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.
The Barzani tribe had long been a thorn in the flesh of the Iraqi central government. Hostilities reached boiling point during the Iraq-Iran War when Saddam Hussein accused them of collaborating with the Iranians. Soon afterwards between 5,000 and 8,000 Barzani tribesmen were abducted and never seen again.
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".
In 1988 the Iraqi army launched a ferocious attack on Kurdish communities south of the Turkish border. Fleeing towards Turkey, the villagers of Kureme found their route blocked by Iraqi soldiers and were captured. The male villagers were put in front of a firing squad – yet six survived to tell their story.
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.
‘Do you know what it’s like to lose a child? I can’t forget’
The death toll in Goptapa from chemical weapons was only exceeded by that of Halabja, which had been gassed seven weeks earlier. A witness to the Goptapa attack was MIRIAM YASEEN MOHAMMED who watched neighbours and relatives run for their lives and drop dead in village alleyways.
‘I couldn’t go to the mountains because I was pregnant and had already lost a baby running away’
From 1985 to 1987 the Iraqi army destroyed around 1,600 villages. One of the worst hit was Askar: it survived regular bombardments according to SAEDA OMAR RASUL, but the presence of peshmerga and Iranian soldiers in the village made a chemical attack inevitable.
‘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.
Kurdish families living near peshmerga bases would often seek refuge in mountain caves to avoid bombardment by Iraqi planes. By doing exactly this, NAJEEBA OMAR MOHAMMED escaped a poison gas attack on her home village of Haladin. Two villagers and several Iranian revolutionary guards were killed.
‘Iraqi soldiers struck the young men in front of their parents with a metal hose’
After Iraqi jets gassed Kurdish peshmerga strongholds in the Gara mountains, 99 men from Guze village were rounded up and executed. AISHA HAJI SALAM describes how her two sons were taken from her and never seen again.
‘My brother begged for Allah’s help as policemen took him away’
Death was a constant threat for the Kurdish villagers held in detention camps during Anfal. FATIMA KHURSHEED MAHMOUD describes how many of her relatives, including her father and brother, never returned from Iraqi captivity.
‘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.
The gassing of Goptapa village on the banks of the Lesser Zab river was the most deadly chemical attack after Halabja. AISHA ISMAEL ALI remains deeply disturbed by the loss of five of her six children in the attack.
‘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.
‘Some abandoned their children even though they were still alive’
The chemical attacks against the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the flight of thousands of Kurds towards Iran have been likened to the apocalypse. Two of MIRIAM AHMED WSU’s children died as she fled barefoot in deep snow towards Iran.
‘The Iraqi army showed no mercy to women, children nor the elderly’
The Iraqi army systematically attacked Kurdish villages in the Lesser Zab valley as part of Saddam's Anfal campaigns. ABDULRAHMAN ABDULLAH SALIH describes how he lost his entire family as a consequence and how this hardened his heart.
‘The Iraqis tortured, looted and killed so the people of Qara Dara rose up’
Iraq's ruling Ba’ath Party used brutal tactics to "arabise" oil-rich Kurdish lands near Kirkuk in the 1960s. HADI HAMA MUSTAFA, a child at the time, witnessed a Kurdish smuggler being shot dead at an Iraqi checkpoint.
‘“We must abandon our baby,” I told my wife, but she couldn’t let him die’
Peshmerga in the far north of Kurdistan fled with their families towards Iran to escape poison gas attacks. When his leader Masoud Barzani told him it was impossible to send support units, commander AMIN HUSSEIN AHMED realised there was no escape.
‘They told us 13 villagers had been killed and we panicked’
The Iraqi military launched poison gas attacks south of the Turkish border to crush the peshmerga army of Masoud Barzani. AHMED KHALID AHMED witnessed the first chemical attack in Bahdinan. He describes the panic that swept through the village.
‘They had a nice, calm life but then Anfal was upon us’
Many men from Kulajo village joined the peshmerga and their families were punished for this by the Iraqi government. Relatives of OSMAN ALI AZIZ were transported to prison camps and others, including small children, were shot dead in execution pits.
The Iraqi army's treatment of Kurdish families in prison camps was cruel. Still traumatised by the memory of losing her husband, SEMEN KARIM RAZA recalls the moment they were parted and how she came to lose her son.
‘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.
‘“You betrayed your nation,” I told Saddam Hussein at his trial’
During Saddam's trial in Baghdad, Kurdish Anfal survivors confronted the former Iraqi leader. One of them was MAHMOUD RASUL MUSTAFA, who last saw his wife, three sons and two daughters in a prison camp near Kirkuk.
‘The Iraqis even killed horses – I’ve never seen such a sadistic military force’
When the Iraqi army blitzed Kurdish peshmerga bases with poison gas in February 1988, AZAD SAGERMA, a senior field commander with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), was unaware his forces would face a military catastrophe that could only end in defeat.
‘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.
‘Who could have imagined the Iraqi government would shoot women and children dead?’
To protect their families, some Kurdish villagers joined militia known as “jash" and fought with the Iraqi army. It was often a difficult choice: RAUF AHMAD QADIR from Kulajo village joined a “jash" unit in Kalar and later learned many of his relatives had been arrested and executed in Iraqi captivity.
‘Anyone could be tortured: it made no difference if you were 13 or 70 years old’
When the Iraqis gassed villages just south of the Turkish border, close-knit Kurdish communities fragmented. SHUKRI HASI ABDULLAH, who was from Guze village in the Gara mountains, says it was everyone for himself.
‘I told the Iraqis my children were dying of thirst and they said, “Your children deserve to die”’
When the Iraqis invaded the northern Kurdish region of Bahdinan, they imprisoned civilians in the Nizarka fort in Duhok. KHALAFET SULAIMAN DAWOOD describes how her husband, four brothers and four cousins were driven away at night. It was the last time she saw them.
‘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.
‘Some people even left their parents behind in the snow’
A massive Iraqi gas attack on the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) killed many peshmerga. SHORSH HAJI MUSTAFA RASOOL, an intelligence officer, was extraordinarily lucky to survive after his house was hit by gas shell which failed to explode.
‘The Iraqis tried to break the Kurdish spirit with chemical weapons’
After their attack on Halabja, the Iraqis extended their poison gas attacks to villages closer to Sulaimaniya. With casualties rising after exposure to mustard and nerve gas, DOCTOR FAIQ MOHAMMED GULPI established a secret mountain hospital to treat the wounded.
‘The Iraqis used to say, “Even your donkeys are peshmerga”’
Those living in the rural areas of Kurdistan risked imprisonment for being suspected “saboteurs.” A farmer, HAMAD AMIN MOHAMMED was jailed for four years by Saddam's regime because he lived in the peshmerga stronghold of Haladin.
‘“I don’t care what happens to me,” my father said. “But no harm must befall these civilians”’
Peshmerga risked their lives to save fellow Kurds, and none were braver than than Hakim Rebwar. His son, HAWRAZ RAFIQ KARIM, explains how his father made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the women and children of his village.