scars that won't heal: iraq recognises fayli kurd persecution as 'genocide'

At the beginning of this month, the Iraqi parliament declared the past regime’s persecution of Kurdish minority, the Faylis, genocide. Former victims recount deportation and torture but say this move by the government gives them hope for the future.

At the beginning of this month the Iraqi parliament voted to recognize what had been done to the Fayli Kurds under former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as genocide. From 1980 onwards, the ethnic minority was horribly persecuted by Hussein’s regime.

The Fayli Kurds, who are an ethnic subgroup of Kurds and mostly Shiite Muslims, were subjected to all kinds of hardships under Hussein’s Sunni Muslim dominated government: imprisonment, torture, rape and deportation among them.

Many Fayli Kurds had active roles in Kurdish political movements that opposed Hussein’s ruling Baath political party. As a result, hundreds of Fayli Kurdish were systematically murdered, with an estimated half a million or more forcibly deported from Iraq to Iran.

Because many lived close to Iranian borders, Hussein accused them of being Iranian and tried to expel them from the country. However Iran also refused them, stating that the Fayli Kurds were not Iranians either. As a result the Faylis were often left without a nationality and became a stateless people. As well as facing deportation from Iraq and arbitrary arrest, Fayli Kurds were also used as human shields in Iraq’s battles with Iran during the war between the two nations.

Sadia Abdullah is one of those Faylis whose entire family was deported to Iran in April 1980. “And when I heard the news that the Iraqi parliament had recognized the Fayli Kurds’ case as genocide I called one of my sisters in Iran. She began to cry," said Abdullah, who married in Iran and returned to Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled the Hussein’s regime.

One thing mars the family’s happiness: Abdullah’s brother is still missing. He is one of many. Of 20,000 Fayli Kurds interned, there is still no trace of more than 5,000 individuals.

"We don't know if he was killed in the mine fields during the Iraq-Iran war or if he was used in an experiment with chemical weapons. Maybe he was beaten to death," Abdullah suggested – some of the youths separated from their families were reportedly executed in the basement of a building belonging to Iraqi military intelligence.

Reports also indicate that during the deportations a number of young girls were taken from their families and sold to neighbouring countries. And finally, those who were deported to Iran were forced to walk across the heavily mined borders. "The walk across the border was tough for the sick or elderly,” Abdullah recalled. “There was no access to any food or drink. Children also suffered immensely."

The Fayli Kurds also lost all of their possessions. They left their homes with only the clothes upon their backs. Any documents of identity were destroyed by officials before they left.

In an interview with television channel KurdSat, based in Iraqi Kurdistan, Haidar Mohammed Ali, a Fayli Kurd originally from the district of Adhamiya in Baghdad told of his detention; he was imprisoned from 1982 until 2000. “Sometimes I would be taken upstairs from 5pm until 2am and subjected to continuous physical beatings. Other times, they'd tie our legs, pour cold water on us in extremely cold conditions and leave us without any blankets. It was usual to be beaten with an iron rod,” he continued. “Some prisoners were hit so hard that they died right then and there. They were taken away but we don't know where they were buried."

At one stage, one of the officers in the Iraqi military offered him a deal: that Ali donate his kidney to the officer's sister and the officer would free him.

"I agreed, and I was taken to hospital where my kidney was taken out. A week later when I left the hospital I was just taken back to prison and put back into solitary imprisonment for an entire year,” Ali recounted, adding that he was threatened with further punishments if he told anyone else about his unwilling organ donation.

The Fayli Kurds who did make it to Iran safely were not entitled to citizenship there and had no right to do such things as study in institutes of higher education.

“As a result of the deportation we not only lost our dearest brother and all that we possessed, but we also couldn't finish our higher education, our children couldn't attend universities and now that we are all married, we all live in different countries,” Abdullah told NIQASH, adding that her brothers left the Middle East altogether to seek better, more secure futures in places like Europe.

As a result of their statelessness in Iran and elsewhere, many Fayli Kurds returned to Iraq after the fall of the Baath regime in 2003. However when they did return, they found it difficult to get their Iraqi citizenship back.

Abdullah was among these too: "Once again, I had to prove that I was an Iraqi without any documents,” she explained. “It was a long process that required back and forth travel and those who couldn’t do all the paper work paid a lot of money to get their identification cards back. Some of my siblings have still not been able to get them back." In fact, Abdullah said, to this day, some of her siblings do not have either Iranian or Iraqi citizenship.

The recognition that genocide was committed has given the Fayli Kurds hope that they might be compensated for property which was confiscated from them and that they might regain their citizenship. As Batoul Musa, a Baghdad lawyer of Fayli Kurdish origin, noted, there are still a vast number of cases pending around the matter of confiscated property.

As for Abdullah, the declaration of genocide is an important recognition of all she and her family have suffered, as well as a memorial for her lost brother, whose picture is on display in all her siblings’ houses. The Fayli Kurds are among several minorities persecuted by Hussein’s regime and they often claim they are the forgotten victims, the last to receive justice.

"People don't realize the hardships suffered by Fayli Kurds,” Abdullah said. “Now that this genocide has been recognized, maybe the government will prioritize our concerns.”

For Abdullah, and many other Fayli Kurds like her, the classification of their maltreatment as genocide is another step towards compensation, as well as the return of long separated families to Iraq, where Abdullah hopes, they can all begin a new life.