The view, like so many in Iraqi Kurdistan, was special, and for the tenth time that day I asked Meriwan, my long-suffering driver, to stop so I could take a picture. Stretching out before us was a vast, fertile plain patterned with the satisfying geometry of agriculture; golden squares of wheat slotted in neatly next to oblongs of sunflowers and thin strips of tobacco plants. Shirtless laborers tilled the fields, wearing traditional Kurdish baggy trousers and floppy wide-brimmed straw hats to protect against the fierce July sun. As a backdrop, the impressive heights of Mount Kandil, straddling the border with Iran, were still capped with snow, despite the thermometer pushing 107 degrees Fahrenheit on the plain. And in the foreground was the town of Qala Diza, fitting snugly into the rolling landscape, its squat, flat-topped houses sheltering under a verdant umbrella of trees.
I took a deep breath of the hot, scented air, and just stared, knowing that my camera would never do justice to this bucolic scene. Suddenly I was hit by a powerful sense of déjà vu; I had seen this all before. Then I remembered the photograph. Taken in April 1991 by Susan Meiselas, and included in her excellent book Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, it was a panorama of Qala Diza shot from a vantage point close to where I now stood. Except that eleven years ago, Qala Diza did not exist. The photograph was a haunting study in decimation. Every building in the town had been flattened, squashed into the ground as if by a giant boot. Only the trees remained upright. As Meiselas noted at the time: “Stone houses are now piles of rubble. No electricity, no running water, little food. People living under slabs of concrete within the ruins of their former homes.”
At first glance, Meiselas’s picture appeared to document the harrowing aftermath of a massive earthquake. But Qala Diza was no natural apocalypse. The Iraqi Army had systematically, and expertly, dynamited and bulldozed the town’s houses, stores, schools and hospitals. Those among the population of 70,000 who had not fled to Turkey or Iran were rounded up and moved far away into purposefully built and easily policed settlements–or to give them their official, Orwellian epithet, “collective towns.” Some residents simply “disappeared,” adding to the long list of victims of the genocidal tendencies of Saddam Hussein. The destruction of Qala Diza was a central part of Saddam’s now notorious Anfal (“the spoils”) campaign. The aim was to create a cordon sanitaire around the borders with Turkey and Iran that would be ethnically cleansed of Kurds.
Today, Qala Diza II is rising from the rubble. The aura of fear and oppression evident in Meiselas’s photograph has evaporated. As our air-conditioned pickup bounced down the potholed high street (the local authorities accept that resurfacing the roads must be next on their to-do list), we swerved to dodge one of the town’s two bulldozers belching exhaust fumes as it headed jerkily toward its next task. “It’s liberated!” said Meriwan, pointing at the aging machine with a gleam in his eye. It had, he said, once been used by Saddam to destroy what it was now helping to renew.