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Seeking revenge in Saddam’s trial

Surviving victims of Saddam Hussein's brutal 1988 'Nafal' campaign against the Kurds begins Monday, and surviving victims and their relatives plan to tune their television sets to watch the war crimes trial.
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Mustafa Arab Youssef walked up the grimy, stone steps of the crumbling, sand-colored Nizarkeh fort. As he reached the second floor, his neighbor Haji Mohammed pointed at dark patches on the cracked floor and said, "When I first came in 1988, there were bloodstains here."

Youssef, who wore a gaunt look, a thin beard and oil-stained clothes, nodded in agreement and walked inside a room with a stove, a refrigerator and peeling walls. He gazed up at the ceiling: Thin, black ropes dangled from a long, rusted hook. "Saddam's men used to hang people here to beat them and make them talk," said Youssef, as his 3-year-old son Cihad grabbed his hand.

This room is now Youssef's home, and he has left the ropes hanging from his ceiling as a reminder of what he and other Iraqi Kurds endured during Saddam Hussein's infamous 1988 Anfal campaign, in which poison gas was dropped from the skies and hundreds of thousands of Kurds were killed, tortured, maimed or displaced. Youssef, too, was beaten with clubs at Nizarkeh, leaving his right arm lame and curved.

‘He destroyed us’
On Monday, Youssef and his neighbors plan to tune their television sets at Nizarkeh, now home to scores of poor Kurdish families, to watch the Anfal trial of Hussein, as well as Ali Hassan al-Majeed, also known here as "Chemical Ali," who ran the campaign, and six other defendants. The trial is to be held in Baghdad. Both Hussein and Majeed are charged with genocide, while the others are charged with crimes against humanity.

"He destroyed us. Our families and neighbors are all gone. I will be very happy when I see Saddam in that cage," Youssef said, referring to the courtroom box with steel bars where Iraqis charged with crimes sit.

Across the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, the Anfal trial is raising a flurry of expectations and emotions. In interviews Sunday, survivors said they are living proof of Hussein's atrocities, and, in their minds and hearts, they have already convicted him. Still, the trial, they said, is the biggest development in 18 years to bring the justice that has long eluded them.

"This is a gift from God," said Haji Musa Mohammad, 76, who spent weeks in several concentration camp-like detention centers and lost seven relatives, including a son, during the attacks. "Saddam made us cry for our children. Tomorrow, we're going to laugh."

But the trial, survivors said, is also a painful reminder of the immense, and irreversible, losses they've suffered. A 60-mile drive from Dahuk to the village of Chemanke on Sunday, partly along the road Saddam's army controlled during the attacks, unveiled a Kurdish landscape still reeling from the Anfal campaign.

Haunted by ghosts
Shattered villages lie silent, their stone homes left in ruins. Sons grow without fathers, and widows struggle to provide for their children. Women remain unmarried in the hope their husbands, who disappeared 18 years ago, will miraculously return.

Headaches, coughs, burn marks and other ailments plague those who were exposed to poison gas. Grown men, including peshmerga fighters, cry openly when they speak about the Anfal, while children have grown up with nightmares and other psychological problems.

"We're nearing justice, but it's too late," said Rizgar Mohgadeh Basher, 24, whose father was taken away by Hussein's soldiers and never seen again.

Anfal, which in Arabic means "the Spoils," is the name of the eighth sura of the Koran. The eight-stage campaign lasted six 1/2 months and followed a long history of attacks against the Kurds by Hussein's Baath party, which viewed the Kurds as a threat to their power.

Human rights groups estimated that as many as 100,000 Kurds were murdered. Several thousand villages in the Kurdish region were attacked, bombed, or gassed with mustard gas, the nerve agent sarin or other chemical weapons. Its residents were rounded up and forced into detention centers, where they were beaten, tortured and executed.

The trial, the second for Saddam Hussein, is expected to hinge on evidence from official documents, survivor testimonies, and forensic data from unearthed mass graves across Iraq.

Concerns raised about tribunal
In recent days, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch has expressed concern about whether Iraq's tribunal is capable of conducting a trial of this magnitude in a fair manner. The group, in a statement, said it found "serious shortcomings" in the way the tribunal handled the earlier Dujail trial, in which defendants allegedly ordered the murder of villagers following a failed plot to assassinate Hussein.

The group said Iraqi judges and lawyers showed little understanding of international criminal law and that court's administration of the trial was "chaotic and inadequate."

Two U.S. officials close to the tribunal, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed confidence in the court's ability to carry out the Anfal trial, and said the Iraqi lawyers and judges have received proper training in conducting a genocide trial.

To Amina Khalid Saleem, 54, Hussein is already guilty. She still vividly remembers the morning the chemical bombs pounded her village of Siareh nestled in the foothills of Gara Mountain.

"It entered my nose, and I started coughing, and something yellow began to seep from my mouth," said Saleem, a short, strong-voiced woman in a blue skirt and white head scarf. "Everything around me turned yellow, and it became dark. People were fleeing in all directions."

She recalled she placed a wet rag against her face and escaped into the mountains, where she and her husband took shelter in caves. As she remembered, she broke down into tears.

"I still have headaches until now," she said.

Fear of Saddam lingers
Eighteen years later, Saleem still can't afford to rebuild her house in Siareh, which today resembles a medieval ruin. Her husband died of natural causes, and she lives with relatives. And although she knows Hussein is in jail, she still fears him.

"He attacked village after village with chemical bombs, he destroyed our villages and our field, he killed our men and our children. That's why we're still afraid of him," Saleem said. "They must hang Saddam. This is real justice."

Twenty miles down the road is the village of Chemanke. On one side rises Gara Mountain, where Hussein built a palace after the Anfal campaign. On the other side are rolling green hills and sunflowers swaying in the breeze.

In this idyllic setting, the regional Kurdish government in 2003 built two-story pink-and-beige houses for the residents, the vast majority of whom are still displaced from the Anfal campaign. There are as many as 60 survivors and their families living side by side, all with similar memories of misery.

"We are all trying to forget what happened to us," said Farhad Mohgadeh Basher, 21, Rizgar's brother.

Life of trauma, isolation
That's been difficult, especially for those who were children then. Farhad said that he still has recurring nightmares of the detention center and not having enough to eat or drink. "I feel like I'm not like the other people because of what happened to us," he said.

Farhad's mother, Khozayja Abdelaziz, 47, is one of many females who were left to head households. In 1988, the village up the road was chemically bombed. She remembers the "burning faces" and that their clothes smelled "like apples." She and her family fled, and eventually surrendered to Hussein's troops. That was the last time she saw her husband, Mohgadeh Basher. Hussein's soldiers separated the men from the women and children, and took the men away. They had five small children.

After the Anfal campaign ended, she started to wear only black garments in mourning. She has never worn any other color since, she said. She never remarried in the hope that her husband would one day return. She worked in the fields, managing to scrape together enough to feed her children.

It wasn't until after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that she finally gave up hope. All the jails were opened up, and thousands of men were freed. Her husband was not among them. And by then, it was too late to remarry.

On Monday, she said she plans to watch the Anfal trial, so that she can imagine of ways to take revenge on Hussein.

"The best thing we hope is that they bring Saddam here," said Abdelaziz, with a gleam in her brown eyes. "We'll take him and tie him up to our car. Then we'll drag him to village after village so that he can see what he has done to us. Then I want to cut of his ears, his nose, his legs, every part of his body."