Witnesses tell of burying Anfaled children in Dubis
Children who died of starvation will be memorialized and remembered for their suffering.
Underground, in a space twice as large as a basketball court, Karwan, Hiwa, and many others of their age—less than 12 years old—who endured starvation and imprisonment, were buried by volunteers in Dubis, a multiethnic town northwest of Kirkuk.
"This grave is of Hiwa. I remember very well the day the prison guards brought him," said Hassan Ahmed, a water project worker who had dug many graves for children taken out dead from a military prison in his town in 1988. That time, Ahmed was an 18-year-old student; his home was located close to the children’s cemetery next to the Old Mosque of Dubis.
Hiwa’s mother was allowed to attend the burial, said Ahmed, pointing to a stone rising nearly 20 cm from one side of the grave. "She couldn’t stand… she threw herself into the dig mourning and crying: ‘My dear Hiwa, what happened to you? Why did you die in this way?’"
A bit more than one km from the children’s cemetery was a military base that is now destroyed. The Katibat al-Handasa (Engineering Platoon) was home to the 1st Iraqi army division at that time. Witnesses said the base had nearly 12 halls of 20x5 meters with prisons for women and children that the army captured throughout Anfal operations.
Anfal operations carried out by the former Iraqi system in 1988 saw the taking, disappearance, and imprisonment of 182,000 Kurdish villagers mostly from Garmiyan area south of Suleimaniya and east of Kirkuk. More than 4000 villages were ruined, this based on Kurdish sources. Hundreds of people were found in mass graves discovered after 2003 in different spots, especially southern Iraq.
Hiwa and others estimated that more than 200 children from the prison started dying in April 1988 from starvation, thirst, and drinking hot water, which cause them to become ill and dehydrated, according to witnesses.
Hassan Ahmed, two of his brothers, Ahmed Mukhtar’s family and the residents near the mosque had to bury between one and three children almost every day, some days none, until the prison was evacuated in early September the same year. "I remember one day, the guards brought four children," said Ahmed, adding that the guards were leaving the male children at the mosque and the female ones at Ahmed Mukhtar's house opposite the mosque. Mukhtar, a title for a mayoral man who records names of residents in a neighborhood, was a well-known man and had influence among the town's locals.
"Ahaa…hooo," replied Mukhtar's wife, Rahima Baha'addin, 76, when asked how many dead children they had taken care of in their house. "They [dead children] were very skinny…due to starving," she said as shook her head and waved her hands.
"They were bringing children, sometimes with a couple of women [from the jail]… whenever they left a [dead] kid at our house I had to collect the neighboring women to prepare hot water for washing and shroud; then youths like Hassan took them to the cemetery," explained Baha'addin, who was in a traditional elderly Kurdish women’s all-black-with-white scarf. She and her family were not alone; people brought them rolls of shroud cloths, dresses for the imprisoned women who came out during the burial, as well as food to take with them.
"We couldn’t dare give the women the stuff [cloths and food] without fearing the guards," said Baha'addin. "While the guards were busy watching the burial, we were calling the escorting women in to give them a meal and let them wear several dresses over and over to be passed for other women in the jail." Her husband, Mukhtar, was also able to bribe the guards to allow aid into the jail.
The pregnant woman
One woman also died in the jail. Her burial story was much for Baha'addin to tell. She inhaled and sighed deeply before telling about the one day her husband came home weeping and saying "a white car is coming…a dead woman is in it. They have told the driver to throw her body away." But Mutktar convinces the guards to bring the body to his house. They buried her at Dubis Major Cemetery; all the victims were buried in three cemeteries in that town. Guards had offended her body.
That woman, named Mahbuba, was nearly five months pregnant; she was from a Zanana village, near Sangaw district southwest of Suleimaniya, according to information witnesses received. After her death, Mahbuba left four children in the prison, all who survived and were able to visit the grave of their mother.
Exactly how many people were jailed there is not known. During that summer, women and children were continuously brought in after being separated from men at Topzawa military base, west of Kirkuk. Many of the Dubis prisoners were transported at night to unknown places, according to witnesses. They estimate there were more than 12,000 prisoners; some sources say they were more. When an official general amnesty ended the Anfal operation in September, only four buses of women and children were set free. A witness said the total of free was 450. The number is recorded as thousands by official sources, however.
In an attempt to gather information, mass-grave experts from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs recently visited Dubis and announced a plan to exhume remains of the dead children and to rebury them in a special memorial cemetery in Chamchmal town, where most of the victims are thought to be from.
However, exhuming the children's graves remains a complicated task. A witness like Hassan Ahmed, who buried many of those children, now can identify only two of the graves. He said many graves have disappeared and that the cemeteries are a mixture of the victim's graves and of people from Dubis who died normal deaths.
Children’s bones are easier to vanish and harder for DNA tests, commented Anwar Omer, director of Mass Graves at the KRG Ministry of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs. "Yet we need to study the case and find out accurate information from the witnesses," said Omer, adding that they also care for "the opinion of family members of the victims" who demand the return of the dead to be reburied in their origins. "We do it for them and also to show the case to the outside world," he added.
So far, the Ministry has not been able to exhume the children graves. Instead, they are considering building a wall of some sort around the cemetery as well as setting up a monument and a gallery of documents in that place to mark those crimes, said Omer.
Relevantly, the KRG Directorate of Mass Graves discovered 43 bodies in three graves in Topzawa district a week ago. The directorate is also in cooperation with the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights to exhume nearly 70 mass graves witnesses revealed, Omer told the “Globe.” They expect the graves, located between Duz-kurmatu and Tikrit towns, to contain about 9,000 victims from Anfal operations.
Photo by Qassim Khidhir
Graphic by Ako