- The Washington Times - Monday, October 14, 2002

BARZAN, Iraq Qazal Bashir, like many of the women in this mountainous village of Iraqi Kurdistan, works the fields. The women herd the animals, build the homes and feed the children.
They have no choice. Their men are gone, disappeared. And each night Mrs. Bashir continues the long vigil for her husband, Omar Hassan, who was taken by Saddam Hussein's soldiers 19 years ago and never seen again.
"Until I'm at the edge of my grave, I'll wait for him to come home," says Mrs. Bashir, whose husband was rounded up from the camp where the family had been forcibly resettled and taken away just one year after the couple married and one night after they had their first and only child.
Her tragedy was caused in part by the United States, whose 1974 decision to pull the plug on an anti-Baghdad Kurdish movement that sprang to life in her area cleared the way for the Iraqi government to exact revenge on the Kurds.
The Kurds have been brutalized by Saddam for 30 years and abused and manipulated by their more powerful Arab, Persian and Turkish neighbors for centuries. As the U.S. threatens to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and replace his government, Kurds have come into the spotlight.
But the Kurds here wonder if their history of sorrow is coming to an end or whether they're being used once again as pawns by larger powers.
"Am I worried about being used and being left high and dry? Yes, I am worried about that," says Barham Salih, prime minister of the section of northern Iraq controlled by Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
"But I'm hoping that we're talking about a new reality. We have an overt commitment from the United States to bring about a democratic, pluralistic, regional government in Iraq."
Kurds have suffered the full brunt of the Baghdad regime's violence. According to a Human Rights Watch report, at least 50,000 men and possibly twice as many died in just one of Saddam's numerous campaigns against the Kurds throughout the 1980s.
Kurdish officials, who run this autonomous section of Iraq protected by the U.S. no-fly zone, say at least 180,000 men were unaccounted for in the 1980s. Those numbers are palpable in towns like Barzan, where women outnumber men by as many as 4 to 1.
Those numbers don't include the dead and buried Kurdish victims of Iraq's chemical bombardments at Halabja, the dusty former resort town where 5,000 people were gassed to death in 1988, and as many as 250 other cities.
Lack of resources to help Kurds recover from and prepare for chemical warfare adds to the cynicism about Western intentions in Iraq.
"Really, there is no preparation for any foreseeable chemical or biological incident," says Fouad Baban, a Suleymania physician who treats Halabja victims.
"Many people come to us," says Mala Nazif, who lost 35 relatives in the 1988 chemical bombardment of Halabja and continues to suffer from skin problems.
"Nobody addresses our problems. Our people are dying. We still don't get any medicine. We are all treated like we're already dead people."
The United Nations has no presence in Halabja, where cancer rates, birth defects and infertility have skyrocketed since the chemical bombardment. The only Western nonprofit group in Halabja helps people recover from land-mine accidents.
Foreign powers played a role in each of Saddam's assaults against the Kurds. In 1991, Saddam shelled Kurdish cities and sent Kurds fleeing into the mountains following an aborted uprising the U.S. initially encouraged.
Saddam's suspicions about Kurdish collaboration with Iranians during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war fed much of his fury against Kurds in the 1980s. Saddam bombed Halabja in part to push out the invading Iranians, who had advanced to the Iraqi city.
In the 1970s, Saddam exacted revenge on guerrilla leader Massoud Barzani's hometown by rounding up residents and placing them in detention camps after the United States and Iran stopped arming Barzani in 1974. The Baghdad government responded with ferocity against the Kurds, especially in the towns and villages in and around Barzan.
Today, the women of Barzan wear black, shunning the bright purples and yellows of traditional Kurdish costume in these parts, and as they tell their stories, children gather around the shaded courtyard and begin to weep.
Mrs. Bashir, 36 years old and never remarried, remembers the last time she saw her husband vividly. It was a midsummer morning between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. Walkie-talkies crackling, soldiers surrounded the homes and ordered men out.
"They said it was just for a meeting, a meeting in Baghdad, and that they would be back by sundown," Mrs. Bashir said. "They said they would be back by sundown. The men were gone in an hour."
For the women of Barzan, the years between 1983, when they lost their sons, husbands and fathers, and 1991, when the U.S. cordoned off northern Iraq from Saddam's forces, were a nightmare.
They remained stuck in the Qooshtapam camp outside Irbil and surrounded day and night by Saddam's soldiers. To earn money, the women had to find work. But they dared not leave their remaining children alone for fear soldiers would abduct them.
Since 1991, the lives of Barzan's women have eased somewhat. They moved from the camp back to their ancestral villages. And the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which governs this section of Northern Iraq, provides 300 dinars, or about $30, a month for each missing head of family.
Mrs. Bashir's memories of her husband are fleeting. She was only 14 when they married. He, 22, was a laborer at a rug factory. When he awoke at 4 a.m. to begin getting ready for work her mother would ask him to pick up groceries on the way home.
Still groggy, he would take out a booklet and diligently jot down a list, to make sure he wouldn't forget anything. "If the whole world became heaven and jewels, it will still be a sad world for us," she says, "because we're missing our brothers and husbands."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide