I have always kept the few old letters and papers that are a connection to my family home in Baghdad where I was brought up. These few documents have travelled to many places with me and I can truly say that I have carried my memories in my suitcase. One particular letter, written by sister in 1974, has prompted me to write this as it is her account of the suffering of one family under Saddam’s regime and has survived because it was written in a refugee camp in Iran and posted to the UK. As she was writing I was a postgraduate student in Britain and hoping to receive news of my family from the Red Cross as I had asked that organisation for help in tracing them as they were missing. All I knew was that my family had been taken from our home by Saddam’s regime.
When I received this letter I was overjoyed to know where they were and that they were safe, albeit in a refugee camp. Following the fall of Saddam there were many legal investigations into the crimes carried out under his regime but these were just a fraction of the crimes carried out in the 35 years of is rule. The regime would confiscate any documents, both legal and personal, of its victims. In the case of Faili Kurds they were forcibly removed from their homes and all their belongings would be destroyed leaving them with only the clothes they wore as they were taken to whatever fate awaited them. The courts in Iraq today request documented evidence of ownership of assets lost to Saddam so there are countless families who have never regained their homes and wealth because their proof of ownership was systematically destroyed.
My sister’s hand written account, dated 19th May 1974, was written in the town of Shino in Iranian Kurdistan and details what happened to my family and others who were forcibly removed from their homes. This crime was never investigated but it needs at least to be recorded as she witnessed it.
My dear brother,
Saddam’s secret police forcibly entered our home at 2.30am on April 21st 1974. They dragged us out of our beds and took us to the main security department in Baghdad in our night clothes. We joined another 16 families of women, children and elderly people. In total there were 120 people in the room that night and most of them used to work for those who were the Kurdish representatives in Baghdad. We were one of the four Faili families taken that night. Within a few hours we were all loaded onto Russian military transport lorries and driven north out of Baghdad. In Baghdad in April the nights were warm but as we travelled north we were very cold in our night clothes on the open lorries and we all huddled together to try to keep warm. The children suffered during the journey and the adults were all afraid that the army lorries could be targeted as the war was going on. After 8 days in the lorries, and some of the way on foot, we arrived at the summer resort of Shaqlawa, 50 km northeast of Erbil. Here we were taken to the military camp that was close to the main offices of General Taha El-Shakarji who was the leader of the Iraqi army in the North. The old men and the few young men who were in our group were singled out by the Ba’athist officers and lined up. We all realised that these hard core Ba’athist officers intended to have the men shot and the families started to scream and cry out loud and the noise brought General El-Shakarji out of his office and, with his officer’s baton in his hand and sunglasses on, he came towards us shouting at the officers. He protested against the commands from Baghdad and the inhumanity of those in charge there, calling them the murderers of women and children. He was so upset that when one of the women insulted him in front of the others he took no notice as he knew we had been so badly treated. He told us that three of the families had to be sent back to Baghdad and we realised that among these families were some individuals who were collaborators with the Ba’athist regime.
The rest of us were taken to an orchard by a ravine that was within range of the weapons of the Peshmerga on the other side and the officers ordered their men to shoot at the Peshmerga and of course this resulted in firing coming towards us. Their plan now was simply to have us all shot by the Kurds across the river. As night came in two of the young men quietly slipped across the ravine to the Peshmerga, to tell them about the families on the other side. They risked their lives in doing so and their bravery resulted in the Kurdish fighters coming across the ravine and taking us back across with them to safety. Very early the next morning the orchard was bombed by an Iraqi military plane and had we been there the families of several Kurdish leaders would have perished. The Ba’athist plan to inflict a demoralising blow on the Kurdish leaders had failed.
While this was going on our property and belongings in Baghdad were systematically stolen or destroyed by the Ba’athist regime. A few items were sold in public auction as a front and a sister of our mother, whose husband was an Arab, went to the auction of our household effects. She bought a framed photograph of you and when she went to leave the house an officer stopped her and taking the framed picture from her he said, “you obviously only want the frame,” before kicking out the glass and the photograph and handing back the empty frame! A day after we were taken from home and sent north another group, including the family of Abdul Razzaq Feili, (a well known Kurdish politician and one of the five members of the PUK) were taken from their homes and sent north. Abdul Razzaq’s seventeen year old sister died on the back of the lorry that was transporting them.
Our father is well and with us in the refugee camp in Shino and sends his regards to you.
Your sister Semiah
My father was illiterate and my sister would always write for him and she had enclosed passport size photographs of him, my mother and herself. What she did not write was that he had been killed by Saddam’s men, nearly four month’s before, on January 1st 1974, during a spate of killings by the regime using hit and run car ‘accidents’. In my father’s case his body was taken away by his killers and returned two or three hours later. He had been on his way home from the day at our shop and my family discovered that the day’s takings were not in his pockets. In addition his silver fob watch and chain that he always wore was missing from his waistcoat s was his ring and wristwatch. Not content with murdering him his assailants had robbed him too! My sister and my mother were alone in Shino and I did not learn of my father’s death until 18 months after he was killed. Even then it was only because a friend in London accidentally mentioned his death. There were not many kurds in Britain in those days and my brother had told them not to mention outr father’s death as my family had not wanted me to know when I was alone in Britain and struggling finish my degree while I still had some finances left.
My sister had not written everything about that journey in her letter but she often mentions the story of a Syrian woman who was with them. This lady had two young sons of a few years of age and a baby girl who she was still nursing. When they were forced to walk into Iran the mother found that she could not carry her three children and she left the baby girl under a tree and walked on with her sons. My sister and other were behind her and without the mother knowing they picked up the baby. Somehow my mother had obtained sugar which she mixed with water and, after dipping a rag in the sugar solution she would put it to the baby’s mouth for her to suck. Time and again she did that as they carried the child for over two days. When they reached the refugee camp they saw the mother with her sons and they went up to her and placed her daughter in her arms. My sister said she could not describe the look on the mother’s face to have the daughter she had left to die returned to her.
If forcing Kurdish families to leave Iraq for Iran had been the sole aim of the Ba’athists in 174 then it was only a matter a matter of a few hours drive to the Iranian border. It did not necessitate a journey of 8 days in lorries and the cold and suffering people experienced. What the regime wanted was to make an example of the families of those who stood against them and to make them suffer.
While justice was brought against the leading figures of Saddam’s regime there are countless others who were never brought to justice. No one was ever brought to court for murdering my father, stealing his money and his watch, or destroying our home and trying to wipe out all records of our existence.