Behind the Grim Kurdish Flight

Memories of ruthless campaign of repression drive refugees from homes. REPORT FROM IRAQI KURDISTAN

IT is midnight in the mountain town of Rawanduz. Grim-faced women are waking bewildered children. A few minutes later, they walk out into the cold night, silent but for the shuffle and scraping of feet on the road as the shadowy forms disappear into the dark. Not a shot has been heard. But news has spread that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Army has taken the resort of Salahadin, about 60 miles away. That is enough to cause a fresh wave of terrified Kurds to flee their homes to join the long trek up the 40-mile-long high mountain pass that leads to the Iranian border.

They face death by exposure, exhaustion, or hunger. They take that certain risk, despite Saddam's amnesties and reassurances that the past is past, and despite repeated calls from their own peshmerga (rebel) leaders to stay in the large areas still controlled by the guerrillas.

Driven by hunger and hardship, a slow trickle of refugees has been returning to the government-controlled cities, but they represent only a tiny proportion of those who fled.

The terror that drives the Kurds to such desperate lengths - literally dying to get away from Saddam - can be summed up by two words: Halabja and Anfal.

Although Saddam has not used chemical weapons against the Kurds this time because of international warnings, the memory of the thousands who died at Halabja and other towns and villages in 1988 is seared into the collective Kurdish memory. "We do not trust him not to do it again," many fleeing refugees said.

It is a fear on which the regime apparently plays. The man in charge of the 1988 campaign against the Kurds, Saddam's notorious cousin, Ali Hassan Mejid, was appointed interior minister shortly after the uprising broke out early last month. According to eyewitnesses, he rounded up a large number of youths in the city of Kirkuk and told them: "You know who I am: I'm Chemical Ali."

The youths have not been seen since.

But the use of chemical weapons was only part of the ruthless campaign of repression in 1988-89, which Saddam called the Anfal.

That campaign left hundreds of Kurdish villages in ruin, hundreds of thousands of Kurdish families uprooted, and countless thousands missing.

"The panic and fear are not because of the bombardment, but because of the Anfal," says a rebel official. "Thousands of people disappeared, and nobody knows what became of them."

"I would prefer my son to live like an animal in the mountains, rather than go back to the government," says Fatima Muhammad, collecting one of her seven children to her. "Thousands of children like him have disappeared."

"My husband has disappeared because of that animal Saddam," says her sister-in-law. "He makes no distinction between women, children, and men. He kills them all, like a wild beast. We will see what Allah will do."

Two of Fatima's husband's brothers and one of his cousins has been missing since they took up one of Saddam's earlier amnesty offers. The family, a typical example among hundreds of thousands, are camping out in the ruins of their old village, Sangasar, one example among hundreds of what happened under the Anfal.

Sangasar, a stone-built village set in a mountain dirt plain with a sparkling river gushing at its feet, was totally demolished in June 1989. The villagers were trucked off to a jerry-built "complex" at Khabat near Mosul and left without jobs or money.

"I lost all my sheep," says Fatima's husband. "I had seven goats, but I had to sell them too because I had no money. We had to live off bread and water alone. I swear I will eat grass before I go back to Saddam."

Fertile Kurdish lands were left to go wild, and fields and valleys sown with millions of mines to ensure the area remained depopulated. The mines will prove a major problem in any project to revive the Kurdish villages.

Traveling for three weeks with the rebels through the Kurdish mountains from Zakho in the northwest to Suleimaniyya in the southeast, it was hard to find a single Kurd - refugee or peshmerga guerrilla - without a bitter personal grievance against the regime.

"Every Kurdish family has a tragedy - someone executed, someone disappeared, someone in jail," says a young female lawyer from Suleimaniyya.

In the resort town of Shaqlawa, a man in the street proffers two pieces of paper. They are the death certificates issued last year by the Ministry of Health for his two brothers. Cause of death: execution by hanging.

"Everybody I know in Kirkuk - about 60 people - was rounded up and taken away in the month before the uprising," says a medical student. "They have taken 14,000 from Kirkuk alone."

Gharib Askari is in charge of a peshmerga unit at a remote mountain base in the Kurdish highlands. In May 1988, 150 of his clan including his wife and two sons, were taken away from his village, Askar. They have not been seen since. Sitting next to him, Mejid Sharif, a young peshmerga, described how his whole family was wiped out in a chemical attack in the same year.

Many of the peshmerga - and often their families too - have been in jail, which they say invariably means torture by electric shock, beating, bastinado, and suspension for long periods with hands tied together behind the back. Many carry the marks to prove it.

Many sources say that with stubborn political prisoners, it was common practice for female relatives to be brought in and raped in front of them to extract confessions.

As for the countless thousands who have been missing for years after being detained by security forces, rumors and reports abound, all of them impossible to confirm. There are rumors, in some cases quoting eyewitnesses, of mass executions of men, with bodies bulldozed in pits in the desert.

There are many stories of children being sold and of Kurdish women being auctioned off to rich Kuwaitis and Saudis as wives. Detailed stories tell how Kurdish soldiers serving in the Iraqi Army during its occupation of Kuwait recognized female relatives who had been sold into marriage there.

Because it is Saddam, all such stories are both believable and believed. That is why the Kurds stampeded in terror at the approach of Saddam's Army, and why only credible international protection - or Saddam's overthrow - will persuade them to return. (See related story on US plan to aid Kurdish refugees, Page 3.)

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