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 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 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.
‘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 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.
‘My brother had to cut my baby’s umbilical cord with a used razor blade’
The threat of chemical attacks made many Kurds flee their homes east of Kirkuk. ASMAR MOHAMMED JABAR explains how she escaped from Mahabaram village on the back of a tractor, only to give birth hours later.
‘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.
‘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.
‘“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 jumped into the spring to wash off the chemicals, but the water was poisoned’
The villagers of Ware thought they'd be safe from Iraqi gas attacks because they lived near a government base. They were wrong. AISHA MAGHDID MAHMOUD recalls how her father searched for their family members amidst the corpses of their neighbours.
‘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.
‘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.
‘Sadiq aimed his gun, “If you throw your baby into the river, I’ll shoot you dead”’
When clouds of poison gas drifted across the Gara mountains families from Guze village were driven to acts of desperation to survive. Numb with exhaustion and despair, SALEEM HASSAN SALEEM was prepared to abandon his baby child in an icy river.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.