SAMOOD , Iraq -- Rumors of war rumbled across Kurdistan's grassy hilltops. Legions of Saddam Hussein's troops were coming in tanks, trucks and airplanes to crush the Kurds' long-festering uprising.
Filled with dread, Shazada Saeed and her family prepared to do what Kurds had always done to escape the brutality of their mightier Arab, Turkish and Persian neighbors.
Once the bombing started, they scrambled into the crevices and caves of the snowy peaks that had long sheltered them.
"The artillery shelling was so heavy we had to run," said Saeed, who now lives in this small Kurdish town. "We ran to the mountains because they have always been safe."
The Kurds, the saying goes, have no friends other than the mountains. But Hussein's months-long 1988 "Anfal" campaign in the country's north, the subject of a genocide trial that begins today, showed that the mountains were no match for the Iraqi dictator.
"The traditional escape route didn't work," said Fareed Asasard, head of the Kurdish Strategic Studies Center, a think tank in the Kurdistan city of Sulaymaniya.
At least 50,000 men, women and children were allegedly slaughtered in a counterinsurgency campaign that targeted anti-government Kurdish militias as well as women and children. Bombs loaded with mustard and nerve gas were allegedly dropped on dozens of villages. Kurds were deported to transit camps, and then taken to the desert where they were shot and buried in mass graves or left to die of starvation and exposure.
A prosecution team of 19 jurists will present witnesses, documents, tape recordings and forensic evidence in an attempt to prove that Hussein and six other co-defendants, including his cousin "Chemical" Ali Hassan Majid, committed genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The defense is expected to argue that Anfal, which means "spoils of war" in Arabic, was a perfectly legal and crucial operation to crush a rebellion threatening the Baghdad government at a time of war with Iran. Defense lawyers will say that Iran, and not Iraq, used the chemical weapons, which are outlawed by international law.
But prosecutors will counter that the six-month Anfal campaign ranks as a singular moment in recent history: an attempt to crush the lives, towns and spirit of the country's Kurdish minority.
"The purpose of Anfal was to put an end to 70 years of Kurdish insurgency against the central Iraqi state," said Joost Hiltermann, who co-wrote a landmark 1993 study of the Anfal campaign for Human Rights Watch.
In its human toll, Anfal's scope dwarfs that of the first war-crimes trial against the former Iraqi dictator. In that case, Hussein faces the death penalty in the killings of 148 Shiite villagers after a 1982 assassination attempt on the former president; a verdict is expected this fall.
The second trial represents a moment of vindication for the Kurds, who once were an oppressed minority but now rule an increasingly prosperous northern enclave and control key posts in Baghdad.
Kurds have long fought for autonomy, collaborating with Tehran during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. Hussein appointed his cousin, Majid, as the de facto viceroy over the north in 1987 to put down their rebellion, and the Anfal campaign depended on a legal infrastructure that systematically sought to outlaw the Kurds' existence in certain areas beyond government control and annihilate them and their livelihoods, prosecutors are expected to argue.
The military campaign began with an offensive against the strongholds of Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, now president of Iraq, north of Sulaymaniya on Feb. 23, 1988. It didn't end until Hussein's army pushed into northernmost Iraq on Sept. 8.
But the Kurds weren't really free until more than two years later, in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. The 1991 Kurdish uprising and the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish enclave under the protection of a U.S.-British no-fly zone washed away Baghdad's rule over much of Iraqi Kurdistan and unearthed documents and witnesses to the Anfal campaign.
Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.