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Second Anfal--Qara Dagh, March 22-April 1, 1988

"Bring your families; nothing will happen to them."
-- army officer to villagers fleeing from southern Qara Dagh.

Although the siege of Sergalou-Bergalou consumed enormous resources, the Iraqi armed forces were not so rash as to neglect other targets. To block any attempt by the PUK to reinforce its beleaguered national headquarters, the regime maintained a steady rhythm of attacks against the other regional commands, such as the first malband, based on Qopi mountain in Qara Dagh and charged with all operations in the governorate of Suleimaniyeh. At each stage of Anfal, as the main assault changed its geographical focus, this pattern of secondary pressure was maintained.

Few parts of Iraqi Kurdistan are as lovely as Qara Dagh. Its chain of jagged, serrated peaks runs southeast for some seventy miles, as straight as a razor's edge. But the features of its beauty were also those that made Qara Dagh vulnerable. It took three weeks for elements of twenty-seven army divisions together with Kurdish jahsh to crush resistance in the Jafati Valley, which is hemmed in by steep mountains. But Qara Dagh was the opposite: a thin line of mountains flanked by almost indefensible lowlands. To the west lies the hilly plain of Germian, the "warm country." To the east, until 1988, dozens of small farming villages nestled in green valleys of astonishing fertility. Fields of winter wheat, barley, tobacco and rice flourished next to rich plots of okra, peas, green beans, tomatoes, melons and grapes. At the southernmost tip of the Qara Dagh chain lay the 6,000-foot sentinel of Zerda Mountain, a peshmerga stronghold. Beyond this, to the east, a narrow corridor carried the highway from Suleimaniyeh past the town of Darbandikhan and the lake of the same name, with its strategic dam. Even as the First Anfal raged to the north, Iraqi intelligence kept a watchful eye on the lake, ever fearful of a waterborne attack by Iranian forces on the dam and its power station.

The government had relinquished control of rural Qara Dagh since the early days of the Iran-Iraq War. In 1987, the nahya itself was emptied, and its population relocated to the nearby complexes of Naser and Zarayen. Troops and jahsh took over the deserted town, but they were quickly routed from their positions by the peshmerga. Retaliatory air-raids soon destroyed what was left of Qara Dagh, although PUK forces continued to control the rubble. Like the civilian population of the surrounding villages, they learned to live with constant artillery shelling from a half-dozen government firebases between Suleimaniyeh and Darbandikhan.

Since 1983 the twin hubs of peshmerga activity in Qara Dagh had been the villages of Takiyeh and Balagjar, which housed armed contingents of the Iraqi Communist Party as well as the PUK. A dirt path linked these two villages, which lay less than two miles apart. The district center of Qara Dagh--the nahya--was some three hours distant on foot; three miles off to the east was the large village of Sayw Senan, where the peshmerga had installed a field hospital that serviced much of the surrounding population.

During the early months of 1988, Iraqi intelligence cables were filled with references to Iranian pasdaran moving freely in and out of the Qara Dagh peshmerga camps. A force of Revolutionary Guards, 200-strong, was reported to be present in Balagjar on January 25; by March 6, their number had risen to 400.1 Eighty members of "the imposter Khomeini's guard" were said to be in Sayw Senan on March 9, and they were heavily armed.

Sometime in February--the exact date is unclear--eight Iraqi aircraft carried out a chemical attack on Takiyeh and Balagjar. "Many bombs were dropped," said Omar, a Takiyeh man who witnessed the raid. "I don't know how many, maybe eight or nine. When they fell, there was a loud explosion, a little smoke, and it was like salt spread on the ground. People who touched it ended up with blisters on their skin. Animals that ate the affected grass died instantly." But there were no human fatalities; because of the daily attacks, all the Takiyeh villagers had fled totemporary shelters in the fields. "But in Balagjar, many of the pasdaran and PUK peshmerga, and many other people too, lost their sight for three days; the pasdaran moved out of Balagjar three or four days before the Qara Dagh Anfal began."2

The continual chemical attacks during the First Anfal, and now on Qara Dagh, seem to have had the effect that the Iraqi government intended. An Amn intelligence report dated March 16, the day of the Halabja massacre, noted that a dozen divisions (teep) of the PUK had dispersed from their bases throughout southern Iraqi Kurdistan during the previous few days in fear of further chemical attacks. Another cable the next day reported, "We have learned from our reliable secret sources that a few days ago the treacherous Al-Hasek group [the Kurdistan Socialist Party] took possession of an estimated 1500 protective gas masks. They received these from the Zionist-Iranian regime."3

These precautions, however, were of little help, for Anfal came to Qara Dagh on March 22 with one of the most lethal chemical attacks of the entire campaign, on the village of Sayw Senan. It was the day after Nowroz, the Kurdish New Year and the first day of spring, which the peshmerga had celebrated by lighting bonfires and discharging their gunsinto the air.4 Despite the news of the attacks on Sergalou-Bergalou and Halabja, and despite the recently reported presence of Iranian pasdaran in their village, the people of Sayw Senan seemed to have a curious and ill-founded sense of their own immunity. "People were saying, 'It will be the same as in the past. They will attack us and we will defeat them," recalled one villager.5 Although Sayw Senan was home to a PUK division (teep), there were very few peshmerga in the village by this time; most had been summoned to the defense of Sergalou-Bergalou. But at the dinner hour on March 22, the villagers heard the whistling sound of shells fired from a rajima and smelled the odor of apples. One shell landed in the courtyard of a house, instantly killing thirteen of the fourteen people in the family of a man called Mahdi Hadi Zorab. Only one son, a peshmerga, survived by fleeing to the mountains. Six separate estimates given to Middle East Watch by local villagers and PUK officials place the total number of dead in the chemical attack on Sayw Senan at between seventy-eight and eighty-seven.

"When we received the news of the attack from people fleeing it, many men from our village went to Sayw Senan to help," said Omar, the farmer from Takiyeh. "We saw the bodies of those who had died inside the village. I helped bury sixty-seven with my own hands in Koshk village after we took them there on tractors. We laid them all in one big grave in the Haji Raqa graveyard, with their clothes on. Another fourteen bodies were buried in Asteli Serru village. They had died instantly. They were bleeding from the nose; it was as if their brains had exploded."

The following day, March 23, the chemical rajima hit Dukan, another PUK base in a village of seventy houses.6 On the night of the 24th it targeted Ja'faran, a farming village of 200 houses which had no PUK presence, but housed the small headquarters that controlled KDP operations in the governorate of Kirkuk. According to two villagers, this was not the first time that Ja'faran had been attacked with gas. In May 1987, MIG fighter planes had dropped chemicals on the outskirts of the village--one man counted fourteen bombs, which produced red, green and white smoke. Ja'faran was lucky, for neither of the chemical attacks killed anyone--even though hundreds of farm animals perished. The May 1987 bombing took place when most people were outside the village, and peshmerga paramedics from a nearby base provided emergency medical care.7 The first attack scared people enough that they rarely returned to their homes, and even slept in temporary shelters in the fields. The March 1988 rajima attack found the village deserted.

* * *

The Exodus from Qara Dagh

By now the hillsides were alive with people fleeing Anfal, for the army's ground assault had begun on the afternoon of March 23. Troops from the army's 43rd Division, backed by jahsh and Amn Emergency Forces, converged from four directions on the area between Qara Dagh and Darbandikhan, driving the villagers from their homes like beaters flushing out game-birds.8 The general sense of panic was enhanced bythe news, carried by word of mouth and over the peshmerga field radios, of the devastating poison gas attack on Sayw Senan.

The mass exodus was mainly to the north, where people hoped to find sanctuary in Suleimaniyeh or in one of the complexes along the main highway. One group of villagers from Chami Smor smelled the nauseating odor of rotten apples, carried on the wind that was blowing from the direction of Ja'faran. Another family, from the village of Masoyi, took refuge in a cave a few minutes walk from their homes. But they made the mistake of leaving a lantern burning when they fell asleep. In the night they were awakened by the throb of helicopters, which had evidently been attracted by the light, and the sound of explosions. Suddenly the cave was filled with the suffocating smell of sweet melons. The family stumbled outside and fled, carrying two children who had been overcome by the fumes. By good fortune they survived, and hid out on the slopes of Zerda mountain. Three days later they watched as the army burned the village of Masoyi.9

What the regime intended to do with civilians caught up in the Second Anfal remains murky. By now, Istikhbarat had received orders from the Northern Bureau to set up special temporary camps to house those who were displaced. But the roundups during the last week of March were much less systematic than in the later phases of the Anfal operation. Between Qara Dagh and Suleimaniyeh, one physical obstacle loomed before the fleeing villagers--the 4,300-foot Glazerda Mountain. They found its slopes swarming with troops, jahsh, commandos in camouflage uniforms and members of the Emergency Forces (Quwat Taware'). Everywhere there were ragged people, tractor-drawn carts and farm animals. Helicopters hovered overhead. There was tank and artillery fire from every side: "It was like a boiling pot," said a man from Ja'faran who survived.

Yet the army's attitude was ambiguous. In the first few days of the Second Anfal, some villagers were told to make their own way to the city and the complexes (although Amn later carried out house-to-house searches of Naser, Zarayen and Suleimaniyeh to track these people down.) Others fled via back trails into the mountains as soon as they saw the soldiers, and eluded the dragnet that way. Word of the Qara Dagh exodus reached Suleimaniyeh, and the city relatives of some families made their way to Glazerda Mountain to fetch them.

Despite the massive military presence, the survivors of the Sayw Senan attack heard rumors of a temporary amnesty, and remained on the mountainside unmolested for several days in the rain. But on the fifth day soldiers at the checkpoint on the Qara Dagh-Suleimaniyeh road began to arrest them. Some, especially the elderly and the infirm, were helped to escape by the jahsh, in an early hint of the contradictory role that the Kurdish militia would play throughout Anfal. But between twenty-five and thirty people from Sayw Senan were taken away at this point and never seen again.

The attitude of the troops seems to have changed with an incident that was witnessed by Omar, the farmer from Takiyeh village:

When we arrived, the army had not yet started arresting people. The officers were just asking us if there were saboteurs in our area, and we told them that there were. But then something happened. A tractor cart laden with old wheat grain was blocking the road because it had a flat tire. The owner had abandoned it there. So a tank came and tried to move the cart out of the way. Instead, it overturned it completely and a lot of Kalashnikovs came tumbling out from underneath the grain, enough to arm a whole squad. Then the army put out a radio call to units in different areas to set up roadblocks, and they started to arrest people--men, women, children, even the people who had come from Suleimaniyeh.

I was twenty meters away from the tank, behind the army lines. There were 500 of us. We fled into the mountains--it was the jahsh who told us to run if we were able to.... My brother Khaled was still behind the tractor cart when the incident occurred. We were close to one another, close enough to call out to each other. But he was arrested and taken to Suleimaniyeh.10

Khaled was never seen again; nor were three other young men from Takiyeh who were arrested with him. Omar escaped to the city and survived.

Those who were arrested at the checkpoint were loaded into military IFA trucks and driven to the Emergency Forces base in the Chwar Bagh ("Four Orchards") quarter of Suleimaniyeh. There were thousands of prisoners there from the Qara Dagh region, and every day hundreds more arrived. The soldiers recorded their names and confiscated whatever valuables and identity documents they were carrying. One man from the village of Dolani Khwaru described being held at first on a nearby military base, supervised by Istikhbarat officers, before being transferred to the Emergency Forces headquarters.11

There the prisoners remained for as long as three or four weeks. Some groups of young men were blindfolded and separated from the rest, while others were taken out for a couple of days but later returned to their cells. The detainees were given almost nothing to eat, although it was possible to buy food from the guards. Although it was the army that had detained them, the villagers who passed through the Taware' base said that the daily interrogation sessions were conducted by Amn agents. "Are your sons peshmerga?," they were asked; "What peshmerga activity is there in your village?" The interrogators appeared to regard even children of grade-school age as potential "saboteurs." After an average of two or three weeks, buses and coasters arrived to take the detainees away. They drove off west, in the direction of Kirkuk.

Middle East Watch interviewed survivors from some ten Qara Dagh villages affected by the Second Anfal. In every case, they could name the young men of draft age who had disappeared after detention in the Suleimaniyeh Emergency Forces base. From Serko, nine never came back; four were lost from Takiyeh and another four from nearby Balagjar; two from Berday, three from Koshk, two from Dolani Khwaru, three from Deiwana, nine from Mitsa Chweir, five from Chami Smor. Repeated across the whole nahya of Qara Dagh, with its eighty villages, one may reasonably assume that several hundred young men disappeared during the Second Anfal.

But the story is more complex than this, as the experience of villages like Chami Smor suggests. The five young men of Chami Smor who vanished from Suleimaniyeh were army deserters who gave themselves up to the authorities as part of the general exodus. However, the village's location--at the very edge of the high Qara Dagh mountains--tempted others into what proved to be a terrible mistake. While themajority fled north, two families struck out across the forbidding peaks toward the Germian plain, hoping to be safe in the town of Kalar, which would not be touched by Anfal. There were seventeen people in the group altogether--men, women and children. None of them ever reached their destination. Nor did hundreds of others who fled south with the same idea. It must be presumed that they were all seized by the Iraqi authorities.12

* * *

Flight to Southern Germian

There are very striking regional differences in the pattern of mass disappearances during the Anfal campaign. After the First Anfal, adult men and teenage boys who were captured by the army were disappeared--a pattern that was repeated in all areas. But in several places, notably southern Germian, huge numbers of women and children were also taken away and never seen again. The criteria for this selection seem to have included not only one's place of birth but the area in which one was captured. In many cases, but not all, the pattern of disappearances appears to have reflected the degree of resistance that the troops encountered. If the peshmerga fought back strongly, women and children captured in the vicinity were more likely to be disappeared along with their husbands and fathers. This may be what is implied in an Amn letter, dated August 2, 1988, which requests information on whether those who had been given into its custody had surrendered in an area where combat had taken place.13

Women and children who fled north from Qara Dagh toward Suleimaniyeh and the complexes were not harmed. Those who crossed into southern Germian vanished. Two men, three women and six children disappeared from the village of Aliawa. Forty-seven villagersfrom Masoyi, including many children and nursing infants, were captured near Kalar and never seen again.14

The population of Omer Qala, a village of twenty houses at the southern tip of Zerda Mountain, had fled en masse on hearing of the gas attack on nearby Sayw Senan. Taking with them only a few essentials such as money and blankets, as well as their animal herds, they skirted the mountain and headed southwest in the direction of Germian. Although they were not peshmerga, all the men carried weapons, as is common practice among Iraqi Kurdish males; all but three of them were either army deserters or draft dodgers. The twenty families walked for several days, sleeping in caves or in the open air. They hoped to return to their homes when the government was driven out of their area, as had always happened in the past. But this time was different. Reaching the village of Bakr Bayef on the eastern edge of Germian, they learned that the whole Qara Dagh area had fallen to government forces. All of their villages had been razed to the ground; there were no homes to return to. Behind them, the army's chemical shells rained down on Zerda Mountain, and in the early morning of April 1 the army captured the crucial peshmerga villages of Takiyeh and Balagjar.15

Far from outrunning the army, the people of Omer Qala had run straight into the jaws of the enemy. Germian was the next target of Anfal, the villagers of Bakr Bayef told them, and its inhabitants had been given seventy-two hours to surrender. The twenty families gathered that night to decide on their next move. They concluded that there was no alternative but to surrender. After all, the more optimistic among them reasoned, walking toward government lines had offered protection in previous rounds of fighting between the army and the peshmerga. In the morning they headed in the direction of the government forces, as far as the village of Boysana. Less than a mile further on lay a place calledSheikh Tawil, which was to become perhaps the single most stubbornly defended target in the entire Anfal campaign.

In the course of the last week of March, the people of Sheikh Tawil, who belonged to the Tarkhani tribe, had offered refuge to hundreds of fellow Kurds fleeing from Qara Dagh. Although they were from different tribes, said one man, "We sheltered them; we became one."16 In the wake of the panicked civilians came a fresh contingent of peshmerga, fleeing their rout on Zerda Mountain. The triangle between the mountain, Sheikh Tawil and Darbandikhan was by now a raging cauldron. There was constant shelling from all directions, some of it Iraqi and some from the Iranian side. No one could any longer tell the difference. Confusion reigned. From April 3 to 5, the army and the peshmerga fought their first, inconclusive battle for control of Sheikh Tawil. In the general chaos that preceded the fighting, most of the civilians of Sheikh Tawil evacuated their homes and made for the highway that runs southwest from Darbandikhan Lake to Kalar. Seventy-nine of them would be captured and disappeared.  But this was not yet the Third Anfal, the Germian Anfal: the horror of that was still to come.

The Omer Qala families watched as four old men of Boysana went forward to meet the troops, carrying white flags. "Bring your families," they were told. "Nothing will happen to them." Trusting the officer's promise, a number of men, women and children turned themselves in. They were promptly arrested. Those who remained behind later learned that they had been taken to the army brigade headquarters in the town of Kalar. But that was the last that was ever heard of them.

The remaining Omer Qala villagers fled once more, walking until they reached the town of La'likhan on the main road. They found a huge crowd of people from many different villages milling around, and a large fleet of trucks which the army had brought to collect them. Again the villagers conferred. Despite their terror, they again agreed that surrender was their only hope. Akram, an eighteen-year old from Omer Qala, was still suspicious, however. Fearing punishment as a draft dodger, he hid himself in an empty barrel to observe the mass surrender. Five hundred gave themselves up; only twenty, including Akram, stayed behind. Akram survived; the five hundred disappeared.17


1 From a sequence of secret cables from Amn Suleimaniyeh to Amn Autonomous Region headquarters; no. 1754 of January 25, 1988; no. 5474 of March 6, 1988; and no. 5860 of March 9, 1988. The second of these cables also reported that sixty members of the "Treacherous Iraqi Communist Party" were present in Balagjar.

2 This witness also claimed that the pasdaran's weaponry included US-made HAWK anti-aircraft missiles--the type supplied to Teheran in the course of what came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair. Middle East Watch interview, Bayinjan complex, March 21, 1993. PUK officials deny, however, that any HAWKs were present inside Iraq and say that they had only SAM-7s. They also claim that the main function of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards was to conduct reconnaissance and intelligence missions.

3 Amn Suleimaniyeh to Amn Autonomous Region headquarters, cables no. 6631 of March 16, 1988 and no. 6739 of March 17, 1988. Despite the dates, from other references in these documents to pasdaran activities in and around Halabja it is apparent that both reports were prepared by agents who were unaware of the March 16 chemical attack.

4 While a second witness gave the date of the Sayw Senan attack as March 18, the later date seems more credible, since the witness specifically referred to Nowroz falling on the previous day. All dates given by witnesses need to be treated with a certain amount of caution: although the Kurds use a 365-day solar calendar, the months do not correspond precisely to those of the Gregorian calendar. On the Kurdish calender and the traditional celebration of Nowroz, see Izady, The Kurds, pp. 241-243.

5 Middle East Watch interview, Naser complex, July 30, 1992.

6 Not to be confused with the larger town of Dukan, to the north of Suleimaniyeh.

7 Middle East Watch interviews, Ja'faran village, June 6, 1992.

8 The army's day-to-day movements are detailed in a sequence of sixteen handwritten Amn cables, contained in a file entitled "The Purification of Qara Dagh Operation, [illegible] Darbandikhan." The documents, classified "secret and urgent," cover the period from March 23 to April 1, 1988, when Amn announced the capture of Takiyeh and Balagjar.

9 Middle East Watch interview, Bayinjan complex, March 21, 1993.

10 Middle East Watch interview, Bayinjan complex, March 21, 1993.

11 Middle East Watch interview, Suleimaniyeh, April 1, 1993.

12 Middle East Watch interview, Bayinjan complex, March 19, 1993.

13 Confidential letter from Amn Autonomous Region to Amn Erbil governorate, August 2, 1988. The text reads, "Please take note of our telex no. 9887 of July 20, 1988 and inform us whether the persons who are the subject of the communication came from the fighting basin or not."

14 Middle East Watch interviews, Bayinjan complex, March 21, 1993; Naser complex, March 26, 1993.

15 A "secret and urgent" telegram from Amn Darbandikhan, no. 9507, 1740 hours, April 1, 1988, reports the seizure of "four bases of the saboteurs and agents of Iran, along with a base of the Guards of Khomeini the impostor and a base of the saboteurs of the Iraqi Communist Party." With these army victories, the military aspect of the Second Anfal was essentially complete.

16 Middle East Watch interview with a former resident of Sheikh Tawil, Bawanur complex, March 28, 1993.

17 Middle East Watch interview, Naser complex, July 28, 1992. Akram in fact later passed through a number of army lines and checkpoints along the way; but he never abandoned his goats, and this may have saved his life. Middle East Watch was told several stories of draft-age men being spared, especially in the southern Germian area, if they were tending their farm animals at the time of Anfal.

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