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.
‘I lay on my back and it felt like there was a hole in my chest’
Iraqi planes attacked some 70 Kurdish villages with poison gas in the Bahdinan region of Kurdistan, just south of the Turkish border. MOHAMMED ALI AHMED was semi-conscious for days after inhaling the toxic fumes.
‘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.
‘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.
‘“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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.