An extract from Sweet Tea with Cardamom

Chapter Twelve – The Man with no Hands

We left the Hotel Peace early the next morning and took our things to the Hotel Abu Sana. I was wondering what to do first in Sulaymaniyah, when Omar and Mohammed, our guards, suggested we go to the Red Security Building to talk with the refugees from Kirkuk.

Of all the Kurdish towns and cities that rose up against the government at the end of the Gulf War, nowhere was the violence and destruction greater than in Kirkuk. The uprisings began in the south of Iraq in the Shi’i city of Basra on 28 February 1991, the day of the ceasefire, when a column of tanks fleeing from Kurwait rolled into Sa’ad Square and the commander at the head of the column stopped in front of a giant mural of Saddam and climbed onto the roof. He denounced the dictator as responsible for the humiliation and defeat of the Iraqi people, climbed back into the tank and began to blast the portrait with shells, to the delight of the assembled crowd.

Within days, turmoil had spread to Karbala, Najaf, Hilla, al-Nasiriyah, al-Amara, Samawa, Kut and Diwaniya – all the larger cities of southern Iraq. On 4 march, rebellion erupted in the Kurdish north, beginning in the town of Ranya to the northwest of Sulaymaniyah. It spread so rapidly that within ten days the Kurds were in control of every city except Kirkuk and Mosul. The Kurds’ greatest moment came on 20 March, when they succeeded in capturing Kirkuk.

But the success of the uprisings, both north and south, was short-lived. In the south, the government regained control of all but a few areas by the end of March, inflicting indescribable suffering in the process and seriously damaging the holy Shi’i sites at Karbala and Najaf. This left loyal army units free to turn their attention to Kurdistan.

Kirkuk was retaken by 28 or 29 March, D’hok and Arbil were taken on 30 March, Zakho on 1 April and Sulaymaniyah by 3 April. There followed a mass exodus by the civilian population, who feared the renewed use of chemical weapons against them. By 5 April it was reported that up to 3 million people were on the move in Kurdistan, some heading east for the Iranian border and the rest heading north for Turkey.

In the south of Iraq, the force of the uprising had been increased by the participation of large numbers of soldiers whose disillusionment with the government led them to side with the rebels. In Kurdistan, much of the jash collaborator militia defected and fought alongside the peshmerga and the people. In both the south and the north, the rebels attacked security force headquarters, brutally killing large numbers of their personnel in revenge for the suffering of countless past torture victims. Prisons were sacked and large numbers of prisoners released, many of whom saw the light of day for the first time in more than a decade.


Before the uprising, the Red Security Building had been Sulaymaniyah’s main security police building. People were tortured in cells in the basement, hundreds of women were raped in the ‘Raping Room’ and many people died there. During the uprising it was stormed by the people of Sulaymaniyah and in the course of a long battle the security personnel were all either killed or driven out. Now, two years later, the basement cells were full of water and two hundred and thirty refugee families from Kirkuk had made their homes on the ground and upper floors.

The battle for the Red Security Building had left some of the walls and most of the windows missing. The building was constructed on three sides of a courtyard in which, as I walked in with Omar and Mohammed, children were playing and women were making bread, doing the washing and cooking on open fires. The scene was strikingly colourful: the building itself was of pinkish-red concrete and the women and children were dressed in bright dishdashas and headscarves in greens, yellows, blues and dark pinks. The building was crawling with people. When they saw my camera, every window cavity and every doorway on the upper floors filled with figures, and children stuck their heads through holes in the walls and waved at us.

As I hadn’t yet found an interpreter, Mohammed offered to translate for me from Kurdish into Arabic. As soon as we walked into the courtyard I caught sight of a woman we had met when we came before, in May. Christine had taken a photo of her and I felt as if I was recognising an old friend. She invited us to come and sit in her room, which was on the ground floor near the entrance and had one wall entirely missing. It was about twenty foot square and the gaping opening onto the courtyard was partly covered by a large sheet, suspended on a washing line.

We left Omar chatting to an old man in the courtyard, and went in.

The woman’s name was Asmar Brahim. A crowd of children gathered round her while she spoke. She was wearing a stained yellow dishdasha and her reddish brown hair was matted and dirty, pulled off her face with a scarf.

A girl of about eight dragged a mat towards me and Asmar motioned to me to sit down. I put my bag on the ground and sat cross-legged, trying to wave away a trio of flies that were buzzing round my head. It was hot now and the sheet-wall did not prevent the sun coming into the room. Mohammed squatted a few feet away.

A man had wandered in and was hovering behind Asmar. I wondered if he was her husband, but something told me that he was not. He was dressed in jeans and a yellow check shirt and both his arms ended in stumps above the elbow. He had thick black hair, a bushy beard and lively, intelligent eyes.

‘It must be very cold here in the winter,’ I said to Asmar. ‘How do you keep warm?’

‘If there were paraffin we would use it for heating,’ the man replied dryly, ‘but there isn’t any.’ He squatted down beside Mohammed, then dropped into a cross-legged position.

I asked him if the people had work. The man knew Arabic and didn’t need Mohammed to translate the question into Kurdish. He twisted on his haunches, leaned one truncated shoulder towards me and said, ‘The men here don’t have any work. They try to work as porters in the bazaar, but they are not allowed to officially by the Kurdish administration, because there are too many porters. The UN brings us oil, rice, sugar and flour, but only once every three months. It’s not enough.’ He exhaled the words with a mixture of despair and disgust. ‘What we want is for the Iraqi government to leave Kirkuk, so that we can go home.’

I asked what he thought of the Kurdish administration. Before he could answer, Mohammed said something to him which I didn’t understand, but I felt sure it wasn’t a repetition or clarification of my question. They were sitting close together and the man glanced at him and murmured a reply before turning to look at me steadily. I was trying hard to read his expression, but unsure of the signs.

‘The Kurdish administration has no money, they can’t help us. They are in a desperate situation. What they say to us is that we should go back to Kirkuk and push the Iraqi government out. You see, we are a big problem for the Kurdish administration. There are refugees from Kirkuk all over southern Kurdistan. Altogether there are over 100,000 Kirkuki refugees in the Kurdish-administered area.

‘Look.’ He jerked his head around Asmar’s room, and his torso rotated with it, ‘you can see how we’re living! Two families to one room, no bathroom, and the water supply is shared between men and women, which isn’t right.’ He seemed to be referring to the toilets. ‘And the health situation is very bad: we have malaria, tuberculosis and dysentery.’

I nodded slowly. I was surprised at myself for not being more frightened or repelled by the man’s stumps. His energy came across powerfully, as did his expectation that we could and would communicate.

‘Do you get help from anyone except the UN?’ I asked.

The man glanced at Mohammed then turned to me. ‘The political parties bring food,’ he began, ‘but only once every six months or every year. Otherwise, all our food comes from the UN. But the UN gives the same amount of food to families who have money as to the ones who don’t.’

‘Are you politically affiliated?’

He smiled, half to himself. ‘I’m with the KDP. Mullah Mustafa Barzani is the only one who has ever helped Kurdistan.’ He glanced at Mohammed in an easy, brotherly way, and then at me. ‘Come and meet my family. We live in the next bit of the block.’

We got up and said goodbye to Asmar, who had already faded towards the high tiled walls of her three-sided home and was making preparations for lunch. She thanked us for coming, said we were welcome and that she hoped we would come and see her again. If she felt it, she didn’t show any resentment that the focus of my attention had switched from her to the man with no hands.

We followed the man back out across the courtyard and into a narrow low-ceilinged corridor which led to a small room. The floor, walls and ceiling were covered with petrol-blue tiles. It was empty except for a few cooking pots in one corner.

‘Fermo,’ our host announced, ‘come on in, this is my home. It used to be a bathroom.’

There was no window and we sat down on the clean, cool tiles in the semi-darkness. After a few minutes a young man came in with an illuminated bulb attached to a wire, which he hooked over a nail on the wall.

‘My nephew,’ said the man with no hands, nodding at the young man. ‘Welcome to you both,’ he added as he turned back to us. ‘My name is Mustafa al-Hussein – and yours?’

We introduced ourselves. Mohammed had already told Mustafa that I was a lawyer from Britain.

‘I am Turkoman, from the old city of Kirkuk,’ he announced, smiling with reserved pride. ‘I am a glazier by trade.’ He glanced at the stumps of his arms and added ‘before this happened.’

I reckoned the room measured about twelve foot by ten and I asked how many people lived in it.

‘In this room, we are two families. My wife and I, we have two girls and a boy.’ As he spoke, a little boy of about four ran into the room and placed himself in the cross of his father’s legs. ‘Then there is my brother’s family: my brother, his wife and their four children. So, you see the conditions we live in!’

It was appalling to imagine eleven people all trying to sleep, eat and live in this tiny space, and with no natural light. It had one advantage, though, over Asmar’s room: it would be much warmer in winter.

‘Do you always have electricity?’ I asked, pointing to the bulb.

‘It comes on and off, just like everywhere else,’ Mustafa replied. He had some movement in the stumps of his arms, and he waggled one of them at the light bulb as he spoke. ‘It’s free, the electricity. That is one good thing: the governments pays for it.’

Mohammed lit a cigarette and held it to Mustafa’s lips. He took a deep drag, nodded at Mohammed and slowly exhaled.

‘I was in the Iraqi army when Kuwait was occupied. You know, before the Gulf War. I was taken prisoner, and held in Saudi.’

‘Is that how you lost your arms?’

‘No, I lost my arms in the uprising, in Chemchemal. I was fighting as a peshmerga for the KDP. I’ll tell you the story.’ He accepted another drag on the cigarette and went on ‘I came back from the war zone four days before the uprising started. I was in Chemchemal when it began. When the government tried to come back, the peshmerga were still in control of the town and the government troops surrounded it. There was a big battle. I got my injuries in a TNT explosion, a building that was blown up. It wasn’t just my arms, it was my head as well. I was evacuated to hospital in Sulaymaniyah: my family were here already. The doctor told them one night at midnight that I would be dead by three am – but I didn’t die! After twelve days in the hospital, I began to get better. When I came out of the hospital, everyone was fleeing from Sulaymaniyah, so we went too. We went to Iran and spent six months in a camp.’

A thin girl of about twelve in a green dishdasha had come in and was squatting on her haunches by the wall.

‘My daughter,’ Mustafa said, nodding at her. He spoke to her and she left the room, returning a few seconds later with a folded piece of paper, which she handed to me.

‘Look,’ said Mustafa. ‘This is from the Kurdish government. Read it, I think it’s in English.’

I unfolded the paper. It was headed ‘The Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Council of Ministers – Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.’ It was a short medical report confirming that Mustafa al Hussein Ramadan was examined on 22 April 1993 and that he needed to travel abroad to have artificial limbs fitted. The cost, it estimated, would be $5,000. It said that he had also suffered injuries to his right eye and ear.

‘You see, they came to examine me a few months ago. I need to go abroad for treatment. Of course I don’t have the money. Five thousand dollars! That is what I need.’

It went through my mind that Mustafa might be hoping I would help him.

‘Look, I can’t arrange medical treatment for you, but I can write about your situation, if you want me to,’ I told him.

‘Write about me, of course! Write about me!’