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The Interviews

Camp Survivors

Interview with Nabata Fayaq Rahman

Gas Survivors

Interview with Nakhshin Saeed Osman

Those who went into hiding during Anfal

Interview with Bafraw Fakhradeen


Interview with Najeeba Ahmed Hakim

Activists and Politicians

Interview with Adalet Omar Salih



Interview with Najeeba Ahmed Hakim
31/3/06 -in her home in Erbil, the 1st Anfal

Najeeba Ahmed (also known as Jwan) is a writer. She married another writer, Muhammad Hama Baqi, in the early 1980s and together they joined the peshmarga forces (Kurdish freedom fighters) in ‘the liberated zone’. This refers to the mountainous region which was under peshmarga control and the Iraqi government called it ‘The prohibited zone’. Najeeba had her first two children while living in the mountains. In February 1988 when the first Anfal started she was living in the Jaffati Valley where the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was based. The Jaffati Valley became Anfal’s first target. This region is in the northeast of Iraq, on the border of Iran. It is a beautiful valley full of little villages hemmed in by harsh mountains. When it became apparent that this attack was different from the previous ones and that the peshmarga will not be able to withstand it, the families started a mass exodus to Iran through the snow. In this breathtaking interview, Najeeba xan talks about her journey to Iran and how Anfal has affected her life. This is an eloquent account of a refugee’s journey into safety and the processing of those memories.

The interview

- Can you please introduce yourself.
- My name is Najeeba Ahmed Hakim. I was born in Kirkuk in 1954. I finished my primary and secondary school there. Then I came to Suleimanya to go to university. I studied in the College of Literature, Kurdish language and literature. I graduated in 1976. I taught in Derbendikhan for one and a half years. Then I taught in Chemchemal for four years. In 1981 I gave up my work and salary and left. I was a peshmarga for seven years.

- Which region where you living at?
- First we were in Nawzeng which is across from Serdesht [near Iran] till the end of 1982 or the beginning of 1983. But then that region was abandoned, the headquarters moved southwards so we came to the Sharbajer region. After a few months we went to the back of Asos [mountain] and lived in a village called Awaje. The government had deported the inhabitants of Awaje, they lived in housing complexes in Chemchemal and Takya. The peshmarga re-inhabited the deserted region and the civilians gradually returned following that. This was during the Iraq- Iran war.

- Why did the villagers come back?
- Some of them had sons who were army deserters so they came back to their own village. Gradually the village was re-inhabited again due to the peshmarga. This region was opposite Dukan [lake], behind Asos [mountain], behind Qaladze.

- How long did you stay there?
- We were there for about three years. The region was continuously being bombarded by the [Iraqi] government. So we came to Mawat and Qelachwalan region. We were in a village called Mewlaka. We were there for a year and a half and returned to Awaje once again. In this way the government attacked, the headquarters moved, the peshmarga left a region and we changed our location according to these changes. We returned to Awaje, we had a home there, we had built a house. It was a lovely village. We stayed there until Anfal, that is until 1988, until March we stayed there.  The people’s flight and the retreat of peshmarga happened in March but before Anfal, the government… we knew they were preparing for a big attack to take the region because our region was close to Dukan, beyond Dukan, Bingird, Marga and places like that… it is true that many of them [civilians of these places] collaborated with the government but they were the same people who had relatives in the peshmarga forces so we knew the news. We knew what the government wanted to achieve. Also the attacks started in February. As I said we left early March but before we leave the government had been attacking and failing for a while… the peshmarga were succeeding. For a while [before the first Anfal attack] we were not staying in our homes anymore, we could not because it was war all the time, it was happening before our eyes. We had to leave our homes. I must also tell you that at the beginning of the government attack… on daily bases planes came, it wasn’t just an army attack, there were also air raids. One day I was alone at home, our house wasn’t in the village but on the edge of the village, the men went to the mountains and during lunch they would find an opportunity and come in to eat. One day the government intensified the attacks, they (the peshmarga) had news. My husband told me he didn’t want me to stay at home that day. We had an air shelter, we mostly went there. He told me that there may be many air raids that day and he didn’t want me to go back to the house. He said to stay in the shelter: ‘Don’t wash dishes, don’t go home’. He even took my older daughter to another family who had a bigger shelter. If she is with me, he said, she will keep sending me back to the house to get her things.  I stayed with my younger daughter who was one year old. It was about four in the evening, I heard the plane. When a plane comes to bombard a place it flies low and it has a low voice. I knew it was flying towards us. I managed to get into the shelter, I had been sitting in front of it, and the minute I got inside the plane dropped its bombs.  I knew it was very close because lots of dust and dirt came into the shelter. I got confused, I knew it had hit [a place] near me so I did not dare to come out. There are beautiful things at such moments in life, they are worth being included in stories and novels. There was a crazy man in the village, each time after a bombardment he acted as an announcer, as if he had a loudspeaker, he used to shout out the names of where had been hit. I heard his voice make an announcement. Obviously kaka Hama (husband) and the others on the mountain could see where had been bombed, they knew it was our house (she laughs). He had not dared to come down to check, he didn’t dare to find out. His friends told him they would go and find out for him. I heard the crazy man, Sa’adun, shout: ‘If Mamosta’s (a title used for teachers and intellectuals) family are not hurt our only martyrs are two ducks.’ So I knew it was very close but I did not dare to come out. After a short while one of the peshmarga who was with kaka Hama came and called out to me… but before him the crazy man came and shouted: ‘Mamosta’s family! Sister in law?! I said, Yes. He said: Are you still alive? I said, Yes.’ (She smiles). He said if you are alive then no one has become a martyr. Then the peshmarga called out to me, ‘Don’t you want to come out?’ I said, No, I don’t dare to. Then I asked, Where has it bombed? (laughing). He said, If I tell you won’t be upset? I said, No. He said, It was your house. I said, Forget about the house (she laughs), at least we are safe. Then kaka Hama and the others came down, they kept saying not to be sad. Why should I be sad? I said. It was war and any place was liable to be flattened. When I came out I realised nothing was left. We had a room which had a dynamo in it for electricity, you could not even tell there had been a room there. The whole place had sunk into the ground. The bomb had actually hit the ground between our house and shehid (martyr) Abdil-Rahim’s house, it had made a huge hole in the ground, it was many meters long, water was oozing out from it, that is how deep it had gone. In short, after that day we were not able to live in that house anymore… we had another room outside which had our food supply and clothes. We took those out. At night we slept in people’s homes and in the day we went to the caves because you would not stay out in the day. The attacks were intensifying every day, you could not hang around.

- Which month was this?
- It was February. March had not started yet, yes. At the beginning of March the war was really serious (she stresses the word). Right before our eyes we saw the peshmarga struggle. We would come out of the caves… you could not sit in the caves, they were really cold. We would come out to be in the sun and catch some air… you had children who couldn’t stand it in the cave. We would come out and we would see the jash trying to climb the mountains and the peshmarga would shoot them down and they would retreat. Until 2nd, 3rd or 4th March, around this time, I can’t remember too well, it was early evening when the government seized those areas. It seized the village right before us which was called Marga, there was twenty minutes distance between our village and Marga. It was so sudden that our own peshmarga wanted to go to Marga by car, they did not realise it had been seized… they turned back right at the gate of the village, only then they realised the government had occupied it. It was an awful evening, the government was hitting us with rajima rockets (multiple barrelled artillery). This is awful, you keep hearing them whiz above your head, you don’t know where they would land, it just depends on your luck… we were in the caves, they called out to us to come down and evacuate because the government has reached Marga. It was an awful moment, a terrible moment.

- Did you have anything in the cave?
- You mean food?

- Yes.
- Yes, we took food on daily bases, enough for each day. So when we came down from the cave I had Lawja and Mooja with me (daughters). Mooja was one year and one month old. Lawja was three and a half years old. Kaka Hama was with the peshmarga. When I came down from the cave, I still had not reached people when a rajima passed over my head. I will never forget (she laughs) there was a large boulder which had space underneath it. I put both their heads under the boulder and I covered them [with my body]…. One of my neighbours (her husband walks in and after a few moments of interruption he comes and sits down and she continues). One of my neighbours saw this and came helped me carry the children. When we reached the road, they (pointing at her husband) were waiting for us. They had a jeep, we got on to leave. We went to go to Kani Too which is a bit further away from the attacks. Believe me, about sixty people were hanging off that car, there was no space. It was raining (emphasises with her voice), beginning of March is really cold… I don’t know why these years have been so warm… those years it was really strange. Obviously the years that Kurds are unlucky it is normally too cold (she laughs again). That night we went to Kani Too. The car took us half way and we had to walk the rest of the way. It was dark, muddy, the car could not go anymore, it fell apart. Half a way through we started walking towards the village. It wasn’t just us, all the people who were left there were doing the same.

- Was it just people from that village?
- That village and other villages around, everyone was walking that way. The flight started that day. We got there, the first night they told us (referring to her husband) the government is not going to attack immediately… they knew, they said it had just seized Marga, it would be another two days before they reach Awaje which we had left behind. So some said they wanted to go back that night and get their weapons which they didn’t want the government to seize [and the] writing, photos, and things [which were] left, luggage and things, to plan ahead… people didn’t know that the attack will carry on until it forces us into Iran. In the night they went in tractors back to Awaje, they brought some things. We had a luggage full of letters, photos, writing, and many other things, they brought them. We stayed in Kani Too for two nights and two days, I think. The two days we stayed with a family. It wasn’t as if we were guests it was like your own house, you had to get up and do things of course. We knew that the attack was progressing towards us and it was [on a] large scale. They (meaning the men) said that we should take plenty of food and weapons and go into the caves, that we would stay there for the next month or two until spring and then we will return. So no one believed that it would be as it was. That night this was planned. The next day we had plenty of meat with us and lots of food. They said to cook all the meat, make qawrma of it (meant cooked in plenty of salt to preserve it). How it was raining! From here you could not see to there (pointing to a few meters in front of her). It was a strange thick rain, drops one after the other… from the morning the men of the house were loading mules with weapons and food stuff to take to the caves. And we [the women]... I had one other woman with me who was also peshmarga family, and Gelas xan, Kak Ziro’s wife. Gelas xan and I were preparing the food: meat and rice and things like that. [We planned] to leave some for lunch and wrap up the rest to take with us. The other two women, the landlord and a peshmarga woman were baking bread in the mud brick ovens. In the room we had spread all of our clothes, we had to make a decision on what to take and what to throw away. Suddenly one of the young men poked his head through the door and said: Get up and run! They are coming. (She pauses for a second) That is all, one second’s notice. When I came out, he (pointing to her husband) said he would carry Lawja and I should carry Muja and a bag.  The bag had our writing in it. I picked up the bag and the young man who was with us picked up Mooja and we left. We put our shoes on and left, no one even thought about informing the two women at the ovens… that is how it was, all quick, no one could think of anyone.

- Was it true that the army had arrived?
- They hadn’t arrived yet. The next day they arrived. But the main thing is that the peshmarga were losing on that front. (Her husband tried to interfere, she looked at him and nodded and carried on). God forbid that a battle front loses like that, gradually everyone loses courage. When we left the house everyone was running… they were running without any program… he (husband) shouted to some of his friends that the route they were taking was really dangerous. He said that there were other routes, at least we should go the other way, we would all vanish on this route, how could all these people go up the mountain in this cold. Because in the cold country, if it is raining below [in the valleys] it is snowing in the mountains. No one was listening to the other… people kept running.

- So you didn’t take your food and clothes?
- Nothing, nothing at all, we left in the clothes we were wearing. I was wearing a thin set of Kurdish clothes and a jacket. I put Mooja in a sleeping bag and Lawja was wearing an overall suit. We picked them up and left. We went, just as we got out of the village the rain, snow, cold, no one could help the other, you don’t know how to cross the water. One person was grabbing another, helping them cross, some were swearing, some were shouting. You know, these times are very strange, you cannot really re-create them in words. May be if you have a camera… may be a film can recreate the pictures.

- What river were you crossing?
- Where was it (she looks at her husband) that place near Kani Too?  We were passing a mountain, what was it called? (He says: there were ponds everywhere from the mountains, the rain and slush was coming down the mountain and creating streams). It was the result of snow and rain, there were [large] streams which you could not cross. The mountain we crossed was Kurkur. However, that morning they brought the news that many people had frozen on that mountain, that is people who had wanted to escape. Few people had [already] reached the conviction that they should leave, they had tried to climb the mountain and get to the other side. We had heard that people had frozen but no one seemed to care. In this flight there were Iraqi soldiers who were prisoners of war. There were officers… They brought the prisoners first and then they didn’t know what to do with them. They would not tell them that the peshmarga had lost because they would love that. They shot some of them, others… there were two with us, one was wounded and the other was old. They returned to the village with us later.

- Did you return to the village?
-  I tell you about our return in a second. Anyway, this was lunch time when we fled, before 12. We got through the rain, we reached the beginning of the mountain and then we were under snow. But it was not normal snow, it was a snowstorm, you could not see each other. It was snowing with wind. Snow clumps kept hitting your ear, your face, all over you. I had no experience of such thing. He (husband) had experienced this, I could hear him tell people: Please don’t leave us behind, when my children die help me burry them, I don’t want to just throw them away. I found these words very strange. I could not imagine that or believe it. We were climbing the mountain slowly. Like ant lines people were going up the mountain. I saw peshmarga throw away their coats, throw away clothes so that they get lighter and could carry on walking. Some even threw away the pictures they had in their pockets, they thought they would be lighter and could walk faster. Our clothes were stiffening on our bodies. I forget to tell you that a young man was carrying Mooja and I was carrying a bag. Half way through he told me: This child is freezing to death, I don’t want her to die in my arms. He said he would give me my daughter and he would carry the bag for me. I said okay, I took my daughter from him. I took off my coat and put it over her but my coat was stiff with frost, she was not crying, she was not conscious anymore. I put my coat over her, the coat froze, I threw it away. (Her husband starts: Darling, explain to her that if a person is being carried by another, they are more likely to freeze). Yes, they would freeze quicker than those who are moving. You move, you have resistance, she does not move, she has no energy. Anyway, we gradually climbed up and started seeing people [freeze]. The process of freezing started. We saw a peshmarga who was wounded and could not walk [anymore], right before my eyes he picked up a sleeping bag (people were throwing away their things), he went into the sleeping bag and said: Goodbye from me and the snow was falling on him and covering him. This is how it was and the strange thing is these things seemed normal to people. You would find it normal that your child froze to death, I don’t know, do you become desensitized at the time? The catastrophe is so big you feel that these things are too small compared to the whole thing. The defeat [of the peshmarga] itself was so awful, it was a terrible defeat, you see that your enemy is coming and you are left with nothing. So death becomes normal to you in such circumstances. When we were climbing, people started freezing. We went a good distance, up to the waist of the mountain. In this space of time a number of people descended from the mountain, a number of people… one of them was a peshmarga who was living with us, we had two [living] with us. He had sent his wife home. The other was still there with his wife and children, the two men were cousins. The one who had the family had taken his wife and son, and his daughter was with his cousin. The cousin came and shouted out to the people: Please don’t go up, all those who have gone up have frozen [to death]. Return, he said. He said we would freeze. And, he added, this is my cousin’s daughter, her parents and brother have frozen to death and I am going to kill her now. He took out his gun and was about to kill her. He (pointing to her husband) grabbed him and shouted, What are you doing? Why will you kill her? She is not dead yet, if you can’t look after her give her to us, we will look after her with our daughters. People interfered and did not allow him to kill her. This was when people decided to turn back. This is when people got really exhausted. In the retreat they were desperate. It was during this descend that 49 people who were with us froze to death. 49 people froze in the space of two to three hours, people had no energy left. You kept walking, the snow was hitting you, you kept slipping and falling, you are cold, and shivering. People were exhausted, they had no energy left. In this situation, and I saw this with my own eyes, it is always vivid before my eyes, [there was] a woman behind me. The mountainside was very steep, we had to walk behind each other. If your foot slipped you would fall down. Below us was rough hills, icy valleys, no one would help you. You had to be very careful how you tread. A woman was behind me, she had a two month baby, she had put the baby in a plastic bag to protect him. Her foot slipped, she fell, she screamed one. A man told her: If you can you better get up because no one is going to help you back on your feet. We all saw her roll down into the valley, no one did a thing to help her. No one helped the other. That is how it was. In this descend, kaka Hama had Lawja, a distance grew between us. In this space I put my foot down and fell into a ditch, it was empty underneath though you could not see that because of the snow. I fell into the ditch, Mooja was in my arms and as I fell into the ditch she bounced out of my hands. My whole body was in the ditch, only my head was out. I was in the snow and slush. I must not forget that while we were descending there were still some young people who didn’t believe in retuning and kept climbing. In this space I saw one of kak Mustafa Chawrash’s peshmarga, he was the driver called Razay Manij. A few days before all of this happened he said to me: Why don’t you go back to Suelimany like some of the other women? Many of peshmargas’ wives left just before the defeat. I forgot to say the night before the attack the men gathered us and said the attack is serious and they wanted to gather us- the women, put us into tractors to the back of Asos and then to Qeladzeh, from there everyone should go back to their relatives. Gelas xan and I decided not to go. We thought if anything happens to the men why should we live. We wanted to stick together but many of the women left. Reza saw me in the ditch like that, he was climbing, he grabbed me and said (she smiles): Daughter of the skies [a blasphemous expression said out of anger]! How many times did I tell you to go back to the city? Why didn’t you go? Why did you do this to yourself? He hugged me and pulled me out of the snow but by the time he did that I had no shoes on anymore. It was left behind in the ditch. Mooja, I was not aware that one of the young men who was with us, he was like our son, he had seen kaka Hama. He had asked him: What do you need? He (husband) had told him that he [himself] doesn’t need any help but I was behind and I may need help carrying Mooja. When the young man came he had seen Mooja, fallen on the floor. He didn’t know what had happened to me. He had put down his weapon and carried Mooja. After a while he passed her on to someone and went back for his weapon, but the weapon was not there anymore. Such things happened too, somebody had stolen his Kalashnikov. When I got to kaka Hama, I didn’t have Mooja with me and she had not reached him yet. The other person who carried her didn’t know whose child she was. He (husband) had Lawja... there was a stone wall [at the bottom of the mountain]. That mountain is really bare, there were no trees, it was snow and winter, there was nothing to warm yourself with. People had thrown away clothes, blankets and plastic bags so some people had gathered all of this and built a fire so that the people could take a short break by that stone wall. It was towards the evening so you could not stop off for a long time, it would get dark. When I got there he (husband) asked: Where is our other daughter? I said I did not know. I was very calm. I said she had jumped from my hand and I didn’t know where she was. A short while later a young man came and said: This child is frozen, I don’t know whose she is. He (husband) said, O! That is our daughter. When we got her back, he said that she is frozen. We didn’t even cry or wail, it was all normal. He drew her close and kissed her, you know as for the last time you kiss your dear ones. When her father’s warm breath touched her face she moved her head. He said, She is still alive, she has not died. They told us to bring her close to the fire. Her clothes were all rock solid, just like when you hang out clothes in the winter and they become frosty, that is how [hard] her clothes were. Her body too was frozen, her chin and jaw. You had to massage her gently. We took her clothes off, she was naked. We sat by the fire near the wall. (Her husband says: Sorry to interfere I am just trying to make the images clearer for you: You keep hearing shooting, shouting, and [you are] in fear of being caught, you have been a peshmarga for many years… in shame and out of honour you don’t want to be arrested and taken on TV, you don’t want the indignity of being captured… you see people getting killed. The prisoners were killed but some of them killed themselves, they could not flee. They were asking for pity. In such situations… it was not good for us but that day was like emptying a sack full of things and some of the things inside it are shocking. A number of things happen in a few hours, things you could never imagine. So at such times you are detached of your normal feelings, these things happen and you become abnormal so whatever happens during this time is normal. I saw a father drag two sons… they were hard like ice. People told him, What are you doing? They are both dead. They had both frozen and he was still dragging them, he didn’t know. The minute he let go of them they dropped like heavy ice on to the floor. Such images of snowstorm, unless you see it with your own eyes, you cannot imagine it. When snow heavily falls and your face is warm, it sticks to your face. When the snow continues your whole face becomes covered with ice, a layer of ice. After a while even if you try to scratch it off you will hurt your skin. Underneath your skin turns blue, this is how freezing starts. Only when you see other people you feel the danger, you feel scared and ask why does he look so different? You recognise them by their voices, their whole face is covered in ice. You don’t even see this in the Eskimo because they prepare for such a situation. In our situation we were totally unprepared, we were inexperienced. You in your normal frame of mind have been thrown into this abnormal situation, your subconscious does its work, it feels normal. All the images of soldiers being shot, a man lying down and zipping up in a sleeping bag, a woman rolling down the mountain… etc, etc. in this way the only thing you can think of is keeping your dignity. You must remember one thing, one thing stays normal, your flight to avoid being caught).

- Thank you very much for that (facing her husband and then I turn back to her): So how many hours later did you arrive back in the village?
-  I will tell you now. From that stone wall at the bottom of the mountain [where] we sat by the fire… I don’t know what time it was, it may have been 3.30 or 4 hours later, it takes you 7 hours to climb under normal circumstances but we had gone half way. When we warmed up a little [by the fire near the wall] the men said that the evening would fall soon and we would lose the footsteps. It is best to follow in the people’s footsteps. Soon we would lose them in the snow and wolves might eat us. We should go back down and see what the people are doing down there… then decide what to do.

- Who had started the fire first?
- People like us who came down and gathered the material around them, may be 4-6 people had got there before us. The people who were behind me were also coming to stop off and rest for a while. All the people were coming back down… the fire was built of clothes, plastic bags and things, it wasn’t a good fire. The crazy man I told you about who did the announcements... In that place, it is just like a film, this crazy man enjoyed you know what? He had found old bullet cases which had some gun powder left in them. He secretly put them in the fire and every now and then one of them would burst and raise ashes into our eyes and make us jump. This is what he enjoyed at this time (she smiles). Anyway we had to go back to where we had fled from. Throughout, people were dying until that moment when we reached the fire. The 49 people died one after the other. The rest of us came back down, when the snow finished we ended up in the mud and slush. Remember that I am not wearing shoes anymore. We were back in the mud and water. At the bottom of the mountain [there] was the summer quarters of the people. There was one house, it was one room but a good room. It had a paraffin heater. The people who had got there before us lit the heater. The region is also known for its currants and figs and walnuts, each house had sacks full of these things. Each wave of people that arrived in that house warmed up properly, had some of the dry figs and currants and then we had to get out and return but avoid going back inside Kani Too. There was another route opposite the village, it was called Hawara Barza, from there you would have to escape. So before we started that escape to the mountain kaka Hama had proposed that we should not go to Kurkuk mountain but take the other route. But they did not listen. When we got to that house, our friends, Gelas xan and them were there, they had no children. They hugged us and welcomed us, put us near the fire gave us some walnuts and fruits. We stayed there for about an hour. There the men planned how to go through Hawara Barza. Kaka Hama said that the children need clothes and I didn’t have any shoes so we need to get back to the village and get some clothes. He said we would change and asked them if they could wait for us. Can you believe that all those peshmarga that I had served on daily bases, feeding them and washing their clothes, not one of them was prepared to wait for us? They said that the government would arrest them if they did. That is what people feared. They decided not to come with us. It was dark now. I went with kaka Hama, a wounded peshmarga and two Arab prisoners. The wounded young man said he could not walk, he would stay in the village, let the government arrest him the next day. The prisoners, people said to us: Don’t tell them we had been defeated, they could stay in the village and the next day the government would take them back. We said, Okay. They could not even carry the children with us, the young man was wounded, the prisoners were old.

- Didn’t the Arab soldiers ask what is going on?
- Yes they did. We said just come with us and don’t worry about it. We told them not to ask questions. We arrived in the village at night. We got lost in the dark, we lost them. Me and kaka Hama followed each other. He said what shall we do? I said we must find the house where our stuff is. How could we find it in the dark? We had no match stick, no lantern. We had no light. The village was full of ditches, the ground is uneven. We kept slipping and falling, we dropped our children as we slipped. Anyway, treading carefully on the floor we found the house. The village houses, as you know, they have the ground floor and the first floor, you have to climb the stairs. We knew it was the house but how could we find the clothes. We went to the porch and saw a light, we hoped somebody might be there. When we got in, there was no one. There was an empty tin of formula milk, Needo milk, it had a lit torch inside it. He said, Come, only God knows what good we have done [to deserve this], this has been sent for us. I searched around and found that the pots of food were as we had left them. I forgot to say that the day when we ran away the man, our host, saw us half a way and asked where his wife was, we said no one had the time to tell them. Half way when people returned back to the village they found them still baking bread at the ovens (she smiles sadly). We found our clothes, changed the children, changed our own clothes, put plastic bags on their feet and hands [and then] we left. Then he asked what shall we do? How can we find a way out? Where can we find people? Then we saw another light, and walked towards it to find out who they were. We found out they were pasdars (Iranian revolutionary guards). Earlier the pasdars had come to the region and this was their base. There were six of them and the wounded young man and the Iraqi prisoners had also gone there, they had found it by the light. We went and sat there, we started talking to them with our broken Persian at the time. They said they had got back to burn all their documents and papers because they did not want the Iraqi government to get hold of them. They wanted to gather themselves and leave tomorrow taking the same path where the people froze. We kept trying to convince them to go the other route with us that night. We could hear the cannon bombs all the time, we were worried that the government might get there that night and arrest us like prisoners, we were worried about our reputation. The children had some food there, they sat by the fire, ate from their food. It was about 8 or 9 in the evening when Mooja could start eating again, her jaw had thawed. She was still drinking milk, I gave her some milk, they warmed up and both of them slept. Until 4 in the morning we talked with the pasdars about how to escape still hoping they would change their minds. We were scared that the government might arrive at any minute. They did not agree to leave. About five in the morning kaka Hama said that it was getting bright and we should leave. We left them. Then the sky was clear, no clouds, and he said it would be easy for the government to succeed [because the clear sky meant that bombs and tanks can aim better]. They would easily arrest us. We left them and for about one hour we walked around ourselves looking for footprints. After one hour we found some prints and followed until we met a man. We asked him how to find Hawara Barza route. He directed us and told us that many people had gone that way the night before. He was planning to gather his family and leave too. He was wondering how we dared to stay in the village. Anyway we walked and followed footsteps. The man’s family [walked] past us later, they were villagers, [they were] a lot faster than us. We walked until 11 or 12 we saw two people running towards us. We reached another village. When the two men came closer we found out they were our peshmarga friends, the man who nearly killed his cousin’s daughter and his cousin. They told us that they had reached this village about two in the morning the night before. They had never stopped to rest. They had walked in groups, they were familiar with the route we were alone and we were late. We asked what was going on? They said everyone goes to the village, rests, eats and then carries on.

- Was that village empty?
- Yes all villages were being evacuated.

-  So had these two men come to get you?
- Yes, they had asked people about us. Finally the family who passed us by told them that they had seen a couple with two young children. So they came for us. On the way when we were going people had thrown things away. Kaka Hama picked up a radio, he said it was good for the news (she laughs) although we had our own children to carry. I just remembered one thing, the young man who carried the luggage for us which had our writing in it, after carrying the bag for a while he told me it was too heavy and asked me to throw some things away. I took out our two guns, I took out our pencils, our gold watches, some money… I took out the guns so we were carrying these and food and children. The men took the girls form us. The wife of one of them made some food for us, we had lunch there and they said we should stay there one night and rest. We stayed the night. You would just go into someone’s house. They had animals, you would milk the animals, there was rice, you could cook, there was flour, you could bake bread. That night we made food for the next day, nawsaji (bread fried in oil). And the next early morning we started off with them. There were ant lines of people going. People were amazed to see each other alive: You are alive, they said, you have not frozen. That day we started off eight in the morning and about six in the evening we arrived at another village, I can’t remember the name. It was a small village, many people had arrived there before us it was on low grounds and we were higher up. From the hill next to the village we could see people, like water waves there were people. On the other side of the village there was a flat ground where there was a shelter. Kak Nawshirwan Mustafa and them had arrived there and were resting. When we got there a young man told us he had been asking after us. Where is he? we asked. He pointed us in the right direction. Just as we arrived the Iraqi planes arrived, above all these people… I just don’t understand how no one was hurt.

- It bombed?
- O yes, but it hit the mountains around, there was more than ten thousand people there. It was like a raging sea. We came out of the shelter and they told us to go into a house. The men separately and Gelas xan and myself and a few other women went into a house. We opened the door and went in, people kept coming. [There were] people from Sergelu, our region was different from Sergelu. Only there we caught up with Sergelu people. That night we stayed there but the peshmarga kept telling people to be on their way. Whenever a group rested for a day they would ask them to start off again to give other people a resting place and to keep moving… it was like a committee, people themselves also decided to leave when their children rested. People wanted to keep moving and also not to have the entire crowd in one place. We stayed the night, we did not sleep. There was no space to lie down. 200 people were crouching in a small room. There were many humours moments. I was with Gelas xan, she is a fun lady, we were also very good friends because we had lived together in the same house for a while. People kept coming in. An old woman arrived, they lay out a mattress for her and she lay down, I don’t know whether she was ill or what. [When] we went to that house first we didn’t realise it would be so crowded, when that woman came and lay down we didn’t find it strange. We had left behind our nawsaji, we sent a young man to kaka Hama to tell him that we were hungry and had no food. The peshmarga who were with kak Nawshirwan had made food.

- Where did they have food from?
- For example there were [abandoned] chicken in the village which they killed and cooked, there were many animals (sheep and goats) which they could cook, things like that. Late in the night they brought us some food. We ate a couple of bites while squatting and gave them the plates back. The woman next to us apparently had not fallen asleep. We kept talking. Gelas xan laughed and said, Thanks to Saddam, who keeps destroying our homes, we will have to make a new one in Iran. We were laughing and joking, trying to console each other in this way. About two hours later the woman’s son came and asked his mum to get up, they were leaving. She got up and packed her bedding away. We were glad because that meant more space for us, we didn’t know more people would be coming. We cheerfully asked her: Are you leaving auntie? She said, I am leaving may you get mouldy here. For Quraan’s sake, she said, it is as if you are going to be wed (she laughs). For God’s sake, all through the evening you have been chatting and laughing. Poor children, you are going into exile, you are going to Iran. You will be exiled and displaced but all evening you have been talking and laughing. Anyway we spent the night there squatting. In the morning we started on our way again. This is about the fourth day, I think.

- And you had not slept the night before when you went back to the village?
- No we didn’t that night but we slept on the next night when we reached our friends (the two men who had come back for them).

- What was the village called, the one where you rested but didn’t sleep?
- It was called Gomazal. On the next morning we started off again and the road was terrible, potted with ditches and steep rises. I never dared to get on a mule. I preferred walking. Kaka Hama said to me the road is really rough, come get on a mule. I said no, I wouldn’t. He brought two mules but I refused to get on. He got on one of them with Lawja and I had Mooja on my shoulders. He got on and got annoyed with me. Kak Nawshirwan caught up with us and asked what was going on. He said, I have got her a mule but she refuses to get on. He said, Could you please give him to me? He had a back problem, he had recently been operated on and he had a walking stick. It was difficult for him to walk. I gave the mule up to him. He said (she laughs) I feel that you have given me a plane. I said, take it, I am not going to use it. They went on and left us behind. I was walking and kaka Hama kept getting on and off the mule. That day I walked all the way.

- Did you stop off for food?
- For lunch we caught up with Kak Nawshirwan and them. It is a place which is now a major picnic destination, what was the name? It starts with S… I may remember later, it was not Seetek. (She asks her husband and they start a conversation about where it was but none of them are certain). Anyway, we caught up with them, they were eating. They had killed an animal and were cooking it in a tin bucket. There were no pots.

- Had they taken the animal with them?
- No, no. There were so many free animals abandoned by their owners. No one could take them. Some had brought their flock and abandoned them half way because they couldn’t take them. Sorry to tell you this but there were also mules, you would see them stuck in a ditch, covered in snow, you would only see their head or just their ears, or just its load. There were those that were giving birth, the mule, the cows and the little calve had come out but the animal had the placenta with it still.

- What about women giving birth?
- There are some moments like that too which I will tell you about later. That day we ate with them. People kept on walking and leaving each other and then catching up. Again we were behind them. That day was awful, a really tough day. We reached a mountain, you had to slide down it. It was too steep. No one could walk down. People would sit down and slide down and you would have your children on your shoulder or in your lap. It was really hard. Anyway we managed. But a few times on the way… kaka Hama was really exhausted, he could not carry Lawja anyway, she was big, three and a half years old. He would put her down every now and then and beg her to walk for ten minutes but she would cry and refuse. Because she had been carried for such a long time she was crippled, she could not walk. This man cried so many times, he had no energy left anymore, he couldn’t do it… anyway that day passed this way. We got to the end of the slippery mountain and caught up with the mud again. It was during the war between Iran and Iraq. Iran was making military roads in this region but after digging up the area they had not had time to tile it, it was just mud and ditches. Thousands of people were falling and getting stuck in the thick mud. You would fall a hundred times and get up again. At times you would be standing in one place for an hour because the person before you would not walk because the person before them did not walk.

- So there were so many people who were walking in a line.
- Yes one after the other, just like school lines. The paths were too narrow, you could not do it otherwise. Once we did not walk for about two hours. After much waiting and trying to find out what was going on we were told that the person who was in front of this queue was blind. Our head of the caravan was blind.

- O! Why didn’t he say anything?
- I don’t know. Why didn’t he? Anyway, we went through the mud and we got to Shanekhse.

- Were you walking through a valley?
- This was after Alan mountain, it was not a valley, one side is the valley and the other side a mountain… we walked through and got to Shanakhse. We got there by car, Iranian cars, the Badir forces which consisted of the Faili Kurds, whom the Iraqi government expelled from Iraq, had come to rescue people. They had been sent because I guess they were Kurds and were happy to help. They gave people biscuits and packs of dates, dry and quick food to feed the hungry people. We got into a car, a man...

- How did you know they were faili Kurds?
- It was obvious they were speaking in Arabic between themselves, they were Faili, and we talked back in Arabic. We got into the car and they took us to Shanakhse. There Kak Shekh Muhamad Chawsheen had a tent, they were responsible to get people organised to go in. We went to them and he invited us to his tent, we slept in his tent. The children were given food, we warmed up and rested a little. There were many tents, all full of people. This is where people were giving birth and things like that. Even kak Shekh Muhamad went out for a second and came back without his jacket, he had given his coat to a woman who had just given birth. These things happened like that.

- How long did you stay in that tent?
- We stayed there for two nights. On the third morning he told us there were cars to take us into Bana. We said that is very good. Everyone was moving on. The war with Iran was still going on and the Iraqi government bombed places, we were on the border. The plane was above us all the way through and we kept going under boulders and things. Anyway we got into a car with a few other families. We were on Iranian territory. There was a bridge which we had to cross. But when we got there it had been bombed by a plane and the bridge had collapsed. Thousands of people were waiting on this side of the bridge and could not cross and the planes were circling above our heads. The river was really deep in the valley, just looking down you were scared. The bridge was high up… you know how deep that can be. The pasdars quickly made another bridge. You know, the bridges which you make with wooden boxes and ropes, they made this for people to cross. Kak Hama got off and had a look. He came back and said, They have made this bridge, would you dare to cross it? I said of course I would. I had never seen such things, I didn’t know. I said just like everyone else. We waited for three hours or longer… you had to step on the boxes and hold on tightly to the ropes. On either side they had tied it to the iron construction of the old bridge. When we came two pasdars said they would take the children for us and we should try to cross on our own, they were familiar with this. This was probably the worst part of the whole journey and it was a long bridge. You had to step on these boxes and the whole bridge shook, you had to hold tight and under you there was a deep, tough valley.

- Sorry to stop you but I have to change the tape.

New Tape:

- You were talking about crossing that bridge.
- Yes, when we walked over this bridge, I shouted to all the saints and sheikhs and prophets until I crossed it. I was reciting the Quran until I reached the other side. The children were brought over by the pasdars. I must tell you one thing here… about women’s love. We reached the other side and Iranian military cars brought food to people in disposable plates. I forgot to say that during this trip I had my children whom I had to change and clean up. They would wee or poo themselves… we got to the other side, I had some clothes, I changed Mooja, they gave us food. We were about to eat when two women came and sat close to us. They were both in black. One of them cried continuously, the other one would cry and dry her eyes every now and then. But the one that kept crying, all her clothes were dripping. She was wet all over. I thought she may have fallen into water or something, it was very strange, the dripping would not stop. She was really distressed. She cried so much that I could not stop myself from looking at her. I had children, she kept looking at my children and cried more. She was given food but did not eat. I asked the other woman why is she crying so much? The woman told me that this woman is both her cousin and her sister in law (brother’s wife): ‘My brother was peshmarga and he was martyred about a month ago. When my brother was killed they had just had a baby, he was about forty days old. This baby is very dear to all of us and when we fled my father said let me carry the baby, but we lost them. The two of us lost the rest of the family’. Then I asked why is she dribbling? The woman told me she is leaking milk. Imagine that mother… all her body was streams of milk, milk dripping from the edge of her clothes. I thought it was water but it was milk. She was missing the baby so much… I thought what an amazing feeling from that woman. We tried to console her and tell her no one could get lost, they would definitely find them in Bana or somewhere. Later, a car came, we saw kak Nawzad and went with them. The women waited for their relatives. We went with a few other families into Bana. That night we went to the driver’s house. Kak Nawzad asked him not to take us to the mosque which is where they were taking most of the refugees. The driver (an Iranian Kurd) said he would take us to his own house. They took me to the women and the men went elsewhere. On the next day we went into town and they told us to go to Seqiz, that is where the families are gathering. We did not go there, we went to Mirawa, on the side of Sardasht… we had a friend there who had a home. We went to them to stay for a while and then make up our minds. In Bana they gave 12000 tumans to each family. At the time Dr Kamal Khoshnaw was overseeing this. We got the money. We came into town and saw the paved roads. Kaka Hama quickly got us some oranges and apples. The car would not take us to Mirawa direct. We took the fruit in the car, people were watching us, they knew immediately that we were refugees, it was not the norm to do that (for women to eat in a car). We went by different cars, each car would take us to a certain point. In the evening we got to a tea house and asked how to get to Mirawa, the man told us to wait and see if there would be a car. After a short while a car stopped in front of us. It was Kak Haji’s peshmarga, they asked what we were doing, they had come to take us. That night when we got there, you know that sense of arriving, we started falling ill.  That night he called us a doctor, we all fell ill. The doctor examined us and gave us pills and injections. We had a terrible cough, the family could not sleep because of our coughing violently through the night. The cold [weather] was starting to show its effects. We stayed there for about a week or ten days. They treated us, gave us food, bought us clothes. Then Kaka Hama went to Seqiz to find out what had happened to our friends. When he got there, all of our friends were there. Kak Nawshirwan had told him to take us because this would become the centre of settling refugees. He came back and took us. We stayed in Seqiz Hotel for a while and later… we got there on 11th April… we were in the hotel when [the gassing of] Halabja happened [on 16th March 1988]. After that a group of us, families, were taken to Dozaghara village. We stayed there for a while and then we came back. And then we rented a place and settled in Seqiz. I don’t know what else you want to know?

- Did you see anyone else who was desperate like the woman you told me about? Did you know any of the 49 people who froze to death?
- I never saw them freeze myself but I knew some of them. Only later the names were announced and the number. I knew them. Some of them were our friends, peshmargas, hunters, villagers… but no one had been prepared. I sometimes think our survival is a miracle. We had our names in the list [of the frozen] actually.  In Suleimnaya they had a wake for us. I forgot to say, the day we saw him kak Nawshirwan didn’t tell us that he had told some people we had frozen. He only told us how glad he was to see us because he thought we had frozen. Kak Nawshirwan had told Azad Hama Ghareeb by the walky-talky. My brother in law and a nephew had come to the Qeredakh region to find out what happened to us. They could not come to the region. He had spoken to Kak Nawshirwan and both of them heard him say that: Don’t mislead them, we have been told that his wife and children have frozen to death. They should have a wake’, which they did. Then the government had gone to the house. The [Iraqi] government too hears the news. Why are you having a wake? Has your son died?  We warned him to return, etc. They got really scared and said it was no wake. People were coming to the house because his father had an eye operation. They stopped the wake. Two months later when we were in Seqiz we found out. Kak Hama Jaza’s wife who came later told us. He [kak Hama Jaza] had sent his wife to tell them the news was not true but when she went and saw everyone lament and cry, she cried along and did not say anything. No one would listen, she thought, no one would believe her.

- So she had cried in your wake?
- Yes she had even beaten herself and cried her eyes out (laughing). Kak Hama Jaza had told her to tell them the truth but she could not. They were beating themselves and lamenting. When we found out in Seqiz we sent them pictures and letters.

- If we can go back a few steps, I wanted to ask you what did the children look like in the cold?
- Not just the children we were all blue. Only when you saw others you asked why were they blue and black? Gradually, that skin fell off and new skin grew in its place.

- How did you feel after you reached safety?
- It was an awful thing. For a number of years I could not escape this situation. When it was happening we had no time to think and reflect, only later you are haunted by the images and the memories. Just like when a dear one dies you just beat yourself and cry, only later you start thinking about the memories. When I was in Seqiz I started thinking about our house there, we had a place, we were doing well, we had our friends with us who froze to death. How could I not feel anything at the time? When Mooja nearly died, how could I not feel anything? How could I not have any reactions? Only later you think about all of this and realise what has happened to you. It is terrible. The defeat was the worst of all, especially related to a national issue, it was not about a family or a person, it was about a whole people. It is not something you can try to fix. You keep thinking about the freedom in the liberated region where the peshmarga were ruling. It was your region. All of it was taken from you and then Anfal, people freezing, people disappearing, being killed. Then the news kept coming in about Anfal, what happened in the Germian region… all these things are catastrophes which only later you think about, only later it is reflected in your soul. Later in your brain it makes a home, your brain gets tired with it, you think about it. Only later you realise how your soul has decayed by the catastrophe. How you cannot do anything for yourself, how you cannot escape these thoughts. For a number of years in Seqiz I felt that I was in another world, I was a different person. Later, gradually another life starts again, you get involved with other things and other issues… you see more awful things, you see the civil war [between the Kurdish fractions 1994-1998], you see this and that. Some of these old memories get covered up but they still live in a person’s soul. I can never forget about them, I can never leave those moments behind. Dozens of times I have… when we were in Seqiz a Japanese girl came to see us, an Iranian director from Tehran brought her to us… he was making a short film called ‘The Village’. The film won a prize. She interviewed people, she was more interested in the political issues not literature. We told her all of this, it was interpreted to her. I have told dozens of people about these things. I would never forget these scenes. I want to tell you another thing to remember… I sometimes use these moments in my short stories.  I have used this one. The day when we fled and returned to the village, I mentioned that the young man left his weapon and picked up Mooja, his name was Wali. He died unfortunately during the civil war later. We saw him again in Seqiz. He said when I gave Mooja to the other man and returned for my gun, my gun was taken so I took another man’s gun. We kept on walking, because we were all single men without children, we went to the top of the mountain, we stayed the night at the top and decided that since we had guns, if the government comes we will commit suicide but won’t surrender. The mountain was tough. I asked him, How could you not freeze? He said, You know what we did? The bodies of those who had frozen, we gathered them and put them on top of each other, we made them into a wall and we protected ourselves behind them. As the snowstorm attacked in that direction it hit them but not us. We said that in the morning we would burry them properly but in the morning they would not separate from each other. They had really become a wall, a wall of human bodies which protected those who were still alive. Who can re-make these images, how do these fit into any film? Who will you tell about these? How could you write these? How could you capture it, how does history tell them? I keep thinking about these.

- Do you ever dream about that period?
- No, I don’t. I never have returned to Awaje village in my dreams. We are planning to revisit the village so that the children could see where we had lived, see the place of our house. We have some photos… we also have a recording of Lawje when she was really young. Her father asks her where did we used to live, why did we leave, what did we have there? There are some sweet childish things. We had a really sweet dog, we had raised him, who accompanied us for a while when we fled but we left him behind. In the recording Lawja talks about the dog. She says that our dog was navy (she laughs) this is how it stays in a child’s imagination. It was beautiful… these things.. only a poet or a writer could capture these moments and keep them and use them in writing. I may not be able to use them in writing but I may use in them in a memoir… there may be other things which I cannot remember right now.

- How did you get your bag back, the one which had the writing?
- We didn’t. He had thrown is away. In Bana he told us he had left it behind and had hoped we had seen it and picked it up. It had all of our writing, our letters, our photos. We lost everything (she goes silent and looks at me).

-Thank you so much for talking to me and sorry to remind you of some of these things.-You are welcome. These things are always with me, don’t worry, I have not forgotten them to be reminded.