A personal view from Tom Hardie-Forsyth, a British Army Officer, and former Nato Chairman.
As a British Army Captain, arriving in the spring of 1991 in the mountains of Kurdistan, I was greeted by unimaginable suffering – the mud, the stink, children dying of dysentery, adults almost beyond despair. We had arrived, the British military and others, to try and put a stop to the inhuman manhunt of innocent civilians following the uprising of persecuted peoples against Saddam Hussein’s regime and our disgraceful failure at first to support it. Having called for it, not only did we not support it, but America actually foolishly gave Saddam the means to continue it by allowing his helicopter gunships to continue to fly ‘for internal security purposes’, thus giving him a licence to kill civilians en masse.
As a trained army officer, I had expected the sort of destruction on a scale that a short sharp conflict creates; but that isn’t what I witnessed. What I saw was much, much worse, and what I kept hearing everywhere from ordinary people in the mountains, terrified out of their lives to return back, was “Anfal, Anfal, Anfal.” This is the name of Saddam Hussein’s genocide against the Kurds in 1987/1988. As I travelled around, I saw village after village (the final count was more than 4,000 communities) that couldn’t have been destroyed in five minutes or even just a year, and when I say destroyed, I mean meticulously and with heartless industrial efficiency.
What summed up the whole experience for me was, that, despite the suffering that people were enduring in the mountains, there was utter reluctance, no matter how hard we tried to convince them it was safe, to come back down; not just reluctance, terror! They actually preferred to stay and take the risk, even die in these inhospitable mountains as the snow was melting into a fetid quagmire, rather than go back down and face Anfal being inflicted on them again.
I wrote to my wife in UK: “Spending a lot of time in the more inaccessible places in the mountains trying to persuade the people that it is safe to come down. They are taking a lot of persuading. I never thought that I would witness, much less take part in such a clear conflict between decency and manifest evil and brutality.”
Frankly, it was because they were then used to casual betrayal by us over many years. When we eventually did coax them down; rather than go to prepared UNHCR camps and promises of food and so on, the majority still preferred (and I witnessed this amazing exodus) to go back to their devastated villages, so that we were obliged to follow them and set up mobile teams to support them as best we could. Why? These people had a shrewd historical insight that if they went into organised camps and they were disarmed in the usual way, they could again be sitting ducks for Saddam, no matter what we promised them.
Shockingly, they were almost right again. Just as they were coming down from these mountains at the end of spring in May, having given our promises of protection, a staff meeting at the military headquarters outside Zakho was briefed by our American Commander in Charge of Operation Provide Comfort that all allied military forces involved in the operation were leaving by June 15. They were to be replaced by a United Nations Guards Contingent of Iraq, a unit barely able to protect itself and which had no remit to protect anybody, just observe.
Fortunately, for once, this was too much for some officials to swallow. I’ll say, without any exaggeration, there was almost a punch up. It was one silence too many for some, including me. I returned to the UK and protested on Newsnight. The next day a newspaper carried the headline, “John Major’s Haven Plan in Tatters”
Now, I am not taking away from what John Major and other leaders achieved, but what I am saying is that the main reason that the scale of the problem was known, and acted upon, was because the cameras were rolling and feeding public protests in the UK and elsewhere.
Without credible forces and public attention, it was surely going to be business as usual for Saddam. Fortunately, as a result of this protest and others, the allies agreed to mount Operation “Poised Hammer,” providing fast reaction forces if Saddam reneged so that he wasn’t allowed to continue his dreadful plans.
Thirty years have now passed, and a great deal has happened; some good, some not so good, some downright evil. The one thing though that has moved me powerfully has been that, when it came to the necessity to rescue, house and protect tens of thousands of other refugees and internally displaced people from ISIS and other dreadful forces, the Kurdish people and the KRG have never hesitated nor stinted in their response, no matter what the cost or sacrifice to themselves.
For this and other reasons, I am determined to keep my own personal promise made 30 years ago to the Kurdish people, never to abandon them. I, for one, still have unfinished business.