SULAIMANI, Kurdistan Region – As Iraq’s Kurds mark the 26th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal “Anfal” campaign against them, Ihsan Ali recounts stories of the attack and atrocities on Halabja that even other residents may not know.
After the March 16, 1988 poison-gas bombing on the Kurdish town and Halabja, about 1,053 residents who had fled across the Iranian border returned to the town, only a few days after the attack. What they did not know at the time was that they had were walking into years of imprisonment and suffering.
Upon their return to Halabja, the refugees were shoved into military trucks and dispatched to the notorious Nogra Salman camp. Ali, who was 18 at the time, recalls travelling inside the trucks for many hours without a stop and without any food or drink, before arriving in a region close to the Saudi border.
“Late in the evening, we arrived in a place from where we could immediately see an old tower building in a sandy desert. There were a couple of guards standing in front of the building.” This was to be their prison.
Halabja stands out from Saddam’s genocidal Anfal attacks. Unlike victims from Barzan and Garmyan, who were kept together with their wives and daughters, victims from Halabja were brought to the prison separated from their female relatives.
After a period, Ali and his fellow young prisoners heard indescribable stories about the place, told by the guards.
“When we were incarcerated inside the building we could smell the stink of the place. Prisoners from Garmyan had been there before us. We could easily feel the repulsive stench of dead bodies,” Ali remembers.
The first victim who died in the fortress was a 48-year-old man called Alla Karam Mirahmad. His son, Salman, remembers how his father died before his eyes.
“They beat us with batons,” Salman says. “My father came to our rescue and asked the guards to stop whipping us. But the guards turned on him and beat him to death.”
When the victims were brought to Nogra Salman, they were flocked into the same hall where girls from Garmyan had stayed. Ali remembers the same horrific stories that were told by victims from Garmyan earlier. He recalls stories about how the dead were buried.
“Only on Saturdays were we allowed to take the corpses out and bury them,” Ali says. “Sometimes a large number of people died during the week, but we were not allowed to bury them until Saturday. Other times we piled more than 11 corpses in a corner of the hall, because we did not have enough room for ourselves.”
Saddam’s atrocities came to light in the harsh treatment of Halabja. Cruel brutalities were unveiled as Ali and his friends set out to look for their fellow prisoners.
During the four months of incarceration in Nogra Salman, 174 families from Halabja buried 54 relatives in the backyard of the prison camp.
“I swear,” Salman says, “I saw wild dogs roaming around with the arms and legs of children in their jaws.”
All prisoners remember Hajaj, an infamous guard always seen with his baton. Ali says that Hajaj was merciless. He would whip and beat the prisoners maliciously. Ali had heard from other guards stories about why Hajaj had become so “heartless.”
“He lost a battle against the Kurdish Peshmarga fighters and wanted to compensate for it here at the camp,” the guards said. But Hajaj was not the only infamous guard. There were others, like Shamkhi, who had whipped prisoners to death.
The horrific memories from Nogra Salman have troubled Ali for years. He shows a tattoo on his arm with the initials N.S., which stands for Nogra Salman.
At Salman’s house, we see many framed pictures, some of them of children. He says they have tried to find and collect the pictures of those who died in Nogra Salman, and knows the names and history behind every picture.
“This one here died of a nasty eye disease. These two were siblings, they died of hunger. This one died during a beating by Hajaj. This one here was pregnant and died while bearing her child.”
After spending three months in the prison camp, Ali and some of his fellow prisoners were moved to a new building, where starving to death was a near certainty.
This new building might have been the last destination for many young victims who were separated from their families at the start of the Anfal campaigns and ended up here without getting out alive.
In 1988, Saddam issued an amnesty for those who sought refuge in Iran. A great number responded and returned, only to end up at the Nogra Salman prison camps. With all certainty, none of these families left the camps alive.
While seeking refuge in Iran, Ali bought a watch and wore it even in Nogra Salman. He says Hajaj, the infamous guard, asked to have the watch and in return he put Ali’s name on the list of 400 prisoners who would be set free shortly. “My name was the last one,” Ali remembers.
Ali also tells the story of an Egyptian doctor who had a few times attended the camp prisoners. Many years later they found the doctor in Egypt. He traveled back to Halabja and had many stories to tell about Nogra Salman.
That prison camp in southern Iraq contains one of the cruelest episodes of Saddam’s reign of terror in Kurdistan. A large number of prominent and ordinary Kurds were deported to Nogra Salman and many never found their way back to Kurdistan.