Fear of Flowers
"Anfal." It means, "to take everything."
In 1988, Saddam Hussein ordered a genocidal campaign, the Anfal Operation, against 4,500 defenseless Kurdish villages in northern Iraq. 180,000 people who couldn’t escape are believed to have been buried in unknown mass graves. The Iraqi military deliberately contaminated water sources with TNT, cut down trees, and put TNT and land mines in the foundations of destroyed homes.
For the past four days, we’ve listened to Azad, whose name means "the free person," pour out memories of what he endured during that time.
"Inside, I am crying," says Azad, "remembering those awful days. We were shouting, crying, but nobody heard." He was twenty years old at the time.
He worked as a nurse at a small surgical center in Takya, southwest of Sulaymaniyah. The Iraqi military attacked the city of Halabja with nerve gas on March 17th, 1988. 5,000 people were killed. Four days later, the Iraqi military shelled Takya. The surgical center staff worked frantically to save surviving villagers. Some came to their center, suffering from seizures, severe disorientation and other neurological effects of nerve gas. The health care workers took their tractor out to surrounding areas to try and rescue others. Then they organized everyone to flee as soon as possible.
"Even the animals could sense something was happening," Azad recalls, marveling over the memory of animals following them out of the village. "Cats and dogs proceeded side by side, even though this is not their nature, with their tails hanging down."
He and 14 other health care workers helped lead 600 people in a harrowing 760 kilometer escape over mountains, on foot, carrying only as much first aid and bits of bread as they could stuff into backpacks.
The Iraqi military pursued them, by air and by land, shelling the defenseless evacuees with more chemical weaponry, which forced them to travel only at night, in total darkness.
"We didn’t even have one gas mask," Azad recalls. After the first chemical weapon attack, the health care workers realized they must inject themselves with atrophine sulfate so that they could help others survive. "The first dose had to be two milligrams," Azad explained. "You feel dizzy, your heart beats very fast, and your mouth becomes completely dry and numb so that you can’t swallow. When a rash breaks out on your skin, then you know that the injection has succeeded."
"All actions to save the patients had to be done immediately," says Azad, "or the patients would die." He learned to quickly dispense antidotes to nerve gas. Recalling theory that he’d studied in nursing school, he swiftly learned to deliver babies and, in one instance, to complete the amputation of a child’s hand after a bomb had nearly severed it completely. Every waking moment was a matter of life and death emergency.
"I would need days", says Azad, "to describe one family. I will never forget them."
He tells of a tailor from the village of Sewsenan who made clothes for the surgical center. He had four girls aged 14, 12, 8 and 6. Azad was very close to the girls. They had green eyes, dark blonde hair and very fair skin. The father was handsome, the mother beautiful. In his free time, Azad would visit their house, and they made him feel like part of the family. When the bombing began, a rocket landed on their home. The tailor hurried home from the mosque and found his wife and his daughters, all dead.
Azad remembers walking by night on the 10th of May when they were encircled by Iraqi military camps and had come upon Peshmerga troops following a 12 hour battle between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi military. The Peshmerga told them they could choose either to stay where they were and face almost certain death, or try to cross a road which required first climbing a slippery, steep cliff and then bolting across a road in hopes of not being seen.
Peshmerga troops helped each of the people climb the cliff. They all crossed the road safely but then went the wrong way and were headed into the camp of Kurdish Iraqi military. The Kurdish Iraqi military shouted, "Don’t come near the camp! If you do, we will start to shoot!" But then, to help them, they illuminated the route using flares.
That same night, when they were walking in total darkness along a road, people in the front suddenly stopped. "Doctor, Doctor!" people whispered to him in alarm. "They need you in front. They smell something strange." He made his way to the front of the line. Because they were surrounded by military camps in the hills, they couldn’t turn on a flashlight. He used his "locally" made mask, cupped his torch in his hand, and bent to smell the ground where people were pointing.
"I told them, be quiet," said Azad, smiling softly. "We are safe. It’s only flowers."
He recalls another point when they came to a river with a very strong current. The Iraqi military had opened a dammed lake so that refugees would find it difficult to cross the rivers. But fishermen helped them by letting them use rafts they had fashioned by laying wooden planks across tires.
After crossing the river, they rested for two days. But the Iraqi military began new chemical weapon attacks. There was no way to return and help the victims in the towns under attack. They had to press forward toward the Iranian border.
The Iraqi military followed them, attacking first by chemical weapons and then by conventional means.
Finally, in June of ’88, they reached a refugee camp near Iran.
Yesterday, Azad took us to a mountain top facing a series of mountain ranges where, before the Anfal Operation, Kurdish villagers had lived as farmers and shepherds. He pointed to an opening between two of the mountains, a gap which was the only route into the mountain valley where they had found protection from the Iraqi military attacks.
We stood above a small cave. "Yes, we hid in caves like this and under trees, in the daytime," he said, "and then at night, single file, holding on to the belt of the person in front of us, we walked, trying to reach a road so that we could pass behind the mountain into a safer area. If it were not for that mountain, I would not be here." He stoops in front of a thorny weed. Now this is too ripe, but when these grasses are just growing in the springtime, you can peel the stem and inside it is very sweet. This is what we ate for one week."
He repeats, several times, that he never would have imagined, during that time, when he could barely imagine living till the next day that he would one day stand on a mountain, free and safe, and point to the places where he lived through such horrors.
Even now, people who were part of that journey sometimes spot Azad in the market or other public spots and race to embrace him, covering him with kisses.
"Now we can hear each other’s stories," Azad says as Azad says as he gazes at calm valleys where thousands of villagers once lived. "I hope the whole world can become like one village."
And he hopes that his children will never fear the smell of flowers.
KATHY KELLY is the author of Other Lands Have Dreams and a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a Chicago based campaign to end U.S. military and economic war against Iraq, www.vcnv.org She can be reached at: Kathy@vcnv.org