She returned exhausted to London, wrote furiously, sent off a small team to southern Turkey, and, still exhausted, flew off with another team to Iran. She later told me that the circles under her eyes had never been so dark. The crises in Iraq seemed never-ending. The uprising in the south had spread to Kurdistan in the north, where Kurdish forces had even taken the important, oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The Kurds, however, were no match for Saddam Hussein's army once the Shiite uprising had been suppressed; the army had launched a powerful offensive that had retaken Kirkuk, and was pressing north into the mountains. This time the Western powers had responded, and having drawn a line through the air along the 36th parallel, beyond which Iraqi aircraft were henceforth forbidden to fly, in April of 1991 they declared the north to be a "safe haven," and with subsequent assistance from the United Nations, effectively allowed for the birth of an autonomous Kurdish state. American F-16s patrolled the skies. With fighting on the ground continuing, however, and with memories of the Anfal campaign still fresh, much of the Kurdish population was on the run, whether deeper into the wilds or into Turkey or Iran.
More than a million Iraqi refugees, primarily Kurds and Shiite Arabs, now huddled in Iran. They were held in huge camps strung from north to south along the entire length of the 906-mile border. Mufti and her colleagues traveled among them, interviewing the recent arrivals about Saddam's latest violence. It was another difficult mission. The weather turned hot. The Iranian government placed numerous obstacles in the investigators' way, and at one point held them under town arrest for two days, while various officials discussed the risk that they might make contact with Iranian opposition groups.
They had a "minder" from the Foreign Affairs Ministry with them at all times, whose assignment was to keep them under control. It was a difficult job, because these were not diplomats he was ushering around but tough and determined investigators. When they pulled into the camps, they would quickly be surrounded by hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of refugees, and would take advantage of the commotion to split apart. The minder had no choice but to follow one or another, leaving the others free to do their work. The refugees had no idea who these Westerners were. They would ask for blankets, perhaps, or for help in emigrating to Scandinavia. Eventually the investigators would explain enough of themselves to get the interview process going—ideally in the quasi-privacy of some tent, one person at a time, in production-line style. Mufti set her all-time record for number of interviews during that trip, in a Kurdish camp containing the survivors of the Barzani clan, sixty of whom spoke to her in a single day about the arrest and disappearance of their men, eight years before. These interviews were short, a few minutes each, because their contents closely overlapped. Other interviews could take two hours, or more. Given the enormity of the crimes that had been committed, it was sometimes more helpful to seek volume than depth, and to diversify the people being interviewed so that the testimonies would come from different times and places. Of course by no means did everyone want to talk—whether because of fear and suspicion, or because of the difficulty of reliving traumas that after years could still cause even hardened men to cry. Generally the reception in the northern camps was positive, because of the international charity that the Kurds had long enjoyed. Conversely, in the south the Iraqi Shiite refugees expressed hostility at being merely studied for their plight, and they confused Amnesty International with other international groups that had more-tangible benefits to offer but so far had offered none. They were bitter. Given their own years of repression and loss under Saddam Hussein, why was it, the Shiites wanted to know, that such disproportionate attention had been paid to the Kurds? Why was it that their own uprising had recently been allowed to collapse, yet Kurdistan was now being propped up as practically an independent nation?
These were legitimate questions, to which it was not enough to answer that history is chance, and life is unfair. The Iraqi Kurds have indeed long been favored by the West. One reason may be the extreme beauty of their region—at least as compared with the scorching flatlands that consume the rest of the country. Another reason may be their long and honorable tradition of suffering and resistance, and their refusal nonetheless to resort to the kidnappings, bombings, and other terrorist techniques of the Middle East. Still another reason, though it can hardly be said, may be that they fundamentally do not like the Arabs, and neither, fundamentally, does the West.
In any case, with Saddam's forces being held at a distance, and de facto Kurdish autonomy developing fast, the pioneers of Western sympathy soon arrived in the north and began a still more ambitious effort to collect evidence of Baathist crimes. In December of 1991 an American team of forensics investigators from Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights crossed in from Turkey for a brief survey of some of the mass graves that had been discovered by the Kurds on the outskirts of several cities. Mufti arrived five months later, traveling alone in May of 1992, on the eve of the first Kurdish elections. There were no hotels. She slept in the border town of Zakho, in the home of a guerrilla fighter. When she went to bed and put her head on the pillow, she felt something hard, and reaching under, found a Kalashnikov. It was the perfect welcome to her first full night in Iraq. I asked her what she had done with the weapon. She said, "I kind of just put it aside and went to sleep, because, you know, it's a tiring trip by road."
The elections had ended by the next evening, when she arrived in the Kurdish city of Arbil. The balloting had gone smoothly, and people were celebrating in the streets, firing their weapons into the air. They were masters of themselves for the first time in centuries, and free at last of Saddam. Mufti crisscrossed the region, interviewing fugitives from the Baathist regime. Most significant, though, she spent time alone in back rooms, poring over captured Iraqi government records, a huge number of which the Kurdish political parties had seized and hauled away during the March 1991 uprising. The records were rigidly bureaucratic in style, and extraordinarily detailed—self-incriminating, perhaps, but a necessary mechanism of Baathist control. They were seized by the Kurds because of what they might show about intelligence operations, about the specific fate of the dead, and about original titles to confiscated properties. But then the physical realities of the collection had set in. Millions of documents, many of them in canvas bags and in binders that were falling apart, had been dumped haphazardly into spare rooms, and if only because of their collective size and weight, they were impossible to sort through. The Kurds had thrown up their hands at the task. They would unlock the back rooms for Mufti and invite her to stay as long as she liked, and sometimes to take whatever documents were of interest to her. She photocopied a few. The reading was riveting to her: here was the criminal regime in its own words. She searched for evidence of certain crimes and, during that process, came across a number of documents pertaining to the Anfal campaign, to specific arrests, and, most surprising, to Iraqi expatriates she knew in London, some of whom had been targets of the Iraqi intelligence services, others of whom had been collaborating—as she now discovered—and had been sending home reports.
The importance of the collection was well known to opponents of Saddam's regime. A small number of them had arrived in Kurdistan to do something about it. They included Kanan Makiya and a man named Peter Galbraith, who at the time was a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and who over the years since then has proved to be one of the more acute observers of the Iraqi scene. They joined with three investigators from Human Rights Watch, which had decided to commit significant resources to an ambitious project to document the history of the Anfal campaign. At the core of the project were the government records in Kurdistan. With the tacit support of the U.S. government, and a promise to safeguard and catalogue the documents, Kurdish authorities were persuaded that the best hope for the captured records was to release them into American custody. In May of 1992 the first of what would eventually amount to eighteen tons of documents (and a few invaluable audiotapes) were transported to Turkey and then flown by the U.S. Air Force to a government facility in suburban Washington, D.C., where employees of Human Rights Watch and the National Archives launched into the enormous job of translation and analysis. The work ultimately produced a damning record of Iraqi intentions and methods, including incontrovertible evidence of Ali Hassan al-Majid's knowledge and responsibility—documents that will now be used at last in court. Meanwhile, from April of 1992 to April of 1993 investigators from Human Rights Watch spent a total of six months in Kurdistan collecting relevant testimony from eyewitnesses. It was after this work that Human Rights Watch concluded that the Anfal had technically been genocidal, and that although no direct orders had been found, Saddam Hussein himself could be held legally responsible, along, of course, with Ali Hassan al-Majid and others. In the summer of 1993 the organization published its book-length report, Genocide in Iraq, and called for an international tribunal to hold members of the Baathist regime accountable. Specifically, Human Rights Watch had in mind a UN body in The Hague called the International Court of Justice, and a groundbreaking prosecution that would be based on the Genocide Convention. This was the lobbying effort that collapsed when governments turned away.
It was at this time, in the mid-1990s, that satellite pictures began to show evidence of the last great crime for which the Baathist regime will be put on trial—the destruction of the southeastern marshes, and particularly of the unique and ancient "Marsh Arab" culture they contained. On the surface the destruction was merely the sort of thing that governments naturally do—a major river-diversion project, planned since the 1980s, to dry up an unproductive swamp of 7,700 square miles, formed by the confluence of the lower Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and to provide efficient access to the oil deposits that lie beneath it. As usual for the Baathists, however, there was a political logic, and it was vicious. The Marsh Arabs had long lived their lives beyond Baghdad's control. More significant, their watery wilderness sheltered thousands of deserters from the Iran-Iraq War, and it had recently provided a haven to which Shiite rebels had been able to escape during the collapse of the 1991 uprising. It was not by chance that the drainage project began in earnest the following year. The Baathists called it a "modernization" of the region. The drying out proceeded in a patchwork pattern, as dikes and dams went up and drainage ditches were dug. The Marsh Arabs were required to abandon their villages, which were then rocketed or burned. To help persuade them Iraqi forces shot their water buffaloes, destroyed their boats, and sowed the remaining waterways with mines. Village by village, most of the Marsh Arabs moved to the cities and resettlement camps, and started new lives. The stalwarts who refused to leave and tried to flee deeper into the wilderness found that the wilderness was steadily shrinking. They were like game animals flushed by fire. Sooner or later most of them shared the fate of the thousands of fugitives in the region, and were gunned down by helicopters, picked off in infantry sweeps, or rounded up and sent to prison, where many were tortured and killed.
As best she could from a distance, Hania Mufti kept track, but her output slacked off on the subject of Iraq. The truth is she was tired and discouraged, and she badly needed a break. The effort to muster support for a genocide trial had failed. Saddam Hussein remained in power. The Kurds were still killing one another. And to top it off, Amnesty International seemed caught up with internal concerns and increasingly bureaucratic. In the summer of 1997, therefore, Hania Mufti resigned from her job. For a while in London she simply relaxed. She slept late every day, read, and saw friends. After a few months she decided to go back to school, perhaps for a Ph.D. At first she thought she would use her expertise and study something related to the Middle East, but she soon realized that she couldn't bear the topic anymore, and so instead she studied French literature and philosophy. She enjoyed this very much. Like the human-rights movement itself, by the late 1990s Mufti had burned out on Iraq.
From within Baghdad today it seems like an omen that in the year 2000 Mufti returned to the struggle fully recharged. This time it was for Human Rights Watch, which would soon resume its earlier pre-eminence on the subject of Iraq—a position it has retained ever since. Mufti continued to work out of London. Initially she signed on for only six months, but she kept finding reasons to stay, and then, as she now says, Iraq hotted up. She went to Syria and Jordan to interview refugees from the suppression of a new Shiite rebellion in the south, and documented the latest waves of repression in Baghdad and its environs. In both countries she encountered secret police, but was not directly threatened.
After her September visit to Kurdistan before the American invasion in March of 2003, she returned to London to write, and to help plan for the deployment of Human Rights Watch researchers, primarily to neighboring countries, in the event of the war that now seemed inevitable. She herself intended to be inside Iraq, pre-positioned in Kurdistan, because of the likelihood that the international borders would be closed. Furthermore, she decided to leave London and relocate to Baghdad after the fall of Saddam. All this is indeed what happened. In early March of 2003 Mufti joined up with a mass-graves investigator formerly of Physicians for Human Rights, an American named Eric Stover, and traveled through Syria and then across the upper Tigris by barge, into Kurdistan. Her friends greeted her with delight, because they saw her presence there as a sign that war was really coming. And of course they were right.
The American invasion began on March 19. The bulk of the combat lay far to the south, but there was a northern front as well, where Kurdish fighters, assisted by American aircraft and Special Forces teams, slowly advanced out of the mountains, tying up a portion of the Iraqi army. Mufti and Stover spent most of their time traveling along that front, interviewing deserters and others coming over from the Iraqi side and looking at Kurdish preparations for refugees and, possibly, the use of chemical weapons. They were in a Kurdish town doing just that when, on April 9, Baghdad fell. Wild cheering broke out. That afternoon Mufti and Stover drove to Sulaymaniyah, near the Iranian border. They arrived there in the evening amid a huge celebration that tied them up for hours in traffic. No complaint. Having deposited their car at the hotel, they walked through the dancing crowds on the streets, surrounded by people hugging and kissing. They were asked, as foreigners, to pose with people for photographs. Mufti did not feel like a foreigner, but she gladly played along. As artifacts of the war, those pictures would be worth finding. Mufti claims she is not photogenic, but she must have been radiant that night.
The next day, April 10, she and Stover drove back along the front lines, where in the afternoon they heard that the long-disputed city of Kirkuk had just fallen. Having arranged with a Kurdish political party for armed protection, they proceeded there without hesitation. Rolling in from the north with her Kurdish gunmen, Mufti and the others were greeted as if they belonged to a liberating army—which indeed they did. They had stopped at a gas station to fill up when her satellite phone rang. It was New York calling. The staff had just learned of the fall of Kirkuk, and was sending urgent instructions that under no circumstances should she risk going there. Mufti answered, simply enough, "I'm sorry, but we're already here." And by the way, it was too late in the day to leave. They stayed two nights. The streets were a carnival. Mufti called her husband in London, who said, "Yeah, I can see it on TV." She replied, "No, it's not the same. I wouldn't have missed this for the world." The satellite phone was a bulky Thuraya, which required her to stand outside with the antenna directed southward, toward the equatorial sky. People spotted her with it, and crowded around to call their families abroad with short, happy messages that they were alive.
Of course, most of Iraq was not so glad. In nearby Mosul, as well as in Baghdad and other cities that had belonged to the regime, the Baathist collapse resulted not in street parties but in immediate looting and death—a pattern of chaos that led through the failures of the American occupation to the conflict that consumes the country today. Mufti and Stover were taken to the sites of several mass graves, some of which were clearly visible as mounds of earth. At the time, still only days after the fall of the regime, the sites were undisturbed—but they were also unprotected, and vulnerable to being dug up by relatives of the victims, looking for the remains of their loved ones. Concerned about the effect of such informal excavations on the state of evidence that could prove crucial in an eventual legal case against the regime, Mufti and Stover talked to American soldiers nearby about the need to provide protection. The soldiers answered, correctly, that they were shorthanded, and already overwhelmed by the more pressing needs of an occupying army. Soon afterward the informal excavations began, along with the large-scale looting of documentary evidence that was potentially even more important. Eric Stover left Kurdistan and went home. Mufti stayed on in the north for two weeks, and toward the end of April, on a momentous day in her life, finally arrived in Baghdad. The worst of the looting was over, and there was enough calm in the shattered streets for her to feel the popular elation, despite the fear and violence that lay below the surface.
One day she went to the scene of so much of her research, the prison at Abu Ghraib, whose doors stood temporarily ajar. She found two looters there, looking in the wrong place for prizes. She ignored them. The history of the Baathists' crimes weighed on her mind. Crimes as large as these require a very thoughtful response. Saddam Hussein and most of his circle had not yet been found, but when they were, there would be a need for the deepest sort of justice to be done. Human Rights Watch had renewed that call during the months leading up to war, and it had been repeated by the leaders of Great Britain and the United States. Deep justice in this case would derive from open trials, based on the latest developments in international law, protected from political influence, and competently managed. Trials in which the defendants would have every chance to answer the prosecution, as long as they confined themselves to the specific charges at hand. Trials in which the defendants would be treated firmly in proceedings that would be unassailably fair—and precisely because these men were guilty, and never gave their victims any such chance. Trials that could work as models of enlightenment, and might thereby serve not as a justification of the American intervention but as at least one acceptable consequence of the war. Trials that would stand like islands in the Middle East. This was what Hania Mufti hoped for. Given the finite nature of the task and its obvious importance to both Iraq and the United States, there was no reason to think that it could not be pulled off.
Her acquaintance Salem Chalabi clearly agreed. He despised the former regime but understood the need for genuine justice, and earnestly believed in the possibility of an enlightened Iraq that could deliver it, using international laws and advisers, but managing the process as a national affair. He was probably not the best man to design the tribunal or to run it, but he was the one who was available and sincere. At the end of 2003, when the tribunal was signed into existence, he began immediately to prepare for the first of what he believed would be historically significant trials. It didn't take long, however, for doubts to set in. By the spring of 2004, as he struggled to find capable judges and to pull together a functional team, he began to suspect that the Iraq he'd had in mind simply did not exist. He said this to me at the time. Whatever illusions he still harbored evaporated that summer, just weeks after Iraq became a sovereign state, when he was not merely dismissed from his position by Ayad Allawi's interim government, but also set up on phony murder charges, and essentially banished from the country. As a means of deposing an official, the technique was disturbingly similar to those used by Saddam Hussein, though without the need (yet) for Chalabi to be tortured and killed. He was replaced by a deputy, who in turn was soon replaced by a loyalist to the acting prime minister—a man with no legal experience—and any semblance of judicial independence collapsed.
That is just one small sample of the troubles that lie ahead. Twenty-three months after the collapse of the Baathist regime, as the first of the trials begins, there is a serious risk that in practice the justice will be shallow. Indeed, the façade of good procedure is surprisingly thin. Beyond it lies tremendous confusion of uncollected evidence—documentary, forensic, and testimonial—most of which cannot be gotten to because of the violence in Iraq, and which has been tainted in any case by looting, forgery, and chaotic pawing-over. Equally problematic are the people involved—not least the judges, who still lack the necessary knowledge, and feel politically and physically vulnerable. Last fall they were sent to London for a week of training. The trip was arranged by a team of American advisers in Baghdad who have been there for more than a year, trying to shape them up. Privately the Americans were discouraged. The trainers who joined the judges in London came away believing that much further work is necessary. Now some of the judges themselves admit that they are unprepared. Were it not for the evidence-gathering done long ago by Human Rights Watch on the Anfal campaign, they would have little or nothing at all.
From the start Human Rights Watch has warned that justice cannot be served in such a haphazard way, and it has tried to bring about changes through private and public comment, with the understanding that the flaws of the tribunal will be locked into place when the first trial begins, but that until then there is a possibility for reform—or even a complete rethinking. Hania Mufti has been in Baghdad, closely watching and arguing the case, in which she has a twenty-year personal stake. Back in New York she has been joined by the hierarchy of the organization, and particularly by one of its lawyers, a man named Richard Dicker, who has provided a wealth of criticisms and suggestions, and has proved to be the most prescient of the tribunal's observers. Most of his comments have pertained to legal specifics, such as the inclusion of the death penalty, the selection of judges, the lack of the prisoners' access to defense counsel, the possibility that information presented may have been obtained through torture, and technical aspects of the rules of evidence and procedure. He has also pointed out that the court is inherently vulnerable to political manipulation. Underlying this weakness is the American insistence on rejecting significant international participation and on making the tribunal a national court—here, in a place that is not really a nation, decimated by decades of repression and war. That is my observation, not Dicker's. But Dicker, in his own travels to Iraq, has been told by Iraqi jurists that the longest trial in the thirty-year history of the Baathist regime lasted only two days. A national court in Iraq is simply incapable of delivering the sort of justice required.
Opposition to the tribunal has put Hania Mufti in something of a bind. On the one hand, she cannot fully participate in the logical conclusion of her decades of labor—for instance, by collaborating with the prosecution as she might if she believed that justice could truly be done. On the other hand, she refuses just to walk away from this history—and in truth is willing to suffer hardships and considerable personal risk to see it through. She told me once about a meeting she had with a group of American representatives to the tribunal, who initially would not allow Mufti to see the proposed rules of evidence. One of them finally admitted, "Well, the folks back in Washington are concerned that if we get you involved in the process, you might trash the whole thing."
Mufti was taken aback. She said, "Look, we've been doing this work for the past two decades, long before the U.S. had any interest. And more than probably anybody else, we want the right kind of justice delivered. So whatever we comment on, whatever we participate in, it's done in a constructive and positive spirit, because we do want this process to work."
Mufti will stay on as a close observer, confronting the problems of Iraq not only in the past but in this present form, the tribunal, today. This is the nature of the life she has chosen. She told me that she knows she lives in an imperfect world. But it happens to be the real world, and she remains determined to make the best of it.