Haunted by the past, Iraqi Kurds fear for the future

Christian Aid director Daleep Mukarji has written to Prime Minister arguing that the moral case for war in Iraq had not yet been made. The letter also highlighted the international community's woeful lack of preparations to deal with the humanitarian consequences of conflict in Iraq.
In the same week Christian Aid journalist John Davison was in Iraqi Kurdistan seeing Christian Aid partners' own preparations for the potential conflict. There he was told of the pall of fear hanging over the region.

Everywhere you travel in Iraqi Kurdistan, there is a palpable sense of fear - fear of the immediate future fuelled by dark fears from the past. Many people here have suffered much over the turbulent decades of war and displacement, and they suspect that more suffering could be just around the corner.

This is most obvious in the overarching fear of weapons of mass destruction, which no one believes have gone away. Such terror is, of course, fuelled by memories of the chemical attacks by the Baghdad regime on Kurdish people at Halabja in 1988, when 5,000 were killed and a further 10,000 injured. The effects of those attacks, in terms of incidence of cancer and birth defects, persist to this day.

In the eastern regional centre of Sulimanyeh, for instance, people have begun to take precautions against possible missile strikes. Family houses have a room set aside, to be sealed with plastic sheeting and taped-up doors against the various feared agents. Food and water have been stockpiled inside these rooms to escape contamination, while supplies of chlorine have been bought in to help clean up operations.

People are even improvising homemade gas masks, which look like surgical masks stuffed with salt and charcoal, in the hope that some protection will be better than nothing.

'The worst thing is the questions from my children, for which I have no answers,' said one senior member of a partner organisation. 'They want to know how they will get home from school if there is an attack, and why they won't be able to play with their contaminated toys afterwards. What can you say?'

An ambitious programme of self-help civil defence has been devised by Christian Aid partner CDO (Civilisation Development Organisation) as part of the Christian Aid funded emergency plan. A team of 250 volunteers has been recruited and allotted different areas of Sulimanyeh in which to operate in the event of an attack - with three-person units specialising in first aid, rescue or awareness.

If there are no attacks, the plan will switch to helping the large numbers of people expected to flee from the southern parts of Iraq in the event of military action. This will supplement the plans Christian Aid partner REACH has made with 40 villages in the border regions to accommodate up to 10,000 displaced people.

Atta Mohammed Ahmed, director of CDO, explained that there would be little tension between the Kurds and any Arabic people who needed to escape to the north. 'Our neighbours in Turkey and Iran rescued us when the Kurds were attacked,' he said. 'Now we need to rescue the Iraqi people.'

In the south of the country, known as the Garmyan region, bitter memories of what is known as the Anfal operation of 1988 keeps fear alive. This was the culmination of Saddam Hussein's village clearance operation, when in a single year some 4,500 villages were destroyed and their populations dispersed.

Some were re-housed in the collective towns. Thousands of other people, particularly younger men, were driven away in lorries and simply disappeared. It is believed that many of these are buried in the desert.

The village of Zhalan was hit particularly badly. Some 44 people - more than half of the original population - are among the disappeared. And 17 of those are from the family of Ali Abdul Karim Mohammed who only escaped with two of his sons because they were out looking after his sheep on the April day when the soldiers came.

'When I came back in the evening, there was nothing. I saw that the houses had been destroyed by the army, and people were standing in the rain with some furniture,' he said. 'I was told that my family had been arrested.

He tried to find them, sold all his livestock and offered to pay for his family's release. But it was no good. He has only heard the vaguest of rumours about his wife, three daughters, three sons and families of his three brothers, ever since. When he compares his situation now with the one before, he said, it still made him sad most of the time.

He stood in the ruins of his old house in the village - little more than a mound of earth and the outlines of walls, like an archeological dig. He now lives in the rebuilt village, a few yards away, with one of his sons. So why did he not rebuild his old house?

'Why do I need a house? I am alone now. I do not have a wife and I do not have my children,' said Ali Abdul.

And with the nearest Iraqi forces just over an hour's drive away by tank, fears that the nightmare might come back are as raw as ever.