to build a house.

Women in Rizgary have little education, and the town has no economy. Marriage is an important means of support for women, but for the Anfal widows, remarriage has been next to impossible.

According to Islamic law, if a woman's husband disappears she must wait for four years before remarrying to ensure that he will not return. Iraqi legislation states that a woman cannot remarry until her husband's fate is determined.

In 1999, the Kurdistan parliament passed a law declaring that those who disappeared during the Anfal operations were officially dead. But the decision was not made public until the fall of Saddam’s government three years ago. Most widows said they were not aware of it.

Gulala Aziz, who represents Anfal victims in the Kurdistan parliament, said the government did not publicly announce the decision because Saddam's regime was still in power and there was no evidence that the victims were actually dead.

But Kurdish government official Mohammed Gaznayy said the authorities "didn't have the heart” to tell widows that their husbands were no longer alive.

"They should have let us know," said Amina Kareem, a 42-year-old Rizgary resident. "Opportunities to get married do not last forever."

While local customs bar most widows from remarrying regardless of their age, Gaznayy agreed that even without such restrictions, women still face problems in finding new partners.

Those approaching middle age are no longer considered marriage material, and the number of single men their age dwindles. Polygamy, which Gaznayy argued would be a viable way of supporting such women, is illegal under Iraqi law.

Kareem believes she was a more attractive prospect five or ten years ago, when she would have been grateful for a husband and provider. At that time, she had three school-aged children and worked as a labourer, tending orchids for about 50 US cents a day. She pulled her two boys out of school to help support the family but she ensured that her daughter, now 19, got the education that Kareem never received.

Her husband's family gave her some money, which she used along with the cash she scraped together from her work, to buy a small house in Rizgary. She lives there now with her daughter, her son and his wife.

Kareem is among the Anfal widows in Rizgary who long ago gave up any hope of remarriage, and instead want the Kurdish government to provide them with more assistance.

Aziz said that she had asked the Kurdistan parliament for compensation for survivors but that she has not received a response yet.

Many feel the 100 dollars a month allowance that Anfal victims receive is not enough to survive, particularly for the many families who pay rent. The government started giving them an extra 20 dollars a month in 2003, and local official Dilshad Kareem Faraj said he is working to increase this tenfold.

But some women say they are less interested in receiving money than in building a future for their children.

"Money doesn't do anything," said Aska Jabar, a 36-year-old widow and mother of four. "It can't compensate for everything we've lost."

Wrya Hama Tahir is an IWPR trainee journalist in Kelar. Kurdish editor Mariwan Hama-Saeed contributed to this report.