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Kurds get remains but no closure

For many who lost relatives in Iraq's Anfal campaign in the 1980s, arrival of 150 coffins gives little consolation.

December 01, 2008|Asso Ahmed | Ahmed is a special correspondent.

IRBIL, IRAQ — For more than 20 years, Aska Ali Ameen waited for her husband to come home.

She knew he was dead, but getting his corpse would be better than having nothing. At least she could give him a decent burial.

When Ameen finally got a peek inside the coffin given to her by government officials, though, she felt no relief.

"As I look inside the coffin, I wonder, is the man inside my husband or not?" said Ameen, standing on an airport tarmac where the coffins of 150 long-deceased Kurds had just been unloaded from a cargo plane in the northern city of Irbil, capital of the semiautonomous Kurdistan region.

After so many years, Shareef Ali's remains were like the others that arrived from Najaf last month: bones and dust.

There were no shreds of clothing, no jewelry, nothing personal -- only a slip of paper stating that an identification document proved these were Ali's remains.

An estimated 180,000 Kurds died in the 1980s in what came to be known as the Anfal campaign, or "spoils of war." The campaign included gas attacks on the Kurds' northern homeland and the transfer of Kurds to southern Iraq, where many were killed.

As with most of the crackdowns designed to bolster President Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-led dictatorship, most victims were civilians.

The remains of Anfal victims have stayed beneath the country's sandy soil, in the deep holes where the Kurds fell after being gunned down. Identification cards are mixed among bones or tucked in pockets of whatever remains of clothing.

Since Hussein's ouster in 2003, the graves have been uncovered one by one. So many, in fact, that the Iraqi government has designated May 16 as Mass Graves Day, a national day of remembrance.

The latest discovery was about three months ago in a farmer's field near Najaf. Many of the bodies were identified through documentation found nearby. For others, there were no clues. But each set of remains was placed in a coffin and sent to Irbil, about 290 miles north, where relatives waited on a chilly, overcast afternoon, hoping that their lost loved ones were among those whose identities had been confirmed.

"For 22 years I am waiting for the return of my brother's corpse," Ali Mohammed said, crying as he spoke of Fraydoon Mohammed. "Today I see him among many corpses, yet I cannot identify him."

Like Ameen, he had hoped for some physical reminder to set his brother's remains apart from the other piles of bones. His wailing continued.

"This is unfair," Mohammed said. "We did not recover his corpse so we can bury it and visit it every now and then. We were deprived of many things. Even the graves."

Kurdistan's president, Massoud Barzani, attended along with victims' families and representatives of the Iraqi government. The Kurdish and the Iraqi anthems were played, an effort to demonstrate unity between Baghdad's central government and the Kurdish regional government.

But some relatives of the deceased accused Iraqi and Kurdish officials of using the corpse return for political gain. Barzani and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki are engaged in a feud over what each says is the other's attempts to horn in on his sovereignty.

Neither has helped Kurdish people, contended Shareef Salih, who was waiting for the remains of three cousins.

"They talk about prosperity, but I wish they could give me one example of that," he said of the leaders. "They did nothing for us, but they've made good political gains out of Anfal."

As he spoke, the sounds of women crying mixed with the anthems. Each coffin was draped with a Kurdish flag, its huge and brilliant yellow sun a jarring contrast to the grim proceedings and ashen faces.

Barzani, in a brief speech, vowed to bring all Anfal victims home.

Said Salih, clutching a picture of his missing father, Salih Mahmoud, will be waiting. He had found coffins carrying remains of people from his Kurdish village, based on identification found with their skeletons.

"But, unfortunately," Salih said, "I could not find my father."

Times staff writer Tina Susman in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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