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A homecoming of great sorrow for Kurds

Mourners gather at a hilltop cemetery as 365 caskets arrive.

January 18, 2008|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

DOKAN, IRAQ — The army of grievers climbed to the hilltop at dawn, waiting for the 365 flag-draped coffins to arrive. Some sat weeping in the stony dirt amid row after row of empty graves; others lined the streets for blocks. They clutched framed pictures of husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters -- all victims of Saddam Hussein's 1988 genocidal campaign against the Kurds.

When the coffins came, carried up the hill on the backs of soldiers, the lamentation could wait no longer. This Anfal burial was 20 years in the making.

Fatima Omar pushed through the crowd of thousands, past the caution tape and past the soldiers. The mother who had lost three sons and a daughter collapsed on an unmarked coffin, her arms hugging the wooden box. She wailed plaintively; her body shook.

"All of them are like my children," she said. "My children and all these people go into death together. And now, they come back together."

It was a scene of almost unimaginable grief. Grown men sobbed into their scarves; one woman became so inconsolable she had to be carried out; and a photographer, after snapping dozens of pictures, put down his camera and cried into his hands.

As many as 180,000 Kurds were killed in 1988, during Hussein's deadly Anfal, or "spoils of war," operation in which firing squads, chemical warfare and concentration camps were used by the then-ruling Baath Party to root out Kurds in northern Iraq. Thousands of victims remain missing and thousands have yet to be identified.

The remains in the burial ceremony -- found in mass graves in Mosul, Dahuk, Sulaymaniya and Samawah -- were recently turned over to the semiautonomous Kurdish regional government after being used as evidence in trials against Hussein; his cousin Ali Hassan Majid, known as "Chemical Ali"; and others, said Fuad Hussein, chief of staff for Iraqi Kurdistan leader Massoud Barzani.

Although the government considered creating a national burial ground, Hussein said the survivors wanted these remains buried closer to home -- a request officials were willing to accommodate.

"It's an important piece of our history," Hussein said. "It also signals to the outside world that genocide happened to the Kurds and it must not happen anywhere else."

At the burial site Thursday, dozens of black banners dotted the hillside. Each had its own message. "Anfal is a hurt in the body of the Kurd. We don't forget. Ever," declared one. Another called on the government to execute three former top officials who have been convicted and sentenced to death for Anfal-related crimes.

Kurds, though, are split on whether Majid; Hussein Rashid Mohammed, the former deputy head of army operations; and Sultan Hashim Ahmad Jabburi Tai, a onetime defense minister, should be executed. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has argued that Tai should be spared.

But this was not a day about politics. It was a day, finally, to say goodbye. And for some, to relive old wounds.

"I tried to forget because it was a long process," said Ismat Abdul Rahman, whose son Aziz, 4, was killed, along with five other family members.

"Now I am hurt, my head and my body. Today I feel like they are killing my son."

Fatima Salah crouched over an empty grave, her body rocking side to side. "All of the time I cry," she said. "All of my life, I cry about you. I don't forget you."

She held up nine plastic floral bouquets, each bearing the name of one of her nieces or nephews: Hiwa, 11; Cameran, 15; Runak, 13; Sangar, 2; Peri, 4; Bestun, 1. . . .

"Some were not even old enough to go to school," she said, sobbing. Her list continued: Hawri, 3; Akhtar, 19; Delkhwaz, 5.

When the procession of coffins approached, hours after many mourners had arrived, the crowd moved to the edge and peered down at the row of trucks carrying the caskets.

Muneri Mahmoud watched, as one coffin after another passed by. Tears flowed, and she spoke a flood of Kurdish. She stood quietly for several minutes.

Then she dabbed her eyes and smiled. She said one word, in English: "Home."


Special correspondent Asso Ahmed contributed to this report.

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