Families who lost children in the Iraqi army's poison gas attack on Halabja refused to believe they could be dead. In many cases they were but some were saved by Iranian soldiers. The return of these children from Iran, now grown up, is giving the city fresh hope for the future.
In the 1980s Kulajo gave unstinting support to the Kurdish resistance and for this its people were punished by Saddam Hussein. Villagers were transported to prison camps and many were later executed. Yet some lived to tell extraordinary stories of survival.
‘Caught in those blizzards, parents had no choice but to abandon their children’
Thinking they had reached safety in Iran, Kurdish villagers were again attacked with chemical weapons. JAWAHIR HASSAN AHMAD lost one of her five children when an Iranian refugee camp she was living in was gassed by Iraqi jets.
‘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 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.
‘My childhood was on fire, flames destroying my memories’
The first major Iraqi poison gas attack on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) badly damaged Kurdish morale. ABDULKARIM HALADINI watched as chemical bombs and shells rained down on the PUK headquarters.
‘Our bodies were freezing and icicles hung from our faces’
Facing relentless Iraqi poison gas attacks, thousands of Kurds fled through heavy rain and blizzards towards Iran. KHIDIR MUSA MOHAMMED AMEEN describes how he carried his nephew on his back for hours before realising the boy had frozen to death.
‘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.
‘You have to be really desperate to consider smothering your own baby’
Some Kurdish families abandoned their children in their desperation to escape the Iraqi military during Anfal. The brother of WIRYA ASKARI was prepared to suffocate his own baby daughter to prevent Iraqi soldiers discovering his family's hiding place in a mountain cave.
‘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.
“Welcome to Hell” read the sign over the entrance to Nugra Salman, the Iraqi desert prison close to the border with Saudi Arabia. MIRIAM RASHID MAHMOUD remembers how starving children were beaten unconscious by the guards there.
‘Chemical weapons put fear in the hearts of most people’
The Iraqi army was merciless in pursuing peshmerga fighters with poison gas. Fearing further chemical attacks, OMAR FATAH HUSSEIN, a senior leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), ordered his peshmerga to retreat west through a desolate landscape of abandoned villages.
‘When they exhumed my mother’s body, she was holding the remains of my baby sister’
The cloud of gas that drifted across Goptapa left behind a scene of horror and devastation. MUSTAFA KHADER ISMAIL describes how dead bodies littered village alleyways, and how nine of his family perished that day.
‘We peshmerga decided to fight until we were dead men’
The launch of Iraq’s Anfal campaign against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’ (PUK) headquarters changed the course of the Kurds’ war against the central government. KAMARAN ALI AMIN witnessed a gas attack that was so bad peshmerga in his unit threatened to commit suicide.