Shepherds living in the shadow of Saddam

Patrick Cockburn meets villagers facing two enemies: starvation and Iraq
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Shilah, northern Iraq - Even by the standards of Kurdish villages the people of Shilah are poor. They live in a straggle of 26 one-storey stone houses with mud roofs near the town of Khoi Sanjaq on the plain beneath the Kurdish mountains. Just at the moment, the villagers say, their concerns are that their only water pump has failed and fear that Saddam Hussein may come back.

"There used to be Iraqi soldiers in a camp two miles from here," said Wali, a youngish man who belongs to a three-member committee which represents the village. "We were not free to do anything. We did not dare even light a fire at night because they would shoot at us with artillery."

Life for the 155 people of Shilah, mostly shepherds herding 800 sheep and 50 cows, was always hard. The stream on which they and their flocks depend often runs dry. The outside world has affected their lives mostly through acts of extreme violence. "Once, in 1985, an Iraqi helicopter came and killed a man and some of his sheep," said Younis, another villager. "We don't know why."

Sitting with a dozen other villagers in a house which serves as a community centre, Wali revealed that in 1990 he had been drafted into the Iraqi army and was captured in Kuwait. "There was no fighting," he said. "The whole army was waiting to surrender. They kept me for three months. When we came back to Iraq all the Kurds were put in Abu Graib jail outside Baghdad for five days and then released."

Despite living close to starvation, the topic which most interested the Shilah villagers was the return of Saddam Hussein. "We heard in Khoi Sanjaq that he was coming back with his tanks," said Younis. "We hope the allied forces will destroy him. Nobody wants him."

Once, in 1988, another villager recalled, two young men from Shilah named Abdul Khaliq Khalid and Salaam Aziz, who were doing a course in agriculture in Khoi Sanjaq, were arrested and killed by Iraqi security men as part of the so-called Anfal Operation in which at least 100,000 Kurds died.

Since the Iraqi army left in 1991, Shilah has received a little help from the outside world. Unicef has erected two prefabricated buildings as a school. Another charity has given villagers a small generator allowing them to pump water from the stream 400 yards away.

After two months it broke down and they had no money to get it repaired. The villagers do have access to medical help, however. The nearby abandoned Iraqi army camp has been taken over by Kurds who had fled from Iran and use it as a military base. "They are good neighbours and allow us to use their hospital," said Wali.

We were in Shilah, which can only be reached by a rocky track, just negotiable by a car, because Kenaan Mufti, the director of archaeology for Kurdistan, had told us in Arbil, the Kurdish capital, that the villagers were digging for treasure in a nearby ancient ruin. He thought they were encouraged by merchants from Iran. This turned out to be untrue. "People from the city did come and dig for 10 days," said Wali. "They even brought armed peshmerga [soldiers] with them. On the tenth day they used mechanical excavators before they were stopped." He added that nobody in Shilah believed in buried treasure, although 10 years before a farmer from the village had found a golden ring.