The Iraqi attack on the Balisan valley was the first time a sovereign state had used chemical weapons on its own populace. Shocked villagers who survived the attack likened the experience to witnessing "doomsday".
‘Children were laid on the ground and some were dead: no breathing, no movement’
After a horrific gas attack on Balisan valley, survivors were imprisoned in Erbil without medical treatment. MOHAMMED RASUL QADIR, who was held in the same jail, saw 57 villagers from Balisan die within a week of their arrival.
‘I thought the strange smell was from people cooking’
Balisan and Sheikh Wasan were the first villages in Kurdistan to be attacked with poison gas. SALAAM HUSSEIN AZIZ describes how curious villagers went up to bomb craters and breathed in the toxic fumes. Soon they were screaming in pain and collapsing.
‘I walked my son to the bus: I knew I’d never see him again’
Villagers from Sheikh Wasan initially refused to believe chemical weapons had been used against them. AISHA TAHA ABDULLAH remembers her son laughing when she urged him to cover his windows and doors with blankets.
‘I was deeply affected by the sight of that frozen baby’
Saddam's Anfal campaign was launched in February 1988 with a massive poison gas assault against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headquarters. In the nearby village of Haladin, OMAR ABDULLAH SAID was forced to flee the gas clouds with his family towards Iran.
‘Most of the villages in Kurdistan were affected by chemical weapons’
Poison gas undermined the morale of the peshmerga and terrified the Kurdish community. Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader MALA BAXTIYAR believes the fear unleashed by this new and deadly weapon made it difficult for the Kurds to adapt to it.
‘People described a smell of rotten apples but I knew it was a chemical gas’
There were very few trained medics able to treat gas victims after the Balisan valley attacks in 1987. DOCTOR ZYRIAN ABDUL YOUNIS was the only peshmerga doctor in a region stretching from Erbil to Iran.
‘There were 30 of us on that tractor, all of us blind’
Sheikh Wasan village in the Balisan valley was bombed with chemicals a year before the gassing of Halabja. ADIBA AWLLA BAYIZA remembers how, blinded and in pain, she and her children were imprisoned in Erbil after the attack.
‘What hurts me so much is that 15 families from our village lost everyone’
Villagers from the Balisan valley compare the Iraqi poison gas attacks against them to “doomsday". AISHA TAHA MUSTAFA says she was frightened to the depths of her soul when people started dying around her.
‘When we physicians hear their stories we feel traumatised’
The long term effects of poison gas are still being felt in Kurdistan. DOCTOR SAREN AZER, a Kurdish medic who trained in Canada, returned home to treat Kurds who still suffer from from the effects of chemical attacks decades later.
‘The loss of my son is a never-ending pain because I wasn’t able to bury him’
The poison gas attack on the Balisan valley was a first for Saddam Hussein. Never before had chemical weapons been used by a state against its own people. NAJIBA KHADIR AHMED has vivid and painful memories of what happened.
‘Army roadblocks stopped food reaching us for weeks, forcing some to surrender’
Kurdish villages were a rich source of peshmerga recruits but their commitment to a free Kurdistan proved costly. BAYIZ RAZA PIROT explains how his home village of Haladin was targeted with chemical weapons for supporting the Kurdish resistance.
‘The Iraqis asked why I attended a peshmerga funeral. I said, “He’s a human being and you killed him”‘
The Catholic Church in Kurdistan protected Kurdish civilians during Anfal. BISHOP RABBAN AL QAS ferried Kurds to hospital after poison gas attacks and urged villagers to flee to Iran and Turkey after learning of a government decree to destroy their homes.