"For the young, the final stage was
-- Rahman, an elderly man from Darbarou village, Taqtaq.
TOPZAWA is one of the commonest place names in northern Iraq; the map of Kurdistan is dotted with Topzawas. Most of them were tiny anonymous hamlets, of the sort that perished by the hundreds during Anfal. Like many place names, it is incongruous. Goktapa, site of the May 3 chemical attack, meant "green hill." Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp, was a "beech forest." Top, in Kurdish, means "artillery"; zawa is betrothed. Combined, the two words evoke sniggers among schoolchildren, for they refer, somewhat brutally, to the act that is performed by the male on his wedding night.
But just as no Kurd will ever again think of "Anfal" as a sura of the Koran, so no one will ever again hear the secondary meaning of "Topzawa" as a smutty joke. For the Topzawa they will remember is a sprawling army base on a highway leading southwest out of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Covering about two square miles, Topzawa is bounded by two underground oil pipelines, a railroad repair yard and a military airfield. For the villagers who were trucked away from their burning villages by the army during Anfal, all roads seemed to lead to Kirkuk, and to Topzawa. At Topzawa, any notion that Anfal was simply a counterinsurgency campaign evaporates.
No official documents have so far come to light from the Kirkuk headquarters of the various agencies that were involved in Anfal. But a letter from Amn Suleimaniyeh to the unnamed director of security of the Autonomous Region, dated October 29, 1988, alludes to the Topzawaoperation and gives some small hint of its scale. Almost two months have now passed since the completion of Anfal, and the regional security director in Kirkuk has evidently telephoned to ask for a progress report from the Suleimaniyeh governorate. The reply is classified "Secret and personal, to be opened by addressee only."
It begins, "In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful: Distinguished Director of the Autonomous Region, with reference to our telephone conversation, the statistics requested are as follows..." There is a brief recitation of actions taken: nine criminal subversives executed, along with eighteen members of their families, as ordered by Ali Hassan al-Majid's office; another nineteen people executed for being found in prohibited areas, in violation of directive no. 4008 of June 20, 1987; another forty-seven subversives sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court; and finally this: "2,532 individuals and 1,869 families totalling 9,030 persons, who were among those arrested during the heroic 'Anfal' operations, were sent to the Popular Army1 camp in the governorate of al-Ta'mim (Kirkuk)."2 In other words, to Topzawa.
From the collection points at Qader Karam and Qoratu and Leilan they came, from Chamchamal and Aliawa and Taqtaq, crammed into the swaying IFA trucks like farm beasts. "From Taqtaq we were taken the next day [about May 7] in a military truck with a cow," remembered Abd-al-Qader Abdullah Askari, the dignified old village leader of Goktapa, with a rueful laugh. "This was insulting. You know what cows do, they shit. At the turn-off on the road from Redar to Erbil,they dropped off the cow. I said to the cow, 'We're both going to be slaughtered, pardon me if I have done something wrong to you in the past'"--this being a traditional Muslim way of bidding final farewell.3
The truck lumbered on to Kirkuk, where it stopped for an hour or so outside the Ba'ath Party building. (Many witnesses recalled making a brief halt either here or at the Kirkuk headquarters of Amn.) Abd-al-Qader counted fourteen young men being hustled on to the truck by soldiers. Before long the vehicle drew up outside the gates of Topzawa. The minority of villagers who were literate could read the name on a sign at the entrance.
"It was very late at night when we arrived at Topzawa," said Yawar, a 70-year old man who believed he was Anfal's only survivor from his home village of Karim Bassam (nahya Qader Karam).
We were all hungry and exhausted. We were almost dead. We had not eaten for several days. We had even lost our sense of time. We did not know what they wanted to do with us. When we reached the base they announced over the loudspeakers that we should not get out of the trucks until they told us to do so. There were eight or nine trucks that arrived together. Their backs were covered; we could not see anything inside. We stayed in the truck for about one hour before the soldiers opened up the back and said, "The men, just the men will get off first." I was so hungry and exhausted that I could not move, so I was the last to get off. The young ones got off first; as soon as they did, they were handcuffed.4
With only minor variations, this was the standard pattern for sorting the new arrivals. Men and women were segregated on the spot, as soon as the trucks had rolled to a halt in the base's large central courtyard or parade ground. The process was brutal, and it did not spare the elderly. One 70-year old man from the nahya of Shwan was draggedout of line for no apparent reason, beaten by an officer wearing the three stars of a captain on his shoulder and robbed of 3,000 dinars ($9,000 at the official 1988 exchange rate). Abd-al-Qader of Goktapa recalled that a colonel (aqid) was in charge of processing the new arrivals, assisted by a captain (naqib).5
A little later, the men were further divided by age--small children kept with their mothers, the elderly and infirm shunted off to separate quarters, and men and teenage boys considered to be of an age to use a weapon herded together. Roughly speaking, this meant males of between fifteen and fifty, but there was no rigorous check of identity documents--and strict chronological age seems to have been less of a criterion than size and appearance. A strapping twelve-year old could fail to make the cut; an undersized sixteen-year old could be told to remain with his female relatives. A prematurely gray or grizzled-looking peasant could be spared, even though he might be in his forties.
"We joined thousands of other Kurds who had been brought there before our group," said one such man, Jalal, a 45-year old farmer from southern Germian who was transported to Topzawa in mid-April from the 21st Division fort at Qoratu.
We just did not know what would happen. We could not speak; fear would not let us speak, everyone was mute. The only sound that we heard was when the military officers called out names. "Accused Ali Rahman, son of so and so... Accused Mustafa Taher, son of so and so..." They were announcing the names of the youths over the loudspeakers. They did not call the old men."6
It was time now to process the younger males. They were split up into smaller groups--lines of eight, one said; seated in a smaller courtyard, said another. No one told the prisoners why they had beenbrought here, or what was to happen to them. After separation into groups, they were body-searched by soldiers or Istikhbarat agents. Some had their IDs removed at this point, but not all--perhaps, as one survivor suggested, because the guards were simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of their task. Combs, razor blades, mirrors, knives, belts, worry beads: everything was taken from the prisoners but the clothes they stood up in. "I saw a pile of watches, belts and money taken from the villagers and heaped up on the floor," one woman remembered. "You could weep."7
Some of the detainees were interrogated immediately, others hauled out later from their cells at night. In any event, for most of the newcomers the interrogation was quite perfunctory--no more, really, than the taking of a brief statement and a few simple questions: name, mother's name, number of siblings, marital status, year of marriage, number of children.8 "How long have you been a peshmerga?" the men were asked. "What actions did you take part in?" Many feared to give truthful answers. "I have never been a peshmerga," one young man answered typically. The interrogator, who was wearing the uniform of the army Special Forces (Quwat al-Khaseh), wrote down "peshmerga" anyway.9
Once duly registered, the prisoners were hustled into a number of large rooms, or halls, each filled with residents of a single area. One witness counted twenty-eight of these halls, and estimates of the numbersof prisoners held in each varied from one to two hundred. Using these figures as a rough yardstick, the total population of the Topzawa base at any given time may have been some 4,000-5,000. But the inmates shifted constantly, with most remaining there for as little as a single night or as much as four days before being taken on to their next destination.
While the conditions at Topzawa were appalling for everyone, the most grossly overcrowded quarters seem to have been those in which the male detainees were held. "We could not leave our hall," said one boy from near Qader Karam, who was held with others who were considered younger than military-service age but too old to stay with their mothers. "It was made of cement, heavily built and very strong with bars on the windows and doors but no glass. The hall measured about six meters by thirty, and was very crowded. There was no room to lie down."10 Other men described being forced to squat on their haunches all night, and beaten if they attempted to stand up. Many of their companions fainted from exhaustion.
Sanitation was non-existent. The prisoners used cans in the room for their bowel movements, and urinated out of the door or simply on the floor where they stood. If they were fortunate, they might be taken to the toilet twice a day at gunpoint, in groups of five or ten, by guards who sometimes beat them on the way with a strip of coaxial cable. Most were suffering from diarrhea by this time, especially if they ate the prison food. "It was something that it is better not to describe," said one of the few young men who survived Topzawa. "If you were not hungry you would not eat it. It was a type of soup with left-over bones and a lot of oil floating in it. Everybody got sick." For many inmates of Topzawa, there was not even this--merely two small pieces of stale pita bread (samoun) each day, and a little water. Some received no food at all. Again, women and children fared a little less harshly, and some of them told of occasionally being given meager rations of rice, tea, cheese or even, in one case, a little meat.
But the women and children suffered grievously in their own ways. After a short time in which they remained together, baton-wielding guards dragged the older women away violently from their daughters and grandchildren and bundled them away to yet another unknown destination. In at least two reported cases, soldiers and guards burst intothe women's quarters during their first night at Topzawa and removed their small children, even infants at the breast. All night long the women could hear the cries and screams of their children in another room. In one instance, the children were returned to their mothers the next morning, without a word of explanation, after a six or seven-hour separation. In the other, the families were not reunited until the next stage of their ordeal, when they were herded once more into army IFAs and transferred from Topzawa to a prison for women and children at Dibs, on the road that leads northwest from Kirkuk to Erbil and Mosul. Taymour Abdullah Ahmad, the twelve-year old boy who had been captured by the army on April 13 in the village of Kulajo, said he was held at Topzawa with his mother and three sisters for a month--an exceptionally long stay.11 During that time, he witnessed the deaths of four children, aged five to nine, apparently from starvation. Soldiers removed their bodies, and Taymour learned later that they were thrown into a pit outside.12
But above all the women and children of Topzawa endured the torment of seeing their husbands, brothers and fathers suffer and, in the end, disappear. Through the barred windows of their halls, they could see their menfolk in another part of the prison. Every two or three days, said Taymour, the inmates of his cell were let out for air and allowed to mingle in the central courtyard. The children would take advantage of the moment to slip across to the men's quarters and throw bread in at the windows.
For the men, beatings were routine. Even old Abd-al-Qader Abdullah Askari of Goktapa was beaten, a man in his late 60s still weak and disoriented from the chemical bombing of his village several days earlier. On the night of his arrival, a guard ordered him to stand. He replied that he could not, because of the gas. The guard rushed at himin a fury and beat him, screaming that it was forbidden for anyone to speak of poison gas attacks.13
A young army deserter from the Qader Karam area, known to his friends as Ozer, was held captive for four days in Topzawa. During that time one of his cellmates was a bearded man from the village of Khalo Baziani, in the nahya of Qara Hassan. The man told Ozer he had been tortured. They had to talk discreetly because of the ever-present guards, but Ozer was able to learn that the man had been beaten with a cable, hung from a ceiling fan and scorched with a piece of hot steel. Guards had stamped on his back with their boots while he lay face-down on the floor. The man was in great pain. He said he had been singled out for harsh treatment because of his beard--which was presumably taken as a sign of Islamic fundamentalism and pro-Iranian sympathies.14 An officer had told him that he would be executed if the beard was not gone by the following day. That evening, Ozer cut off the beard of this man and five others with a small pair of nail scissors that one of the prisoners had managed to keep hidden.
On the fourth day of Ozer's confinement, at 1:30 in the morning, an army captain came in and ordered the prisoners to stand. He told them that he would read a list of names; anyone who failed to answer when they were called would be executed on the spot in front of the others. One after the other the prisoners were summoned to the officer's table. Ozer saw that each man had been assigned a serial number; his own was 375. As their names were called, the prisoners were led out of the room in groups of eight. After four days on a starvation diet, they were weakened and disoriented. Ozer found himself in a second, empty hall. After the stuffy heat of his previous overcrowded quarters, he was chilled by the cold of the mid-April night. The floor was stained with diesel oil, and there were three patches of fresh blood. A bloodstainedKurdish headscarf lay in a corner, along with a coat and a pair of baggy Kurdish pants. At about 4:00 a.m. the prisoners heard the sound of engines outside. They tried to peer out of the keyhole, but it was impossible to make out anything in the darkness. For another four hours they waited, numb with cold, hunger and fear.
These early morning movements of male prisoners were observed by women and older people in other sections of Topzawa. "We saw them taking off the men's shirts and beating them," said one elderly man. "They were handcuffed to each other in pairs, and they took away their shoes. This was going on from 8:00 a.m. until noon."15 Sometimes the men were blindfolded as well; according to some accounts they were stripped to their shorts. And at last they were packed into sinister-looking vehicles, painted white or green and windowless; these were variously described as resembling buses, ambulances or closed trucks.
This was the last that was seen of the men who had been held at Topzawa. As the windowless vehicles left in one direction, buses drove off in another, filled with the other detainees. For many of the women and children--but by no means all of them, as we shall see--the next destination was the prison of Dibs. For the elderly, the road led south, through the river valleys of central Iraq, before turning southwest, into the desert. "The Kurds are traitors, and we know where to send you," a military officer told one old man from Naujul. "We will send you to a hell that is built especially for the Kurds."16 Its name was Nugra Salman.
Many tens of thousands of Kurdish villagers swept up in the third and fourth stages of Anfal passed through the Popular Army base of Topzawa in this way. So did smaller numbers of Kurds from the second, fifth, sixth and seventh Anfals. A note should also be added here about the Popular Army barracks in the town of Tikrit, which lies southwest ofKirkuk on the banks of the Tigris river, close to the birthplace of President Saddam Hussein. Tikrit appears to have performed a broadly similar function to Topzawa, but on a smaller scale and for a much shorter period. Indeed, all the witnesses who had spent time in Tikrit belonged to a single large batch of prisoners from the Daoudi tribal area along the Awa Spi river in southern Germian. All of them were captured in the initial stages of the Third Anfal by army units operating out of Tuz Khurmatu, and all of them were brought to Tikrit after first being detained at the Tuz Khurmatu Youth Hall (see above, pp.159).
It seems reasonable to surmise, then, that Tikrit was pressed into service as a temporary overflow center for a few days in mid-April, when the Third Anfal was in full swing in Germian and Topzawa was filled to capacity. As at Topzawa, the guards were identified as regular army troops, with Amn and Istikhbarat agents also in attendance. But one man also said that he recognized members of the Popular Army (Jaysh al-Sha'abi).
Conditions at Tikrit were extremely brutal. According to the account of Muhammad, a man from the village of Talau who was aged 63 at the time of Anfal:
On the first morning, they separated the men into small groups and beat them. Four soldiers would beat one captive; the other prisoners could see this. About fifteen or twenty men were in each group that was taken a little way off to be kicked and beaten with sticks and [coaxial] cables. They were taken away in the early morning and returned in the afternoon. The soldiers did not gather the men by name, but just pointed, "you, and you" and so on. They were Amn from Tikrit and Kirkuk; butchers, we know them.17 When one group of beaten men returned, they took another and beat them. That night, I was in a group of ten or twelve men that was taken out and blindfolded, with our hands tied behind us. They took us in three or four cars to somewhere in Tikrit. We drove around all night, barely stopping. They asked meno questions. The captured men could not talk to each other. Everyone was thinking of his own destiny. Of the ten or twelve they took out that night, only five returned. The next night, when I was back in the hall, Amn came and asked for men to volunteer for the war against Iran. Eighty men volunteered. But it was a lie; they disappeared. A committee was set up by Amn to process the prisoners, who were ordered to squat while the Amn agents took all their money and put it in a big sack. They also took all our documents. The Amn agents were shouting at us to scare us. "Bring weapons to kill them," said one. "They are poor, don't shoot them," said another. And another: "I wish we had killed all of them. "Later that night the Amn came back and took all the young men away. Only the elderly remained. The young men were taken away in Nissan buses, ten or more of them, each with a capacity of forty-five people. Their documents had already been taken; they left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Among the young men who disappeared that night were Muhammad's son Salah, his brother's son, and several other relatives. "I never heard from them again," he concluded. "There were no messages, nothing. No one ever saw them again. Only Saddam Hussein knows."18
The treatment of those captured in other phases of the Anfal campaign appears to have been slightly different. During April and early May 1988, Topzawa was processing Anfal victims on what can only be described as an industrial scale. But by the end of May, when Anfal reached the areas north of Dukan Lake, the rules had changed somewhat. Middle East Watch interviewed some three dozen former inmatesof Topzawa. Of these, five were from the areas affected by the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Anfals. Four were from Upper and Lower Bileh; the other was a young woman named Amina, from the nearby village of Akoyan.19 These witnesses reported being held apart from the other prisoners. Almost the entire group was from Bileh, although they also recognized a handful of people from nearby Kandour--the village whose residents had shown such kindness to the victims of the May 1987 chemical attack on the Malakan Valley. All of them had been brought here after a few days in the army fort at Spielk, near Khalifan. One man told of an additional night in an underground cell at the Amn headquarters in Kirkuk; several others reported an overnight stay in Erbil.
The Bileh group was apparently held at Topzawa for eight to ten days, considerably longer than most of the detainees from earlier periods. Their conditions also seem to have been marginally less harsh, and the women were able to take water and cigarettes to their husbands, who were detained in a separate large cell. After a week or so the women and children were transferred, like their predecessors, to another army base at Dibs. Most of the elderly were driven south to the prison at Nugra Salman, although one old man was taken directly from Topzawa to Arbat, a town to the south of the city of Suleimaniyeh. This was in mid-June. From Arbat, he made his own way to Basirma, a government-controlled complex that had been set up after the chemical attacks on the Balisan Valley in April 1987.
An even more notable exception to the earlier pattern of detentions was the case of Faraj, a 39-year old teacher from Halabja. His testimony shows again how survivors from that town were treated differently from those who were swept up in Anfal. It also demonstrates that Topzawa remained in operation until the very end of the campaign. Faraj had fled to Iran with his wife and two of his six children immediately after the March 16 chemical attack. After two and a half months in Iranian hospitals and refugee camps, the family crossed back into Iraq, but they were soon picked up by soldiers at a checkpoint in Ranya. After a period of interrogation by Amn agents in Suleimaniyeh,Faraj and his family were transferred to Topzawa in a bus that contained twenty-five people from Halabja and the Kalar area.20
The conditions that Faraj observed in Topzawa were broadly similar to what earlier witnesses had described. The sexes were still being segregated on arrival; 150 people or so were crowded into a single large cell; and they existed on starvation rations. But there was now a Kurdish army doctor in attendance, a man named Najib, who hailed from Khanaqin. Faraj became aware that all of his fellow-prisoners were from Halabja, and that many of them had not fled to Iran as he did, but had been captured inside Iraqi Kurdistan after the bombing of the city.
At night, he heard the sound of weeping from other parts of the building, and asked a guard what was going on. "Those are the Anfal prisoners," the guard replied, "and they are leaving the prison." Halabja, in other words, was not part of the Anfal operation. "Where are the Anfal prisoners being taken?" Faraj asked another guard the next morning. "That is none of your concern," the man answered. "If you ask that question again, you will be sent off with them too, to be lost forever."
From eavesdropping on their conversations, Faraj, who could speak Arabic, learned that the Topzawa guards had all been posted here from Baghdad. One of them even gave the prisoner his telephone number, and suggested that he call if he was ever in the capital to see if "we may have a job for you." Later, the same guard aroused the teacher's suspicions further when he gave him a letter which he said was from a Kurdish girl in another section of the prison, telling her relatives in the men's cells about her failing health and her fears of death. Faraj refused to get involved. Some time later his suspicions about the guard were confirmed when the man told him point-blank that Amn was interested in having him spy on his fellow Kurds.
Amn's clumsy attempts to recruit Faraj may partially explain the leniency that was shown to him, although it is clear from his testimony that Halabja survivors were treated more indulgently than the Anfal prisoners. For the first two weeks, Faraj was even allowed brief visits tohis wife, although those privileges were withdrawn when another prisoner was caught trying to escape through a hole in the ceiling. To discourage any further thoughts of flight, guards beat the man to death in front of his fellow inmates. The Halabja teacher remained in Topzawa for fifty-two days altogether--a much longer period of confinement than any other surviving witness has described. He was eventually released shortly after the end of the Iran-Iraq War and resettled in the Bayinjan complex, between Suleimaniyeh and Chamchamal.21
Karim, a 20-year old technology student from Dibs, had been aware for some time of unusual troop movements on the outskirts of town, close to the junction with the Kirkuk-Mosul highway.22 Residents of Dibs had seen civilian buses and coasters approaching from the direction of Kirkuk, and converging on the Dibs army base--a so-called "Fighting School" where Iraqi commando forces (Maghawir) were trained. They had also seen sealed green police buses leaving the base, accompanied by armed men in olive fatigues. Local shopkeepers grew accustomed to visits from groups of six or seven female prisoners, accompanied by guards, and soon learned that they came from the Dibs base.
These women, and their children, were being transported from Topzawa to Dibs in large numbers from mid-April onwards, part of the three-way segregation process that took their elderly relatives off to the prison of Nugra Salman and their menfolk off, stripped to their shorts, handcuffed and blindfolded, to an unknown destination. One of the Dibsguards told a newcomer that the camp--two buildings within a single compound--held 7,000 Kurdish prisoners. On arrival, some of the women found themselves reunited with the children who had been plucked from their arms by the guards at Topzawa. They would remain at Dibs for between four and five months, until the Iraqi regime declared its final victory over the peshmerga and announced a general amnesty for the Kurds.
The women were tormented by not knowing what had become of their husbands, brothers and fathers. Yet after the abysmal conditions at Topzawa, Dibs offered significant relief. There was room to stretch out and sleep on the filthy concrete floor, and there were no restrictions on the use of the bathrooms. Water was readily available from a faucet. The food was bad, but it was at least more regular--lentil soup and hard pita bread (samoun) or rice, twice or three times a day. After a few weeks, there was even a little added variety in the diet. By the time that Amina, the young woman from Akoyan, arrived in June, the rations at Dibs included two eggs a week, yogurt and tea, and toward the end even a little watermelon. The guards sold soap, tea and sugar to those women who still had money, and the authorities provided one blanket for every seven prisoners. The women were allowed to do their washing in the prison courtyard, sit under trees in the shade or even sleep outdoors if the heat inside was oppressive. At least some were allowed out into the town under guard to shop. One woman who was pregnant when she arrived at Dibs was taken (albeit under military guard) to a hospital in the town, where her delivery was attended by a Kurdish woman doctor. Another said that doctors visited the base twice a week, dispensing shots and tablets, although other witnesses disputed this.
Yet for all these comparative advantages, Dibs was also a regime of unremitting horror. Ironically, the inmates found that the base was run by a fellow Kurd, a man from the Erbil area named Haji Ahmad Fatah who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Children who were old enough to do manual labor were forced by the guards to sweep out the halls and clean the bathrooms. "We were guarded by Amn, Istikhbarat and Ba'ath Party people," recalled a 14-year old boy who spent five months at the Dibs base. "They were always coming and beating the prisoners without any reason. They tied up my hands and beat me several times. Three Amn agents beat me with a stick on my back and legs. Twice they kept me tied up without food for a whole day for no reason, inside thehall where I slept, from morning until night. I could not ask why. It was impossible for anyone to intervene in Ba'ath rules."23
This child at least survived; many, perhaps hundreds, did not. There were few fatalities at first, but the rate increased as spring gave way to the heat of summer. Amina, the woman from Akoyan, had given birth to a baby daughter in Dibs, but within two months the child sickened and died. Four or five children died from Bileh alone. Nabat, a 28-year old mother from Qader Karam, lost two of her infant children within a month of each other. Her three-year old daughter Sharo died first; a month later, it was the turn of her two-year old son Diar. "They died of fear," Nabat said. "They were scared, got sick and died. They had diarrhea and were vomiting."24 Sherzad, a boy of fourteen, counted seven infant deaths at Dibs in a single night. Muhammad, a boy of nine, estimated that there were fifty deaths in his family's large cell during the five months of their captivity; most were small children, but some older women also died. Habiba, who was eight at the time of Anfal, recalled being forced to sleep among dead bodies before guards came to remove them.25
The emaciated bodies of Nabat's two children, Sharo and Diar, were taken away by two guards from the Popular Army, who washed the bodies and interred them in the town's Gumbat Cemetery as Nabat watched. Other infant corpses were simply dumped at the town's Old Mosque, according to Karim, the 20-year old student who had watched the Dibs commando base fill up with prisoners earlier that spring. Townspeople would come to the mosque to wash the bodies, and young men from the locality--including Karim himself--would dig the burial plots in an old, abandoned children's cemetery just over a mile away. Karim helped bury four infants, and between them his friends buried at least fifty, all of them less than a year old. The people of Dibs markedoff a special plot for the new arrivals, and each of the tiny graves was marked.26
At regular intervals, sealed buses would drive up to the Dibs base and carry off large numbers of prisoners. On at least two occasions, these groups were made up of people from the Kalar area of southern Germian--some five hundred women and children in all, according to one estimate--and they were transported to the prison at Nugra Salman, for reasons that remain obscure.27 (See below p.304.) But thousands of others--perhaps half the total population of Dibs--were driven off to other, unknown destinations and vanished into the darkness of Anfal. Sherin, for example, a 23-year old woman from the village of Qeitoul Rasha (nahya of Qader Karam), lost two of her young nieces in this way: Perjin Ja'far Hassan, aged 12, and her younger sister Nabat. Given that the survivors of Anfal were eventually resettled in complexes that corresponded to their places of origin, and that five years have now passed without a word of news, the strong presumption must be that these two girls, and the thousands who vanished from Dibs with them, were murdered by the Iraqi authorities.28
"If you know about hell, this is hell. We have seen it."
One of the Halabja survivors was a 33-year old woman named Urfiya. One of her five children had died on the road to Iran after the bombing. With the other four, Urfiya crossed the border and spent five months in the Iranian camps. On August 23, she recalled, the Iranians bussed some 2,000 Halabja families back to the border. The Iraqi Army was waiting for them, and took them in military trucks to Suleimaniyeh, where the Emergency Forces held them on a bread-and-water diet for five days. The place where they were confined, said Urfiya, was "full of people from Qara Dagh." At the end of this time, the young men were separated from their families and driven off in vehicles that resembled ambulances, painted white or green with a single tiny window in the rear. They have never been seen again. The women and children and the elderly were crammed into civilian buses and driven via Kirkuk, Tikrit, Baghdad and Samawa to Nugra Salman, arriving there on August 29.31
The journey from the outskirts of Kirkuk to Nugra Salman took between twelve and fifteen hours, with fifty or sixty prisoners crammed into windowless buses designed to hold half that number. At the head and tail of each convoy, Amn and Istikhbarat agents rode in cars with walkie-talkie radios. Some convoys moved off early in the morning and arrived at Nugra Salman late the same evening. Others left in darkness and drove all night. By guessing at the time and direction, or by peering out of the rear door if it was left open a crack for air, the prisoners could tell when they passed through a city--first Tikrit, several hours later Baghdad, and then finally Samawa. They could hear sirens wailing and glimpse curious Arab crowds lining the streets to watch the sealed vehicles go past with their human cargo. There were no stops; the detainees weregiven no food or water, and the presence of guards with Kalashnikovs silenced any complaint.
At Samawa, the elderly prisoners sometimes became aware that the convoys were dividing into two; while their vehicles continued to head south, others peeled off in a different direction. These were the buses that carried the younger Kurdish prisoners from Topzawa, and they were never seen again. After Samawa, there was nothing but barren desert, dotted with the rubble of destroyed settlements--"like our villages, flattened by bulldozers," said one woman.32 Three hours to the southwest of Samawa, the table-land dropped away sharply, and there in the depression below, visible only at the last moment, lay the town of Al-Salman. And a mile and a quarter away in the desert, surrounded by a barbed-wire perimeter fence and guarded by watch towers at each corner, was the prison of Nugra Salman itself.
The buses entered through one of the two large gates and came to a rest in a huge central courtyard, "three times as long as the soccer field at Suleimaniyeh."33 The first arrivals from Topzawa in mid-April found Nugra Salman dark and empty. It was an old building, dating back to the days of the Iraqi monarchy and perhaps even earlier.34 It had been abandoned for years, used by Arab nomads to shelter their herds. The bare walls were scrawled with the diaries of political prisoners. On the door of one cell, a guard had daubed "Khomeini eats shit." Over the main gate, someone else had written "Welcome to Hell." Over the rear entrance, another sign read: "It is rare for anyone to survive three months in this place."
Whatever interrogation the Iraqi authorities deemed necessary for these elderly and infirm victims of Anfal had already been carried out at Topzawa. Here, at Nugra Salman, there was only a quick registration of name, occupation and place of residence, accompanied by jeers and threats from the guards. "You are here to die," said one, "on the orders of Saddam Hussein and Ali Hassan al-Majid." With this, the new arrivalswere shoved into the cells, or halls, that filled both stories of the prison. These bare rooms varied greatly in size: some of them held only fifty or sixty prisoners, others several hundreds.35 The doors were locked from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. At other times, the inmates could circulate freely.
The arrival of the first detainees coincided more or less with the beginning of Ramadan on April 17, and during the holy month the food was better than it had been at Topzawa.36 There was rice, vegetable soup, potatoes and tomatoes, even meat and fruit on occasion. Water came from a well, through a standpipe in the yard, though it was hot, salty and bitter--"like snake poison," said one man. Many inmates believed that the first health crisis at Nugra Salman was connected to drinking this water. The first deaths occurred early in May, soon after the arrival of the second wave of prisoners, those from the valley of the Lesser Zab.
One of those who arrived in this batch was Abd-al-Qader Abdullah Askari, the 68-year old village head from Goktapa, who had lost sixteen members of his family in the chemical weapons attack on May 3. During his four months in Nugra Salman, Abd-al-Qader--one of the few literate prisoners and an Arabic speaker to boot--emerged as a naturalleader of the inmates, and his testimony is worth quoting at length here. After the first night at Topzawa,
At 8:30 a.m. a military man came in and announced, "Prepare yourselves." We had nothing, we were ready, we had nothing to pack. They told us to leave the room. We noticed 150 or 200 vehicles waiting in two groups, like ambulances, but green.37 These could only take ten people, but they put twenty-seven in ours. There were two doors: a small narrow one which only the guard could enter, and a second door through which they pushed us. It was very hot, but they closed the door and locked it. In our car there were only elderly people.
After an hour or an hour and a half, we called for water. I told them in Arabic, "We are thirsty; give us water." --"Water is forbidden for you, it is not allowed." After a while, one friend wanted to get out and relieve himself. I informed the soldier. "It is not allowed for you," he said. After ten minutes the man could not hold himself any longer and we smelled a bad smell in the car. Five fainted from the smell and the heat. We wished for death. Nothing was allowed to us. All the men took their clothes off because of the heat, wearing only their shorts. The car went on moving and we did not know where it was going.
One and a half hours before nightfall we arrived at a fort and got out. It was deserted. They took us into a long yard, with soldiers and police all around. More cars were arriving and emptying out men and women. The number reached 400. They brought water in buckets without any glasses. We were like cows, putting our heads down to get the water at once, three at a timedrinking from the bucket. The water was hot, the temperature to wash with, and it was salty.
[After registration] a guard asked for newcomers and told them to go with him. It was fifteen minutes before dark. We went to the second floor and they put sixty-four of us into one room, about eight meters by six. I objected: "We are not animals to be crowded all in one room. How can we sleep and eat." The man in charge answered, "Shut up. This is what we prepared for you." After three minutes he left and another came to the door with a sack on his shoulder. It was a prisoner. He said, "Brothers, we know you were not given anything because you are newcomers. We brought our shares for you tonight. Take this bread, since they will not give you any food until the morning."
In the morning a prisoner from another hall came and recruited four of us to go with him to get the bread rations for the cell. After twenty minutes the four men came back with three sacks of bread. Each prisoner got three samoun for the entire day, breakfast, lunch and dinner.38 The bread was not made from wheat but from zorat [a coarse grain normally used as animal feed].
The Ramadan rations were now a thing of the past, and on the new starvation diet of bread and contaminated water, the conditions at Nugra Salman deteriorated sharply. The prisoners were fatigued and infested by lice. By late May there was a steady stream of deaths, some days three, some six or seven, and sometimes as many as a dozen. Abd-al-Qader tried his best to keep count of the deaths. By early September, when he was finally released, he had tallied 517--victims of the inhuman conditions at Nugra Salman and the depraved indifference of the Iraqi authorities. Later, after his release, he heard that another forty-five had died over two successive nights in September.
Abd-al-Qader's figures, which suggest an average of four or five deaths a day during the period of his imprisonment from starvation, disease and physical abuse, are extremely credible. Certainly they bear out the more impressionistic estimates given by many other witnesses. The additional forty-five deaths may have been connected with an epidemic that some survivors say broke out after the arrival of the returned refugees from Halabja at the end of August 1988. This outbreak prompted the arrival of a dozen white-coated doctors from Samawa, who advised the prisoners to stop drinking the water.
The authorities at Nugra Salman appear to have responded to the steady stream of fatalities in two ways. The first was to arrange for a daily delivery of water by tanker truck from Samawa; the second was for the guards to initiate a petty extortion racket, selling food at grossly inflated prices to those prisoners who had managed to make it through Topzawa with some cash still in their pockets.
The tanker usually came from Samawa twice a day, although sometimes it missed a day altogether. When the water arrived, there was pandemonium as the prisoners rushed the truck. They were allowed only a few minutes to fill their pitchers, struggling for access to the plastic hosepipe as the guards taunted them, allowing the precious fluid to splash on to the ground and lashing out at people randomly with sticks and strips of coaxial cable. Sensing easy money, the truck driver took to selling the prisoners buckets of water for four dinars ($12) each. Later, he also offered to bring canned milk and meat, lentils, tomato paste and soap.
The driver's example was quickly taken up by the guards, who were from Amn, according to some witnesses, or from Istikhbarat, according to others. A cup of rice was one dinar. Cigarettes were three dinars ($9) a pack. Tomato juice in cans past their expiry date cost twelve ($36). According to Abd-al-Qader:
We told the prisoners in charge of the food to speak to the guards to find a way to get rid of the bad food and get sugar and tea, even if we had to buy them, becausethe deaths were very bad. They managed to get sugar, tea and oil with our money. The food came secretly at night. They sold us tomato paste for four dinars, in cans which were priced for sale by the government at six dirhams.39 We paid eighty dinars for a sack of sugar and seventy dinars for a sack of rice--official price, eleven dinars.
The first thing we got was the tomato paste. We managed to borrow a pot from a cell whose prisoners had been there longer than us, and we cooked food in it. We put our bread into the tomato paste soup and absorbed all the liquid. This was really like a feast to us.
But the effects of this black market were short-lived, other than for the lucky few who had managed to keep money back after Topzawa. The prisoners grew weaker, scarcely able to take advantage of the brief afternoon exercise period, when they were allowed to mingle in the central courtyard. The deaths continued, and among the dead were some of the children who had been newly transferred to Nugra Salman from Dibs.
The dead were not permitted the dignity of a decent burial. Indeed, they were often not even moved from the spot where they died, but left there for as long as three days to rot in the summer heat. This was evidently a matter of deliberate policy. "After a few weeks," one woman recalled, "my husband died in my arms. He had gotten extremely weak and thin and he had been badly beaten by the prison guards. My husband's body lay in the prison hall for one day. The guards did not let me bury him and I had to beg them; the guard said the body had to remain in the prison until it rotted."40
Eventually Amn agents would register the names of the dead, strip them of any remaining money and valuables and order the corpses to be stuffed into sacks and loaded onto handcarts of the sort normally used forgarbage disposal. The theft of money in particular infuriated Abd-al-Qader:
One man died with 400 dinars [$1,200] on him. An Amn man came, took the money, kissed it, and said this was for the government. I insulted the prisoners about this, telling them, "You are not animals! Anything that the dead relatives leave is yours. Do not leave it for others. Use it, you need it." -- "What else could we do?" they answered. "We are afraid." -- "Inside this building, nothing can be sent to you from the outside," I told them. "You cannot live without that money. You may be afraid of God, but God will not punish you, I assure you. I will answer for you on the Day of Judgment." They followed my advice. From then on, they left only one dinar or a half dinar in the pockets of the dead for the guards. The guards came two or three times, but when they found such small amounts they abandoned the search.
The prisoners tried as best they could to wash the bodies and prepare them for burial according to Islamic doctrine. At first, if there was money, the tanker driver from Samawa might be persuaded to bring a shroud. But when the money ran out, the only shroud available was the dead person's Kurdish headscarf (jamadani) or one of the scarce prison blankets. Groups of prisoners--at least two, sometimes four or six men, weakened and fatigued by hunger--would be assembled to carry the corpse away, while prison guards kicked and punched them to hurry the process along, shouting epithets all the while. "You are saboteurs, and you deserve to die like dogs," one guard shouted.
A ten-minute trudge through the stony desert brought them to the gravesite, which lay a few hundred yards to the east of the prison. It comprised a series of long trenches, no more than a meter deep, dug by bulldozers. There were no markers, although the mourners tried when they could to mark the spot with stones. The bodies were laid roughly inside and dirt tossed over them. The guards allowed no time for prayers for the dead. When thirty or forty corpses filled a trench, the bulldozerwould smooth it over to remove all traces and proceed to dig another.41
When the burial party returned the next day, broken limbs and bloody rags would be strewn around, for during the night the freshly turned gravesite attracted packs of wild desert dogs. The guards were terrified by these animals, believing that they became rabid after eating human flesh, and shot at any they could see. But few of the remains of those who died at Nugra Salman were allowed to rest in peace. "Go bury the bodies for the dogs," the guards would taunt the survivors.
The man who presided over this cruel regime was named Hajjaj, an Amn lieutenant by most accounts.42 Hajjaj was a feared and detested figure, described by one witness as a "bald, husky young man" from Amn headquarters in Baghdad, who drove a red Volkswagen Passat manufactured in Brazil. His deputy was a man called Shamkhi. An uncle of Lt. Hajjaj, one Khalaf, was one of the guards.
Hajjaj and his associates were notorious for beating prisoners on the slightest pretext, or on none at all. One man in his sixties was beaten for requesting a light bulb. "Go to [PUK leader Jalal] Talabani for bulbs," a guard told him mockingly.43 Another inmate, weakened by hunger, fell asleep one day when Hajjaj was in his cell. "He slapped me right away," the man recalled, "and said, 'You shall never sleep in mypresence.' Then he made me go and sit in the place where the garbage was kept."44 Age and gender offered no protection. "Is this child a peshmerga?," the same man asked a guard one day. "Is this woman?" --"Yes, they are," the guard answered. "They are all peshmerga and they are criminals." On another occasion, Abd-al-Qader Abdullah Askari saw Hajjaj kicking a group of young women who had recently arrived from Dibs and hitting them with a length of plastic tubing.45
Hajjaj also punished prisoners by forcing them to crawl on their bellies. If the result was not to his liking, a guard would stamp on the small of the prisoner's back to force him lower. But the punishment most favored by Hajjaj, according to many accounts, was to expose prisoners to the blazing midday sun. Men, women and children alike were subjected to this treatment, even if they were too weak to walk and had to be dragged to the spot. The prisoners would be forced to squat with their heads lowered, normally for two hours. Any movement would be punished with a beating. A variant on this routine was to tie the prisoner to a metal post in the sun. There were nine of these posts sunk in concrete in the central courtyard at Nugra Salman, each taller than a person and thicker than an electricity pole.46 Some prisoners were reportedly suspended upside down from the posts, tied at the feet by their Kurdish cummerbund, and with their unbound hands barely clearing the ground.
The inmates of Nugra Salman had to endure Lt. Hajjaj's brutal custody until September 6, when the general amnesty allowed them to go free--but not to go home.
1 The Popular Army (Jaysh al-Sha'abi) was founded in 1970 as a party-controlled militia which would provide Ba'ath cadre with basic military training and act as a counterweight to the regular armed forces. Despite its nominal strength of 250,000 the Popular Army was largely ineffective as a combat force in the Iran-Iraq war; its most important role was to guard buildings in the cities during the absence of the regular army.
2 Amn Suleimaniyeh to Amn Autonomous Region Headquarters, letter no. 25163 of October 29, 1988. Unfortunately, no time period is indicated, making it impossible to extrapolate from these numbers to estimate the total of those who passed through Topzawa during the Anfal campaign.
3 Middle East Watch interview with Abd-al-Qader Abdullah Askari, Goktapa, May 24, 1992.
4 Middle East Watch interview, Sumoud complex, May 20, 1992.
5 These officers may have been from Istikhbarat, given the demonstrated role of military intelligence in overseeing the initial transit camps. See above p.109. But they may equally well have been from Amn, which uses the same ranks as the military. Middle East Watch interviews with Abd-al-Qader Abdullah Askari and with a survivor from the village of Zijila (nahya Shwan), Taqtaq, April 24, 1992.
6 Middle East Watch interview, Sumoud complex, May 20, 1992.
7 Middle East Watch interview, Benaslawa complex, April 21, 1992.
8 These sessions appear to have followed a standard "information form" used by the Iraqi security agencies. Middle East Watch has found many examples of this form among official files. The only unusual feature of the questioning described at Topzawa is the asking of the mother's name; under standard procedures only the father's name was requested.
9 Middle East Watch interview, Erbil, September 12, 1992. One survivor did recall a more extensive interrogation, in which he was asked not only whether he was a peshmerga, but to which party he belonged, whether he knew any peshmerga, whether he had relatives who were peshmerga, whether he had any relatives living abroad, whether he had any relatives who had been executed, and whether he was an army deserter. Middle East Watch interview, Shoresh complex, July 1, 1992. Both of these men were among the handful of execution survivors located by Middle East Watch. For their full stories, see below, chapter 9.
10 Middle East Watch interview with a survivor from the Jabari village of Mahmoud Parizad, Shoresh complex, May 9, 1992.
11 Taymour has been interviewed many times by journalists and human rights delegations visiting Iraqi Kurdistan. See, for example, Middle East Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, Unquiet Graves: The Search for the Disappeared in Iraqi Kurdistan, February 1992; Taymour is also the subject of a chapter in Kanan Makiya's book, Cruelty and Silence, pp.151-199.
12 Middle East Watch interview with Taymour Abdullah Ahmad, Sumoud complex, July 29, 1992.
13 After Topzawa, Abd-al-Qader never again saw his two sons, Omed and Latif, or his daughter-in-law, Fahima. Middle East Watch interview, May 24, 1992.
14 A letter from Amn Shaqlawa, ref. Research/11408, and dated December 31, 1987, refers to a Northern Bureau directive of December 13, 1987, to the effect that, "It is completely prohibited for bearded people to have access to the center of the governorates and other towns for any reason whatsoever, unless permitted by the proper authorities."
15 Middle East Watch interview, Sumoud complex, May 20, 1992.
16 Middle East Watch interview, Benaslawa complex, April 19, 1992.
17 Most members of Amn are drawn from Ramadi, Tikrit and Samarra, a triangle of Sunni-dominated towns west of Baghdad, the heartland of Saddam Hussein's political support.
18 Middle East Watch interview, Daratou complex, April 18, 1992.
19 Middle East Watch interviews, Ramhawej village, July 18, 1992, Rawanduz, May 5, 1992, Khalifan and Basirma complex, March 24, 1993.
20 The nahya of Kalar in southern Germian was included in the third stage of Anfal. Thousands of villagers from the Kalar area were brought to Topzawa in early and mid-April, but this is the only case reported to Middle East Watch of their being taken there any later. The witness offered no explanation of what had happened to them during the three months since the Third Anfal. Middle East Watch interview, Halabja, May 8, 1992.
21 The supposition must be that Faraj was released under the general amnesty of September 6, 1988. By this reckoning, he would have been brought from Suleimaniyeh to Topzawa on or about July 16. The Bayinjan complex was used to resettle the survivors of several phases of Anfal. Two other testimonies suggest that its other main purpose was to rehouse returning refugees from the Halabja attack. Middle East Watch interviews, Halabja, May 8 and May 15, 1992.
22 Middle East Watch interview, Benaslawa complex, July 6, 1992.
23 Middle East Watch interview, Shoresh complex, May 9, 1992.
24 Middle East Watch interview, Chamchamal, September 19, 1992.
25 Middle East Watch interviews, Rawanduz, April 28, 1992; Shoresh complex, May 9, 1992; and Zammaki complex, July 24, 1992.
26 The town of Dibs lies in an area of Iraqi Kurdistan that is still controlled by the Baghdad regime. Neither the Gumbat Cemetery nor the old children's cemetery was therefore accessible to Middle East Watch for an independent forensic examination.
27 Middle East Watch interview with a woman from Omerbel village, Kifri, March 30, 1993.
28 Middle East Watch interview, Shoresh complex, June 29, 1992. The witness's nieces were from the Gulbagh Valley, from which, it may be recalled, a significant number of women were reported to have disappeared.
29 These figures are based on interviews with twenty-one former inmates of Nugra Salman, as well as a former Iraqi military officer with first-hand experience of the prison. The interviews included seventeen men, ranging in age from forty-five to eighty-three, and four women, aged from fifty to sixty. Asked to estimate the total prison population, a dozen witnesses gave figures ranging from 5,000 to 11,000. Two gave much higher figures, which we have discounted. With the exception of deaths and new arrivals, the population of Nugra Salman remained stable until the general amnesty of September 6, 1988.
30 One witness also told of a number of Arab prisoners being held in the basement of Nugra Salman, wearing distinctive white disdashas; this could not be corroborated in other interviews.
31 Middle East Watch interview, Zarayen complex, July 28, 1992. Anfal, of course, cannot explain the disappearances of these young men from Suleimaniyeh, since Halabja was not included in the operation. Their disappearance may be taken, rather, as part of the routine practice of terror by the Iraqi security forces. Later press reports suggest that some younger people from Halabja may also have been disappeared from Nugra Salman. "Halabja Wounds Still Open Years After Gas Attack," (Reuter's, March 7, 1993), cites the case of one woman from Halabja who has not seen her four children, aged 10-24, since they were interned there.
32 Middle East Watch interview, Erbil, April 23, 1992.
33 Middle East Watch interview, Ja'faran, Qara Dagh, May 11, 1992.
34 The Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in a military coup on July 14, 1958. Its main architect was Brigadier Abd-al-Karim Qasem, who subsequently became Prime Minister.
35 There are persistent, if somewhat contradictory, reports of a basement level at Nugra Salman, from which the sound of weeping and screams could be heard. A former Iraqi infantry officer who visited the prison before Anfal said that this basement was entered through a heavy barred trapdoor with a double lock. The space beneath was approximately two meters high--just enough for a prisoner to stand up. The officer also described a punishment cell at Nugra Salman, built "like a bird cage, with only enough room to sit down." Middle East Watch interview, Erbil, April 26, 1992.
36 Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, is a time of fasting from sunrise to sunset. After sunset, meals tend to be more lavish than at other times, and the rations given to the inmates of Nugra Salman--assuming they were intended to be eaten in the evening--may be taken as a sign of relative lenience by the authorities toward the elderly. (By the same token, of course, if these foods were offered during daylight hours, they could be construed as a mockery, or a temptation of the Kurds' Muslim faith. The context, however, seems to make this explanation unlikely.)
37 Although Abd-al-Qader's estimate of numbers here may be high, his figures in general appeared to be unusually reliable, especially where the numbers of deaths at Nugra Salman were concerned. See p.232.
38 Other witnesses said that the ration was only two samoun a day--one at 10:00 a.m. and the other at 10:00 p.m. It may be that this varied from time to time.
39 The dinar is made up of 1,000 fils; 50 fils are one dirham, and 20 dirhams one dinar.
40 Middle East Watch interview with a woman from Qala village (nahya Naujul), Benaslawa complex, April 20, 1992.
41 The only exception to this harsh behavior was if the guard was a Shi'a Muslim; witnesses described the Shi'a (including even Shi'a military officers commanding troops during Anfal operations) as having shown the Kurds numerous small kindnesses.
42 One witness queried this, and thought Lt. Hajjaj was an army officer. The same witness identified the "head of the prison" as a man named Sa'id Hama, but was unable to specify to which agency he belonged. There was a general and understandable confusion among witnesses when it came to identifying particular government agencies by their uniforms or other visible signs. At Nugra Salman, as at Topzawa and the earlier processing centers, witnesses variously identified their oppressors as being from Amn, Istikhbarat, the regular army and police.
43 Middle East Watch interview, Erbil, April 23, 1992.
44 Middle East Watch interview, Sumoud complex, May 20, 1992.
45 One even more lurid account spoke of a large group of single women being kept apart from the other prisoners and regularly raped by Amn agents. One of these women reportedly killed herself with a knife as a result. The rape of female detainees in Iraq has been well substantiated elsewhere, and is even known to have been recorded on videotape. Middle East Watch did not succeed, however, in speaking to any witnesses or victims of rape at Nugra Salman. The Kurds, it should be noted, are reluctant to talk to outsiders about matters involving sexual abuse.
46 The description strongly suggests that one original purpose of these posts would have been for the use of firing squads. Prisoners can be seen tied to similar posts in captured videotapes of the execution of Kurdish prisoners.