Interview with Adalet Omar Salih
29/3/06- Ministry of Human Rights and Anfal, Erbil
In February 2003 an Iraqi government document was published which names 18 Kurdish girls and women from the age of 14 to 29 who were allegedly sold to brothels in Egypt. This naturally flared up the debate about sexual slavery and abuse. Yet while there were cases of rape, there is no research about such issues. There is also no research addressing the needs of women survivors and the different ways they have been oppressed by the Iraqi government and by their own Kurdish community. Here I turned to a brave and honest woman who has worked with Anfal women for six years. Below is the full interview which addresses some of these issues.
 Top secret Iraqi document reveals Kurdish girls sent to harems and nightclubs in Egypt, 7/2/2003. KurdishMedia.com
- Adalet xan! Can you please introduce yourself and your work?
- My name is Adalet Omar Salih. I am a consultant to the Human Rights Minister for the Disappeared and the Anfal Affairs, KDP. I worked for four years in the Anfal centre to follow up the disappeared and the Anfals in Kurdistan.
- How long have you been working in this ministry as a consultant?
- One and a half years.
- What does your work involve?
- It is mostly to gather surveys, documents, documentaries, films, interview with Anfal survivors and also working with Saddam’s trail, exhuming the mass graves. Also generally to implement human rights principles for the survivors.
- Adalet xan, we were talking about Kurdish women and the document which names 18 girls who were sold. Other than the government document is there any other evidence of being Kurdish girls being sold?
- There are many witnesses which can be used as evidence. There is, first of all, a Kurdish man who worked in the in Topzawa Popular Army Camp, as a gardener and cleaner. He was Kurdish, a member of the Popular Army. When Saddam Hussein’s government was toppled, after the document was published, he came forward and told us that he witnessed the selling of Kurdish girls in Topzawa to the Egyptians.
- Where was this?
- In the Topzawa Popular Army camp which was the first holding centre during Anfal where they gathered the Anfals before the men, women and elderly were separated from each other and [women and children] were sent to Dibs, [the elderly to] Nugra Salman and [the men and some families were sent] to the mass graves. When he visited he told us that one day a few men came and they presented an official document and said that they had been told they can come and pick up a few Kurdish women. The guards, according to this man, were not happy about this. But when the head of the failaq was informed, he said there is such an agreement. Then the men went into the halls and chose the women they liked. This is the first example. This man’s name is Mam Almaz and we sent him to Jordan as a witness to talk to the representative of Kufi Annan, he is a UN specialist in human rights. His accounts were listened to there and they were recorded. Another witness is the man who was a soldier in Kuwait. When Kuwait was invaded he found his sister there who had disappeared during the 5th,6th,7th Anfal in the region of Erbil. He found her in Kuwait, she was married to a Kuwaiti man and she had two children with him. He found her during this process and he returned her to Kurdistan with her two sons.
- How had he found her?
- The soldiers were patrolling the town and he saw a few women. He thought one of them looks very familiar. He thought either he has seen her before or she must look like someone he knows. He was with a fellow Kurdish soldier and they were speaking in Kurdish. When the woman heard them she approached them to say that she is Kurdish. Her brother did not recognise her because of the clothes she was wearing. When they start talking they soon recognised each other…. A difficult and emotional exchange happened between them and he returned her to Kurdistan. Another proof comes from those who go to pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. In Khabat a report was published about two Kurdish men in the pilgrimage. A Saudi man who heard them speak in Kurdish told them that his wife too is Kurdish. They asked him, How? He said that in 1988 they brought some Kurdish women to Saudi Arabia. They were given away as presents to the tribes, you could buy some of them. He said that his wife was one of those and he chose her, but he said that he had chosen her to be his wife. These are all examples. There are, for example, some Arab tribes in Shatra and Shanafia in the south of Iraq. They visited us and told us that there were some Kurdish women amongst their tribe, ‘because of our traditional and tribal values we could not… they were given to us as presents by Saddam’s government but we never mistreated them, we have married them all and each of them has 6-7 children.’ We asked the women to return to Kurdistan but none of them agreed to return. I believe these are all examples which prove the truth of the published document. Whether that particular document was authentic or not there is a strong and terrifying voice which tells us that during Anfal Kurdish women were given away as presents or sold. Kanaan Makiya mentions this in his book. He also mentions that some recordings were made about these women but I don’t know where you can get hold of these. I believe they too have done a good job as an organization that now works in Iraq (Iraq Memory Foundation), they are collecting witness statements from Iraqi victims whether they are Shiite or Kurdish. They are doing a good job. I think all of this adds up… and some of the women their families have been found in the Germian region (the warm country). The families were interviewed. It has been confirmed that these families are mostly good looking people. These women were selected on these conditions. Also in the list of the names I think two of the women are daughter and mother, they were selected and taken. We must not forget that the Kurdish society is such that people cannot talk about this issue openly and many problems arise for the families of such women. I had a friend who was a political prisoner. She told me that after years of torture and prison she was released: And the moment I arrived at our house gate, the first question my mother asked me was: Are you a virgin or not? This, she said, really destroyed her will. It seemed that I had lost all the goals I had struggled and fought for. She said that for a few years they kept her in the house like a prisoner, they were watching her with suspicion. They wouldn’t allow her to go out, they said: Do you want to go out and bring shame on us once again? A woman’s hard work and sacrifices are reduced to such a small thing (virginity). This is a huge social problem which our community is still struggling with. We can also talk about the women who were from the Kirkuk region, under Saddam’s rule. After the liberation of Iraq they came and visited me through a friend. They had heard that I work for the Anfals. After talking about themselves they started crying. I talked to them in length until I was able to find out what the problem was. I found out that they had been raped in Topzawa military base but they never dared to tell their families after their release. Many times they had marriage proposals which they had to turn down. They told me that their relatives did not know about the rape and they were not sure how they would respond if they found out. This is a huge problem and I believe the women’s organisations should really put all their powers to deal with these issues and calm things down in the Kurdish community. We need scientific work to be carried out in this regard. We worked with these families for about seven months. We sent 3-4 social workers to talk to them regularly until we managed to convince the families that these women had been raped by your enemies, by those who arrested you and put your loved ones into mass graves. We had to stress that none of this happened to anyone by choice, there was no choice for the women. We managed to persuade their own relatives to marry these girls. They have now established their own families and until a few months ago when I last checked, they are well and have okay lives. I believe one of the biggest problems of the Anfal families is in fact social problems. It is true that financial assistance resolves many problems but even if you have a good economy, if your social problems are not resolved it is not good… I believe we need a revolution to solve these social problems. Because we also had many women who were left after the genocide of the Barzanis. They were harassed a lot in the community and the farms where they worked as labourers. They were abused. Families whose daughters went to work, on their way back [from work] if the family believed that she had been raped or was not a virgin anymore they gave her electric shocks and killed her. Till now most of these women cannot get remarried although a law has come out that allows them to do so. But first of all, because they have low level of awareness and secondly, because their families do not allow them, they can’t. There are a few examples where women who have got remarried have been killed after a few months. I believe that we need to work hard, we need a big cultural revolution to deal with these issues.
- But other than the issue of rape during Anfal, do you believe there have been cases of rape after Anfal when the women returned to work in the community? I mean by the Kurds themselves?
- Yes, there have been cases. I keep asking such women to write their own stories or at least to let us publish their stories. But all of them are scared of the community. A while ago I read an interview in Media paper. It was a woman who was raped during Anfal. After the amnesty when she was released she was in a really bad condition, wearing torn slippers and an ugly and dirty dress. She says that when she came onto the main road she got into a taxi and the driver was Kurdish, but the first thing he did was to ask her to have sex with him. She said that this made her mentally collapse and she thought he was no different from the Baathists who raped her when she was in prison. There are others who can tell you about the women who worked and how they were given work. How the employers chose the beautiful women and how the beautiful women took ugly women and old women with them only to get work. And what work was it? It was either working as a servant or in the farms, this is how they survived, or they sat on the road and sold things. Many of those women talk about their sufferings, how they were abused and harassed. This was particularly bad until before the uprising [in 1991]. People used to mistreat these women but after the uprising I think a good change took place. Things changed %60 to %70, I mean in terms of treating the Anfal survivors. There were a few reasons for this, first of all the Bahdini survivors (Barzani genocide and the 8th Anfal) returned to their villages and rebuilt them and they were looked after by their own communities and relatives, their living conditions got better of course in a limited way, it wasn’t perfect but it was better. When I worked in the Anfal Centre sometimes women came to receive the monthly salary that the Kurdish government was giving them. Some of them would tell me that the taxi driver had brought them there for free when he found out that they were Anfal survivors. This was a good thing. I think there have been changes in this way although there are still some phenomena. Whether we like it or not there are social problems in every community. There are still people who look at the survivors in a degrading way especially when it comes to those who have no man as the head of family. Most of the time when talking about women who don’t have a patriarch, they are looked at as a bad example but when you get to know about her life you find out how strong that woman is, sacrificing her life to bring up her children. I believe that on yearly basis the women who have been able to deal with and overcome all the problems they face be they social, financial or psychological, they should be given prizes.
- Do you believe that the needs of these women, for example their financial needs and their psychotically needs, have they been addressed?
- No, unfortunately I don’t think they have been resolved. Their psychological and mental health problems are equal to their physical needs. The first thing that you notice is that when you talk to these women they answer you in an aggressive manner. This in itself is a psychological problem. They exhibit signs of exhaustion. You look at her face, her hands and fingers, you find extreme exhaustion. You see problems drawn on those hands and that face. I think just looking [at the women] in itself tells you a lot, there is no need to ask her questions or hear things from her, her face and hands tell you a lot. Just by looking at them and sitting with them you understand a lot. This is why I have asked many times to open health centres in places where many Anfal survivors live, somewhere specialised not just to get pills when you get a headache but a place which will deal with all the aspects of their health problems. There should be a space which deals with their problems. A place that would allow families to talk to each other, where someone can follow up their needs and requirements. Another special place for mental health problems so that these issues can be resolved there. Three years ago I submitted a proposal to an international German NGO called Hawkari. I asked for such centres to be opened in Bina Slawa, Harir, Bahirka but because of the security problems it has not happened. There are examples of such places in Kifri and Kalar, as far as I know. There was supposed to be a similar project in Erbil but for various reasons this has not happened yet, first it was the security issue, and then because of lack of budget… the project is still standing. I have also spoken with UN representatives although I have no faith in the UN, I know it is just words and nothing else. I have spoken with them about funding these little projects so that such centres are opened. If you see the Kuwait Martyrs’ Institution and what they have done for 602 people, you will be amazed. Their lives are equal to the royal family and the princes of Kuwait. They have been given houses, cars, specialised health services, their own teachers… they even have special occasions for them. This is why if you look at the face of a Kuwait martyr’s wife and compare it to an Anfal survivor, the difference is huge, from earth to sky.
So, once again the economical side of things….
Yes, yes, yes, these things need to be done. There are organisations that come from abroad and they want to open a gym for women so that they have good figures… my women… yes, okay all women need to have fit figures, this is one of the most fundamental things for a woman but for the Anfal survivors we first need to deal with their economical problems, they need to be compensated, their mental health and social problems need to be addressed, then we can think about other things.
- The mental health problems, from your own experience of working with women, what are the main complaints?
- Their main complaint is that they have had problems for so many years but no one has helped them. Each person or organisation has gone, completed their own forms and compiled their own data and research and then left them and never did anything to help them. They have been interviewed by the TV channels dozens of times, European, American. I personally have helped TV stations from all over the world to see these women, for example from the CNN, Dutch TV stations, Austrian, French, etc. Each of these goes and records their own programmes, makes these women relive the experiences and then not help them at all. When you sit with them you feel this restlessness, they are never calm, they keep thinking what is going to happen next, how will we live tomorrow, constant worries. What will happen to my child? These kinds of questions, all problems. There is a lot of fear of everything, epilepsy is common. Some have lost their minds because of all the disasters they have experienced. The violence committed against them, their husbands being taken away, their sons, having no news of their [loved ones’] fate and now some receive the bones. She has been thinking about all of this for years and there is no one to knock on her door and brighten her home. These have all caused many problems. You see this amongst the survivors abundantly. You sit with them once and then you find out a lot. There is no need to take a pen and calculate what percentage has suffered from this or that because I think %100 of the people have problems. If you want to make scientific research then may be you will take these measures into account: this percentage has epilepsy, another percentage, worries, another gone mad, anger and bad temper and bad mood. I remember there was once an American woman reporter, she asked a survivor: Why haven’t you got remarried? The woman got really angry, she lost it and then she started crying. She said: I won’t exchange my husband’s shoe, who is in a mass grave, with a thousand men. Maybe she thinks like that because she has children but there were women who were engaged, there were some who were married but had no children, some were married for a few days before Anfal, it is not fare for them to sit all these years, 18-20 years waiting for their lost loved ones to come back. And they will never return. This was proved after the liberation of Iraq. Until then up to %70 were hopeful about their return, there were rumours that they were kept in the underground dungeons of Saddam’s prisons. Some said they could hear voices coming from under the ground. There were such stories but after Iraq’s liberation and finding mass graves that hope collapsed…. I was aware that many of them visited Baghdad and the newly liberated areas hoping to find their relatives in the prisons, security offices, intelligence offices… or just to get some news from them. Many people got in touch with us around that time. One person told us that her son had been recorded as a disappeared but they had found him in Baghdad Intelligence Office, he had been buried in the same place that he was tortured. I asked her how did they get hold of that information, how did you find him. She said that they have found documents about him receiving a death sentence, place of grave was recorded as confidential. The family then asked previous guards of the prison who helped them find him. Those who used to work there told them that when the grave is recorded to be confidential it means they are buried in the same building where they had been detained. So there were people who found their own relatives. Also exhuming and recovering the Barzanis also made many people give up hoping. As far as I know one woman had a heart attack after she found out that her husband’s body has been recovered. Some women have told me that every evening when someone knocks on my door, I hope it is my husband or son coming back. She says, I know that it is probably my neighbour or a relative but when I hear the knock my heart beats fast, for a few seconds I think it is him, he has returned. These are all psychological problems. To live with this hope for twenty three years (the Barzani women), this is significant. This is why I feel whether it is the Faili Kurds, the Genocide of the Barzanis or Anfal or the 1991 uprising, however much we work to serve and help them, it is still not enough.
- Many thanks Adalet xan. I don’t have other questions at the moment. This is really useful.
- You are welcome.