Interview with the Filmmaker

Gwynne Roberts talks with FRONTLINE/World Series Editor Stephen Talbot about the film and his long career making documentaries about the Arab world.

Gwynne Roberts

Full interview (20:05): Quicktime | REAL

Listen to the full interview or sample excerpts from the interview with accompanying slideshow by clicking on any of the chapters below.

Read the complete transcript

Chapter 1: The Kurds (1:06)

“It's crazy…they clearly have their own language, they have a separate culture from the Arab culture and they want to be one nation….and nobody is prepared to give it to them.”

Chapter 2: Baghdad (1:09)

“We had the ninth floor of the Babylon Hotel sealed off and anyone coming up to the ninth floor after say, 10,11 o'clock at night would probably be shot.”

Nugra Salman Prison

Chapter 3: The Fortress (1:30)

“Nugra Salman is a pretty fearsome place. You feel the atmosphere when you go into that building. A lot of people have died and been held in really inhumane conditions.”

Chapter 4: The Barzanis (59 seconds)

“You're not talking just about Saddam Hussein, you're talking about a well-honed system, which can take these people away, spirit them away, then execute them.”

Chapter 5: The Graves (1:15)

“I was very impressed by him [Dr Ihsan]. It wasn't a question of just talking about this, it was a question of getting on to his knees and digging and finding these people…”

Gwnne Roberts


This is Steve Talbot, and I’m talking to Gwynne Roberts.

Talbot: For someone who’s never laid eyes on it, what does the north of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, look like?

Roberts: Well, it’s a beautiful mountainous area, breathtaking landscapes. It’s the sort of place where you could, in winter, have a ski resort. You get the sense of its being a really good holiday venue, very much a Middle Eastern Switzerland.

And Kirkuk, we know Kirkuk as an oil city. And as a city that is torn by ethnic divisions -- Saddam moved Arabs in and Kurds out.

When we traveled there, we didn’t stop at all -- it was considered too risky, and it’s very fractured. As a foreign journalist going to that area, you have to be really careful. The Kurdish areas are not too bad, but the Arab areas -- things can go badly wrong there. And for the Kurds, it’s an important city because they want to claim it as their main city. And, of course, it has vast reserves of oil and gas. And if they’re successful, of course, some of the revenue from that city and from the oil fields will go to the central government -- but anything new that’s discovered, the income from that, will go to the regional government, and it could make this particular region, the Kurdish region, extremely rich.

For example, there’s a gas field there, and rumor has it that it is so big, it would keep America supplied for 10 years, for all its gas needs. Now if that’s exploited properly, there’s an awful lot of revenue. It’s going to turn Kurdistan into a Switzerland, if they’re allowed to do that. And, of course, that region has problems with its neighbors, and they would not be happy to see a very prosperous quasi-independent state building there because that would be for them a danger signal for its own Kurdish populations. There’s maybe 20 million Kurds living in Turkey, who have quite a difficult time with the Turks, who are nervous about Iraqi Kurds building up an independent state. Iran is not happy either, and Syria has a Kurdish problem, so the next few years are going to be extremely interesting.

We will jump into this in a moment. But just as an aside, the Kurds are really an extraordinary people; their history is extraordinary because they are also one of the last people in that region of the world without a country.

We don’t really know how many Kurds there are, probably 30 million, maybe 35 million, and it seems that it’s in the interests of all the states there that they do not have a country. And I think it’s crazy because they clearly have their own language, they have a separate culture from Arab culture and they want to be one nation. You talk to any Kurd and they want a Kurdish state, and no one is prepared to give it to them. And if they don’t get what they’re after, this could be a huge problem in the future for the Middle East. It could even rival the Palestinian problem. But what they haven’t done, they haven’t resorted to terrorism. And that’s quite extraordinary, given what’s happened to them. You know, they lose hundreds of thousands of people, they’re tortured, all sorts of things. And yet, they fought -- they’re a warrior people -- but terrorism is far removed from their interests. They keep well away from it.

To go back to your journey. Let’s look at Baghdad, which we all know is a pretty terrifying place. Was security was a problem for you? What was it like when you were there?

Well, I personally would not travel in Baghdad unless I had very, very good security. I think it’s too dangerous for journalists. Now major news organizations are pulling out. It was pretty chilling. We had the ninth floor of the Babylon Hotel sealed off and anyone coming up to the ninth floor after say 10, 11 o’clock at night would probably be shot. We had Kurdish guards with their guns protecting us. You don’t wander around, you don’t go out at night -- it’s too risky. It’s a pretty frightening place. And when you wander through the hotel … the hotel is an interesting place because it was once run by Saddam’s secret police, and clearly a lot of the staff working in that building probably still have links to Saddam, and they see you there and they think maybe you’re a few million dollars on legs, and maybe if they could lure you out of that hotel, things could happen. So the feeling is, this is a very, very scary place.

You take a long journey through the desert. You have to worry about attacks from all sorts of people, including possible accidental friendly fire attacks from American helicopters overhead. You end up at a fortress in the middle of the desert that looks like something out of a Star Wars episode.

Nugra Salman [an abandoned prison] is a pretty fearsome place, and you feel the atmosphere when you go into that building. A lot of people have died and been held in really inhumane conditions there. When the Kurds were being held there, being imprisoned there, they used to have dogs roaming around outside the prison. And a number of eyewitnesses have said that when people died inside the prison, they would drag them outside and just leave them lying around in the dirt. The dogs would come and consume these bodies or just drag them away.

There weren’t that many survivors from Nugra. A group was released, was given amnesty, and it’s from them we get a picture what life there was like. They would take small children. For example, nearby there’s a local registry office where we found evidence of 2-year-old children being incarcerated there. There was another entry with a 94-year-old man incarcerated. And it just defies comprehension, that Saddam could have been punishing these sorts of people.

One of the amazing things about this story is that there are actual records of all of this and that there are these document shops, as you call them, filled with all these looted documents -- as if someone had ransacked the CIA or the FBI, and these videos and documents were on sale in the streets of Washington.

Well, after the war, there were organized attempts to acquire documentation by opposition political groups because they saw through these documents -- they were a source of power for them -- because if they could find incriminating evidence against regime people, then that gives them a sort of power over these people. But there was also a lot of private endeavor to collect stacks of documents because these people saw them also as a potential source of massive income. And in the film, you see the Kurds are paying a lot of money to these centers, even providing, for example, copying machines. So they find good information, good documents, and they copy them, hand them across and they would get really well rewarded.

It’s pretty depressing to think that these documents, which do record the inner workings of a most horrendous regime, are just being dissipated, just being squandered. Because historically it would provide an incredible insight into what happened during Saddam’s reign. The comparable ones, of course, are the Stazi in East Germany, where they have been competently archived and now are a valuable resource. And I think that this should have happened with these particular files, but now, of course, it’s too out of control for that to happen.

It’s a bit like the looted art treasures.

Yeah, yeah! I mean everyone is just driven by money. And in this film, the Kurds are looking for bodies, but basically at the end of the day, they find them because they are prepared to pay, so there’s nothing for free there. It’s just a hard, hard existence.

When did you first encounter the Kurds? What drew you to that part of the world?

I used to work for Reuters, and I resigned in 1973. I was being trained as a foreign correspondent, and this was the first story I did. So in 1974, I set out for the mountains of Kurdistan where there was a rebellion, a revolt against Baghdad. The revolt, the rebellion, was supported by the Americans. It was supported by the shah of Iran. So that was my first freelance venture, and I was covering it for The Financial Times and The New York Times, and I went back and forth a lot. And then early in March 1975, the whole thing collapsed in ruins, because the CIA -- Henry Kissinger -- had withdrawn support for the Kurds abruptly, as had the shah, and they were left completely destitute.

Hundreds of thousands were forced to go into refugee camps in neighboring Iran. A lot of people stayed on, and they were sent into exile in the south, in the really blistering hot south -- and don’t forget these are mountain people -- and they had a really, really terrible time. Eventually, they began to recover, and some of them were returned up north, the ones who had been exiled to the south. Then in 1981, I went into the region clandestinely, and I walked across from Syria into Turkey, illegally, I may say, and right across northern Iraq with an enormous convoy and into Iran at the height of the Khomeini Revolution. In 1985, I did a return journey from Iran, again hiding from the Iraqi army -- just to see what had been going on -- and that’s when I first encountered this story. Because in 1985, high in the Zagros Mountains, I met this group of Kurds, a family, several families, who were fleeing -- who had been hiding for a year or two and now wanted to escape to Iran. And these were Barzanis, and they told about what had happened to them and it was the first I’d ever heard about this story. And then in 1991, I returned toward the end of Desert Storm, the 1991 Gulf War. One of the first places I visited was the camp, where these people had lost their loved ones, and it was a pitiful site. These families, the women, for example, had been completely humiliated by the Iraqi soldiers, abused in the most grotesque manner, and they came out onto the street holding photographs, faces that looked -- it was like a Greek tragedy -- they had really suffered. And I was the first Westerner they talked to, and they just broke down in tears as they told their story. So I’ve been deeply moved by this story over the years.

Obviously I reported it, but there’s been virtually no interest in it. The thing about this story, it’s as important as a Halabja; OK, in Halabja they used poisonous gas, but this one is really important because we’re talking -- well, we don’t know exactly the number, anything between 5,000 and 8,000 people being murdered, in a campaign, an operation that probably lasted just a few weeks. Just to get rid of that many people is a massive undertaking. You’re not talking just about Saddam Hussein, you’re talking about a well-honed system, which can take these people away, spirit them away, and then execute them. This is not an easy job. A lot of people were involved in it. I think that that’s a really important story. It’s the tipping point, it’s the point when his regime went from -- I mean, it was quite murderous -- but went from relatively isolated acts of brutality to mass murder. And it’s that point when things really changed.

And why wasn’t this reported more widely? Why wasn’t it picked up after you reported it?

Maybe there’s a form of racism involved here. They were just Kurds, people didn’t care about them that much. I don’t understand it -- as a journalist, you’re taught to spell out a story and then you go for it. But editors weren’t that interested. It was exotic, horrible, but somehow well away from their areas of interest. I can’t explain why this was not regarded as important at the time. But don’t forget what Saddam had done. He’d sealed off the north of Iraq so journalists could not get into that area easily. I mean, I had to swim the Tigris, for example, from Syria to Turkey, and then into Iraq to get there. And it was always a risky venture. I was the only journalist in there for many years, in the 1980s, and so access was a huge problem. Now, of course, everything’s changed. They’ve got satellite TV, they’ve got access to the Internet. And that will not happen again because of it. But at the time, I can’t say there was massive interest in the story.

You have a history with Frontline. You made a film in the early 1990s.

Well, this film is actually a sequel to a film we did back in 1992 for Frontline, and it was about the Anfal. There was an infamous campaign in which Saddam’s regime killed more than 100,000 men, women and children in Iraqi Kurdistan. And what happened in 1992 is that I went with Kanan Makiya, who lives in Boston, and we found just by chance these secret archives, security documents, and people were telling us about this Anfal, this campaign, and we just stumbled on it. But out of that came a really moving story about what had really gone on. However, we could only go to the border of Kurdistan, and the final scene in this film is when we arrive at this camp, which has cots and remnants of clothing of Kurds who had just vanished. And that was the end scene. And this film, of course, goes beyond that; we go into Iraq proper, traveling right through the country at the height of the insurgency to find out what really went on after that. So I’m quite pleased that I’ve been able to follow up and really get to the heart of the story.

At the end of your journey, to pick up on our geographical stops here, you go to this extremely remote place, in the middle of a very forbidding desert -- and remind us how hot it actually was there -- to a town near the Saudi border.

The temperatures when we were there was 55 degrees centigrade [131 degrees Fahrenheit], it was really, really incredibly hot, and we could only seriously work in the morning and at night. The town of Bussia, we had never heard of it before. It’s really the last outpost before the Saudi and Kuwaiti borders. And it was run by the mukhabarat, and it’s a Sunni town, and it’s the Jash’am tribe, very close to Saddam Hussein and very supportive of Saddam Hussein. There are Shi’iah living in this town, but 70 percent or 80 percent are Sunni. They were quite hostile; they didn’t want anything to do with us and would not give us any support at all because they were clearly implicated. They worried if they gave us any information that it would be used against them, and who knows, they might be on trial themselves. Because it was pretty certain that some of them knew exactly what was going on, knew where the graves were, and may have even been involved in setting up and helping the mukhabarat carry out the executions. So they didn’t want anything to do with us. They promised help, they promised all sorts of help, but nothing ever materialized. They kept well away from us.

We were living in a local health center in the town. We had guards on duty all the time, and we were worried if we stayed there too long that things would get difficult, and indeed at the end of our stay, after about 14 to 15 days, insurgents were spotted in the town monitoring our moves and the decision came, literally from one moment to the next: Leave, Out. They’d been seen the day before, but then we had to leave because otherwise we would have been attacked. And we just got out. But a dreadful town -- hot, dirty, sandstorms fairly frequently. And a town with a terrible secret.

Now you finally uncover that secret. And the end of your film is very powerful, very frightening. Dr. Ihsan, the human rights minister from Iraqi Kurdistan there, with a team, with bulldozers, finally uncover this grave of Barzanis.

Yeah, that’s a heart-wrenching moment. And I was very impressed by him because it wasn’t a question of just talking about this, it was a question of getting onto his knees and digging and finding these people and pulling their bones and remains out of the ground. And he was deeply moved by it because he felt like he had a responsibility to their families to at least bring an end to their suffering. Because the families actually believed their loved ones were still alive. It’s extraordinary, but they really thought they would still come back. He knew that they were dead, but he wanted to bring the final evidence so that they could begin their lives again, so that they could end their grief, and they could just start up a proper existence and deal with what went on before. It was very moving, but it was also, I think, politically revealing because right at the end of the film he says that there’s just no way that the Kurds could live with the Sunnis -- Arabs -- it’s just not possible. It became for me blindingly clear that that relationship is not something that can be healed because the Sunni will not and do not want to recognize what has been done by Saddam’s regime. They want that to be forgotten. And reconciliation, in my opinion, can only happen, and Iraq can only exist as a single country, once these problems are dealt with, once people acknowledge what has gone on. If they don’t, Iraq in my opinion will simply break up. There’s just no way.

Some of what was uncovered in Bussia in these graves will now, I assume, become part of the evidence in the trial against Saddam Hussein.

Dr. Ihsan found 500 bodies. We’re talking thousands more bodies. And clearly they want to go down again and get as many bodies as they possibly can. And on that journey down there, we went to a farm a few hundred miles away from the desert locations, and we found one grave -- it was a massive grave, 1,000 meters by 50 meters. And we found these graves on the farm owned by Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, aka Chemical Ali.

This had evidently happened in 1988, and there must have been thousands of bodies, we just dug the surface and found the bodies of two children. Now that has to be properly excavated. The Kurds want to bring the bodies they found there back to the north. It’s a massive job, hugely expensive. But how do you deal with the grief, how do you feel about the people who’ve orchestrated this, who’ve organized this? And I just think that the depths of feeling are such that these two communities will not be reconciled for a long, long time. The majority of the Kurds want independence, and that’s something I can really understand. I mean, to be joined into a state that has inflicted so much punishment and so much suffering on you, it doesn’t make sense.

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