In the summer of 1992, Joost Hiltermann, an editor of Middle East Report, spent three months interviewing Kurdish villagers about Iraq’s military campaigns against the Kurds in the 1980s, for the human rights organization Middle East Watch. These interviews yielded evidence of widespread human rights abuses, and are currently being used, along with other evidence, in the preparation of a genocide case before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. As this narrative based on the interview with Urfiya Hama Ahmad shows, the Kurds’ lives after the collapse of the Mullah Mustafa Barzani-led rising in 1975 were marked by repeated violent intrusions and displacement. In 1978, the Iraqi government cleared a cordon sanitaire along its borders with Iran and Turkey, destroying hundreds of villages and removing their populations to “complexes” (mujamma‘at), or “model villages.” During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, whole villages and towns were destroyed or abandoned in the fighting. A growing insurgency in the countryside, led by the Kurdish parties, triggered Iraqi bombing raids, which after April 1987 were accompanied by chemical weapons attacks on many occasions. In the spring and summer of 1988, the Iraqi military carried out its so-called Anfal campaign, razing to the ground most of the remaining Kurdish villages and “disappearing” an estimated 180,000 people. After the abortive uprising of March 1991, Kurds again fled their homes, fearing a repeat of the Anfal attacks. Today they live in political uncertainty, protected by an allied air umbrella but suffering under a double UN and Iraq-imposed economic embargo. In this account the names have been changed to protect the individuals.

Urfiya Hama Ahmad was born in Zarin, a village of 150 families in the Halabja area, in 1955. She and her husband Muhammad lived in an eight-room house made of stone and mud brick, and had five children. They were walnut farmers, selling 50,000 nuts annually in Halabja and Suleimaniya. They also grew tobacco, tomatoes, rice, wheat, barley, chickpeas and lentils. Each year they had surplus produce, which they gave away to other people. They also had three cows and 50 goats. Urfiya’s and Muhammad’s families had always lived in Zarin, as far back as they can remember. There are at least three generations buried in the cemetery.

To get to Halabja, they had to travel four hours on foot and by boat, crossing the Sirwan (or Diyala) river and Darbandikhan lake. They transported their nut harvest on donkeyback and by rafts and boats to market in Halabja. There was no paved road or electricity in the village. People drew water from springs. The government opened a primary school and a clinic (with a medical assistant) in 1972. There was a single mosque, but no government office. The village was 15 kilometers from the border with Iran, a five-hour walk across a mountain.

On August 10, 1978, the commander of the Iraqi First Corps came to Zarin by helicopter. Hussein, a relative of Urfiya’s, acted as his translator. The commander told the villagers that they would have five days to pack all their belongings and go to the side of the lake. That was all he said. So the villagers packed their belongings and went to the lake on August 16.

It turned out that the villages in the area had each been designated a different time. On the morning of August 17, the government transported people by military boat to the Halabja side. From there they were taken in military trucks to a complex called Anab, built next to the town of Halabja. There were only 20 families from Zarin there; others had gone to Zara‘in complex, on the road to Suleimaniya. The village was dynamited the moment the people left, as were all the other villages in the area. Some belongings had remained inside the houses. Urfiya and Muhammad sold their animals at half the usual price to people from Halabja. Thousands of smaller animals like goats and chickens were killed when the army dynamited the houses. After this, the orchards dried up. The area was declared a prohibited area, and later became one of the battlefronts in the war. Bodies of thousands of soldiers are buried there, and there are still many minefields.

There were already houses in Anab complex, but they had no roofs. There was no water or electricity. This came only one year later. From the complex to Halabja was only two or three minutes by car. The government paid the family 2,000 Iraqi dinars in compensation for the lost house and orchards in Zarin, which was not much compared to the value of their properties, including the annual yield. Muhammad was forced to work on construction in Halabja. After 1985, the area came under Iranian shelling; their home was hit by an Iranian artillery shell once in this period.

On March 16, 1988, Urfiya heard rumors that the peshmerga and Iranians had come to Halabja. At the time, she was hiding in her basement because of the Iranian shelling. That same day, around 4 pm, the chemical attack began. She heard airplanes and came out of her basement shelter, but as soon as she smelled chemicals, she rushed back into the shelter. A man was running to his house, yelling that the Iraqis were attacking Halabja with chemicals. There were 15 or 20 people in her basement shelter. They closed off the door with wet blankets and towels. They heard big explosions that shook the ground. The shelter seemed about to collapse, so people left the shelter, fearing the worst. Urfiya saw her family’s two cows and two calves lying dead in the street, and she saw also many people killed in the street, in doorways, in cars. She could not look at them anymore. She later found out that 24 of her relatives had died in a single shelter in Halabja town. She saw one car with a dead driver and the engine still running. She and her family and others rushed toward Iran that same evening, leaving their belongings behind. They brought no food. They had heard rumors that the road to the Iraqi lines had been cut off and that Iraqis were shelling the city. The only escape appeared to be the way to Iran.

They ran. The bombing continued until evening and covered the entire area to the border. When they urinated, they found that their urine had blood in it. The predominant smell outside was one of apples, sweet: “It was nice.” People had burns on their skin where the chemicals had hit them, and the skin began to blister. They had trouble breathing, and their eyes teared. Some people began acting crazy, some were laughing and then they fell down and died. They ran into the mountains. Urfiya’s infant, Chwestan Muhammad Abd-al-Qader, was 30 days old. He had trouble breathing and died. They left him behind in the mountains.

They walked all night, across areas with landmines. At dawn they arrived in a destroyed village, Limaw Pega. There were some 6,000-7,000 persons there, all from Halabja. They stayed there the rest of the day. Around 4 or 5 in the afternoon, Iranian helicopters arrived. The Iranian Pasdaran were wearing gas masks and fired anti-aircraft batteries, both handheld and standard, at the Iraqi planes high above. Urfiya and others were loaded into the helicopters and taken to a plain inside Iran, near the town of Kangavar. They were put in a school with some 400 other people, and doctors came to give them injections and medicines, eye drops and eye ointment. They stayed there 13 nights. Some died there. The Iranians treated everyone very well.

The Iranians took everyone to Karman by bus and by train. She and her family stayed there two months. They stayed in tents and were given food. Some people sneaked out of the camp and returned to Iraq. Urfiya and Muhammad also wanted to go back. Then the Iranian government told them they would provide transportation for those who wanted to go back, and they registered the names of those who wanted to leave. Urfiya and her family were taken to the border, to Qala Jwanro on the Iranian side, where they stayed in a camp for another two and a half months — they had heard rumors that the Iraqi government was sending returnees into exile, so they preferred to wait for an amnesty. It was July and very hot, so they finally decided to go back. News reached them that the government had built a “new Halabja.”

On August 23, 1988, Iranian civilian buses took some 2,000 Halabja refugee families to the border crossing. Urfiya and Muhammad brought all the belongings they had acquired in Iran: a refrigerator, a sewing machine, mattresses, blankets and boxes with kitchenware. The Iraqi army was waiting for them. They weren’t told anything; they were put in military trucks and taken straight to Suleimaniya. There they were put in a prison run by Iraqi internal intelligence full of people from Qaradagh; the women and children were kept separate from the men. They stayed there five nights. Citizens of Suleimaniya brought water and ice to the prison, but the guards didn’t let anything in. They only received dry bread from time to time, and they drank water from a pipe. People were being woken up all the time and asked why they had gone to Iran: “You are all saboteurs. The Iranians treated you well.” The guards took their Iranian money, saying that they would change it into dinars for them, but they never brought the money. They lost 30,000 tunam this way [more than $900].

After five days, the young men were separated from the rest, and were taken away in what looked like closed ambulances. Nobody ever saw them again. The women, children and elderly were taken to a prison in the southern Iraqi desert called Nuqra Salman, and they were forced to leave all their belongings behind in Suleimaniya.

They were put in civilian buses, about 100 persons to a bus, at 8 am. They stopped once or twice so that the drivers could drink water. They arrived in Nuqra Salman at 11 pm. Along the way, they recognized Kirkuk, Tikrit, Baghdad and Samawa. Then they saw nothing as they continued in the direction of the Saudi border. They arrived in Nuqra Salman on August 29. There were already some 6,000-7,000 people there. The prison had three levels. The Halabja people were put in separate halls on different floors, but every evening at 5 pm they could go into the courtyard for an hour and mingle with the other detainees. All the people there had been there since the chemical attack on the Qaradagh area (a few days after the attack on Halabja). There were many clothes lying around, and they had reportedly belonged to some of the earlier prisoners.

The guards wore the khaki uniforms of the Iraqi police. There were also other guards dressed in green uniforms. They daily received three pieces of bread and water. Guards belonging to the General Security Directorate, Iraq’s main internal intelligence agency, were selling small cans of meat, as long as the commanding officer was not near, for seven dinars per can. (The family still had 300 dinars on them.) One day the water was bad, and some 70-80 people died from this. Many people got sick. Some 15 doctors and medical assistants came from Samawa and treated those who had fallen ill after drinking the water. Otherwise, people were dying at a rate of 10 to 15 a day. They died from lice, bad food, lack of vitamins. “People were dying and their bodies thrown to the dogs,” Urfiya said. They were put on handcarts usually used for garbage. Two prisoners, with three or four guards kicking them along, would take the bodies on the cart and put them in a trench outside the prison. Muhammad was one of the men taking out bodies. Usually they didn’t have enough time to cover the bodies properly. He never saw any dogs eat the corpses, but he did see when they returned the next day to bury more persons that the dirt had been removed and that bodies from the previous day had disappeared. The clothes still remained, and parts of bodies. The guards did not give them sufficient time to rebury these body parts. The belongings of the people who died were taken by their relatives. If there were no close relatives, the guards would appropriate the belongings of the deceased.

The commander of Nuqra Salman prison was a man called Hajjaj. His deputy was Shamkhi. Hajjaj used to order Shamkhi to beat people when they were trying to get water from the tankers. At night the prisoners could hear women scream in the Qaradagh section. They never found out what happened to them, because in the courtyard they were not permitted to speak to one another. They just sat there family by family.

Each hall had a leader, chosen by the prisoners. Some leaders were able to read and write. They would receive the bread from the guards at the prison gate when the truck from Samawa arrived, and they would distribute it in the halls. They were also able to buy canned milk and canned meat from the truck driver.

They stayed in Nuqra Salman until October 25, 1988. No new prisoners arrived, but every Saturday 400 prisoners were released. They were in one such group. When they left, only two groups of 400 each stayed behind, from Halabja and from Qaradagh. On October 25, their names were registered and they were loaded into buses, 40 to 50 to a bus. People were squeezed into the aisles. They first went to Samawa and stayed there five days in the ward of an old military hospital. They were treated very kindly by army people, and they received good food: meat, fruit and rice. Then they were taken to Suleimaniya, and from there in other buses to Erbil. There they were taken to a deserted place called Ber Hoshter on the road to Mosul and released. People from Erbil were coming to them to help them.

They stayed in Ber Hoshter for 16 months. They were given a plot of land. Water was brought in trucks. Food was not provided. They built a house of mud brick according to government specifications. They finished the house in 20 days. People were not warm enough that winter. This became the Ber Hoshter complex. They could only leave the complex with the permission of the police or the man in charge of the local Ba‘th party. Several times, high-level Baathist officials came and ordered the women and girls to sing and clap for Saddam Hussein while marching in the street.

After 16 months, the government announced that those who wished to leave could do so. When her family indicated a desire to leave, they received a paper saying that they should go to Saddamiyat Halabja, or “New Halabja.” But instead of going to New Halabja, they moved to the Zara‘in complex, where they had relatives. They lived there until the uprising in March 1991, and then they fled to Iran again. After that they returned to Zara‘in, where they are currently living.

How to cite this article:

Joost Hiltermann "The Displacement of Urfiya Hama Ahmad," Middle East Report 181 (March/April 1993).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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