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The Vanishing Trail

"These measures will have a deterrent effect because
(a) the prisoners will vanish without leaving a trace;
(b) no information may be given as to their whereabouts or their fate."
-- Nacht und Nebel Erlass (Nazi Germany's Night and Fog Decree), modified version, February 1942.

"They have sunk into deep water. They were lost. We have no information about them."
-- elderly female survivor from Goktapa.

Forced disappearance is the distinctive act of terror of the modern state. It immobilizes the survivor with doubt and fear, with unconsummated grief and mourning that is permitted none of the rituals of closure. The washing and clothing of the dead, the placing of the body with its face turned toward Mecca that is required of the devout Muslim--these acts were not possible for the disappeared of Anfal. In the case of those who were executed in captivity under the routine terror of the Ba'ath regime, a punctilious bureaucracy at least furnished the family with the legal proof of death. But for most of the Kurds who disappeared during Anfal, there was not even this.

Once the campaign was over, most of the survivors inhabited a netherworld of uncertainty. Women had lost their breadwinners, and Islamic law forbade them to remarry until seven years had passed since their husbands went missing. Although the stories of the firing squads were known and repeated, the Kurds' squalid resettlement complexes were still swept by rumors of Anfalakan kept alive in secret jails in the desert, held as bargaining chips in some future round of negotiations between the regime and the peshmerga, taken off to other countries--Sudan, Yemen or Jordan--to be used as slave labor.

Before the uprising of March 1991, while the Ba'ath Party still controlled Iraqi Kurdistan, few had the temerity to inquire after their lost ones, fearing that the same fate might await them or their surviving relatives. Even leaving aside questions of security, few would have knownhow or where to start an inquiry into the labyrinth of the state bureaucracy: with the district head, the qaym maqam? the governor's office? the local police station? the mustashar? the Ba'ath Party? the Army base? the dreaded Amn? But some did take the risk, and their searches--when pieced together with Iraqi government documents and the testimony of those who survived the camps--shed important light on how Anfal worked. It appears to have been a highly compartmentalized operation, with each of the agencies involved knowing only what it needed to know. Only a tiny circle at the heart of the Ba'ath Party machine was ever privy to the whole story about what happened to those who were "Anfalized."

* * *

Some survivors came to learn the truth, but only in the most bald and unadorned terms. Rashid, a young shepherd from Chircha Qala, at the foot of Zerda Mountain, had managed to live through Anfal by walking past the troops on the main road with his farm animals. But he lost his mother, ten-year old sister, six-year old brother and two aunts. Later he was drafted into the same army that had captured his family. A sympathetic Christian officer took a liking to Rashid and told him candidly to stop thinking about his relatives: "All the people from Anfal have been buried with bulldozers."1

Most, however, did not even discover this much. Nuri, an elderly man from the devastated village of Jelamort, in the Lesser Zab valley, went to the office of the qaym maqam of Chamchamal to inquire after his missing son, daughter-in-law and two-year old granddaughter. The authorities registered their names and told him to come back after three days. When he returned, they said that the governorate could do nothing to help in this case. In fact, the official told Nuri, "I can do even less than you. You asked, but I am afraid to ask."2

Salim, a younger man from the Sheikh Bzeini tribal area, had been away from his village when the army came. But the troops had captured his wife and eight children--the eldest a boy of fifteen, the youngest a year-old girl. Some sympathetic jahsh from Salim's own tribehad tried bribing the soldiers, offering them 1,000 dinars ($3,000) for the freedom of each child. It was too late for this, the soldiers answered; the children had already been loaded into the trucks. After Anfal, Salim went on the track of every rumor; he went to Kirkuk, to Topzawa, and even to Nugra Salman. Amn arrested him three times for his persistence. On the last occasion they blindfolded him and warned him never to ask about his family again.3

Mahmoud Tawfiq Muhammad, the elderly head of the Jaff-Roghzayi tribe in one of the worst hit areas of southern Germian, refused to take no for an answer. Twenty members of his immediate family had vanished, most of them small children; Mahmoud had been with them in the fort at Qoratu, but had lost track of them when the sexes were separated at Topzawa. After his own release from Nugra Salman, Mahmoud traveled to the home of Haji Ahmad Fatah, the Kurdish village elder (mukhtar) who had been in charge of the Dibs camp. "I kissed his shoes and begged him. But I was told not to ask. 'You have nothing to do with it,' they told me. 'Go to Nugra Salman.'" All that the mukhtar would tell the old man was that the Dibs prisoners had been transferred--but he did not know, or would not say, where.

From Dibs, Mahmoud went up to Erbil, where his personal connections enabled him to arrange a meeting with the head of Amn in that city. The security boss told him that the missing had been sent to a place called Ar'ar, an important border crossing point to Saudi Arabia and a resting place for pilgrims on their way to Mecca.4 It was forbidden for anyone to visit or communicate with them. Mahmoud pleaded with the Amn chief, offering him 1,000 dinars for each person freed, but the man said this was impossible: "Only Saddam Hussein or Ali Hassan al-Majid could free them."

The civilian governor of Erbil said that he, too, was powerless. Despite Mahmoud's deferential gift of a number of sheep, the Kurdish governor of Suleimaniyeh, Sheikh Ja'far Barzinji,5 told much the samestory: many prisoners, both men and women, were being held in Ar'ar in a facility that was serviced by Egyptian truck drivers in the interests of secrecy. Personally, he could do no more than Mahmoud. The affair rested in the hands of the president and his cousin. But in Kirkuk, the information department of the Ba'ath Party's Northern Bureau told Mahmoud that Majid "had no time to meet me." In despair, he went back to Suleimaniyeh, where he approached a certain powerful Kurd who was known to be close to al-Majid and frequently entertained him in his home. The man agreed to intercede personally. "But Majid swore by the Holy Koran that only Saddam Hussein and God could save the disappeared." Exhausted and dispirited, Mahmoud abandoned his search.6

* * *

The Ba'ath Party:

Alpha and Omega of the Anfal Campaign

A number of captured Iraqi documents corroborate this kind of anecdotal evidence about the extreme degree to which power was concentrated during the Anfal campaign. Perhaps the most revealing case is that of four brothers, Chaldean Catholics, who disappeared from a Christian village near Gara Mountain in the nahya of Sarseng, in the wake of the Final Anfal.7 Their father "Isho," an influential local figure, was interviewed by Middle East Watch in Erbil in July 1992. (see also above p.317) He explained that the family had fled their village before Anfal reached them. His sons--three of them deserters and one a draft-dodger--had surrendered to the army during the five-week grace period that followed the September 6 amnesty; they had last been seen by relatives who were able to visit them in the Nizarkeh fort outside Dohuk. After this sighting, Isho himself tried to visit the fort, but when he arriveda guard told him that all the Christians and Yezidis had been removed the previous day in sealed buses. In Baharka, Isho made inquiries with both Amn and Istikhbarat, demanding to know why his sons had not been brought to the complex with the rest of their family. As non-Kurds, he was told, they were not covered by the September 6 amnesty. They had no information about the young men's present whereabouts. Finally, the family wrote to Saddam Hussein himself, but they never received an answer.8

Six months after this interview, Middle East Watch researchers happened upon the family's file in a box of documents from the Erbil regional office of Istikhbarat. The disappearance of Isho's four sons is the subject of a sequence of a dozen separate "secret and urgent" documents, beginning with a petition from Isho's sister-in-law to Saddam Hussein, dated January 7, 1989. She writes:

"Mr. President, Commander-in-Chief (May God Protect and Guide Him): My heartiest greetings and great admiration for the builder of Iraq's glory and the realizer of victories over its despicable enemies:

I am the citizen M. ... The four sons of my husband's brother are soldiers enlisted in the Southern Division. Upon your announcement of a general amnesty, they turned themselves in at Dohuk. Since that time, we have heard nothing of their fate.

Victorious and respected sir, please grace me with some knowledge of their fate.

Just as one knocks on the door of your justice, it opens on to the sweet smell of your compassion."

The petition is signed with the woman's fingerprint.

Since the case involved army deserters and draft dodgers, the presidential office referred it to military intelligence. It appears that Istikhbarat conducted a serious internal investigation into the affair, and that it was genuinely unaware of what had happened to the four men. Although Istikhbarat's Northern Region headquarters complains angrily about the sloppiness of its Mosul and Dohuk offices, and the contradictory quality of their reports, the initial facts of the case are quickly established. The four brothers are known to have surrendered to military units in Atrush on September 10, 1988, four days into the amnesty period, and Mosul Isitikhbarat can find no evidence that they "bore arms with the saboteurs." From there the prisoners were transferred to the Party-run Returnee Reception Committee of Dohuk and detained--as their father already knew--in the Nizarkeh fort. Mosul reports that the Dohuk detainees were subsequently split up into two groups. One was sent to a fort in the Daraman area, on the highway between Altun Kupri and Kirkuk. The other was transferred to Topzawa--the only reference so far found to indicate that this Popular Army camp being used for prisoners from the Final Anfal in Badinan.

After this, the trail goes cold. Northern Region Istikhbarat dispatches agents to the Baharka-Jezhnikan complex to interview the family, as well as to each of the army forts along the Kirkuk-Erbil road. But these inquiries yield no fresh information. The Dohuk office might be more helpful, an Istikhbarat captain comments pointedly in his report to the Northern Region director, if it were prodded by the ruling Party. Three days later, however, on March 14, 1989, the director makes his final report to Istikhbarat headquarters. The four men, he writes, "were handed over to the [Returnee] Reception Committee of Dohuk governorate, which in turn handed them over to the Northern Bureau Command in Ta'mim [Kirkuk] governorate. We have no further information on their fate."9

* * *

While Istikhbarat was clearly kept in the dark, it seems that even Amn, which wielded such enormous power over the lives of all Iraqis, was unaware of the final destination of those who disappeared during Anfal or surrendered to the authorities under the various amnesty decrees of 1988 and 1989. The archives of Amn headquarters in the governorate of Erbil, for example, are full of requests to local branches for information about hundreds of men, women and children whose relatives have come inquiring about their whereabouts.10 Eventually, as the survivors continued to knock on the door of the powerful security agency seeking "the sweet smell of compassion," Amn ordered a change in how its standard response to them would be worded. A handwritten Amn letter notes:

On September 25, 1990, the honorable director issued the following directive: The phrase 'We do not have any information about their fate' will replace the phrase 'They were arrested during the victorious Anfal operation and remain in detention.' The purpose of this is to be accurate in dealing with such an eventuality."11

Both Amn and Istikhbarat had to defer to the final authority of the Ba'ath Party's Northern Bureau on the matter of those who vanished. Evidence for this can be found, for example, in a communication from Amn Erbil that appears insignificant at first glance. Dated August 26, 1988, this is a brief note informing the agency's municipal office that two women "have been returned [to Amn] by the Northern Bureau Command, due to the fact that they are not residents of areas that were included in the Anfal operations." While both women are former residents of villages in the nahya of Taqtaq, which was decimated by Anfal, one had previously been relocated with her family to the city of Erbil and the other to the Qushtapa complex--and were thus not liable to be "Anfalized." Conversely, it is clear, it would have been up to the Northern BureauCommand to dispose finally of anyone who was a resident of an area affected by Anfal.12

* * *

Decree no. 160 of March 29, 1987 had made it quite clear that Ali Hassan al-Majid was to enjoy the full authority of the Revolutionary Command Council to orchestrate the efforts of the whole pyramid of other state and party agencies--military, civilian and security--which played a role in Anfal. (see Appendix B, pp. 355-357) And as the captured Iraqi documents and survivor testimonies indicate, it was the Ba'ath Party apparatus in the north, headed by al-Majid, which weighed in its hands the fate of each individual captured in the course of the campaign.

There remain many unsolved mysteries about the Anfal campaign, some of which may be answered by future study of the captured Iraqi documents.13 The identity of the uniformed men who made up the Anfal firing squads may remain forever a secret. Were they Amn agents? Members of the Republican Guard? Or were they, as seems more likely, "comrades" of the Ba'ath Party itself?14

Why were the women and children only killed in certain areas? Did their execution reflect patterns of combat and resistance, or was some other criterion used? Where are the graves of all those who died, and how many bodies do they hold? The answer cannot conceivably be less than 50,000, and it may well be twice that number. When Kurdish leaders met with Iraqi government officials in the wake of the spring 1991 uprising, they raised the question of the Anfal dead and mentioned a figure of 182,000--a rough extrapolation based on the number of destroyed villages. Ali Hassan al-Majid reportedly jumped to his feet in a rage when the discussion took this turn. "What is this exaggerated figure of 182,000?" he is said to have asked. "It couldn't have been more than 100,000"--as if this somehow mitigated the catastrophe that he and his subordinates had visited on the Iraqi Kurds.15

The identity of the executioners, and the precise number of their victims, may never be known--or at least not until the files in Baghdad can be opened. But whatever the answers to these lingering questions, there can be no doubt that the Northern Bureau of the ruling Ba'ath Party, and its parallel Command, headed by RCC member Taher Tawfiq, functioned as both the Alpha and the Omega of the Anfal operation. And it was Ali Hassan al-Majid--"Ali Anfal," "Ali Chemical," Iraqi's present Minister of Defense--who gave the killers their orders.

Al-Majid appears almost defensive in talking about the Anfal operation with unnamed Northern Bureau officials in January 1989. "How were we supposed to convince them to solve the Kurdish problem and slaughter the saboteurs?" he asks them, alluding to the misgivings of senior military officers about the Anfal operation. In addition, he adds, what was to be done with so many captured civilians? "Am I supposed to keep them in good shape?" al-Majid asks. "What am I supposed to do with them, these goats?....[T]ake good care of them? No, I will bury them with bulldozers." And that is what he did.


1 Middle East Watch interview, Naser complex, March 26, 1993.

2 Middle East Watch interview, Erbil, April 23, 1992.

3 Middle East Watch interview, Daratou complex, April 20, 1992.

4 On Ar'ar as a possible mass execution site, see above p.253, footnote 10.

5 Sheikh Ja'far, it should be recalled, was the brother of the notorious Qader Karam mustashar, Sheikh Mu'tassem Barzinji. Sheikh Ja'far was also reportedly the main point of liaison between Ali Hassan al-Majid and the mustashars duringthe Anfal campaign.

6 Middle East Watch interview, Sumoud complex, May 20, 1992.

7 All names and locations in this account have been altered or omitted to protect the witnesses.

8 Middle East Watch interview, Erbil, July 7, 1992. Further information on this case was provided by additional interviews with former residents of the village.

9 Classified correspondence between Istikhbarat national headquarters, Northern Regional headquarters, and Dohuk and Mosul offices, February 12 to March 14, 1989.

It should be recalled that the September 6 amnesty decree stipulated that anyone surrendering after October 9--not the case here--was to be taken into military custody and then handed over to the Northern Bureau Command.

10 The Amn requests examined by Middle East Watch were issued between June and August 1989. They refer, however, to detentions and surrenders as far back as the Second Anfal in April 1988.

11 Handwritten internal memo from the "Person in Charge of Political Affairs," Amn Erbil, October 18, 1990.

12 Amn Erbil to Amn municipal command, letter no. Sh2/12809, classified "secret" and dated August 26, 1988. This document is also an excellent illustration of both the meticulous bureaucratic procedures and the rigid logic of Anfal. Individual detainees were evidently evaluated on a case-by-case basis before a decision was made about their fate. Although it is noted that one of these two women is "politically independent" and the other a "housewife," it is not this which saves them, but their place of residence. This appears to be the key to the logic of the whole Anfal operation.

13 By the time of the publication of this report, Middle East Watch had scrutinized only a small proportion of the Iraqi documents captured by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The results of MEW's continuing research into these unique materials will be detailed in future reports.

14 This tentative conclusion is supported by two factors. One is the known subordination of Amn, Istikhbarat and other agencies to the Ba'ath Party in all aspects of the Anfal campaign. The other is the frequent reference, in Revolutionary Command Council decrees and other documents, to the Party as the agency responsible for executing draft dodgers and deserters--terms whichbecame virtually synonymous, as we have seen, with anyone living in the "prohibited areas" of the Kurdish countryside.

15 This remark was reported to Middle East Watch by Kurdish officials present at the meeting, and has appeared in a number of press reports. See, inter alia, Makiya, "The Anfal," Harper's Magazine, May, 1992, pp.58-59.

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