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voices in the storm: unfinished business

listen to the unfinished business
[Music]

Narrator
The land war with Iraq was over more swiftly than anyone dared hope. Kuwait was liberated. But in Iraq to the north, the fighting continued.

Many Iraqis, cowed by years of repression and brutality, thought Saddam Hussein was all but finished and encouraged by anti-Saddam statements from Western leaders, seized the chance to rise up against the Bathist regime.

In the south of the country the dissent was quickly and savagely put down. But in the north of Iraq the Kurds posed a more serious threat. They had been ruthlessly suppressed. Now they saw their chance to fight back. And, they thought, they had the backing of America which had brought Saddam to his knees.

[Music]

This is the story of what happened to one Kurdish family in northern Iraq i March 1991, in the days after the end of the Gulf War.

Mustaffa Aziz was 14 years old and had grown up in London, but his family returned to their homeland a cuple of years before the war. They were living in the northern town of Suleymania and, like everybody else during the crisis in the Gulf, were follow ing the news avidly.

[Kurdish radio]

Mustaffa
There was no electricity at the time. I remember the room being really dark and my uncle and his wife and my dad and my mum, they'd be in a corner, all like, all four of them surrounding this one radio, that they had. And they'd listen to the radio. A nd they'd swap stations as well, like to get news from each radio station. So they'd know what was going on, clearly.

And I remember the one time, er, there was a speech by George Bush and it really got my parents excited and my uncle as well. They were all really excited about it. And they had really good, big smiles on their faces and everything.

Actuality
Bush over radio `....There's another way for the bloodshed to stop and that is for the Iraqi military, and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and to comply with the United Na tions resolutions and then rejoin the family of peace-loving nations.'

Mustaffa
The reaction was, you know, they thought wicked, we've got American backup. We've got the West's backup we can do this. I mean, Saddam's weak, we've got their backup. People are willing to fight. So they thought, they like, they thought, that's it, we've got the main three things that can help us in taking Kurdistan. And getting rid of Saddam Hus sein.

[Sounds of fighting]

Narrator
Across northern Iraq the Kurds rose up against the symbols and the servants of President Saddam Hussein's Bathist regime. In Suleymania, the fighting centered on the Security Headquarters, the large fortress-like building which dominated the town. The secret police officers inside put up fierce resistance, but eventually were overwhelmed.

Mustaffa
I remember I had a good friend. He lived down the road from me. He came up to my house and said, everything's over, let's go and check out the places.

And so we went, first of all we went to the Security Office, because that was the main place. We walked in towards it, and you know, we had this really scary feeling in us. We were really scared because of this, this Security Office, this place which ha d been known, that anyone who'd enter would never walk out again. And being a place, you know, of so much horror and you know, so much bad things had taken place in there.

There was two big gates, the gates had been shattered, and as soon, you know, all three of us walked through the gates. We looked at each other and we said, `course, you know, we just thought, well, we're actually in the security building.

There was bullet holes in the walls everywhere. I mean you couldn't find one brick that hadn't been hit by a bullet. And you're looking everywhere, there was, there was bodies everywhere. Dead bodies everywhere. It was raining as well at the time. S o you see like, all lthe puddles will be just blood, everywhere.

And then we walked into the prison cells, and we saw on the walls there, there was like poetry on the walls. You know, prisoners, which they'd written while they'd spent their time there.

I thought, I hate, I hate Iraqis. I hate the bastards. How could they do this to people. Because before we just thought it was like--we didn't really think it was true.

We did, we knew what the bastards were like, but we didn't really think they'd go that far into harming people. But when we actually saw it. I remember we were just swearing, at the Iraqis and the soldiers. Especiallsy when we read the poems.

And I remember going up to a couple of bodies and kicking them and spitting on them--just to get my anger out as well. I thought, I thought, what am I doing? How can I kick a dead body? I mean, I'm not going to do him any harm, he'd dead. And there wa sn't really any point in me doing anything anyway, because you know, I'd be just a bad as them.

So it was all over, and we were just glad that we'd taken back Kurdistan and we had it back to ourselves. And we didn't live in, in fear anymore.

Narrator
But a few days later the euphoria evaporated. Saddam Hussein started his counter-offensive to retake northern Iraq from the Kurds. As the government forces advanced, carrying out ruthless reprisals, hundreds of thousands of terrified refugees fled for their lives.

It was late winter and the weather was bitterly cold with the driving rain coming down from the mountains. The roads north were jammed with overladen vehicles of every description - lorries, cars, tractors and trailers. The less fortunate were on foot.< P> Along with their neighbors from Suleymania, Mustaffa and his family joined this exodus of biblical proportions.

Actuality
[vehicles leaving Suleymania]

Mustaffa
There was quite a lot of people in our lorry. It was really, really crowded. There was mainly families in there. And I remember there was all suitcases and bundles of stuff and carpets and stuff like that, underneath us. All the people would be sitti ng on top of all of that.

And um, the young would, like my age, would sit on the edge of the lorry at the barrier. And the rest of the people, old women would, they would make comfortable places for the old people. And you know, there was couple of pregnant women in our lorry as well. And gradually, as we, as we drove on, like someone would recognize someone from--oh, that's my relative, and they'd er, they'd come on the lorry as well. So it increased, increased until it got to about fifty odd people in the lorry.

Narrator
one of Mustaffa's relations was Dara Rashid. As the road snaked higher into the mountains, he watched how the weak began to fall by the wayside.

Rashid
The journey, er, carried on. We went to a side of a river. It was a rough river we had to cross. And then we waited for a while, thinking of to find a way how to cross the river.

Then I suddeny heard noise and I went er, towards the noise. I saw that there is some people have brought a blanket and a woman was giving birth. She was pregnant at that time. After a while, the woman gave the birth to the, to a little baby.

And then the crowd were looking at her. Staring at her. From the blank eyes of the woman, you could tell the amount of suffering she was in. And suddenly the woman reacted. The woman. The people were looking at her, staring at her, and she just threw the baby into the river. And the crowd attacked the lady and then suddenly, the lady came back to her senses. And at that time, I felt that she was--she was in a dream. And then she started crying when they said, you lost your baby. But it was too lat e.

[Music]

Rashid
One other thing which struck my mind and my conscience, was, er, I was in the middle of the road. I was watching a woman, a woman in her early twenties, she was sitting next to her child's body. And she was looking at the people, waiting for somebody t o come and give her some hlep, to bury the dead body of the child.

And she was--she waited fro some time Nobdoy came to-to help her or something. So she started to move the body of the child to an eroded valley. And then covering the body with little stones - because she coudlnt' get hold of any tools or any shovels t o bury the child.

And suddenly she knew that she can't do anything. so she left the body and came and joined the crowd. And she started her journey again.

[Music]

Mustaffa
We were in a lorry and I remember we heard this-this sound --helicopter sound, and then the sound of it increased as they came nearer.

Actuality [Helicopter sound]

Mustaffa
People got really confused when they heard the sound, because they didn't know whether it would be the Iraqi army, it would be the Americans coming to help us. It would be the United Nations. And it made this big sound as it turned, towards the mountai n.

And then we knew straight away. We saw the Iraqi flag on the tail of the helicopter. It had the Iraqi flag on it and we knew straight away it was the Iraqi army.

So everybody started to panic. And there was this bright light, a little smoke coming out, and this red thing was jusst flying towards the mountain. It hit the cars. I said, it will fly around the mountain and come back again and do exactly the same t hing.

I was like, sort of staring at the helicopter. It had come again and hit again and go again, like this. Spin around and all you see was women grabbing on to their children and you know, dragging them along to making them run. Those people literally ju st, leaving their cars, leaving all their belongings in their cars, just running towards the mountains.

Actuality [Jet passes]

Narrator
In the skies above, American pilots were on patrol as part of the ceasefire agreement at the end of the Gulf War. Joe Seidl and Merrick Kraus noticed unidentified aircraft on their radar and reported them to the American AWACS, the airborne mission contr ols.

Kraus
We picked up helicopters on our radar. We talked to AWACS, they said there were no friendly helicopters out and that we were to identify these helicopters and give them specifics on direction and altitude.

Seidl
And, er, we went to go see what the helicopters were, because part of our job was to identify any helicopters. So as we started to close on the hellicopters, we could see muzzle flashes, from the helicopters. And they were firing into the people that w ere moving along the roads.

Kraus
And we went past these helicopters, very fast, and er, saw them continuing to fire. Climbed up to altitude and tried to call in to AWACS to tell them we saw them firing. We were not given any instructions that we were allowed to shoot them down. And it was very frustrating for us at the time. But, as we found out, this has been going on ever since in, now and then.

Narrator
As Iraqi helicopters strafed refugees, allied pilots could only observe and report back. Unlike the liberation of Kuwait, they had no United Nations mandate or authority to intervene in the internal affairs of Iraq.

To make matters worse, it seemed to the Kurds that President Bush was now having second thoughts too.

Rashid
I was travelling in the car and there was a radio. When I clocked the radio to the Voice of America, I just wanted to listen to the news. I heard President's Bush's statement in a press conference when he said that he doesn't want the American troops t o get involved in a civil war in Iraq. That was difficult for me to accept.

Actuality
Bush statement `....but I think it would be inappropriate to try to, to try to shape or suggest even what government should, should follow on...'

Rashid
That struck our minds and also the people's minds because they were hoping that the Americans and the allied forces will come for the rescue. And then such kind of statements devastated the morale of the people on the convoy.

Narrator The Washington administration tried to play down the contradictory signals from the White House. Now that Saddam Hussein was contained within his borders, the American priority was to bring the boys back home. Few in the administration wer e willing to risk American forces becoming embroiled in a civil war in Iraq.

After weeks of dithering, a large scale humanitarian operation to supply food, shelter and medical aid was launched, but for some refugees, it came too late. Just as Mustaffa Aziz and his family were about to reach safety at the Iranian border, Mustaffa 's mother was knocked down by a car which had skidded out of control on a high mountain pass. There was no proper medical aid availabel and she died from her injuries.

Mustaffa and the rest of the family eventually found their way back to Britain.

[Music]

Narrator
Five years later, the Kurdish enclave of Northern Iraq is under the protection of United Nations forces, but the people still don't live in peace. The Kurds themselves are now riven by factional fighting.

"Voices in the Storm" was a Fine Art Production for BBC Radio 5 Live's Flashback


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