BOOK REVIEW / Precision suffering and the long march with Kurds: Nowhere to hide - Susan Francis, Andrew Crofts: Weidenfeld, pounds 15.99

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'YOU ARE English,' a group of young Kurdish women fleeing from Saddam Hussein's genocidal attacks early in 1991 told Susan Francis, as they sheltered together in the mountains of northern Iraq. 'When you get out of this you must write a book about what you have suffered here, so that the world can know how bad it really is.'

Susan Francis - a pseudonym, to protect her Erelatives still living in Iraq - did just that. She survived an ordeal that left many of her companions dead and has written, wiTHER write errorth the help of Andrew Crofts, a story that bears vivid witness to one of the most tragic events in recent history.

Susan Francis was a student nurse at Southampton University in the Fifties when she met and married a young Iraqi civil engineer and returned to Basra and then Baghdad. She celebrated her 22nd birthday as the pregnant mother of one small son, so poor that her only furniture was an iron bed and mattress, and shunned by her husband's family.

Very gradually, life improved. There were about a thousand English women such as herself who had married Iraqis, and they soon made common cause against the hostility and aggression of the Muslim families into which they had married. By the time of the Iran-Iraq war in the Eighties, more money was coming in, a third child was going through university, and Susan Francis and her husband owned a house and a car. It was a strange life, told here simply and well, but she was content.

The war soon changed all that. The eight years of attacks and counter-attacks, of towns fought over, taken and lost again and again, spelt air raids, the loss of friends, poverty, shortages of food and medicine, and fear. The lull after the peace settlement was brief. Under Saddam Hussein, political executions became routine, informers multiplied and no one felt safe. Asked why, as an Englishwoman, she did not leave, Susan Francis would reply that, after 30 years, Iraq had become her home. In any case, by now she had three grown-up Iraqi children and grandchildren, none of whom would have been able to leave with her.

Nothing, however, prepared her for the horror of the Gulf war. For the civilians living in Baghdad, most of them women, children and the old, the nightly, much-vaunted precision bombing of the Allied forces meant the destruction of their homes, the deaths of people trapped inside, and a growing conviction that no one in the city could possibly escape alive.

Susan Francis is clearly a woman of great courage, but there came the day when she could take no more. Her two sons had vanished into the army. Packing her daughter and four grandchildren into two cars, she and her husband joined thousands of others in a long trail leading towards the mountains. She became a refugee. 'We were a normal family with a nice home,' she writes, in words that must have been used this century by countless millions in similar situations. 'How could we have become statistics on the road, with little or no control over our lives or destinies?'

For a while, the family found a home of sorts among the Kurds in the northern villages. But as Saddam Hussein turned his forces to crushing the short-lived Kurdish rebellion, so their hosts took to the roads yet again, as they had so often before, seeking safety in the mountains. Susan Francis's account of this flight makes almost unbearable reading: the thousands of desperate and terrified people stuck in the mud of the mountain passes, without food, medicine or shelter, the children and old people dying of cold, or poisoned by the water contaminated by the pursuing Iraqis, or shot from the helicopters hovering overhead, their bodies torn apart by starving dogs. At one point, it is now believed, up to a thousand babies were dying every day.

Nowhere to Hide is not the most polished book. But as a story about endurance and a testimonial to ordinary Iraqi citizens and the Kurdish people, both victims of Saddam Hussein's murderous rule, it is an important document. It is all the more important in that the chapter has yet to close. Saddam is still in power, international attention has shifted to Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, and the Western powers appear to be sliding towards appeasement.

If nothing else, Susan Francis's extremely readable book is a reminder that the remaining Kurds of Iraq, those not killed during a systematic policy of genocide which has already seen the destruction of more than 4,000 towns and villages and the extermination of unknown numbers of people, are still not safe.