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The Firing Squads

"Hell and Elysium swarm with ghosts of men
That I have sent from sundry foughten fields
To spread my fame through hell and up to heaven."
--Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great, Part One (V, i)

"It was God's wish."
-- Mustafa, who escaped a mass execution during Anfal.


Muhammad's Story

At least six people--the youngest a boy of twelve, the eldest a man of thirty-eight with nine children of his own--have survived to tell the truth about what happened to the tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds who were driven away in the convoys of sealed vehicles from the Popular Army camp at Topzawa. All six were from the Germian area, scene of the Third Anfal.

Muhammad, the 32-year old member of the peshmerga backing force from the village of Aliyani Taza in southern Germian, had arrived with his family at the army fort at Qoratu on about April 16. (see above p.145) They spent three days there before being moved to Topzawa, where Muhammad was separated from his two wives and seven children. None of his family ever returned alive, with the exception of his parents, who survived Nugra Salman.1

Muhammad spent two days in Topzawa. He was not questioned. He was given nothing to eat. On the third day the guards came to his "hall," which held about 500 prisoners. They handcuffed the men in pairs and took them to a line of vehicles painted in camouflage colors. Each vehicle held twenty-eight prisoners; Muhammad counted the seats. It wasthe middle of the afternoon when the convoy moved off. They drove for perhaps six hours, but Muhammad quickly lost all sense of direction and had no idea where they were going. All he could tell was that most of the journey was on the paved highway; the final hour was on a bumpy dirt road.

When the convoy eventually stopped, the driver kept the motor running. Over the throb of the engine, Muhammad could hear the sound of gunfire outside. The prisoners were hustled out into the darkness and searched for any identity cards and money that might have been missed earlier. Muhammad lost his last 700 dinars. When the search was completed, the guards removed the handcuffs that bound Muhammad to his neighbor, a man from the village of Babakr, close to Aliyani Taza. In place of the handcuffs, the guards brought a length of string, which they used to tie the twenty-eight prisoners in a single line by their left hands. The men were ordered to stand facing the edge of a freshly dug trench, just long enough to accommodate the twenty-eight bodies as they fell.

The knot binding Muhammad's left hand had been carelessly tied, and he managed to tug it free of his wrist and bolt a moment before the soldiers opened fire. Beyond the trench was an open field, and the springtime grass had grown tall enough to conceal Muhammad from the truck headlights that were now trained in his direction. To his astonishment, the guards did not give chase. Behind him, the clatter of gunfire continued.

Muhammad ran and walked for four days without food, drinking rainwater from puddles along the way. Trying to chart his route by the sun, he set out in what he thought was the direction of Germian, across an endless flat plain planted with wheat and barley. From the clothes of the shepherds he spotted at intervals, he could tell that he was in an Arab area. After four days, so exhausted that he could not walk another step, he stumbled into an Arab village. The people gathered around to stare. "Look," they said, "it is a Kurd who has fallen out of an airplane."

The remainder of Muhammad's odyssey is too long to recount in detail here. Imprisoned and beaten by the Arab villagers, handed over to the police, interrogated, taken to Mosul, jailed again, transferred to the Kirkuk police and then to Suleimaniyeh, to Kalar and back once more to Suleimaniyeh, amnestied and finally inducted into the army. Miraculously, the police believed his story--which he never varied--that he was a member of the jahsh of Fatah Beg, the mustashar from Kalar. The ordinary Iraqi police, who were almost certainly not privy to the truthabout the Anfal mass executions, never realized that they were dealing with an Anfalaki. Amn, which would certainly have pressed the matter further, was never brought in to elucidate Muhammad's case. The man was truly blessed with a talent for survival.

* * *

Ozer, Omar and Ibrahim

Remarkably, four of the other five survivors of the Anfal firing squads travelled together to their execution site as part of a single convoy. Three of them were even in the same vehicle--although one of the three did not know the others, and has not met them since. It is possible, then, to reconstruct their composite story in considerable detail.

Ozer, the young man who had spent his last night at Topzawa shivering with cold as he listened to revving bus engines and contemplated the pools of diesel oil and fresh blood on a cement floor, was perhaps the most articulate of these witnesses. Ozer was twenty-five at the time of Anfal, an unmarried construction worker who had seen action in the war against Iran and deserted several times from the Iraqi Army. He had been born not ten miles from Topzawa, in the village of Tarjil, on the main road between Kirkuk and the nahya of Leilan. But he had moved around a lot before settling in nearby Jafan, a tiny hamlet of just seventeen houses. There he stayed until April 1987, when the army attacked and burned the village. This time Ozer moved to Khidr Reihan, a peaceful village two and a half hours on foot from the nahya of Qader Karam that was home to several other deserters and draft dodgers.

Like so many others, Ozer took to the hills when the Third Anfal approached his home on about April 10. Hearing the rumor of a temporary amnesty in Qader Karam, he was one of the thousands who surrendered to the jahsh forces commanded by Qasem Agha, the one-eyed mustashar from Koysinjaq. Over the next few days, Ozer passed through the Qader Karam police station and the army brigade headquarters in Chamchamal. The truck that took him from there to the local office of Amn was part of the convoy that was caught up in the attempted revolt of the townspeople of Chamchamal. But Ozer was not one of those they succeeded in rescuing, and finally, on April 14, he arrived at Topzawa.

At this stage, Ozer met up with an acquaintance whom we shall call Omar, a 22-year old draft dodger who had also fled from Jafan the previous year and resettled in Khidr Reihan. Omar had fled to the hills when Anfal began, and surrendered to Qasem Agha's men two days after Ozer. From Chamchamal, they were trucked together to Topzawa, where most of their cellmates were strangers. But two of these men were destined to share with Ozer and Omar what was intended to be their final journey.

Both of them were draft dodgers from peshmerga-controlled villages in the nahya of Qader Karam. The elder of the two was "Mustafa," a 38-year old resident of Top Khana; the other, "Ibrahim," was a 23-year old father of four from Kani Qader Khwaru. Neither man was an active fighter, but Ibrahim had carried an Iranian-made Kalashnikov rifle as a member of the civilian "backing force," and was a friend or blood relative of most of the peshmerga who had died in the army's bloody assault on the PUK base at Tazashar, at the opening of the Third Anfal campaign. Like Ozer and Omar, both Mustafa and Ibrahim had been fooled by the phony offer of a three-day amnesty in Qader Karam. Mustafa had turned himself in to the jahsh led by Sheikh Mu'tassem; Ibrahim had surrendered to the forces of the mustashar Raf'at Gilli. Both men had passed through the first-stage collection facility at Aliawa.

The testimonies of these four men contain some minor discrepancies over dates. But at some point between April 15 and April 17 (the first day of the holy month of Ramadan), at about 8:00 in the morning, they were hustled, together with hundreds of others, into the prison yard at Topzawa. A caravan of sealed vehicles waited under military guard, with their engines running. They were of two kinds. Some (eighteen, by one count) were windowless police buses, painted green or white, and Ozer, Ibrahim and Omar were shoved into one of these. Ozer had time to notice that it had a Mosul registration; its license plate read "Nineveh Police," and the number was 5036 or 5037. Mustafa traveled in a second type of vehicle, which resembled a large ambulance or covered truck. The smaller police buses held thirty-four or thirty-five people each, in forward-facing rows two abreast, divided by a central aisle. Mustafa's truck held between fifty and sixty prisoners, squashed together on four benches that ran lengthwise along the vehicle.

To the last, it appears that the prisoners were grouped together according to their places of origin. Ozer recognized faces from a number of places in the Leilan-Qader Karam area--Khidr Beg, Qashqa andQarachiwar--as well as two others from his own home village of Khidr Reihan. Everyone in the bus was young, aged from 20-40, Ibrahim recalled. But Ozer thought that some of the men were much older, "with white beards."

The inside of the buses was hellish. The vehicle in which Ozer, Ibrahim and Mustafa rode was thick with old urine and human feces. Its previous occupants had scrawled brief messages in Kurdish on the seat-backs: "To the Saudi border"..."To the Kuwaiti border"..."To Ar'ar."2 In these smaller buses, the prisoners were separated from the driver's compartment by a padlocked sliding door. The driver himself entered by a separate door on the right of the bus. A military guard rode alongside him, armed with a Kalashnikov with a folding stock and wearing the distinctive uniform of the army's Special Forces (Quwat al-Khaseh)--camouflage fatigues of yellow drab with irregular green splotches and a red beret with the golden insignia of a bird of prey with outstretched wings.

Set into the sliding door that separated the two compartments was a small wire-mesh opening, perhaps six inches square, through which the prisoners closest to the front could see the road ahead and the driver's rear-view mirror. Ozer estimated that his was the thirty-fifth vehicle in the convoy.3 To the front and rear of each bus, he could glimpse pick-up trucks of the sort used by Amn, with mounted machine-guns.

Seated toward the front of the bus was a man named Anwar Tayyar. A dark, stoutly built man, Tayyar was a former peshmerga; he had also worked as a driver, and knew the roads intimately. For this reason, his fellow prisoners asked him to figure out where they were heading. Sneaking glances through the wire grille, Tayyar at first reported that they were following the road to Mosul. There was a gasp of fear,because, as Ibrahim recalled, "most of the government's killers are in Mosul."4 The passengers were convinced they were going to die.

Soon, however, the bus swung off the Mosul road and turned to the southwest. "We have been saved," said Anwar Tayyar with a sigh of relief. Perhaps, the men speculated, they were merely being transferred to another prison. But the buses drove on, stopping occasionally for a few minutes. At intervals, the men begged the Quwat al-Khaseh guard for water. "Just a minute," the man would answer, but the water never arrived. In the airless heat and stench of Mustafa's bus, the prisoners were reduced to drinking their own urine from their shoes.

As the afternoon wore on, Anwar Tayyar began to lose his bearings. "Samawa!" he exclaimed at one point, but then someone else recognized Falluja, a sizeable town on the Euphrates. Just outside Falluja, Ozer noticed that the convoy was splitting into two parts. The majority of the vehicles continued in a different direction; five, including Ozer's bus and the larger green truck carrying Mustafa, drove due west, into the rapidly approaching sunset. Before long, they passed the larger city of Ramadi to their left. After leaving Ramadi behind them, they continued for at least another fifteen minutes, perhaps as much as a half-hour, on the paved highway, turning right once at a junction to cross a heavily guarded bridge over a river--presumably the Euphrates once more.

At the far end of the bridge, the five vehicles halted. It was now about 6:30 p.m., and ten hours had passed since their departure from Topzawa. Through the wire-mesh screen, the prisoners could see that they had stopped outside a police station, under a clump of date palms. They could hear a conversation between one of their army guards and an officer at the police station. Although the man was addressed as "sir," his uniform bore no insignia of rank. It was clear that the guard was transferring the prisoners into this officer's custody. He handed over a list of their names, and told the officer that the vehicles were to remain with the police "until the mission is completed," at which time they should be returned.

The drivers and Special Forces guards climbed down from the vehicles at this point. Their replacements were dressed all in green with black berets--a uniform that is characteristic of both Amn and the Ba'ath Party, as well as the regular Iraqi police. The officer and several othermen jumped into two Toyota Landcruisers. There were also two bulldozers.

With the bulldozers in the lead, the new nine-vehicle caravan drove west along a bumpy paved road that ran parallel to the Euphrates. In the fading light, the silhouettes of date palms fringed the road to the right. One of the prisoners in Ozer's bus was weak and faint, and a prisoner who spoke a little Arabic begged the new driver for water. This was not allowed, the driver answered. "Let the man die," he said. "You are all men of Jalal Talabani."

After half an hour, the convoy turned right on to a dirt road. Ahead the prisoners saw only desert and darkness. Some began to pray, muttering the Shehadeh--"There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet..." Remembered images of his family flashed through Ibrahim's mind. By now all the men were weeping, asking what they had done to deserve such a fate, kissing each other's beards and exchanging words of forgiveness, as is the Muslim custom among those who know they are about to die.

* * *

It was almost dark, and the meaning of time had begun to dissolve. Ozer thought that the sealed buses traveled along this rutted desert track for about ten minutes; Omar estimated that the journey took from 15-30 minutes; Ibrahim said that it felt more like an hour. Suddenly, the bus lurched to a stop, bogged down in the deep sand. The vehicle behind, the last one in the convoy, swerved to the right to avoid it and got stuck as well. Through the wire-mesh screen in the sliding door, Ozer could see that the three remaining buses, as well as the two Landcruisers and one of the two bulldozers, had driven on ahead. In the half-light he could just make out the tops of the vehicles bobbing as they crested a rise and dipped into a shallow depression in the desert a quarter of a mile or so ahead. The driver turned off the engine.

Since the final turn on to the dirt road, there had no longer been any room for denial or wishful thinking. The men knew exactly what lay in store for them, and they began to plan feverishly, speaking in Kurdish in the knowledge that neither the guard nor the driver could understand them. When the guards arrived to kill them, they would put up a struggle. "Even if only one of the thirty-five survived, it was worth the try," said Ibrahim.

In the sudden quiet, the prisoners could hear the steady chatter of gunfire from automatic weapons, and the churning, whining sound of bulldozer engines. After perhaps twenty minutes, the guns fell silent. Out of the darkness, a bulldozer lumbered toward them and took up position behind the bus. Gears screaming, it tried several times to push the vehicle out of the sand, but the front wheels only dug in deeper. Next it tried to lift the bus out by its rear end, and Ozer thought the driver meant to tip them headlong into a trench, bus and all. At last, the bulldozer managed to drag the stalled vehicle out frontwards. The driver climbed down from his cab, exhausted by the effort, and took out his hip flask. The prisoners begged for water, banging on the windowless steel walls. The driver drank deeply and jeeringly held up his flask as the rest of the liquid trickled away into the sand.

It was now 7:30 p.m., and quite dark. The men were just able to tell the time by squinting at a watch that a prisoner from the village of Khidr Beg had somehow managed to hang on to at Topzawa. Twice more, there were volleys of gunfire and the sound of screams. After about half an hour, the two Landcruisers returned, with the officer who had joined the convoy at the bridge over the Euphrates. The driver of Ozer's bus climbed down from his seat, walked around to the back of the vehicle and turned off the overhead light in the rear compartment. Having done this, he went back to his cab and turned his headlights on full-beam. As Ozer and his companions whimpered in panic, the three dozen occupants of the second stalled bus were dragged into the pool of light, and a uniformed firing squad opened up on them with Kalashnikovs and pistols. When the firing stopped, the men were dragged into a freshly dug pit. Ozer noticed that some of the bodies were still moving. Only one busload of prisoners now remained.

The men's plan was this: When the first guard entered the bus to take the prisoners away, the strongest of them would overpower him, grab his weapon and try to wedge the door open. Most of the men were too weak to assist, but Ozer, Omar and a handful of others watched the sliding partition door. Ibrahim waited fearfully at the back, ready to bolt if he could. Through the grille, Ozer could see that two guards with pistols had taken up position on either side of the door; another, who carried a Kalashnikov stood by the driver's seat; while a fourth man, also armed with a Kalashnikov, guarded the outer door, with one foot planted on the step and the other on the ground.

After a few moments, one of the uniformed guards, a burly man with a thick neck, removed the padlock and slid back the connecting door to the driver's compartment. As soon as he did so, a prisoner named Salam lunged forward to strike him. But a second guard in the driver's cab opened fire with his pistol, killing Salam instantly, and slammed the door shut again. Ozer heard the first guard, apparently an officer, declare that he would execute the prisoners one by one.

Seizing command of the situation, Ozer issued his instructions. When the guards took the first prisoner out, Omar would throw his weight against the rail of the sliding door to prevent it from being closed. The other men would hurl themselves into the breach. And that is essentially what happened. The burly guard returned, pulled one prisoner into the open doorway and tied a white cloth around his eyes as a blindfold. As he turned to drag the man away, half a dozen prisoners rushed forward. Several of them laid hold of the shoulder strap of the guard's Kalashnikov, while he kept a firm grip of the stock and the barrel. Ozer yelled at another prisoner to punch the officer in the face. Although the man, like everyone, was weakened by several days without food, he succeeded in landing a blow on the officer's eye. Ozer wrenched the rifle free, but the officer managed to break loose, unclip the magazine and hurl it out of the bus behind him, rendering the weapon useless.

Pouring through the open door, the prisoners cut off the escape of the guard who had been standing by the driver's seat. Gunfire erupted, and two men fell dead on top of Ozer. Another prisoner tried to leap from the bus and was also cut down. As Ozer struggled to free himself, he saw the second of the four guards--the one who had killed Salam--stagger toward him, bleeding profusely from the shoulder. The man was screaming, "Abu Saleh, come and help me!" It appeared that he had been shot by his own side. Ozer reached for the man's pistol but could not find it; instead, he wrestled him to the ground by his injured arm, and the guard lay still, apparently unconscious. Meanwhile the soldiers or police outside continued to rake the bus with gunfire, and the men in the passenger compartment cowered under the bus seats. Bodies piled up inside the bus, and Ibrahim took a painful flesh wound in the right buttock. He was also dimly aware that he could no longer see through his right eye. In the confusion, Omar managed to wriggle under the vehicle as bullets ricocheted from it on all sides. Ozer felt his leg grazed by a flying piece of shrapnel. As he lay there, he heard a strange sound between the bursts of firing. At first he could not place it; then herealized that it was the sound of blood dripping from the bus. Almost all of his fellow prisoners were dead.

* * *

Mustafa's Story

The remaining three vehicles that had accompanied the convoy from Kirkuk had come to a halt a few hundred yards ahead, in the shallow depression that Ozer had glimpsed through the driver's window. Here, the executions had proceeded in a more orderly and efficient fashion. It was maghreb--sunset--when guards flung open the rear door of the truck in which Mustafa, the 38-year old father of nine from the village of Top Khana, had travelled from Topzawa. The men were dragged out in pairs. In his fear, Mustafa left his shoes behind; he had taken them off in the bus because of the heat. He, too, was aware of the constant rat-a-tat of gunfire, which seemed not to come from a single site but from many directions at once. But he could see nothing, only darkness and desert.

The guards carried out a hasty body search, stripping Mustafa of his military ID papers but somehow failing to find the 200 dinars that he had managed to keep hidden in his clothing at Topzawa. He felt his hands being roughly bound behind him with his Kurdish cummerbund. His eyes were blindfolded with his headscarf, as were his companion's. The two men were ordered to walk. Mustafa, knowing that he was to die, began to recite under his breath the Ayat al-Kursi from the Koran. "God: there is no god but He, the Living, the Everlasting..."5 He moved forward for about twenty yards, then felt himself stumbling down a slight incline. From a distance, the voice of a guard ordered the two men to liedown on their backs. As he obeyed the command, Mustafa felt himself sandwiched between his companion and another, inert body. His ears picked up the sound of a bulldozer's engine revving.

The next thing Mustafa heard was automatic weapons firing. To his side he felt a jolt and heard a groan. The clatter of gunfire ceased, and Mustafa heard the guards walk away. He realized that the bullets had missed him. Praying that he was unobserved, he tried to wriggle sideways, feeling more dead bodies as he moved, and struggling to loosen the cummerbund that bound his hands. Minutes later, he heard the guards return with another two prisoners, who lay down in the trench and were riddled with gunfire; then another pair, and another round of firing, this time a little further away. Mustafa was still unharmed. "It was God's wish," he thought.

This time, when the guards departed, Mustafa managed to work his blindfold loose. He saw that he was lying in a long, shallow trench, perhaps twenty feet wide and eighteen inches deep. The end of the trench, where the bulldozer had exited, was close by: this was the shallow incline into which he and his fellow prisoner had stumbled. In the other direction, the trench stretched away as far as Mustafa could see. It was filled with hundreds of corpses.

This macabre scene was illuminated by the headlights of the bulldozer, which now stood at the shallow entrance to the mass grave, its engine running. The driver appeared to be waiting for orders to cover the bodies with dirt when the trench was full, as it now almost was. Over the lip of the trench, Mustafa could still make out the dark shape of the vehicle that had brought him here. For fifteen minutes he lay where he was, listening to staccato gunfire and screams. After a while he realized that the sound was not in fact coming from all sides. The area behind him was silent, and Mustafa began cautiously to clamber over the bloody piles of dead bodies, away from the noise of the firing squads. Peering out, he saw that his was the last of many trenches. Behind him there was only desert. Mustafa ran.

He ran until morning, stopping only occasionally to catch his breath. Wild dogs chased him, smelling blood, and he kept them at bay by throwing stones at them. He saw lights in the darkness, but was afraid to go toward them. When the sun rose, he stumbled on to a dirt road. In the distance, he could see a city. But before he could reach it, he realized that the nearest building was a military base; two soldiers caught sight of him and waved him away on to another dirt road, but did notcome close enough to see the bloodstains on his clothes. The road that the soldiers had indicated brought Mustafa to a river. When he had washed the bloodstains from his clothes, he set off once more in the direction of the city. Before long, he ran into a shepherd, and asked the old man where he was. "Ramadi," the shepherd answered.

The old man explained that he was an Iranian Kurd who had been resettled in a nearby mujamma'a.6 He was curious about why Mustafa was barefoot. Thinking quickly, Mustafa replied that he was a government public works employee, and had been in a car crash. Since he had left all his papers in the wreck, he was anxious to avoid military checkpoints. The old man gave Mustafa an address in the complex and told him how he could sneak in without being observed by the guards.

Reaching the house, Mustafa smelled the aroma of fresh bread. He found a woman baking. What was this place, he asked. She told him it was a complex that had been built for Iranian Kurds, although she herself was an Iraqi Kurd from Khanaqin.7 Her husband was at market, she explained, but would return before long. When the man arrived, Mustafa repeated his car-crash story and asked for advice on how he could get back to Baghdad. A bus would soon be leaving the complex for Ramadi, the man said. He gave Mustafa instructions on how to evade the checkpoints, and pressed on him some food and a pair of slippers. When Mustafa got to the entrance to the complex, the bus was just pulling away, but he flagged it down and the driver stopped. As Mustafa boarded the bus, he recognized one of the other passengers. It was someone he knew from the Jafan area. It was Ozer.

* * *

After the massacre in the bus, Ozer had managed to slip away into the darkness. He ran for a while, confused and angry, before tripping headlong into a trench. He fell on top of a body. It was bleeding from the nose, but the man was still breathing. This trench was very different from the one in which Mustafa had been laid for execution. It was ten or twelve feet deep, Ozer remembered, and only about six feet wide. He estimated that it contained 400 bodies. Scrambling out again, he fled into the desert. Fearful of being recognized as a Kurd, he stripped off his clothes and rolled them into a bundle, which he carried on his shoulder. Like Mustafa, he had left his shoes behind.

He walked or ran for hours. "I passed only trenches filled with bodies; I could tell what they were by the smell," he recalled. "I also saw many mounds made by bulldozers. The whole area was full of trenches with corpses."

At one point he crossed a paved road and came to water, perhaps a lake. On the other side he could see the tall shapes of date palms. He knelt down to drink, but stopped short when he saw the headlights of a vehicle approaching. Afraid that it was one of the Landcruisers from the execution squad, he plunged into the water and started to wade toward the far shore. But when he was waist-deep, he noticed with relief that the car had turned in another direction. Now, Ozer also saw the lights of distant buildings, and he headed toward them. It was perhaps 4:00 a.m.

It turned out to be the same complex that Mustafa had reached. Ozer later learned that it housed thousands of people from the Qaser Shirin border area, who had been kept here as virtual hostages since the early days of the Iran-Iraq War. The complex was encircled with barbed wire, and its residents were barred from leaving, other than on eight-hour passes that allowed them to shop at the market in Ramadi.

Ozer peered through the doorway at the first building he passed. He saw two people asleep in an inner courtyard, and knocked. A man's voice called out in Kurdish, "Who's there?"

"A poor man in need of bread and water," Ozer answered.

Neighbors, aroused by the noise, came out from the building next door to see what was happening. But when they saw Ozer, they promptly slammed their door shut again. In answer to his repeated knocking, it was opened once more, and Ozer saw an old man and his two sons brandishing sticks at him. When he blurted out his story to the men, they agreed to give him some food--bean soup and bread. But they were too afraid to shelter a ragged Kurdish fugitive in their home. In the earlydawn, Ozer went begging from door to door, until a man named Ahmad agreed to take him to the terminal where he could catch a minibus to Ramadi. On the bus, he met Mustafa. The two men traveled together as far as the Baghdad bus terminal, where Mustafa thought he recognized an Istikhbarat officer he had seen in Topzawa, and fled on his own into the crowds. Ozer eventually reached the Kurdish quarter of Kirkuk. That night, watching television, Ozer saw himself in a news flash that showed the Iraqi Army watching over captured "Iranian agents"--the film shot at the Qader Karam police station on April 10.8

* * *

Taymour's Story

Through a series of chance occurrences in the desert, five men--Muhammad, Ozer, Mustafa, Omar and Ibrahim--survived the culmination of the Iraqi regime's Anfal campaign. From the testimony of these five survivors, it is apparent that one of the principal purposes of Anfal was to exterminate all adult males of military service age captured in rural Iraqi Kurdistan. Firing squads murdered these Kurds by the tens ofthousands with no semblance of due process, by virtue of nothing more than their age, their ethnicity and their presence in "prohibited areas" supposedly influenced by the parties of the Kurdish peshmerga. As Ali Hassan al-Majid had insisted on many occasions, paragraph five of Northern Bureau Command directive SF/4008 was being carried out to the letter.9

The bodies of many of the victims of Anfal lie in mass graves outside the Iraqi town of Ramadi, ploughed under by bulldozers in a desert area that, for the moment, remains inaccessible to outside observers. But it is apparent that this was not the only mass execution site used during Anfal. On this score the testimonies of Ozer, Mustafa, Omar and Ibrahim leave a number of enigmas still unanswered. Their accounts indicate that thousands lie buried outside Ramadi; yet they also say that only five buses from an original convoy of more than thirty took the road to Ramadi that night. The remainder broke off outside Falluja and drove off in another direction, and the inference must be that these prisoners were taken to be executed elsewhere.

Middle East Watch has received detailed reports, based on hearsay, of at least three other mass execution sites that were used during the Anfal campaign. One of these was in the vicinity of the archeological site of Al-Hadhar (Hatra), some sixty miles south of the city of Mosul. (There is ample material here for the connoisseur of historical irony, since Saddam Hussein had spent lavish resources on excavating Al-Hadhar as part of his search for the ancient origins of the Iraqi Arab nation--only to dig it up again as a burial place for his non-Arab enemies.)10

Another reported execution site was near Hamrin Mountain, to the south of Tuz Khurmatu. One account, citing an eyewitness, speaks of forty busloads of Kurds, in the custody of Republican Guards, being machinegunned by a dirt road leading to the Otheim river. A third report speaks of mass executions at another part of Hamrin Mountain, between Tikrit and Kirkuk--this one involving an estimated 2,000 women and children.

The lists of those who disappeared during Anfal, which are routinely pressed on all visitors to Iraqi Kurdistan, are by no means restricted to the names of young and middle-aged men. Indeed, from the fragmentary lists given to Middle East Watch, it is apparent that more than half of those who disappeared from southern Germian and the Lesser Zab Valley were women and children. Some of those who disappeared were no doubt infant refugees who perished on the freezing roads to Iran or Turkey. Many other small children were allowed to die of starvation and disease in the prison at Dibs. Hundreds of children (whose fates are known, and thus do not figure in these lists of the disappeared) were among the victims of the chemical gas attacks on Halabja, Goktapa and other sites. But many children also went before the firing squads.

One of these children of Anfal was Taymour Abdullah Ahmad, the 12-year old from Kulajo in the nahya of Tilako in southern Germian, just six or seven miles from Muhammad's home village of Aliyani Taza. Taymour was the first--and until recent Middle East Watch interviews the only--known survivor of a mass execution during Anfal. He remains the only eyewitness to the mass killing of women and children. His story has been well documented elsewhere, but it bears repeating here in its proper context.11

Taymour had lived in Kulajo from the age of three. His father, Abdullah, was a wheat farmer, and the family--Taymour, his parents, and his three younger sisters--lived in a humble four-room mud house. Thesiblings were closely bunched in age. In 1988, Taymour was twelve. His eldest sister, Jelas, was a year younger; Laulau was ten, and Sunur nine. Kulajo was swept up in the massive three-day army sweep through southern Germian in the second week of April, and fleeing before the advancing troops, Taymour and his family were funneled through the first collection-point at Melistura. They hoped to make their way to the complex of Sumoud, where some relatives had been relocated in 1986 and 1987, but this was impossible. From Melistura they were taken by tractor-hauled cart to the fort at Qoratu, and thence, after ten days, to the Popular Army camp at Topzawa.

By now Taymour knew that this campaign was different from any of the past, and even in Qoratu he began to fear that he and his family were to be executed. At Topzawa, his father was taken away, and Taymour never saw him again. Through the window of his hall, he watched as male prisoners were handcuffed together, stripped to their undershorts and hustled away. The rest of Taymour's family remained at Topzawa for a month, and were fed on bread and water and a little cheese. During this time Taymour saw several younger children weaken and die.

One day in late May, at about six in the morning, the guards led Taymour, his mother and sisters out into the courtyard and checked their names off on a list. A convoy of vehicles awaited, apparently the same kind in which Mustafa had been driven to Ramadi about a month earlier. They were painted green or white, and Taymour thought that the absence of windows made them look like oversized ambulances. He counted fifty or sixty women and children, seated along the four benches that stretched the length of each bus. To enter the passenger section, the prisoners had to pass through two small guards' compartments, connected by an interior door. Other guards rode in front with the driver. The only ventilation came from a small wire-mesh opening at the rear. Taymour could not see outside.

They drove until sunset along a paved highway, halting only once. Taymour craned to look out through the wire-mesh screen, but all he saw of their stopping place was a large water tank painted in camouflage colors. The heat was oppressive, the doors remained locked, and there was nothing to drink. As the bus drove on, three children collapsed and died, all of them younger than Taymour. But still they did not stop. No one spoke: "They were too afraid," Taymour remembered, "too exhausted, too hungry and thirsty, too desperate."

It was nightfall when the caravan stopped and the guards took the prisoners outside. In the darkness, Taymour could see nothing but endless desert. But he could see now that there were about thirty vehicles in the convoy. Dozens of soldiers milled around; they appeared to have been accompanying the buses in Toyota Landcruisers.12 They gave the prisoners a little water to drink from their canteens and then blindfolded each one with a strip of white cloth. Since there were hundreds of people, the process took a long time--about an hour, Taymour thought. When it was over, the prisoners reboarded the buses, and Taymour promptly removed his blindfold. The jolting of the bus told him that they had left the highway and were driving along a dirt road into the desert.

After half an hour the bus stopped again and the guards threw open the rear doors. Taymour saw that each vehicle was neatly positioned next to its own burial pit, some fifteen feet square and less than a yard deep. A fresh mound of dirt rose up behind each pit. The guards shoved the prisoners roughly over the edge, and in the panic and confusion Taymour was separated from his mother and sisters. Almost at once an officer and a soldier opened fire with their Kalashnikovs. Taymour was hit in the left shoulder. Despite the pain, he began to stagger toward the soldier who had shot him. He remembered noticing that the man had tears in his eyes. But as Taymour tried to grab hold of him and climb out of the pit, the officer barked out an order in Arabic, and the soldier fired again. This second bullet caught Taymour on the right side of his back, just above the waist. This time he lay still.

Apparently satisfied, the soldiers walked away. Taymour could no longer see the men, but he could hear their voices in the darkness some distance away. He also became aware of a movement next to him. He could see that it was a young girl, and she appeared to be unhurt. "Let's run," Taymour whispered to her.

"I can't," the girl answered. "I'm too afraid of the soldiers."

Without stopping to argue, Taymour clambered on to the hard-packed mound of dirt behind the grave. He later heard a rumor that a young Kurdish girl had been found alive in the desert at this time, and surmised that it was the companion he had left behind. As for his motherand three daughters, they did not survive the execution squads that night.13

Like the girl, Taymour was at first too scared to run, since the Landcruisers were still driving around the execution site, their headlights sweeping in circles through the darkness. Taymour scooped out a shallow hole in the top of the mound and lay down flat. Each time the headlights moved away, Taymour dragged himself to the next trench. His had been the last one filled with bodies; in the direction he was now heading, the pits were still empty. As he reached each one, he stopped and flattened himself against the earth mound, hoping that he was invisible from below.

The next thing he knew, it was much later. He had passed out on top of the fifth or sixth mound. The blood was still flowing freely from his wounds. But the whole area was quiet now. The sealed buses and landcruisers had gone, and although Taymour never saw or heard any bulldozers, the pits that contained the bodies of that night's execution victims had been filled with dirt and smoothed flat. No fresh bodies were visible, and Taymour passed another twenty empty trenches as he fled into the darkness. He remembered thinking just one thing as he dragged his injured body away from the killing grounds: "If I get out of this alive, I will give five dinars to the poor."

There was no moon. Once he saw car headlights in the distance behind him. He came to the intersection of two dirt roads and struck out blindly along one of them. After a couple of hours, he discerned the shadowy outline of a Bedouin encampment. Dogs barked, and the noise woke the owner of the nearest tent, who emerged with a flashlight. Seeing a boy in Kurdish dress, covered in blood, he yanked Taymour inside. They could not communicate--the Bedouin spoke no Kurdish, and Taymour knew not a word of Arabic. And the man could do nothing to treat Taymour's wounds--although these proved not to be life-threatening. But he kept him safe in the tent for three days and then drove him in his truck to the nearest town. This was Samawa, the city south of Baghdad that had been the final stop for the convoys of sick and elderly people who were taken to Nugra Salman. Taymour stayed there, sheltered by a friendly Arab family, for more than two years. Eventually the family managed to smuggle a message through intermediaries to a surviving uncle of Taymour's in Kalar, letting him know that the boy was alive and well. In October 1990, Taymour and his uncle were reunited. The following year, after the failed Kurdish uprising, Taymour's story began to filter out, giving the outside world its first real glimpse of the horror that was Anfal.


1 Muhammad's story is based on a Middle East Watch interview with him on the site of Aliyani Taza village, March 30, 1993.

2 Ar'ar, an Iraqi-Saudi border post and a way-station for pilgrims traveling to Mecca, was mentioned in several interviews as a site for internments and mass executions during Anfal. A guard at Nugra Salman, for instance, told one elderly detainee that Kurdish prisoners from Anfal were being held there.

3 Again there are some minor discrepancies in the witnesses' estimates of the size of the convoy. But the various figures given to Middle East Watch would suggest that it contained between 1,000 and 1,500 prisoners.

4 The reference is apparently to the high proportion of Republican Guards from Mosul.

5 The Ayat al-Kursi, "the Throne," is verse 255 of the second Sura of the Koran. It reads in full, "God: there is no god but He, the Living, the Everlasting. Slumber seizes him not, neither sleep; to Him belongs all that is in the heavens and the earth. Who is there that shall intercede with Him save by His leave? He knows what lies before them and what is after them, and they comprehend not anything of His knowledge save such as He will. His Throne comprises the heavens and the earth; the preserving of them oppresses Him not. He is the All-high, the All-glorious." Arberry (trans.), The Koran Interpreted, p.65.

6 The old shepherd was presumably one of the thousands of Iranian Kurds relocated from their border villages after the Iraqi Army's occupation of portions of Iran's Kermanshah province in 1980. The location described by Mustafa is strongly suggestive of a camp called Al-Tash, outside Ramadi, which once held as many as 30,000 people. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had access to this camp, some 12-15,000 prisoners remained there in mid-1992. Middle East Watch interview, Geneva, July 14, 1992.

7 And therefore probably a victim of the Arabization campaign of the mid-1970s. Khanaqin lies in the extreme southeastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan, in the Arabized section of Diyala governorate.

8 Ibrahim and Omar, the remaining two survivors of the massacre in the bus, also made it back to Kurdistan. But for both men the ordeal was not yet over. Ibrahim, who like Ozer and Mustafa passed through the complex of Iranian Kurds on his way to Ramadi, was recaptured as a deserter in Baghdad, and passed through a series of military jails before taking refuge with a contingent of jahsh in Suleimaniyeh. Omar spent a further period in hiding in Kurdistan before eventually surrendering to the army in September, after the general amnesty. He was forced into another period in the military and sent to serve in Kuwait (as was Ozer) after the August 1990 Iraqi invasion. He deserted for the last time three days before the beginning of the air war in January 1991.

Anwar Tayyar, who had been on the same bus as Ozer, Ibrahim and Omar, also escaped from the execution site and was seen in late May or early June by peshmerga hiding out in the Qader Karam area. He had sustained four flesh wounds during the shooting in the bus, and had been left for dead. After the encounter near Qader Karam, Anwar Tayyar disappeared for good. The last peshmerga to see him alive speculate that he either starved to death or was captured by the army and killed. Middle East Watch interview with former PUK commander, Kalar, March 30, 1993.

9 This, it should be recalled, stated that, "All persons captured in those [prohibited] villages shall be detained and interrogated by the security services and those between the ages of 15 and 70 shall be executed after any useful information has been obtained from them." See above p.64.

10 Saddam Hussein's fascination with Al-Hadhar is detailed in Baram's Culture, History and Ideology, pp.53-54. Al-Hadhar may also be the site referred to by a former Zakho mustashar interviewed by Neil Conan of National Public Radio in the U.S.; this man spoke of 12,000 Kurdish men being executed at an unknown site in August 1988 after being imprisoned in Mosul. Conan's interview is cited in Makiya, Cruelty and Silence, p.144. There are also persistent but unconfirmed reports of mass Anfal graves near Ar'ar on the Iraqi-Saudiborder, and in Diwaniyah and Naseriyah governorates in southern Iraq.

11 See for example, Middle East Watch/Physicians for Human Rights, Unquiet Graves: The Search for the Disappeared in Iraqi Kurdistan, February 1992, pp. 23-25; and Makiya, Cruelty and Silence, chapter 5. Taymur has also been featured extensively in television reports, including "Saddam's Killing Fields," CBS "60 Minutes," February 23, 1992.

12 Although Taymour referred to the executioners as "soldiers," he had no specific recollection of their uniforms, and it is much more likely that the men belonged to another agency, such as the Ba'ath Party or Amn.

13 Taymour, in fact, lost a total of twenty-eight relatives in Anfal. In addition to his father, mother and three sisters, they included his uncle, Omar Ahmad Qader; his aunt, Ayna Ahmad Qader, her husband, Hama Sa'id Mohi-al-Din Abd-al-Karim and their three young children; his aunt, Mahsa Muhammad Mahmoud and her nine children; an unmarried aunt, Hamdia Muhammad Mahmoud; his uncle, Osman Muhammad Mahmoud, his wife, Amina Ali Aziz, and four of their fourteen children. Middle East Watch interview with Taymour Abdullah Ahmad, Sumoud Complex, July 29, 1992.

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