WORLD

I testified against Saddam Hussein

SUSAN MOHAMMAD June 16 2008
WORLD

I testified against Saddam Hussein

SUSAN MOHAMMAD June 16 2008

I testified against Saddam Hussein

WORLD

At 14, she was sent to a death camp and tortured, her entire family killed. But Witness Number Two lived to tell about it, 20 years later, in court,

SUSAN MOHAMMAD

A mena waited 20 years for justice. After her entire family was murdered during the Iraqi Baathist regime's genocidal 1988

attack on Kurdistan, and after she herself had survived Iraq’s worst death camp, she longed for the day a noose would be placed around the necks of those ultimately responsible for the crimes. To ensure that day would arrive, she even overcame her intense fears— facing Saddam Hussein, his cousin Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali,” and five other co-defendants in an Iraqi courtroom in October 2006.

“Witness Number Two,” as she was known at the Iraqi High Tribunal, trembled from behind the beige curtain that kept her iden-

tity a secret from the Baghdad courtroom. With Saddam and his henchmen on trial for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to the regime’s eight-stage campaign of gas attacks, massacres and mass imprisonment against the Kurds, she spoke of the horrors she had endured. But Amena went a step further than other women who recounted their stories. Although the witness who had testified before her had strongly hinted that she had been sexually assaulted by prison guards during that campaign, Amena was the only woman to rebel against cultural stigma by stating outright to the stunned courtroom that she had been raped and beaten at age 14, in the Baathist regime’s most infamous desert prison.

Rape is an unforgivable crime in Middle Eastern culture—beyond the pale even for the “Butcher of Baghdad,” a man who buried pregnant women and children alive in mass graves that held as many as 12,000 bodies. To hear a woman speaking openly of such a taboo, and to hear their Baathist regime implicated in it, infuriated Saddam and his former henchmen (one of whom punched a guard as he was wrestled back into his seat). ;‘False witness! False witness!” Saddam bellowed at the judge, pounding his fist on the table during Amena’s testimony. “Fight them and God will punish them! ” he shouted before his courtroom microphone was cut off. The irate former dictator was forcibly ejected from the court, clutching a Quran.

It was the fourth time Saddam was banished for hysterics during the trial over his regime’s Operation Anfal (“Anfal” means ‘spoils of war” in the Koran), in which as many as 180,000 Kurdish men, women and children died. In less than three months he would

be dead, hung for his role in a lesser atrocity, the 1982 murders of 148 Shiites in the town of Dujail, for which he had earlier been on trial. In an ironic twist, Saddam was executed before the Anfal trial concluded, and charges against him in the Kurdish genocide were dropped. But five of his co-defendants were found guilty, and three, including Majid, were sentenced to death by hanging.

Majid was to have been executed in October, after the Iraqi High Court’s final rejection of his appeal. But his hanging has been delayed in a snowballing political and legal fight that has left victims of the regime’s anti-Kurdish campaign, such as Amena, feeling further cheated. Kurds and Shiites want him punished, but some members of Iraq’s Presidency Council have been opposed to the execution. So far, the U.S. military, which is holding him, has refused to hand Majid over, in part because of concerns that his death may ignite more sectarian violence by Sunni leaders, who want Majid’s death sentence scrapped.

Although it has been almost a year and a half since she testified, Amena, now 35, still has nightmares of the day she watched dogs eat the corpse of a girl she shared a cell with during her incarceration. She now lives in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and asked that her last name not be used; she remains terrified that former Baathists who have been re-employed in the Iraqi government might learn that it was her testimony that helped convict Majid.

Amena’s nightmare began during the height of the Anfal operation, undertaken by Saddam in the late ’80s at the close of Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran. The genocide—which saw about 3,000 Kurdish villages razed and tens of thousands of people displaced, attacked or buried alive—was carried

out in order to crush the Kurds’ long-standing resistance movement, and also to punish them for their suspected support of Iranian troops during the war. On April 14, 1988, that campaign reached Amena’s village of Sablach, in the Kirkuk region of northern Iraq, when the Iraqi military surrounded it.

Amena, then 14, and the other Kurdish residents were herded into a single home as soldiers began looting and torching the rest of the houses. Children cried as they grew hungry; people were denied the use of a toilet. As evening fell, the stench of burning livestock filled the air. Amena covered her ears but could still hear the screams of animals struggling to escape from a large burning pit. She clung to her grandparents, parents and brother through the night.

By dawn, after the villagers had spent 15 hours with no food or water, the military forced everyone onto Soviet-made Zeal trucks. There was little left of Sablach. Once they reached a prison holding-camp in nearby

Topzawa, the women and men were separated. Amena’s parents were torn from her. “They took my mother, my father and my brother away from me,” says Amena during an interview at a hotel in her new hometown. Amena doesn’t know exactly how her family perished, although it’s likely they were buried in one of several mass graves in the area.

She was left with her grandparents. Her grandmother prayed, knowing full well her son, Amena’s father, would be killed. And as she clutched Amena’s hand, she started praying for her granddaughter, knowing what might await her. “My grandmother was afraid I would be assaulted because I was young,” Amena recalls. “She was saying, T wish you were never born so you wouldn’t go through this.’ She was thinking so much

about this she had a heart attack and died.”

After her grandmother’s sudden death, Amena was taken from her devastated grandfather and put in a cell with a group of girls. The living conditions in Topzawa were extreme. Amena’s cell was infested with insects. Women who risked washing their clothes were harassed by guards who stole the clothing. Barely fed, the elderly and children as young as one were dying of hunger or disease daily, while others were killed during beatings, or taken away never to be seen again. “The most tortured were teenaged girls and pregnant

women,” says Amena. “They were hitting kids, yelling ‘Are you going to grow up to be apeshmerga [a Kurdish forces fighter]?’ That’s how they treated them.”

At Topzawa, Amena says women and girls were raped by the guards. Those who resisted could be killed. Amena and her six cellmates took turns sleeping while sitting up, huddled together. “Sometimes they turned out the lights while they were taking one of us,” says Amena. At other times, she says, the sexual assaults occurred while cellmates were forced to watch. Amena doesn’t want most of the details of what she endured published, but she told the court a guard once broke her jaw after she dug her nails into his face while screaming. As further punishment, she was strung up by her arms until her shoulders dislocated.

According to Amena’s testimony to the Iraqi High Tribunal, a warden named Jaafar al-Hillawi was the most notorious for raping and abusing women, some of whom killed

themselves after being violated. Witness Number Two recalled for the court the story of a 15-year-old girl whose clothing the warden ripped off. Amena says he demanded she insult Mustafa Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish independence movement, who in the mid-’70s led his people in a nearly successful revolt against Baghdad, supported by the United States and Iran. The girl refused, insulting the warden instead by calling his father a dog. Amena testified that the officer “asked the guards to bring her parents outside. He raped her in front of everybody, including her parents,” who were then forced to watch at gunpoint as “many” other officers had their way with her. The girl was shot; after that, “they hung her outside and stuck money on her body to insult her.”

A few days later, the prisoners decided to try to assassinate the warden. While the officer was taking a cigarette break, a group attacked him with a knife fashioned out of a used tomato-paste tin. Bleeding from his head, the warden was taken away for medical attention and never returned; Amena doesn’t know if he died. But immediately following the attack, she says, guards entered cells, beating prisoners as punishment. Amena says one woman who had lost a child earlier that

Rape is an unforgivable act in Iraqi culture, and Saddam was infuriated at her charge

day to hunger or disease lost a second one that night after her young son was beaten to death with cables.

Amena couldn’t imagine that life could get worse. And yet it was about to. After 14 miserable weeks in Topzawa, her name was called out by guards, who forced her and hundreds of others who had survived the camp onto vehicles. Her grandfather’s name was called, too. The prisoners feared they would be killed or sold to another country. As the caravan drove away, Amena read out the Arabic highway signs to those who couldn’t read. It soon became clear they were bound for the desert near Iraq’s border with Saudi Arabia.

Nugra Salman prison is perched on a hill, surrounded by barren sands. Now abandoned, the jail was mainly used as a political prison housing up to 10,000 Kurds during the Anfal operation. Former Baath party officials have likened “the pit of Salman” to a real-life hell on earth. There was no escape.

When the convoy carrying Amena and the others from Topzawa arrived, the Kurds were forced out of the vehicles and kicked or spat on by at least 20 officers. In some reports, survivors say guards jeered at them, saying

“You are here to die” as they passed a gate with the inscription “Welcome to Hell” on it. Women and men were again separated. Inside, Amena was horrified at the sight of filthy women in their cells who had facial hair. They looked “like men,” she says. She soon found out why. “They gave us shots,” says Amena, who believes she and her cellmates were injected with sterilization drugs. “After that no one had a monthly period. Our hair was growing faster on our faces and in different places. We were dizzy and lazy and it made our groins and legs swell. We were bloated. It wasn’t normal.”

In Nugra Salman, Amena says, officers regularly raped and beat women in their cells.

In Topzawa, the assaults were common, but in the desert prison such attacks were “part of the daily program.

Anyone who was over 14 and says they weren’t raped is lying. Nobody mentions this because life is miserable. No one would want them or marry them.” Guards would also play sadistic games. At mealtimes, they would

choose a prisoner’s name to call, and take turns slapping and kicking her after handing her a small piece of bread.

At night when the lights went out, someone was sure to be missing when they were turned on again. The guards were often creative in their methods of torture, sometimes tying prisoners (including children) onto

metal posts in the desert sun. “The elderly were dying every day,” Amena says, “and they would bury them outside in shallow graves. We would see that dogs were digging them up and eating them. They were always taking people and bringing people. We never knew if we would live or die.”

Amena learned that her grandfather was ill, although still alive. But after almost five months in brutal captivity, she had lost her will to live. Salvation came from an unlikely quarter. On Sept. 6,1988, after the end of Saddam’s long war with Iran, the dictator

declared a general pardon for the Kurds. In a political show of goodwill, some survivors were taken to holding camps where they were washed, treated to a feast and given medical attention—while being told that “the government is nice—it is going to set you free.”

But the amnesty came after 180,000 Kurds were murdered, and after Saddam’s forces

destroyed almost 90 per cent of Kurdish villages—and with them the Kurds’ culture and sense of identity. (Even today, most of those villages remain a memory, and the rich agricultural land surrounding them has gone to waste because the majority of Kurds who returned after a safe haven was created in the form of the no-fly zone in 1992 felt it was too painful to rebuild and moved instead into cities.) And apart from the highly publicized chemical attack earlier that same year on the city of Halabja, which killed 5,000, the out-

Rage and grief made Amena write the High Court, asking to be chosen as a witness

side world knew little of the greater genocide; Kurds were not permitted in their own media to write about it until Saddam, who had been receiving Western aid during his conflict with Iran, was toppled in 2003.

Amena and her increasingly frail grandfather were taken back to Topzawa. There they were made to sign papers swearing they would never talk about what had happened to them. For her, signing the document was easy. “Everyone in my family was killed. My grandmother died because of me and my grandfather got sick. So what did it matter whether I signed it? For me there was no life anymore.”

Amena’s grandfather’s condition worsened. She says he became increasingly paralyzed, though with no medical attention she is not sure why. The pair were dumped in the mixed Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish city of Kirkuk, penniless; they begged for money in order to travel to the city of Erbil, where they had relatives. But they were confronted with harsh new challenges. “Even our own relatives were too afraid to take us in,” Amena says. “They said, T don’t want to see your granddaughter here, maybe she is pregnant and it’s a shame for us!’ ” Eventually Amena and her grand-

father managed to travel to their village of Sablach, but nothing was left. Shocked at the scene, the pair then begged for a ride to the less destroyed town of Kifri (about 180 km northeast of Baghdad), which had a mixed Kurd, Turkmen and Arab population.

In Kifri, the only shelter they could find was in the form of an abandoned home of which only three walls remained standing. Amena begged the owner of a dressmaking store to let her sew dresses for five Iraqi dinars each (well under a Canadian dollar). It was

half of what other women doing the same work were making, but she managed to scrape enough together for a mattress to share with her grandfather, some dishes, a pillow, cutlery, and a tea kettle-items she has kept. “The money I made was just enough for us to eat,” Amena recalls angrily. “I couldn’t take him to the doctor. I had no money for medication.”

Amena’s grandfather finally died—a mere two weeks after being freed. Amena isn’t sure what he succumbed to, but says that before his death he wished that she would die first. “He held my hand, saying, ‘What are you going to do alone?’ ” It was difficult getting anyone to help bury him. After the brutality the Kurdish people had endured, the hospitality that had traditionally been part of their culture had been replaced by shock, fear, and paranoia over being watched by the Iraqi military. Eventually, two men who felt sorry for Amena came one night and took her grandfather’s corpse away.

That was the moment Amena decided she had to be stronger than everyone else. “I had a challenge,” she says. “I had to depend only on myself.” Taking odd jobs, she worked through high school as a translator for a non-

governmental organization. She moved to Erbil for college, where her grades were high enough to get her a scholarship into Salahaddin University’s law program. She now works as a government employee in the Kurdistan Region. Although she married when she finished university, her husband, she says, became abusive, and they divorced after eight years of marriage when she revealed some of her prison stories.

Like many Anfal survivors, Amena needs psychological treatment. She’s not getting

k> because there are next to no mental health professionals trained to deal with such trauma in northern Iraq, and the cost would be prohibitive. Although the Kurdish Regional Government has donated some money to Anfal survivors in the form of a small monthly pension, the government’s priorities lie in infrastructure, security and attracting foreign investment to what is now a relatively stable area.

More than anything, Amena is angry. It was a combination of grief and rage that drove her to write the Iraqi High Court, asking to be selected as a witness for Saddam’s often circus-like trial. Before she was sworn in, Amena tried convincing the other women who would testify from behind the curtain to admit to being sexually assaulted. But such admissions could cost women their marriages and financial security, and none of them did.

During her testimony, while others cried, Saddam sat laughing—until she made her surprising admission. “He stood up shouting, T am the president of this country! How do you accept a woman to say such things about me!’ ” Amena recalls. But she continued. “Everything that happened came to me at that time,” she says. “If they had let me, I would have strangled him! I was crying for my grandfather.”

Saddam’s death brought Amena one of her happier days. Now she awaits Majid’s execution with a yearning for justice so strong it consumes her. “I wish I knew where my father and mother were buried,” she says, “to tell them Saddam was hanged—and Ali Hassan al-Majid is following.”