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.
‘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 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.
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.
‘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.
“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.
‘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.