When jihadists from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) invaded the Sinjar region of northern Iraq in 2014 they committed genocide against the Yazidi population. One Yazidi family, the Chattos, survived their onslaught.
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.
‘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.
‘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.
In the Garmiyan region of Iraq more women and children died in Saddam's Third Anfal than in any other Anfal campaign. FARS AZIZ AHMED survived the attack and describes how he saved his family from certain death.
‘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 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.
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.
‘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 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.
‘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 Arabs are still occupying our lands 45 years later’
Hundreds of Kurdish families were driven off their lands near Kirkuk in the 1960s by Arab militia known as 'The National Guard'. FAKHRADIN KAKASHEEN MOHAMMED tells how, as a five-year-old, he was forced to flee with his family.
‘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.
‘“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.
‘“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 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.
“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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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 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.