Gendered Experiences of Genocide: Anfal Survivors in Kurdistan-Iraq

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Hardi, Choman (2011 First Publication). Gendered experience of genocide: Anfal survivors of Kurdistan-Iraq – (Voices of development management). Surrey, England: Ashgate 215 pp. ISBN: 978-0754677154. $128.00 price from Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. 

Review by Nancy Mancias (California Institute of Integral Studies)


By documenting the Anfal survivors’ stories, Choman Hardi is walking alongside them, validating their experiences and recording them for the history books. Unlike the dominant institutions in Iraqi Kurdistan, which continues to perpetuate the victimization of the survivors, Hardi listens to their wants and needs. Her book, Gendered Experiences of Genocide: Anfal Survivors in Kurdistan-Iraq, is not only a piece of historical research into a genocidal event, but it offers several proposals into the best ways to represent, and support the Anfal survivors, and how to help deconstruct the popular myth that women survivors are hopeless victims. 

Hardi provides the most egregious details about the varying experiences Kurdish women had to endure throughout and after Saddam Hussein’s 1988 genocidal attacks in northern Iraq, known as Anfal. Hardi spent five years collecting testimonies, giving the reader a better understanding of the Anfal attacks from a feminist perspective. She is an Assistant Professor in English and Gender Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. She informs the reader that the Anfal attack is an under-researched event, which the reader can only conclude that the research on women during this time is scarce. Hardi’s heart-wrenching testimonials from victims of the attacks provide a glimpse into a patriarchal society coming to terms with the aftermath of genocide. Kurdish women share their accounts of loved ones being kidnapped or disappeared without any indication of their whereabouts. Hardi deals with the juxtaposition of women as victims versus strong survivors. She sets out to challenge the dominant institutional and cultural narrative of survivors of conflict. She shows the immense scale of violence that not only splits the human bond but splits the person who has undergone the most unspeakable crimes against humanity. She is determined to repair that human bond by highlighting women’s voices who seek justice for the atrocities brought forth by the 1988 Anfal attacks. 

Hardi raises a simple question that survivors ask themselves: Why? Why did Saddam Hussein attack? Even though Hardi does not directly answer the question, she lays out the incipient steps that led to the 1988 genocide. The most revealing aspect of the book is the early political landscape of Kurds in Iraq. The Kurds had long hoped for autonomy and independence in the region. After years of broken promises and waiting on the sidelines of government skirmish, the League of Nations enforced the Kurdish existence in Iraq. Hardi does an outstanding job bringing to light that Iraq is the only country in the Middle East where Kurds have a legally recognizable existence. One would think that being recognized as a legal group would be beneficial; however, Hardi proves otherwise. The Iraqi government perpetuated an aggrieved relationship with the Kurds; nevertheless, nothing compared to the extreme policies of Iraq’s Ba’ath Party, which enlisted a discriminating and biased ideology of an Arab-only nation excluding the majority of ethnic Kurds. Hardi brings to life the effects that such an extreme policy had on the Kurdish population: the Kurds were branded as potential threats, they were deported to the southern region of Iraq, and homes belonging to Kurdish families were given to Arab settlers. Of course, Hardi doesn’t portray the Kurds as passive victims. She draws attention to the Kurdish Barzani family, who led a revolution in the 1960s and brokered a deal with the Ba’ath Party in the 1970s, creating a Kurdish autonomous region. During the Iraq-Iran war, several Kurdish political parties decided to lead a resistance movement against Saddam’s government. While the Iraqi army was engaging in conflict with Iran, the peshmerga, the autonomous region military, seized control of the rural Kurdish regions. As Saddam was striving to make concessions with Kurdish political parties, the Iraqi government bombarded Kurdish villages with missiles and imposed economic sanctions on the Kurdish controlled area. Between 1980 and 1988, Kurdish villages were destroyed by the Iraqi government. Kurdish factions came together and created the Iraqi Kurdistan Front. Not only did the factions begin collaborating amongst themselves, but they also collaborated with the Iranian government, which Hardi describes as a fatal mistake. The Iranian army and the peshmerga instigated an attack on an Iraqi oil field, enraging Saddam Hussein. This bit of historical information leads back to the earlier question of why did Saddam Hussein attack? Hardi offers two speculative reasons, which includes the alliance between Saddam’s warring enemy Iran and Kurdish factions, and the Iraqi government’s pervasive discriminating policies against the Kurds. Either way, she is unclear on Saddam’s motives.

While Hardi is determined to render women survivors of the Anfal attacks as strong and resilient, she also has to debunk the prominent myth of these women are without agency. Right from the start, Hardi alerts the reader that a majority of Kurdish men were killed in the attacks. Admittedly, she writes that some women were killed too, but even so, Hardi brings forth that women are now the sole breadwinners of the household, now that the men are gone. Hardi introduces the testimony of Nalia, a survivor of the Anfal attack, who describes the day she was separated from her husband. The men and teenage boys were lined up and escorted away while Nalia and the other women were told to walk in the opposite direction. Nalia, who was two months pregnant, kept looking back for her husband until she could no longer see him. Minutes later, Nalia and the others heard endless gunfire. She somehow knew that the men had been killed. Nalia and the women were loaded onto a truck and taken to a camp. Hardi acknowledges throughout the book the dehumanizing stages that make up a global genocide. She draws on her research of the Holocaust to view the differences in camp behavior from the oppressors. Hardi notes that in the Holocaust, the men and women were held in concentration and labor camps, contrary to the Anfal camps, where men were not held, but immediately executed. In the camps, Kurdish women watched in horror the beating and killing of men and boys. In Nalia’s specific case, she lost her husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law, though, with luck, she was able to escape from detention with her two children. The details of her escape are harrowing. After Anfal, she began making and selling clothes for a living, as the sole breadwinner for her family. She was a single mother now. Later, the Kurdish government gave Nalia her own home, and eventually, her husband’s remains were recovered, but the bodies of her sons were never found.  It is testimonies like Nalia that make Hardi’s book so emotionally engaging. Hardi raises up the Kurdish women to display their strength and resilience needed to survive throughout and after Saddam Hussein’s 1988 genocidal attacks. She is insistent on countering the cultural norm of Anfal survivors as victims, Hardi states: 

Despite the horror, loss and trauma of their lives, I was endlessly reminded of women’s agency, and their effort to survive. In contrast, our dominant cultural imagery – promulgated through the media – is of women as victims. Dominant images for me are those of gassed women and children whose faces are blistered and blackened, Anfal widows beating their faces and raising fingers to show the number of relatives lost, weeping and desperate women talking about Anfal, a lamenting old woman in an empty house. The widespread presentation of the mutilated bodies of the gassed civilians (from Halabja and the Anfalled villages) and images of Anfal widows who are dressed top to toe in black and seem to be frozen in grief have had negative consequences for the survivors and the community at large (Hardi, 190-191).

Hardi breaks down the psychological effects caused by the Anfal attacks. She also looks at the changing landscape of community life and the onset of mental health issues. Hardi expounds on the multilayers of mental health issues (PTSD, depression, anxiety, dissociative identity disorder, etc.) that developed. She uses the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of mental health as a foundation for her research. With this definition, the reader will learn that the well-being of the Kurds was disrupted and destroyed through dominating political forces and through the betrayal of Kurds who collaborated with Saddam Hussein. Hardi specifies a group of Kurdish tribesmen called the jash forces who were supplied with weapons from the Iraqi government to fight the peshmerga. The Kurdish tribesmen deceived people and turned them into the government. Hardi documents the actions of jash through a testimony given by Naji, a forty-year-old Anfal survivor. Naji was part of a group fleeing from Halabja gas attacks to the Iranian border. After months of living in a refugee camp, Naji and others received word of a possible pardon from the Iraqi government. As they were being escorted back to Iraq by a group of men, they later found that the men were part of jash whose intention was to deceivingly hand them over to the Iraqi government. Naji and her family were transported to the Nugra Salman camp, located on the Saudi Arabia border. Hardi does an exceptional job explaining the severed relationships between the survivors and the community and explaining the outcomes of the destructive behavior of the jash forces. It destroyed an individual’s faith in its community and isolated women from their loved ones. The jash forces are one example of the effects of the Anfal attacks, one can’t help but speculate that this kind of behavior of Kurds fighting amongst themselves is the kind of behavior that the dominant forces in the Iraqi government were hoping to provoke — causing one to fight against the other. Undoubtedly, the most difficult testimonies come from the survivors who experienced the attacks when they were children. The Anfal attacks not only severed community relationships. It also severed a child’s potential for education and normal life. Hardi introduces the reader to Srwa, who was fourteen years old during Anfal. She is triggered with fear by the sound of a siren, slamming a door, or thunder. When Srwa was young, she watched from a window as soldiers took away her seven siblings and niece. While watching, she bit into her hand. Srwa sees a doctor for her depression and muscular pain. She suffers from severe mental health issues such as screaming, depression, fear, and fits of rage. Hardi describes Srwa as “going mad.” Even though her family encourages her to go out and enjoy life, she continues to feel the terror of that day. Nothing seems to make her feel better, and darkness continues to descend. Hardi warns about the general stigmatization of mental health issues in Kurdistan. Until recently, with the support of mental health non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and programs, the topic has slowly become more public. She also warns that there is compassion fatigue when it comes to the stories of the Anfal survivors. Hardi partly blames the dominant narrative of survivors as victims for this fatigue. Hardi organizes her research on the psychological effects of the Anfal attacks based on categories of diagnosis behavior. The attacks disrupted normal community behaviors and caused severe mental health illness in the survivors.   

Hardi highlights the voices of women who seek justice and accountability. In August 2006, the trial of Saddam Hussein for the Anfal attacks started. It brought on a mix of emotions from survivors, according to Hardi, where some survivors were angry because Saddam was allowed to face a judge in a comfortable courtroom, whereas their loved ones were killed without a trial, and other survivors felt the trial would not bring any peace of mind. With the execution of Saddam Hussein, the case of the Anfal attacks never made it to trial. Next, Hardi poses the question: if Iraq was a signatory to the 1951 Genocide Convention, why was Saddam not indicted for crimes against humanity and genocide? She unpacks the involvement of foreign weapons companies supplying armaments to Saddam. Hardi speculates that this is one of the main reasons Saddam Hussein was not indicted. She also believes another reason was the U.S. was providing Saddam Hussein with intelligence during the Iraq-Iran war. One can’t help but wonder if the Anfal survivors will ever receive justice. The survivors were also angry at the local government. Hardi describes how the survivors felt about the Kurdistan government: 

The witnesses also feel angry with the Kurdistan government because the burden of the Kurdish revolution fell on the shoulders of the villagers who had to feed the peshmarga on daily basis even though they themselves were poor farmers. Then, when Anfal took place it was mostly the civilians who were captured and disappeared. The failure of the Kurdish parties to protect the civilians and in some cases, preventing their escape, has led to a lot of resentment. Finally, the survivors feel angry because the Kurdistan regional Government has not done enough to support and involve the survivors in the post liberation era, and because their claims for justice, for putting the jash leaders on trial, have been ignored (Hardi, 168).

Hardi proves the unfair advantage jash leaders have over women survivors. After Anfal, members of jash dissolved back into society without any account for collaborating with the Iraqi government or killing peshmerga forces. The Kurdistan government granted jash leaders’ full immunity and support. There is a lot of resentment about the jash forces who have taken powerful positions in Kurdish politics. Survivors are disgusted and demand jash leaders are brought to justice and placed on trial for their role in the disappearance of their loved ones. Frustratingly, their demands are ignored by the Kurdistan government. Hardi lays out the respective measures the women wish to address, beginning with the government’s unwillingness to act on their behalf. They are also asking for reparations from the Kurdish government. Hardi argues that reparations should come from the Iraqi government and not the Kurdish governments. Finally, the survivors are requesting that the standard of living is improved, with basic social services and strong infrastructure. 

In my evaluation, Hardi has successfully fulfilled her purpose in challenging the dominant narrative of survivors as lacking the coping skills to continue to live and thrive. She brought to the surface the grand scale of violence that destroyed a community through an act of genocide. She was triumphant in highlighting women’s voices who seek justice for atrocities resulting from the 1988 Anfal attacks. Through the testimonies, the reader was able to gain a better understanding of the pain and suffering the survivors encountered while watching the beating and killing of men and boys; and even further, watching their loved ones taken away to their deaths. The fallout from the attacks was clear when the community victimized the survivors. Hardi challenged the labeling of survivors as victims by showing their strength and capability to take a deadly risk and challenge power. It’s described in Nalia’s testimony about the harrowing escapes from the camps. Nalia and other women were placed in the position of becoming sole breadwinners causing them to become self-reliant. They were forced to develop employment skills to work and provide for their family. Next, Hardi had assigned herself the difficult task of documenting and recording the psychological outcomes from the attacks. By showing the betrayal of Kurdish jash forces, Hardi gives evidence of how an attack from the government can split a civilian population and cause individuals to develop severe mental health issues. Hardi exposed the stigmatization of people with mental health illness in the Kurdish community. Also, she admits that people in Kurdistan are generally tired of hearing about Anfal and the survivors. Hardi blames the cultural victimization of the survivors for this tiredness. Finally, Hardi does what the Kurdistan government should do, and that is to listen and act on the survivor’s needs and wants. Hardi expresses, for the survivors, their anger and resentment against their unfair treatment brought on by the attacks and the Kurdistan government’s lack of support. Although Hardi explains the emotions that surfaced during Saddam Hussein’s trial, the gaps in the trial timeline are a bit confusing. Additionally, it may come as a surprise to Western readers that in testimony, the 2003 conflict in Iraq is described as the liberation of Iraq. The 2003 conflict is commonly identified, in the West, as the US invasion of Iraq, which was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of US and coalition forces. One could argue that the liberation of Iraq was a propaganda campaign introduced by Western forces to justify engagement in the conflict. After traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2015, a Kurdish guide, from Sulaymaniyah, said, “the US invasion of Iraq benefitted the Kurds, however, it did not benefit the rest of Iraq.” 

Overall, Hardi’s book is perfect for scholars interested in Kurdish history and those interested in Genocide studies and Psychology. The text is accessible for all student levels. The book would work well in Women Studies since Hardi does an outstanding job of focusing on the experience of women and displaying the multilayers of violence witnessed during and after a genocidal attack. Also, Hardi is determined to show women with unlimited strength and resilience. 

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