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The ones left behind.

In the aftermath of the Gulf war the communities of Iraqi Kurdistan are attempting to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Saddam Hussein's extermination campaign in the northern areas of the country resulted in the loss of an estimated 180,000 people, most of them men. It is therefore the women of Iraqi Kurdistan who are left to shoulder the responsibilities of survival in many remote rural villages. Without their menfolk Kurdish women are not only lonely and disadvantaged but also extremely vulnerable. Julian Gearing reports.

Everywhere in Iraqi Kurdistan women wait in the vain hope of seeing their husbands, brothers or fathers again, despite the fact that increasing numbers of unmarked mass graves are being found, testament to a ruthless campaign by the Iraqi government.

Photographs, carefully kept, provide a grim catalogue of faces from the past. Women speak with pride about their husbands, often as though they have only been away for a while and will shortly return. Yet few children, remember their fathers. Life without men has become normal in the villages, the few that survive looking strangely out of place.

Saddam Hussein's systematic campaign to depopulate Kurdish areas of northern Iraq resulted in the disappearance of an estimated 180,000 people out of a Kurdish population thought to number three million. The majority of those missing are men. Today their wives are saddled with the legacy.

A journey through the countryside of Kurdistan reveals site after site of bulldozed rubble. When the programme began in 1987 the Iraqi government called it Operation Al-Anfal: the term Anfal is taken from the Koran and means the right to take the women and property of infidels in time of war. This was the excuse used by Saddam Hussein to rid himself of Kurdish intransigence and opposition. The result was the break up of families, the forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of people, and the destruction of 4,000 villages. "Ethnic cleansing" may have been a term thought up by the Serbs in what was Yugoslavia, yet in Kurdistan the mounting record of graves and the testimony of survivors is evidence that the Iraqi government has been pursuing the practice for years.

Today, in what remains of these villages many widows with children live in tents or other temporary shelters, relying largely on foreign food aid to survive. Piles of firewood are carefully hoarded for cooking, also for the fires that will give them only limited protection against the biting cold of winter.

Everywhere, it seems, there are groups of women struggling to bring up children on their own. Behind the typical Kurdish smiles and laughter exist conditions of extreme hardship. Take the case of Merina, a woman living in the rubble of Baroshke village. Merina talked quietly of the loss of her husband in the Anfal and of the terrifying exodus that took place at the end of the Gulf war when the Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi government had collapsed. Merina fled with her children over the cold, muddy mountains to Turkey. She did not want to talk about her youngest daughter. The cold had killed her. She was just three years old.

Merina and her other children survived the treacherous journey and now, a year later, their situation was improving. The Kurdistan Reconstruction Organisation (KRO), a local aid agency, is building the family a house as part of a massive task to reconstruct the thousands of destroyed villages. The agency is paying particular attention to the needs of widows and their children, the most vulnerable elements of society. At one site the concrete foundations of 20 houses had been laid and the builders were working on the walls. The village, like many others, will eventually have a water pump installed, a development which will ease the burden of women who have often had to walk long distances over rough terrain to collect water. Yet for Merina and the other widows there is a subtle form of isolation. Their new houses are all grouped together, separate from other houses being built for families in the village. While there is some logic in this, given that families with men use their own labour to build their houses, it also acts as a division.

In some societies widows are restricted, but for women in Kurdish society there is less stigma attached to losing a husband. With freedom of movement, and the opportunity to run their own affairs, it is not unknown for a widow to remarry, though it may be frowned upon. Also, because so many families have suffered the trauma of the Anfal, the absence of a husband is more readily accepted. The problem Kurdish widows face today has more to do with the shame and humiliation of what happened after they were left without the protection of their men. On the dusty plains near the city of Arbil, within walking distance of the present-day Iraqi military lines, the village of Qushtapa is one of many which suffers a soiled reputation.

According to Halima Barzani of the Kurdish Women's Union in Salaludin, truck loads of families were brought down from the mountainous region of Barzan by the Iraqi government in 1988 and settled in this collective village. But the families did not stay together long. Only weeks after they had settled in, Iraqi soldiers arrived one night. This was the night the village men joined the list of the "disappeared".

One of the women still has nightmares about her husband being taken away. "Soldiers dragged him out of our house and beat him," she said. "All the men were taken out. I tried to get to my husband but was hit, with a gun. That was the last time I saw my husband."

Unfortunately the nightmare was still not over. Knowing the women were unprotected, off-duty soldiers and police began to make regular visits to the village and many young women feared a knock on the door at night. An aid worker confirmed that some women remain ostracised within the village for events that took place during those difficult times. Raped, abused and left to give birth to unwanted children, the women remain a living memory that cannot be erased.

The issue of rape is inadequately tackled in most countries. While Kurdish society appears more open and liberal than some Muslim societies, the question of honour -- in particular men's honour -- plays a significant role when it comes to attacks on women. The case of a Kurdish man who shot his sister after she was raped by Iraqi police illustrates the heated passions the issue can arouse. It is not surprising that many women suffer in silence.

Targeting women was part of the Iraqi government's programme to damp down on the Kurds, and rape was a significant weapon. A United Nations report published in February 1992 cites the serious allegations of systematic rape carried out by the Iraqi security forces. Young women are sometimes raped and later used as informants under the threat that their non-compliance will result in exposure and the resulting public disgrace. Some assaults were carried out as an insult or vengeance attack on the family honour.

Many women have died agonising deaths in custody and some who survived their prison ordeal talk of their children being tortured or forced to watch the abuse of their parents. "You could hear the children's terrified screams," stated one former prisoner.

Haunted by the memories of this dark past, the women now concern themselves with the tasks of surviving the present. Many widows in the rural areas face the backbreaking work of tilling the land after years of neglect, usually without animals or farm machinery. Although they have been able to grow a few vegetables, in many areas they lack wheat seed and cannot clear the large plots of uncultivated land needed to grow this staple food. Inevitably they are still dependent on food handouts and will remain so throughout the cold winter.

Apart from working the land or selling firewood there is virtually no other work in the rural areas. Haji Suleiman, a respected male elder in one village, broke down in tears when asked about the problems the women face in the winter. "What can I do? What can I do?" he sobbed, surrounded by women and children with no other men in sight. "Look at these women, look at these children. They have lost their men. I escaped, I wasn't murdered by Saddam's soldiers. But what can I do for these women?"

The situation is not much better in the cities. What jobs there are go to men and even among them unemployment is serious, with the Iraqi blockade of the Kurdish north biting hard. Many people have been forced to move into the black market sector, selling smuggled fuel and goods or changing money; a primarily male area of operation.

Adela is one women who tried to find work in the city of Sulaimanya and failed. As a woman it was difficult enough, but as a refugee from Kirkuk her chances were further reduced. Rivalry and discrimination has affected the relationship between different regional groups. At least Adela and her children received agency food handouts and have a roof over their heads. But it is a cold, depressing home. They live in the burnt-out torture chamber of a former Ba'ath party detention centre. Adela has cleaned it out thoroughly yet is unable to scrub the blood stains off the floor.

Ironically, the Iraqi government had been responsible for creating more work opportunities for women in the cities until the Gulf war. Over the last decade the percentage of women working in business, education and the government service had increased. Education for girls was made a priority and female literacy rates had improved.

Aside from what appeared to be a liberalisation of society, however, there were other reasons behind the drive for women to gain more influential positions in Iraq. The Iran-Iraq war meant hundreds of thousands of men were needed for the frontline, leaving many jobs open. In addition, Ba'athist strategy aimed to reduce the influence of the traditional Kurdish patriarchal system and encourage stronger allegiance to the party. During Ba'ath party rule a more independent lifestyle for women meant more supporters of the party, even if they often had to be coerced.

The women's union in the city of Sulaimanya is housed in what was an Iraqi Ba'ath party office before the Kurdish uprising. Here Sirwar Rasheed, the headmistress at a local girls school, explained the problems Kurdish women faced today in the urban environment: "You may see some women in the city living in good houses with their families. But inflation is running high and with no work available there is often very little money for food," she said. "I am only glad Baghdad has not cut off the electricity supply to Kurdistan as well as the food."

Sirwar was talking in front of an emblem entitled: "Zhinan -- Women's Union of Kurdistan -- Women, Struggle, Life". In one room of the building women were running a sewing workshop making children's clothes to sell in the market. As she explained, the scheme only provides employment for about a dozen women, but at least that is a step in the right direction. In addition, they were involved in a literacy programme.

Like many others, Sirwar has not received her teaching salary for months. She continues to teach but has not been paid -- her paymaster being the government in Baghdad. So, like their rural counterparts many middle class Kurdish women like Sirwar are also struggling to make ends meet.

But women's union volunteers, such as Sirwar and Halima, are not only interested in running sewing workshops and literacy classes. Kurdish women have long had a more equal relationship with men than many of their Muslim sisters in other countries. That freedom has even led some to take up guns to fight alongside their peshmerga brothers against the Iraqi government.

For those who have lost their husbands and are finding it difficult to feed and clothe their families, change will be slow. But the trauma of repression may finally be in the past. And the ability to look on the bright side of life, an outstanding trait in the Kurds, will give vital impetus to their ability to rebuild their lives.
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Title Annotation:Mosaic; Kurdish women
Author:Gearing, Julian
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:2055
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