Iraq's High Tribunal announced this week that former dictator Saddam Hussein and six co-defendants will go on trial August 21 for the mass killing of tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds during the 1980s in what was called the Anfal Campaign. VOA's Margaret Besheer is in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and tells us hundreds of Kurds have volunteered to be witnesses at the trial, hoping for justice.
On February 25, 1988, Saddam Hussein's army began a campaign of mass murder against Iraqi Kurds living in the northern part of the country. When it ended the following September, tens of thousands of Kurdish men, women and children had been killed, or had disappeared. Some human rights groups estimate the number of dead to be as high as 182,000.
The regime's codename for the operation was al-Anfal, the title of a chapter in the Koran that means 'spoils of war' in Arabic.
In eight separate stages during 1988, Saddam's tanks and troops attacked and destroyed more than 4,000 Kurdish villages. They began their campaign in the east, in Sulamaniyah, and moved westward through Irbil to Dahuk, near Iraq's border with Turkey.
One of the worst attacks during this period was against the town of Halabja, on the Iran-Iraq border. Here, Saddam is accused of ordering the use of chemical weapons, killing some 5,000 civilians. This crime was so horrific that the Iraqi High Tribunal will consider it in a separate trial.
Almost 20 years later, many Anfal survivors have still not recovered from the loss of their loved ones, livelihoods and homes.
Chnar Abdullah heads the newly-created Ministry for the Anfal in the Kurdish regional government. She says survivors face special problems.
"We have conducted research, and found that 20 percent of survivors, particularly women, are likely to have psychological problems, because they lost the men in their families," she said. "Until now, many still do not know what has happened to their loved ones, and they are still waiting for them to return."
As the starting date for the Anfal trial approaches, Abdullah says her ministry is working to prepare some of the evidence. She says more than 1,000 Kurds have offered to publicly testify against Saddam and his co-defendants, but the Tribunal has asked for only 200 witnesses.
She says, two things must come from this trial: that Saddam be found guilty of his crimes and face justice; and that the survivors be allowed the right to ask Saddam for compensation for their loss.
When Saddam's trial opens in August, it will be in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Yousif Shwan is the Kurdish regional government's human rights minister. His ministry was responsible for Anfal issues before the Anfal Ministry's creation. He says most Kurds want the trial to be held in northern Iraq.
"If you take the general idea of the people, they say he did these things in Kurdistan, so he should be brought to Kurdistan, and the trial held in Kurdistan," he said.
In the village of Hareer, residents live frozen in time. Their lives stopped on the morning in July 1983, when they lost everything. It was here that Saddam's troops killed some 8,000 men and boys from the Barzani tribe in retribution for their leader, Massoud Barzani's alliance with Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war. Although earlier than the 1988 campaign, these crimes are also considered to be Anfal by the Kurds, and will be part of the case against Saddam in August.
Pirouz remembers when Saddam's troops surrounded her village.
"It was before dawn and still dark; we were sleeping when they attacked us," she said. "They took the boys and the men."
Recently, mass graves were unearthed in the western Iraqi desert containing the bones of some of these missing men and boys.
Although Saddam's trial will be held in Baghdad and not northern Iraq, many Kurds are relieved that the former dictator will finally have to answer for the suffering he has caused their people.