Story Synopsis & Video

Full Transcript



January 24, 2006

Iraq: Saddam’s Road To Hell

Reported by: Gwynne Roberts

GWYNNE ROBERTS, Reporter: [voice-over] The road to the oil city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, and the threat of insurgents attacking this road at night is very real. This man is on a sensitive mission. He’s investigating the case of thousands of Kurds who disappeared 22 years ago, never to be heard of again. He’s Dr. Mohammed Ihsan, Kurdish minister for human rights.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN, Kurdish Human Rights Minister: Some 8,000 Barzani Kurds were taken from four government camps in Kurdistan. I think my main role is to find out where these people are. I’m looking for an answer for it.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: And Dr. Ihsan’s quest will take him on an 800-mile journey through a country teetering on the edge of civil war. The case which Dr. Ihsan is putting together is a vital part of the indictment against Saddam Hussein, but this case is particularly significant. All the missing men and boys were members of one powerful Kurdish clan, the Barzanis. Their abduction marks the point when Saddam’s regime moved from isolated acts of brutality to mass murder.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] Pull over. Pull over.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: Dr. Ihsan is meeting a former Iraqi secret policeman a few miles from Kirkuk. In countless secret meetings like this, Dr. Ihsan has been gathering the evidence he needs to unravel the mystery of the missing Barzanis. The documents are explicit and provide crucial evidence about the fate of the Barzanis.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: This is a very important document. It’s from Colonel Hakis Ma’il to the director of political affairs in Iraqi General Security Office. It says that at the beginning of August 1983, Barzanis were executed in Bussia area, which is near Saudi border.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: But just how reliable are these documents? And exactly what happened to the Barzanis?

Some of the Barzani families who survived the abduction now live deep in the Kurdish mountains. Dr. Ihsan has come to Hardan village to meet them. All lost sons, fathers and husbands. All believe their loved ones may one day return to them.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] How many of your family are missing?

1st BARZANI WOMAN: [subtitles] Six members of my family are missing, my five sons and my husband. My husband’s name is Marku, and my sons are Othman, Abdullah, Karim, Awni and Aziz. Othman was the oldest.

2nd BARZANI WOMAN: [subtitles] My husband was a practicing Muslim. He didn’t drink, smoke, nor do anything bad. He was good with his family. He was educated and quiet. If someone is good, quiet and handsome, isn’t that enough? What else could a woman want? What else can I say?

3rd BARZANI WOMAN: [subtitles] Sadeq was very good. There was nothing wrong with him. He was perfect. The other one, Taha, was very kind to his children. When he got back from work, he used to hug and kiss me. The other one was the same.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: The search for the missing Barzanis was authorized by Masoud Barzani, clan leader and now president for the Kurdish region. He lost 37 members of his own family. The attack on the Barzani clan followed his decision to side with Iran against Iraq in the early 1980s.

MASOUD BARZANI, President, Kurdistan: [subtitles] Of course, at the time, there was the Iraq-Iran war. Our fight with Iraq started before and continued after.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: During the war, his partisan army played an important role in the conflict, helping to pin down the Iraqi army in the north. Saddam never forgave him. He took his revenge on innocent Barzani civilians who were living in government camps like this one.

MASOUD BARZANI: [subtitles] Even if we did help Iran, those Barzani civilians were not responsible for our policy.

LITTLE GIRL: [singing] [subtitles] I hope to hold a gun among the soldiers and advance, to hear the victory songs and the raising of flags...

GWYNNE ROBERTS: Just one month after the Barzani Kurds were taken, Saddam admitted publicly his regime was involved in their disappearance.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: This is September 1983. These Kurds were summoned by Saddam to listen to his speech. Really, this was broadcasted all over Iraq and recorded off air at that time. It establishes Saddam’s guilt beyond doubt.

SADDAM HUSSEIN: [subtitles] The Barzanis spread their treachery to other families. And they are involved in this crime and became guides for the Persian army and helped them occupy Iraqi land. Some, who were called Barzanis, cooperated with them. So they’ve been severely punished and have gone to hell.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: Saddam’s abduction of the Barzanis was the precursor of his infamous Anfal campaign, when his forces attacked Kurdish villages, often using poison gas. More than 100,000 Kurdish men, women and children were killed in the late 1980s.

Dr. Ihsan is launching an expedition from Arbil in Northern Iraq to the southern deserts near the Saudi border. He’s looking for crucial forensic evidence in the case against Saddam, the bodies of the missing Barzanis. It’s a dangerous journey, even at the outset.

[on camera] There’s been a bomb explosion just around the corner from the hotel! I can’t see anything, but the main thing is clearly over here. They’re worried there’s another bomb, I think.

Listen to the reporter’s story

[voice-over] A suicide bomber kills 70 and injures 120 in a queue of young Kurds waiting to join the police. Despite the constant danger, the expedition gets under way. It’s May, and our journey will take four weeks. Leaving Arbil behind, our convoy heads south. We have to drive first through areas controlled by Sunni insurgents who regularly ambush vehicles along this route, kidnapping and killing passengers at will.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: Here is the most dangerous part of our journey, really, between Hamrin to Khalas. One day, I myself been attacked here by roughly about six terrorist cars. They attacked us. They find that we are well defense and we were well prepared. They run away. Just here.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: Four hours later, the outskirts of Baghdad. It looks so normal, but the insurgent attacks are at a record high, and as we drive to the center, a car bomb kills 17 people.

We’re staying at the Hotel Babylon, and we’re worried about our security. Across the River Tigris is the “green zone,” a heavily guarded area housing the Iraqi government and the U.S. embassy. We are outside this area and have to provide our own protection.

Azad, Dr. Ihsan’s brother, is head of security.

AZAD: I tell them anybody after 12:00 come to this room, I’ve got to kill him. No excuse. They say, “OK, no problem. Nobody come. After 1:00 o’clock, nobody come to the 9th floor, especially your side room.” Nobody. Anybody come after 12:00 o’clock, I’ve got to kill them. No excuse.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: Our investigation takes us to an insurgent stronghold in the suburbs. Dr. Ihsan is trying to track down one of the main document shops in Baghdad. These documents were looted after Saddam’s downfall from one of the city’s main intelligence headquarters, and they are all for sale.

[on camera] Tell me, how much do you pay for the pleasure?

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: Oh, really, we paid a lot of money.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: A lot of money?

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: A lot of money. We paid a lot of money to bribe these people. Otherwise, there is no chance for you to get them.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: But wouldn’t it maybe better to destroy all these documents, just begin again?

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: I don’t agree with that approach. We should face it. We should study it. We should let people - we should tell the truth to the people. This is Iraqis and this is Iraqi- how they behaved in the past. We should tell the truth. This is the truth. This is what we did. This is what all Iraqis involved- the majority of Iraqis involved in it.

More on Saddam’s crimes

GWYNNE ROBERTS: [voice-over] The Iraqi secret police were trained by the East German Stasi and had a mania for recording everything they did- on paper, in sound and on videotape. We found evidence of this in the market in central Baghdad. These videos come from the vaults of Saddam’s secret police. Under Saddam, they were often distributed publicly to extend the Baath rule of terror, and extraordinarily, this still appeared to be going on. They show every form of cruelty imaginable, from throwing prisoners off rooftops, to beatings, beheadings, amputations and even blowing up prisoners with explosives.

[on camera] Why do they sell this stuff in video stores? What’s the purpose?

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: You know, this film has been leaked to the market by Iraqi intelligence, by Iraqi Mukhbarat, really. I think this is the way they are selling their terror to people and reminding them that, “We are still here, and this is the way we did it.”

Really, we get some important documents today regarding the case of our Barzanis. For example, this one. It’s a very critical one, really. It establishes direct link between Saddam Hussein and the murder of 8,000 Barzanis. This document is dated 24th of August, 1987, and the topic of this document is Barzani families.

It’s very clear and direct. It is from the special secretary for Saddam Hussein to Ali Hassan Majid, “Chemical Ali.” It’s here- for example, it’s been mentioned [reads in Arabic], which means, “No one knows the fate of these families except the leadership of the state.”

GWYNNE ROBERTS: [voice-over] But this document is not enough. Dr. Ihsan needs to find the bodies of the missing Barzanis.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] What time tomorrow are we leaving?

MAN: [subtitles] At 8:00, 8:30.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] Why 8:30? Why not 5:30?

GWYNNE ROBERTS: Ahead lies a 500-mile journey to the southern deserts, through the “triangle of death” just south of Baghdad.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] We’re not stopping until we get to Samawa.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: This week, 43 Shia travelers were executed along this road. It’s controlled by al Qaeda terrorists, sometimes operating in groups of up to 100 strong. They prey on traffic jams, and Dr. Ihsan orders his drivers not to stop at any cost.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] Don’t delay. When you hear me, answer!

1st DRIVER: [subtitles] Yes, brother.

2nd DRIVER: [subtitles] Be careful. Be careful.

3rd DRIVER: [subtitles] Azad, be careful! Watch both sides!

2nd DRIVER: [subtitles] OK. OK.

1st DRIVER: [subtitles] On the left. On the left. Be careful. Be careful.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] Try not to leave the line. Azad, Azad! Keep up, Azad. Keep up.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: The Americans are showing interest in our Ihsan’s convoy, and there’s concern that they could strike without warning. Being a government minister offers no protection from American “friendly fire” attacks.

[on camera] How much distance do you have keep from the Americans?

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] A hundred and fifty meters.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: And if you go closer than that, they’ll shoot?

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] They’ll shoot you.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: [voice-over] After traveling nearly 300 miles southwest of Baghdad, we reach a remote desert fortress, Nugra Salman. Thousands of Kurds, imprisoned here during the Anfal campaign, are said to have died of thirst, starvation and torture. The Barzanis were apparently held at Nugra before being moved deeper into the desert.

YOUNG MAN: [subtitles] Me, two brothers, two sisters, and my mother, my grandfather, grandmother, two uncles and an aunt. We were driven in a bus down to Nugra Salman. My young relative, Salman, was beaten in front of me. Just imagine, I was 11 years old. And there were even younger children watching.

OLD MAN: [subtitles] When we arrived at Nugra, it was like a hell. It was so crowded. There were women, children and old people there. It was full. Nugra Salman was full.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: Children were treated the same as adults. The documents collected by Dr. Ihsan show that amongst the abducted Barzanis were boys as young as 8.

YOUNG MAN: [subtitles] It was very hot in Nugra Salman. There was a football goal with two metal bars. My uncle was tied to the bars all day. In the evening, they brought him back to the hall. The bars had scorched his back. This was one form of torture, and there were certainly worse forms that we didn’t see.

OLD MAN: [subtitles] Some 1,000 out of 11,00 people here died. Those still alive were taken away and just disappeared. I saw a long blue bus taking away the young men. It returned empty 30 to 45 minutes later, and did it again. That is a fact. I often asked God to take my soul. I begged God to put an end to my life. I didn’t want this life.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: Dr. Ihsan’s investigation has revealed that the Barzanis were executed in the Bussia region, about five hours’ drive southeast of the prison. And it’s to there the convoy heads. He’s looking for eyewitnesses who can lead him to their graves.

Bussia, the last Iraqi outpost before the Saudi border, and a village known to have been once run by Saddam’s secret police. It’s inhabited mainly by the Sunni Jasham tribe, once among Saddam’s closest supporters. This is a region where distrust runs deep between the Sunnis and the local Shia.

Dr. Ihsan finds an important witness, a shepherd called Abu Naif, who is Shia and who worked as an army driver in Bussia in 1983. He confirms that the Barzanis were executed near Bussia.

ABU NAIF: [subtitles] A bus would come carrying 45 passengers. Every day, it came at dawn, going to Abu Jid village. That is where the Kurds were. It returned at 9:00. Next day, it came in the morning again. It left in the evening when they’d finished. They executed them all in one week.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: A local shopkeeper, also Shia, has vivid memories of the day the executions began.

SHOPKEEPER: [subtitles] On the day they moved the prisoners, a security officer came, knocked on the door and came into my store. He took a piece of cloth and some rope from me.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] What type of cloth was it?

SHOPKEEPER: [subtitles] White. White.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] How big? A whole roll?

SHOPKEEPER: [subtitles] Less than a roll. People buy this to use as a shroud. They bury the dead in it. He said, “We need this.”

GWYNNE ROBERTS: The Shias are helpful, but the local Sunnis are not cooperating with Dr. Ihsan’s search. He arranges a meeting with the Sunni elders in Bussia to try to buy their assistance. He suspects that they once worked closely with Saddam’s secret police and know the exact location of the Barzani graves.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] Imagine. Imagine, for 22 years, 8,000 Barzanis have been missing. We need one of you to say, “Man, come and dig here.” I promise I can give a big reward to anyone who can help us find where they’re buried. I can tell that you are hospitable and generous in spirit. No one will can imagine the size of the reward. The reward is money. The person who receives it will be very happy.

BUSSIA SHEIKH: [subtitles] Sorry to interrupt you. If anyone knows anything, I swear by God they will tell you immediately. It is a great thing for God’s work to help you. What does money mean? Nothing!

GWYNNE ROBERTS: There’s one conspicuous absentee, the village headman, the mukhtar. For 24 years, he was Saddam’s main representative in Bussia and the community’s main link with the security forces, the Mukhabarat. His absence from the meeting underlines the Sunni community’s distrust of our group. The question now is, will money break their silence?

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: Eight hundred just for that guy who was helping us till now, and 500 for the guy who said, “I will help you,” 400 for another guy, and 400 for the guy to go back to Nasyria to get the tanker driver.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: Next day, two Sunni bounty hunters come forward to claim their share of the reward.

BOUNTY HUNTER: [subtitles] This is the right way. Not to the left or right, straight ahead.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: The bounty hunters lead us to Abu Jid, a Bedouin encampment in the middle of nowhere. They say they’re convinced that the Barzanis were executed and buried here. But our bulldozer finds nothing.

Another tip-off takes us 30 miles further into the desert. After digging late into the night and finding nothing, a mood of desperation sets in.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] How many of you think there is something here? Just guess. Guess.

IRAQI POLICEMAN: [subtitles] My guess, nothing.

1st ARAB: [subtitles] I can’t say.

2nd ARAB: [subtitles] Nothing.

3rd ARAB: [subtitles] We expect something, but we find nothing.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] Do you expect something?

3rd ARAB: [subtitles] I expect something.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: [subtitles] I think we will try.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: [on camera] You’re going to do this bit here, yeah?

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: I will do this bit here, too.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: But again, the bulldozer turns up nothing.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: Most of the information which we have so far is secondhand information because none of the informer himself he dare to stand up and to tell that this is what’s happened because most of them, they were taking part of it. The majority of them, they were part of the regime, and they were working for the regime at that time through police department, through customs, through border guards.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: Do you think some will have participated in the killing?

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: I am sure. Definitely. This is why they don’t dare to face us.

Debate what justice means in Iraq

GWYNNE ROBERTS: [voice-over] After 15 days of digging, Dr. Ihsan is running out of options. We’re short of food, water and hope.

Back in Bussia, there’s unwelcome news. Insurgents are circling the village, monitoring our movements. We’re forced to abandon our search and return to the north.

DRIVER: [subtitles] Get your guns ready!

GWYNNE ROBERTS: Dr. Ihsan’s investigation, which has lasted 14 years, seems to have come to nothing.

But five months later, Dr. Ihsan is called back to Bussia. His Shia contacts finally locate three mass graves, all of them just a few hundred feet away from where he’d searched back in May. The remains of 500 Kurds are recovered, all of them believed to be Barzanis.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: I think this is concrete evidence that these belonged to the Barzani Kurds because this is what they wear on all days. Even today, they are wearing the same clothes. The name is Shalu Shapiq. You can see that he’s been blindfolded. I think this is another male that has been blindfolded before killing.

GWYNNE ROBERTS: All of this will now be used as evidence in Saddam’s trial in Baghdad.

Dr. MOHAMMED IHSAN: I think there will be no way with this country, after all what we’ve been through. Forget it. I personally, I don’t think there’s any hope, any hope that we can live together.

Back to top