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 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.
‘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 come to the cemetery every day – it feels like I’m with them’
Chemical warfare deeply traumatised the rural communities of Kurdistan and the distress it caused still affects survivors. TAHA MOHAMMED AMIN describes how a bomb exploded outside his house in Sewsenan village and people began to die, a nightmare vision he relives every night in his dreams.
‘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 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.
‘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 walked my son to the bus: I knew I’d never see him again’
Villagers from Sheikh Wasan initially refused to believe chemical weapons had been used against them. AISHA TAHA ABDULLAH remembers her son laughing when she urged him to cover his windows and doors with blankets.
‘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.
‘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.
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.
‘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.
‘“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.
‘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.
‘There were 30 of us on that tractor, all of us blind’
Sheikh Wasan village in the Balisan valley was bombed with chemicals a year before the gassing of Halabja. ADIBA AWLLA BAYIZA remembers how, blinded and in pain, she and her children were imprisoned in Erbil after the attack.
‘We didn’t want to leave bodies behind for the dogs to eat’
The attack on Sewsenan with chemical weapons happened just six days after Halabja was gassed. AHMED QADIR MAJID, the first person to arrive at the village after the gassing, witnessed nightmarish scenes of death and destruction.
‘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 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.
‘“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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘“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.